It’s the morning of May 13, 2003 and E3 is just around the corner. In Los Angeles’s famous Westin Bonaventure Hotel, away from all the pre-show bustle taking place in the LA Convention Center, Capcom is busy showing off upcoming games at their annual pre-E3 producers meeting. Atsushi Inaba, producer of Capcom’s most hotly anticipated title of 2003, Viewtiful Joe, steps forth to begin his presentation. He gives his small audience a general overview of the game’s story, and then explains how the various unique aspects of the gameplay, namely the VFX powers: Mach Speed, Slow and Zoom, will be implemented to make Viewtiful Joe unlike any other game out there.
As his presentation draws to a close, Inaba stops his demonstration and adds, “I like to make the type of games that I would like to play. Last year I did Steel Battalion and this year I am doing Viewtiful Joe. But if this one doesn’t sell, I don’t think I’ll be able to make these types of games anymore. Basically, what I’m saying is, please buy this game! Seriously. My job is on the line.” Inaba’s smile and body language indicate a bit of playfulness, and many in the room laugh. But, despite his attempt to downplay the situation, Inaba’s words ring alarmingly true.
Videogaming is a multibillion-dollar industry after all, and companies are often compelled to leave innovative game ideas on the cutting room floor in order to free up resources for cash cow rehashes. Capcom themselves have made milking past successes a veritable art form, as seen with the release of games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. This is why it is so remarkable that Inaba’s Viewtiful Joe wasn’t squelched early on in the development process. But, squelched it wasn’t, and because someone high up at Capcom decided to take a chance with Inaba and his wholly original idea, we gamers are given the opportunity to play one of the best videogames to be released on the current generation of consoles.
To try and pigeonhole Viewtiful Joe into one of the many predefined genres would do Inaba’s vision a great disservice. In reality, the game is a blend of 2D fighting elements, puzzle solving, platforming and role-playing, all brilliantly tied together by the quirky VFX powers. The key to the game’s success doesn’t lie with any one of the game’s many features, but rather with the exceptionally playing end product that results from the grouping of so many fresh ideas.
To be quite honest with you, I wasn’t initially awed by Viewtiful Joe. The story just seemed a bit too wacky and the gameplay during the first few sections felt limited and not terribly challenging. It merely seemed like a good, clean diversion to more “serious” games like Halo and Metroid Prime. But, realizing that I had barely scratched the game’s surface, I kept an open mind and played on. And on… and on… and on… In fact, the more I played, the more I realized that Viewtiful Joe was truly something special. By the end of the game I had fallen in love with all the quirky characters, both good and bad, and came to appreciate the sheer brilliance involved with the implementation of the VFX powers in many of the later levels and boss battles.
So what are these VFX powers I keep referring to? Staying with the general theme of the game, which is a spoof on the film industry, VFX stands for Visual Effects. You see, Joe has been sucked into one of his favorite B-movies and is charged by the vanquished Captain Blue with the job of becoming the next superhero. As he works his way from scene to scene in an effort to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, Silvia, he is bestowed superpowers by Captain Blue. The powers are dubbed VFX because they allow Joe to perform three main visual effects: the ability to slow down and speed time, as well as the power to make the camera dramatically zoom in on Joe’s actions. These VFX powers aren’t just eye candy either, they represent the core of Viewtiful Joe’s dazzling gameplay.
For example, let’s say you are fighting a Black Thunder, one of the Apache-like helicopters in the game. As the chopper begins strafing your position with machinegun fire, one way you can deal with the situation is by accessing Joe’s VFX Slow power. As you hold down the L trigger (which activates Slow), the helicopter’s bullets become visible and you can run safely between them, thus avoiding damage. Then you can activate Slow again and the Black Thunder’s blades will reduce speed, causing the vehicle to come plummeting down and allowing you to give it a good pummeling. The trick is you have a finite amount of VFX power and if you run out, Joe transforms from his superhero form back to his ordinary human self. In his human form Joe takes double damage and loses access to all his superpowers like Slow, Zoom In, Mach Speed and the ability to double jump, so it is crucial to make sure you don’t run out of VFX at an inopportune time. When Joe is not using his powers, his VFX gauge is always refilling, so it is always a delicate balance between when to use VFX and when to let it regenerate.
Using Slow against a Black Thunder is only the tip of a massive iceberg when it comes describing the extensive ways VFX can be used in the game. Many different combinations of all three VFX powers can be exploited to help with fighting Bianckys (the low level grunts in the game) and other baddies, solving riddles, accessing hard to reach areas, battling bosses and more. I don’t want to go into too much detail involving the VFX, because it’s such a treat to experience the various uses for it for the first time, but I do want to make one more point. Viewtiful Joe features four of the most challenging, intense, yet totally rewarding boss fights I have ever experienced in my eighteen years of gaming. Two of these battles, which take place towards the end of the game, just about had me testing the aerodynamics of my Wavebird controller, but after intense practice and a complete Zen-like mastery of the VFX powers needed to beat them, I eventually emerged triumphant (and by triumphant I mean filled with such elation that I was up and boisterously dancing an Irish jig, much to the disapproval of my cat who was trying to sleep nearby). The real key to the remarkable quality of these boss battles lies with the creative way Inaba and Capcom implemented Joe’s three VFX powers.
