Viewtiful Joe Review
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How many times have you wanted to do these kinds of things while playing an action game? That's the gist of Viewtiful Joe, a hardcore, "classically" styled side-scrolling beat 'em up that incorporates all of the bells and whistles that you'd normally only find in the best 3D action games. A 2D action game that looks and plays just as good as 3D? Yes. And now it's finally available for the PlayStation 2.
"When the V-Watch starts to glow,
say the word 'Henshin'
to unleash your heroic power.
Henshin a Go Go, baby!"
The first things you'll notice upon booting up the game that it has a campy attitude and a very distinctive look. Some games establish their own unique style--Mario, Zelda, Castlevania, and Metal Gear Solid to name a few. Viewtiful Joe belongs on the list.
Capcom's graphics gurus used colorful cel-shaded polygons and thick "ink" lines to make it seem like the characters and environments were ripped right off a comic page. Joe (the good guy), Captain Blue (the bad guy), and all of the other characters have huge expressive heads, colorful superhero costumes, and bodies that are far too muscular. The amount of detail in every stage is mind-boggling. In the city, you can jump onto moving cars, duck into manholes, and leap onto the balconies of the surrounding brownstones, but--take a look around--there are also bushes, parks, cloud lines, billboard ads, and sunsets back there that serve no purpose other than to bring Movie Land to life. If you've ever gawked at a Spider-Man comic book cover where Spidey is perched atop a building and New York City drags on infinitely into the distance, you have some idea of the scope that Viewtiful Joe maintains. Bear in mind though that the overall art style does edge more toward the cute end of the spectrum.
For sure, this game doesn't take itself too seriously. The story is set in a fictional place called Movie Land, where movie villains have staged a coup in an attempt to bust out into the real world. One minute, Joe and his girlfriend, Silvia, are minding their own business watching a monster movie. The next, the monster is busting out of the screen and dragging Sylvia into the film. Joe gives chase and leaps into the film. After meeting his idol, Captain Blue, Joe puts on some spandex and becomes the next great action hero--Viewtiful Joe. Each level is setup like a romp through a low-budget Hollywood movie. After battling hundreds of goons and making it through a dangerous set of obstacles, you'll be treated to a cinematic confrontation with a Hollywood-esque monster--complete with hilariously campy voice acting that's too terrible for words (on purpose).
On the surface, Viewtiful Joe doesn't play all that much different from classic 2D action games of the 8- and 16-bit eras. He can run, punch, kick, and jump, and unleash a number of different attack combos. Most enemies will block or counterattack after a couple hits, so something you'll need to learn rather quickly is to be patient and wait for them make an attack that leaves them vulnerable. Thankfully, most enemies give out a visual prompt before uncorking an attack, so you know whether to duck under or jump over in order to avoid the hit. What makes the game unique is how much control it gives you over Joe's attacks. If an enemy swings and misses, you can let loose with a punch and kick combo that sends him and his buddies flying into one another. And then there are Joe's VFX moves--slow motion, fast forward, and zoom. In slo-mo, Joe can dodge bullets a la The Matrix and dole out dozens of punches in the same time it normally takes to land one or two. Activating fast forward allows Joe to move at lightning speed and surrounds him with a burning flame that increases the damage done to enemies. The zoom function makes Joe stronger and lets you perform his spin kick and 100 punch move. These VFX functions can be used separately, or combined to amplify their effects.
Viewtiful Joe is also different from most beat 'em ups in that different enemies respond better to different attacks. Slo-mo allows you to punch and kick bullets right back at the enemies and tanks that fired them. Sometimes, you'll need to stun an enemy by punching them during slo-mo or catching them on fire during fast forward, so that you can finish them off with normal attacks. If you punch an enemy a few times and then push the kick button, Joe will kick the enemy and send him flying backward into whatever enemies happen to be standing back there. But, activate the fast forward VFX move right after the kick and the one enemy will absolutely obliterate all the rest. There are certain obstacles and switches that respond to these different attacks as well. Getting through the game is easier if you figure out and master when to use the right combination of VFX moves (and very difficult if you don't).
Besides saving Sylvia, Joe also wants to become a legendary superhero in his own right. Early on in the game, he only has a small repertoire of moves and his VFX power is rather limited. By putting together visually pleasing (VIEWTIFUL!!!) combos, the game will reward you with cash (called Viewtifuls) and film canisters that extend Joe's VFX bar. In between levels, you can use the viewtifuls you earn to purchase additional moves and health upgrades for Joe. The way Capcom set this up is brilliant. If players use Joe's VFX combos, they'll be able to learn more moves. With more moves, players can put together lengthier and more elaborate combos. In turn, these elaborate combinations will earn players even more viewtifuls. And so it goes. Basically, jump through the game's hoops early on and you can turn Joe into a one man wrecking crew.
