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Viewtiful Joe

Review By:  J. Michael Neal

Developer:  Capcom
Publisher:  Capcom
# of Players:  1
Genre:  2D Action
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card, Progressive Scan
Date Posted:  3-23-04

“Henshin-A-Go-Go Baby!”

Yeah, I don’t know what it means either, but in the world of Viewtiful Joe nothing quite makes sense. Yet, like all great, quirky, over-the-top Japanese sleeper hits it doesn’t have to – Joe is the game that will save side-scrollers and something no self-respecting gamer should be without.

Coming from the most twisted nether-region of Capcom’s repressed subconscious, Viewtiful Joe places gamers in the role of a hapless cult-film buff who must assume the persona of Viewtiful Joe, the cocky superhero extraordinaire, to enter Movie Land, rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, and (of course) save the world while carrying on the spirit of his fallen idol Captain Blue. What ensues is seven levels of the most frantic, stylish, and fun gameplay seen in years.

Reviving the lost art of side scrolling, Joe pumps more innovation into the long dead genre than you’d ever think possible. Even long-time champions of the “style” like myself are amazed by just how much life was squeezed out of the most stale of genres. Joe’s “VFXs” add as much depth, strategy, and innovation side-scrollers as Metroid’s blossoming levels or Prince of Persia’s acrobatic puzzle solving did back in its heyday. With the ability to slow down, speed up, or zoom in, players will rip Movie Land a new one – effortlessly dispatching wave after wave of villain while manipulating puzzles and controlling the flow of boss battles.

Using VFX drains your VFX bar, however, so how long you can use an effect is limited by how energy is in the bar. When your VFX is fully depleted you revert back to regular Joe until the bar refills, which thankfully happens in a matter of seconds. Luckily, you can extend the length of the bar a notch for every 50 film canisters you collect, though they do not carry over from stage to stage. This allows you to get more liberal with the rationing of VFX and encourages a bit of level exploration in the process. You can also replenish the bar by collecting blue bottles dropped by defeated enemies – this allows you to basically keep going for as long as you can kill.

Unlike most games that boast cool moves, these actually serve a vital role throughout the game. Mastering them and applying them to new situations is as crucial to completing each level as quick reflexes and crack jumping skills. It really is amazing that every few feet you’re required to use abilities in completely different ways – speed-attack a rocket to ignite it, then slow time to exaggerate the blast and propel it several stories higher than it would normally reach; use zoom to get a visual on a tiny slot machine, then slow to stop the wheels on the correct combination to release a keycard; use speed to fill a room with lava, then slow to expand falling water drops until they are large enough to cool the molten rock on contact, creating a path of stepping stones to the exit. Such thoughtful design adds a tremendous sense of depth to the game and a constantly level of freshness, as well as flat-out “cool factor” – especially considering that all this is happening on, essentially, a two-dimensional plane of movement! There isn’t this much variety or inventive game design in most of the 3D games clogging shelves at your local electronics store, yet Capcom managed to pull this out of a genre that for all intents and purposes ran out of fresh ideas a decade ago. It’s like “who would have thought running from left to right and jumping on floating platforms could be made this much fun again?” It’s a game that never gets tedious or tiresome - punching bullets mid-flight and sending them screaming back towards an enemy, clearing the screen with an infinite punch combo in a blur of flaming Joes, or dodging an attack then zooming in to deliver a flashy finishing “pose” never stops being fun and, if anything, gets better as the game progresses and the difficulty ramps.

