Comic books, actions movies, and a whole lot of ridiculous self-awareness come together in one of the most enduring and best beat’em ups of all time
Beat’em ups were once the main reason for gamers to hold on tight to a pile of quarters. After all, those shiny little treasures were keys that would unlock many hours of virtual beat downs in the local arcade. Sadly, as gaming evolved past the confines of those shops and into ever grander expanses, the genre was mostly left behind. It is true that a few quality beat’em ups have emerged within modern gaming, but it is also a fact that none of those games have added much to the genre as a whole; they felt like nothing but more polished 3-D carbon copies of the arcade hits of past decades.
Powerful heroes, though, have a tendency to appear in times of dire necessities and that seems to be the case with Viewtiful Joe, a caped crusader with a chip on his shoulder that stars in Capcom’s brilliantly refreshing take on the genre. The game brings the many qualities that made gamers undertake a daily pilgrimage to their local arcade place right into home consoles while adding a few gameplay mechanics that lift its gameplay to a unique and fresh height.
Viewtiful Joe starts by sending players a strong message about its tone: one that is loose, wild, satirical, humorous, and completely self-aware. The protagonist, Joe, is sitting in a movie theater with his lovely girlfriend, Silvia. On screen, a battle between Captain Blue, an old and glorious hero, and a giant robot is taking place, and when Captain Blue seems to fall in battle, the evil mecha breaks the fourth wall – and also the chances that the game will take itself seriously – and kidnaps Silvia, taking her into Movie Land. Captain Blue, then, proceeds to also drag Joe into the screen and, in order to aid the newborn hero in his quest to save his love, he gives Joe a watch which grants him special powers.
Throughout the game, the plot’s development, which happens to be surprisingly interesting, follows suit with the high quality standard set by its opening sequence; it takes place in nice cutscenes that, when joined by the game’s unique presentation, deliver a cell-shaded visual experience that blends the flow of a silver screen action movie with artistic cues taken from the traditional comic book presentation.
In order to save Silvia, Joe must traverse seven different chapters that are absolutely infested with enemies of different types and strengths, each culminating in boss battles that are extremely tough and creative. The game progresses on a side-scrolling manner even though the scenarios are fully tridimensional. Such setup means that Joe will sometimes make one or two turns while exploring a certain area and the camera will rotate in place in order to keep a side-scrolling perspective, which makes up for some very amusing moments of very clever and unique level design, not to mention smooth visual goodness.
Joe has pretty much the same set of moves an average action hero does: he can punch, kick and even dodge attacks, an action that will leave enemies stunned for a short while. Still, Joe’s greatest abilities – and the game’s most remarkable features – are slowing down time or speeding the action up. When pressing the L-button the game will suddenly move at a much slower pace, allowing Joe to see and avoid ultra fast attacks such as gunshots, or automatically perform Matrix-like acrobatic moves to escape hits, making him pretty much invulnerable to all blows. Pressing the R-button, on the other hand, will have the same effect as pressing the fast forward button of a media player, giving the character the opportunity to deliver powerful combos in the speed of light, but leaving him extremely vulnerable to incoming blows.
Fortunately, as otherwise the game would be an unbalanced mess, both of those moves are only available for a limited amount of time. A bar on the top of the screen indicates for how much longer players can stay on the super fast or super slow modes, and the gauge is automatically filled up, slowly but surely, when one stops using the special moves.
The destruction of enemy forces, however, is not the only reason gamers will be using those special moves. Viewtiful Joe is packed with clever puzzles and most of them are solved by the proper timely use of one of the skills, or the combination of both. Not only do those puzzles offer a break from the game’s insane combat-focused pace, but they also stop the constant brawling from reaching the point where the whole adventure gets repetitive, which is a major relief because despite solid combat systems most games of the genre lean towards repetitiveness after some hours.
Another valuable factor that keeps Viewtiful Joe away from growing stale is its battle system. Instead of betting on an oversimplified combat scheme, the game rewards skilled players via a very satisfying combo system. Killing an enemy by normal means will earn Joe a few V-points – the game’s currency – but beating many of those down by slowing or speeding time means his gains will vastly increase. The V-points can be used on the game’s shop to give the character more HP, new moves, extra lives, or even upgrade some already existing powers. As a way to motivate players into fully exploring the combo system, many of those upgrades are very expensive an require that gamers learn, and pull off, impressive barrages of attacks.
Maximizing Joe’s stats and moves is also vitally important due to the game’s impressive difficulty. Like the great arcade titles of old, Viewtiful Joe is never tired of beating players down to the point where they will cry for mercy, and even though the game as a whole is a little bit on the short side – after all that is the nature of beat’em ups – the adventure ends up lasting for quite a long while because being stuck on an enemy-ridden gameplay section or on a boss that seems impossible to beat is not unusual.
Unfortunately, it is from that quality that Viewtiful Joe’s main flaws derive. The game offers a nice set of difficulty choices for players to pick from, but even the easiest one of them – humorously named “Kids” – happens to be tough, a fact that is certain to drive some people away from the title. The game’s biggest sin, though, is its inconsistent spread of checkpoints. In some chapters, they are properly found after brutal segments, but in others the save points are just poorly placed, a reality that makes players go through enormous sections repeatedly in order to get back to their point of defeat and even – sometimes – watch unskippable cutscenes that while filled with great visuals and hilarious dialogue still get boring after the fifth or sixth time.
In technical terms, Viewtiful Joe is a modern masterpiece on its very artistic approach to both the scenarios and characters. The game looks stunning with its cell-shaded visuals that perfectly translate into the screen the sheer excitement of old-school superhero comic books, and the music and sound effects just add up to the feeling that Joe is the videogame equivalent of Batman or Superman. The fact that the daring, fearless, and insane vibe emitted by its graphics and music permeate the game as a whole – from its gameplay, character design, and action to its dialogues and plot development, turns Viewtiful Joe into a very special and idiosyncratic piece of gaming.
The bottom-line is that Viewtiful Joe is an absolutely spectacular game. When it is all said and done, its seven chapters and ten hours of gameplay may not feel like they are enough to satiate players’ hunger for thrilling beat downs, but its harder unlockable difficulty levels are so challenging and offer so many amazing extras that it is hard not to feel compelled into giving them a try. The game conveys everything that was great about arcade brawlers, mixes it up with a visual style extracted from comic books, and adds dashes of platforming and puzzle solving to spice up the recipe. The result is, without any bit of exaggeration, one of the most enduring and best beat’em ups of all time.