Ever since Nintendo broadened the concept of a fighting game with its mascot-driven Smash Brothers series, other companies have tried--and ultimately failed--to capture the controlled chaos that made the Smash Brothers titles a couple of the most successful games on their respective platforms. Super Smash Brothers Melee came out almost four years ago, and it's still one of the most heralded games on the GameCube, if you can believe it. It makes sense then that another company would try to emulate that kind of long-term success, and of all the publishers in the industry, Capcom is in about the best position to launch a successful mascot melee game. Not only is Capcom well versed in fighting games, but it has also created some of the most recognizable characters in the industry. So, when Capcom announced that it was going to publish a melee game based in the Viewtiful Joe universe, it just kind of made sense. After all, Viewtiful Joe is full of all kinds of interesting characters, and the games have always focused on simple, but challenging combat mechanics. Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble does get plenty of those things right. The style and attitude are available in spades, but unfortunately the battles just feel sloppy and unsatisfying. There are some great singular mechanics in play here, but they're all just tossed together in a mess of flashy effects and shallow gameplay.
The story in Red Hot Rumble is pretty straightforward. Captain Blue has retired from being a superhero and has decided to direct a movie. He's having a problem casting the lead role, though. So along with his sexy but otherwise uninteresting assistant, Sprocket, Captain Blue hatches a plan to hold an audition in the form of a series of all-out brawls. The toughest and most stylish will certainly win, and that someone will be cast as the lead in the movie. Just about everyone from the two Viewtiful Joe games shows up for their chance at the glitz and glamour of becoming a big-time movie star. You end up fighting battle after battle in a series of different scenes on a variety of movie sets, with themes ranging from a Western town to Atlantis. Each scene is divided into several battles against at least one other opponent.
The battles in Red Hot Rumble each have a specific objective that you have to complete in order to win. You might have to destroy as many enemies as possible, be the last one standing, defeat a boss character, collect gems, or even shoot down a comet by attacking certain switches within the level. By completing these objectives and performing better than your opponent, you'll earn coins. The coins are used as a gauge of how well you are performing in the audition. You'll collect coins by completing objectives, but you can also just pick up coins as you play because they're everywhere. You can also beat up your opponents and steal their coins.
You have several different moves and special abilities at your disposal, and the moves differ quite a bit depending on which character you're using. There are 16 characters in the game, although most of them are locked when you start. There are familiar characters like Joe, Sylvia, Hulk Davidson, and Gran Bruce, as well as new characters like Android Rachel and Sprocket. The characters aren't very well balanced, though. For example, some characters have weak attacks and can't move very fast or jump very high, while others have super-powerful attacks and can fly around the screen with ease. Sometimes you'll feel completely limited in battle simply because your character just can't keep up. However, it doesn't always matter, because even if you're a terrible fighter you can just run around collecting coins and you'll probably end up winning the battle on coins alone, regardless of whether or not you even tried to complete the objective. To its credit, the game does have some stipulations that prevent you from simply grabbing coins in every battle. In some scenes, there are certain conditions you have to fulfill, like having to win two battles, or getting knocked down no more than two times. If you fail to meet those conditions, you lose instantly and have to start the scene over again. It's kind of a cheap way to compel you to play carefully, but it works.
The controls are fairly simple. By default, you can jump (and double-jump) using the A button, perform a regular attack with B or Y, perform a special attack with X, and use VFX powers with the L or R button. You can modify your attacks by pressing the control stick in any direction. If you hold down and attack you'll do a slide, and if you hold up and attack you'll do an uppercut. The special attacks are more powerful, and they're unique to each character. Joe can do a red hot dragon punch, Sylvia can do a triple shot, and Captain Blue can summon blue thunder. Each character has several special moves, and you'll usually rely much more on your special moves than on your basic ones. As you fight, VFX orbs will appear randomly and when you kill enemies. You can collect these orbs to use VFX powers. There are four powers you can get: slow, which slows down everyone but you and makes you invincible; mach speed, which lights you on fire and lets you fly around the screen; sound effects, which lets you materialize a sound effect and throw it at your enemies; and zoom, which makes you about five times larger than usual so you can pretty much beat the crap out of everything on the screen.
While the VFX powers are useful sometimes, they aren't as fun to use as they are in the other Viewtiful Joe games, because this game just isn't designed to make you want or need to use the powers. In fact, the powers can be annoying at times, since they make the already chaotic battles even more frantic and confusing. The biggest problem with this game is that you spend way too much time not knowing what the hell is going on. You'll have up to four players onscreen, plus half a dozen or more enemies, plus all the VFX orbs and health pickups, plus about a million coins, explosions, projectiles, and special effects blasting your senses all at the same time. It's especially problematic in four-player battles, because the camera is pulled out to accommodate all the characters, and from so far away it's nearly impossible to see what you're doing.
There are occasional breaks in the chaos in the form of VFX battles. As you fight, orbs will pop up all over the place. If you get a super VFX orb, you can use it to initiate a VFX battle, which is a sort of battle-within-the-battle where you compete in simple minigames to steal coins from your opponents. Of course, you can have your coins stolen as well, so VFX battles aren't necessarily a good thing. There are five types of minigames, and they're all extremely simple. There's one where you have to mash buttons as fast as possible to fill up a gauge; one where you have to rotate the analog sticks as fast as possible to fill up a gauge; one where you have to hit a button when an icon appears onscreen; and a couple of timing games where you have to simply hit a button at the right moment. These battles can really turn the tide of a match, but the VFX battles require very little skill and just aren't that interesting once you've seen all of the minigames.
Red Hot Rumble does support up to four players, but the multiplayer battles are pretty much the same as the single-player battles, with just a couple of extra characters to confuse the situation even more. You can play any of the battles from single-player story mode in battle mode. There are 25 stages in all, and although there is decent thematic variety, if you've finished the single-player story then you'll pretty much get the exact same experience in multiplayer. Another problem arises in multiplayer because a lot of the characters in the game look very similar. So when you have four characters onscreen at once, and they're all wearing helmets and spandex, it's really easy to get them mixed up.
The sheer amount of stuff onscreen at any given time is impressive though, especially because the frame rate remains perfectly steady throughout. Aside from that, the graphics here have the same great 2D style that makes the Viewtiful Joe series so distinct. There are plenty of bright, colorful effects, and all of the character animations are top-notch. Some of the level designs are a bit bland, and several are taken directly from previous Viewtiful Joe games. But you won't have much time to be checking out the scenery during battle.
The sounds are very familiar as well. You'll hear all the upbeat music to keep you moving along at a brisk pace. Although, aside from the opening movie theme, there aren't any standout tracks. Nevertheless, the music is well done and fits the game perfectly. The voice work is just as campy as previous Viewtiful Joe games, but the voices lend a lot of personality to characters that otherwise might not be very interesting. However, you will hear a lot of the same battle cries, which can get annoying after awhile, but eventually you'll learn to just tune it out. Still, a few less shouts of "Red Hot!" coming from Joe would be nice.
Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble is just a bit too crazy for its own good. It packs in all the style of the Viewtiful Joe games, which is great, but there just isn't enough room on the screen to contain the action. The gameplay is a mess of bright colors and unsatisfying button mashing. The game's heart is in the right place, but it just lacks focus and feels disorganized. Viewtiful Joe fans will appreciate the characters, as well as the look and feel of the game. But as a fighting game, Red Hot Rumble just isn't very satisfying.