The monstrous bosses waiting at the end of each level are payoff enough for surviving the obstacle courses and enemies leading up to them. In episode 1, you have to use slo-mo to punch a helicopter's rockets back toward it. At the end of episode 2 you'll face Hulk Davidson, a large angry dinosaur that stands five times taller than Joe. He can drop flames into the room, attack with his massive axe, and run over Joe by charging across the room. It's neat how you can use the slo-mo VFX move to break his axe or the fast forward move to nail him in the back after he runs headfirst into a wall. One of the last battles in the game has Joe punching missiles away from their launchers in the foreground toward space ships hovering in the distant background. This brings up another payoff--the sheer visceral joy of watching the camera zoom in, pull back, and shift perspectives as you move around the levels. Capcom borrowed a page from (renowned development house) Treasure's book and used 3D graphics to spiff up an otherwise 2D game. When walking through city streets, the backdrops don't just scroll by from right to left. Instead, the camera is programmed to move behind Joe, zoom in on a particular structure, or shift to a particular angle in order to provide the most cinematic play experience. In some spots, the CPU takes over and just lets the player watch in awe as Joe does something superheroic--like dodging oncoming missiles while standing atop a jet plane or riding a rocket up toward an orbiting space station.
Hard hitting beat 'em up gameplay, gorgeous 3D comic book graphics, and cinematic cut scenes that are actually fun to watch--Viewtiful Joe is the complete package.
As most of you are aware, Viewtiful Joe is new to the PS2 but not necessarily a brand new game. It originally came out last year for the Nintendo GameCube and garnered a frenzy of critical and fanboy acclaim. Heck, for a good three months after its initial release, GameCube owners were holding up Joe as the sole reason why everyone just had to own a Cube in addition to a PS2 or an Xbox. Problem is, the accolades didn't amount to sales, and, irony being what it is, Capcom decided to port it to the PlayStation 2. So here we are.
The conversion seems to have gone very well. The slow motion and fast forward controls that were originally mapped to the GameCube's L and R buttons are mapped to the PS2's L1 and R1 triggers. The zoom function is mapped to the right analog stick, just as it was on the GameCube. The Square and Triangle buttons perform Joe's punch and kick attacks, and the X button performs his jump and double jump moves. This layout is comparable to the GameCube game and works comfortably on the PS2's Dual Shock controller. Most of the talk lately has concerned the instances of slowdown that the PS2 version has that the original GameCube game didn't. This is a valid gripe. In some spots, such as when Joe has to fight dozens of Blancky's, or when giant spaceships are hurtling past Joe in latter cut scenes, the action does halt and chug. Capcom did a good job limiting most of the slowdown to cut scenes or easy battle situations, so they don't really hurt the game all that much. They're there though.
One thing I love and hate about Viewtiful Joe is how tough it is. You literally have to develop a Zen mastery of Joe's FX moves in order to get through certain stages or accomplish the patterns required to beat various bosses. And I'm not talking about stages 5, 6, or 7 here. More like stage 3. Gran Bruce, with his annoying suction attack, is darn near unbeatable until you learn how to perform a Slow-Zoom-Red Hot 100 combination. And then in the next stage, you end up in a submarine trying to navigate strong enemies and gigantic torpedoes. It took me hours of trial and error to figure out where the gears were, which enemies to avoid, and how to beat the Joe doppelganger at the end of that stage. It can get frustrating at times, but it's also extremely satisfying--because once you learn exactly what moves to use to get through a stage, you can dominate it like a total badass.
Nonetheless, the "adult" difficulty setting may be too tough for some players. The original GameCube game had a "kids" setting, which was a little easier, but the downside to it was that you couldn't transfer Joe's stamina points or attacks from that setting into a tougher difficulty setting later on. The PS2 version also has an easy setting, called "sweet" mode, but the big difference here is that you can carry over Joe's attacks and health from the easy setting into the game's tougher difficulties. That change alone should make the game more accessible to players that don't enjoy taking their frustrations out on nearby walls and little brothers.
What else does the PS2 version have that the GameCube doesn't? Dante. Yep, that Dante. Beat the game once on any difficulty level and you can play as the star of Capcom's Devil May Cry. He sure looks wacky drawn up in Joe's cel-anime style--with a big body, a huge head, and even bigger guns to match--but he also fits right in. Where Joe is all about punching and kicking enemies into submission up close, Dante's moves focus more on his ability to shoot characters from a few steps away. His pistol combos look just like what you've seen in Hong Kong action movies like The Killer or Hard Boiled.
With the exception of sweet mode and Dante, the PS2 port of Viewtiful Joe pretty much offers the same extra goodies that the GameCube version did. There are two tougher difficulty levels besides the ones initially available, and you can unlock four different secret characters (Dante, Sylvia, Alastor, Captain Blue) by beating the game on those various difficulty settings.
If you already own Viewtiful Joe for the GameCube, you probably shouldn't let the inclusion of Dante lure you into buying the game again for the PS2. It's the same game, just one year later. But, if you don't own a GameCube, or you didn't grab this game the first time around, you have no good excuse not to get it now. The price is right ($29.99) and the game itself is a testament to all that is good and right about action games. Henshin a Go Go, baby!
8/30/2004 Frank Provo