And ramp the difficulty will. This game can only be described as “grueling”. You can only save between “Episodes” and when approaching end bosses. In the meantime you are assaulted by an endless array of tasks, minions, and mini-bosses that break Episodes into 13 sections. At the end of each section your performance is graded based on speed, the amount of damage taken, and the amount of “V-points” earned. V-Points are directly related to your attack combos – how many moves you can link together, how many enemies you can damage in a single chain, how many attacks you counter, and how stylish you look doing it. At the end of each stage your grades all tallied and you’re rewarded a final rank, which goes towards unlocking extra characters at the end of the game, and more V-Points, which are used to purchase power ups, lives, continues, and projectile ammo for the next Episode. If you can’t make it through a stage in one sitting, or at least make it to the near-end level save point, you will have start from the beginning next time, losing whatever you had previously earned. However, as long as you keep at it you’ll retain your V-Points despite the fact that you’ll have to restart the section each time you die and restart the Episode each time you run out of lives. While it’s good that you can compile your earnings to save up for the more expensive power ups, making even empty deaths meaningful, after so much of a time investment you feel FORCED to finish an Episode, and some of these levels can take hours and hours and hours to see through, particularly the boss battles, which become brutal after Episode 2. So be prepared to invest a lot of time in Joe when you turn it on, or at least be ready to leave the game paused for hours while you take breaks to maintain your sanity.

It’s worth the time and trouble to continue plowing through the game, regardless of the difficulty. Besides the sense of accomplishment gained from finally putting a boss to rest, the promise of unlocking cool new moves (which carry over with each new game) and new characters (each with their own story and unique gameplay twists), and the chance to play on even HARDER difficulty levels (*sob*) after finishing the game, Viewtiful Joe is just plain fun! The combat, the puzzles, the story, the level designs - it’s a blur of wacky Japanese game design at its best. It’s one of those games were the act of playing in and of itself is so damn enjoyable that even if you were accomplishing nothing at all it would still be worth putting on for hours at a time, if not to just “experience” the one-of-a-kind visual presentation.

The visuals in Joe are… different to say the least. Sure, they are cel-shaded, but you haven’t see cel-shading like this before. Blending comic book character and level designs with anime flare and deliciously clever movie references, Joe has a style that must be seen in action to be fully appreciated. Fast, fluid, and colorful as a Teletubbie on acid, Joe just oozes “original” – and seizer inducing! Not to mention it has some of the best character designs seen in years and features what has to be one of the most memorable and likable main characters since… I don’t know when! On a technical level they are flawless, and beautifully animated; on a stylistic level they are one of a kind and as distinctive as a Jet Set Radio, PaRappa The Rapper, or REZ. Glowing, robotic cowboys, killer ballerinas, exploding fish - it’s the kind of game you’ve got to show to friends so they can see how insane it is.

Equally insane is Joe’s audio. This game is, in all honesty, one of the loudest I have ever played. It’s as much of an aural assault as it is a visual one – with sound effects, voices, and music just as “loud” and over-the-top as the visuals. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, as it definitely matches the caffeinated nature of the game, but if you have a ripping sound system you might have to readjust your volume settings before and after each game as to not give yourself a heart attack each time it comes on.

If you are a GameCube owner, there’s no excuse not to have this game already. Not only is it one of the most original and entertaining games to come out in forever, it’s also reasonably priced; it’s a side-scroller that not only manages to pump some life into the genre, but deliver a gameplay experience that tops its hyper-realistic competition. It’s a game that comes screaming out of Japan like a bat out of hell, raising the corpse of a genre that’s been counted out in terms of innovation for years. And most important – it’s damn freakin’ fun! Not only will you tear through this game from start to finish, you’ll go back again and again and again, trying to nail the perfect score, trying to earn every move, trying to master each character – that is, if you can handle the game’s often crippling level of difficulty. If you can, Viewtiful Joe will end up being one of the best buys you’ve made this hardware generation.

Highs:

  • Absolutely original style with visuals to match.
  • Staggering amount of depth and strategy, particularly for a side-scroller.
  • Reinvents the genre.
  • Tons of replay value between the unlockables, tougher modes, and sheer fun of playing!
  • Viewtiful Joe is just an awesome character – I can definitely see him becoming the next Nintendo mascot.
  • MSRP of $39 – you can’t beat that!

Lows:

  • Brutally difficult, with levels that can take upwards of five hours to complete.

Final Verdict:

Ten years from now, when we are all looking back on the 128-bit consoles with fond memories, Viewtiful Joe will be one of those games worth dusting off your bubble-paper packed GameCube for. Missing this one now would be an unforgivable sin!

Overall Score: 9.8

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