There are even a few RPG-like aspects to Viewtiful Joe. V-Points are awarded for using Joe’s VFX powers to rack up big combos (the bigger the combo, the more points you earn). A few times during each Episode, you are given a chance to spend your V-Points on a number of different things, such as new fighting maneuvers, Voomerangs, Bombs, upgrades to your VFX capabilities, a bigger life bar, extra lives and the ever handy Take 2 (which gives you an entire second life bar to work with). This gradual building up of Joe’s abilities keeps things fresh and gives you something to work towards while playing.
Despite being a single-player game that can be completed in approximately 15 hours, Viewtiful Joe has an exceptionally long lifespan. At the risk of saying too much, upon initial completion of the game the ending sets you up with multiple compelling reasons to go through again (a word of warning though: playing on the Kids difficulty will gain you nothing). And then once you beat it again, you are presented with more compelling reasons. And by compelling reasons, I’m not referring to the unlocking of some artwork, cheats or things of the nature, but bonuses that actually effect the way the game is played at a very fundamental level. Add this to the fact that Viewtiful Joe is so incredibly fun to play and you could easily find yourself logging in more than 50 or 60 hours before totally “completing” the game.
The graphical style of Viewtiful Joe accentuates the gameplay beautifully. Cell shading is used to give every character a slick manga-style look, and colorful 2D background elements help enhance the game’s movie set theme. Joe himself has been bestowed a plethora of animations that all flow together via seamless transitions and the bosses in the game all feature beautiful visual touches like flowing clothing and flame effects. Every visual effect in the game, from the screen blurring during VFX Mach Speed to the bits of machinery sent flying as Joe beats up a robo-baddie, is implemented with a master’s touch and never feels like frivolous extra. Even during cut scene close-ups the game’s graphic engine holds up remarkably well, with Joe able to portray a variety of emotions due to his many different facial animations.
The environments in the game are not cell shaded, but mostly modeled via comic book-style 2D cut outs and traditional 3D polygons. Though Joe moves through the world in two dimensions, his linear path often takes him twisting in and out of the three dimensional levels. With such a high level of concentration required during much of Viewtiful Joe’s gameplay, you would think this twisting and turning would be a hindrance, but it never is. The camera is always spot on and quick to choose the absolute best location for you to control the action from. An example of this can be found in the first Episode, where you find yourself descending into an old wine cellar. As wine barrels move between your view of the action and Joe, the camera smartly turns them transparent (which is also a neat touch because you can actually see the wine inside the barrel). If there is one minor, teeny, hardly-even-worth-mentioning nitpick to Viewtiful Joe’s visuals, it’s that sometimes clipping can be seen during the cut scenes. Regardless, the game easily stands as one of the most impressive looking titles on the GameCube.
Generally upbeat and catchy, the music in the game is effective at enhancing the frantic action taking place on-screen. The main Viewtiful Joe theme that is remixed in numerous places throughout the game is definitely a foot-tapper and will stay with you long after you’ve powered off your GameCube. I especially love the ominous tune that plays just before a boss confrontation; it does a great job of heightening your sense of nervous anticipation. The voice acting for Joe and his various friends and adversaries is fairly lighthearted and infuses each character with a unique personality that is very hard not to grow attached to (you’ve gotta love Joe’s empathic, “Henshin a go go baby!”). I randomly uncovered one of my favorite lines in the game when I pressed pause to take a bathroom break and the game blurted out, “Don’t forget to flush the toilet!” Needless to say that elicited a good chuckle on my part. In general, the audio in Viewtiful Joe is high quality, with the only criticism being a certain pre-boss fight dialogue that is very hard to hear.
Viewtiful Joe is one for the ages. It is a completely original game that features a brilliant merger of unique gameplay elements, a memorable cast of characters and some very spiffy visual polish. Enough can’t be said about Atsushi Inaba and the team behind the game; they truly achieved their goal of creating a title that is an out and out joy to play. Granted, it is extremely demanding and you may find yourself wanting to stick the game disc in the microwave on more than occasion, but like a best friend, you just can’t find it in your heart to stay mad at Viewtiful Joe. So strap on your V-Watch and get ready to partake in one of the most challenging, fulfilling and just plain entertaining games to be released in a long, long time. All together now… Henshin a go go baby!