Viewtiful Joe (Gamecube) Review

-Shawn Trautman

Viewtiful Joe is a side-scrolling, beat-em-up action game with cell-shaded visuals and a distinctly Japanese worldview.  It is fast, frenetic, and balls-hard, even on the lower difficulty setting.  It is not cheap difficulty, however, and the healthy challenge makes for a really satisfying victory over each level and boss.  I wasn’t always 100% sure what the hell was happening on screen, but I always had a good time.

GAMEPLAY - I said this was a side-scrolling beat-em-up, and that’s basically true, but this game has come a long way from its 16-bit forebears.  You still move along a 2-D plane, usually from left to right, beating up a bunch of baddies along the way, but there is so much more going on here.  First of all, you have your VFX powers, which are special powers you can activate for a limited time, including slow motion, mach speed, and a couple of others that it would take longer to explain.  While these are mostly useful in combat, there are also several clever puzzles that require their use, too.  There are also some platforming elements which break up the action a bit, and offer a nice change of pace.  And unlike the side scrollers of 20 years ago, you are not jumping around in static environments.  You have to contend with moving trains, screen-sized rockets, moving lasers, flame turrets, poison gas, and much more.  You never really know what’s coming next in this game.

But ultimately, it is the fighting that is the main focus of the game, and it is handled really well.  Taking a cue or two from another of Capcom’s games release a year or two earlier, Devil May Cry, combat is extremely stylish and satisfying.  There are a wealth of moves you can perform, just based on your position relative to the enemy, and whether you’ve dodged an attack.  But once you add in the VFX powers, the number of available moves becomes ridiculous.  It is difficult to describe the feeling of smoothly transitioning from a flurry of punches in hyper speed, to dodging a kick with slow motion, to a series of jumps and backflips, to a zoomed-in ground pound that destroys everything, but it is exhilarating, and never gets old, even though it’s what you’ll be doing the entire game. 

One thing that has to be talked about are the boss battles.  There are number of boss fights in the game, and even a level which is entirely boss fights, and they are all extremely hard.  Just like the games of old, each boss has a pattern and a weakness you need to exploit to win, but they are all so fast and take off so much damage, that the trial-and-error required to find the pattern can easily lead to a game-over.  And that’s a problem because, just like the games of old, Viewtiful Joeworks on a lives system, and will make you go all the way back to the last time they let you save, which was sometimes 30-45 minutes of tough gameplay, just to even get a chance to see the boss again.  I had to look up a guide for most of these battles, because I just could not stand playing all the way through the level again, only to still fail and repeat the cycle.  Winning the boss fights still give you the rush that some of the other difficult portions of the game do, but they were way more frustrating than fun.

STORY- The basic premise goes like this.  You play as Joe, an action-movie buff who is watching one of his favorites when his girlfriend, Sylvia, is pulled into the movie and kidnapped by some bad guys.  You then jump into “Movieland” and do battle with all the crazy villains within in an attempt to save her.  The story is mostly incomprehensible, and the main character is actually kind of a tool, but the game does not take itself seriously in the least, and has a great sense of humor.  When the villians start monologuing, they do it in a very self-aware way, and everyone knows they are in a movie, which leads to a few funny moments as well.  In the end, though, I know I won’t really remember anything about the plot or characters of this game more than a month after I’ve finished it.

PRESENTATION- This game is beautiful.  With the exception of 16-bit sprites, no game art holds up quite as well, in my opinion, as cel-shading.  The developers of Viewtiful Joe took all the time and energy they would have spent in creating a fully 3-D world and instead used those assets to make visually stunning artwork.  The character models and animation are colorful and expressive.  The backgrounds and foreground objects are textured and detailed.  In fact, if I could levy any criticism at the visuals in this game, it would be that there is too much detail, and too much going on.  It can occasionally be disorienting, but it’s really only a problem because it means you don’t get to see everything.  In the few places you get to stop and breath for a moment, I would just look around and enjoy the scenery.  It’s a real shame that pausing the game leads to a mostly black screen, instead of a freeze frame, allowing you to see more of the details around you.

The audio is also good, though less impressive.  There are cutscenes before every chapter and boss fights, and the voice work is really good.  All of the acting is ridiculous, but it’s supposed to be, so it’s ok.  Sound effects such as punches, kicks and explosions are more hit-and-miss.  The combat has a kind of old school kung fu movie sound to it, with very high-pitched “hi-YA” kind of stuff.  The audio can also suffer from the same saturation and disorientation as the visuals, with so much going on that it’s difficult to tell what’s happening.

CONCLUSION - There are a couple of frustrating things about this game, namely the high difficulty level and poor placement of save points, but it has to be said that it is a singular experience.  Even though it follows certain precepts of 16-bit beat-em-ups, it takes its place among games like Ico and Katamari Damacy, not in overall quality, but for being games that are unlike anything else.  This is a gorgeous game, and there is a lot of frenzied fun to be had here, if you don’t mind a bit of frustration and punishment.  I’m glad I played it, and most anyone with a Gamecube (or PS2) should at least give this one a try, even if they can’t (or don’t want to) make it past the first couple of levels.

Verdict: 89%

Viewtiful Joe Gamecube Trailer

Do you agree with the score for Viewtiful Joe? Would you like to see another Viewtiful Joe game?