It may not seem immediately obvious, but the action genre has been getting a slow makeover for the past few years. Prior to Viewtiful Joe, the evidence was Capcom's own 2001 action game, Devil May Cry, which really demonstrated how to put together an action game with a sense of flair that moves beyond simple visual and character design and also makes an impact on how you play the game. Since that release, Capcom and other developers have tried to recapture that sort of fast-paced, stylish gameplay with mixed results, usually falling into the trap of looking cool at the expense of good gameplay. But Capcom's latest GameCube release, Viewtiful Joe, deftly delivers a fantastic cel-shaded look while also adding a really great series of unique gameplay twists that make it much, much better than the average side-scrolling action game.
The game's story only pops up briefly between episodes, but it's conveyed fairly effectively. Joe is a fan of old, Japanese-style superhero films starring Captain Blue, a costumed action fighter that calls to mind other Japanese hero stories, like Kamen Rider, Ultraman, or the Power Rangers. One day, while Joe and his girlfriend, Silvia, are watching one of the old Captain Blue features on the big screen, the screen comes alive, and Silvia is kidnapped by one of the movie's monsters and taken inside the screen. Joe, of course, gives chase, enters Movie Land, and is coached by Captain Blue to become a hero himself. He'll proceed to dodge, punch, and kick his way through droves of weird enemies and plenty of tough bosses.
Of course, a superhero wouldn't be anything without special powers. And without Viewtiful Joe's special powers, the game would be a pretty plain 2D beat-'em-up. Joe's powers are all thematically similar, giving him command over the movie-based world he's fighting his way through. Joe earns his powers gradually. The first power is the ability to drop everything into slow motion, and it's probably the most useful power in the game. Holding the left trigger activates the power, and its most important feature is that Joe's punches and kicks do more damage when he's in slow motion. But it also has a lot of puzzle-oriented uses, too. The propellers that hold up the game's hovering platforms will fall to the ground when slow is activated, since the props won't spin fast enough to keep the moving platforms in the air. This also comes in handy pretty early on, when the game puts you up against a giant attack helicopter, whose machine-gun fire can be deflected back at the thing when time is slowed down. You'll also use this ability to slow the reels of a slot machine and to avoid incoming numerous projectile attacks.
The second power you acquire is the opposite of slow. Mach speed kicks everything into high gear, letting you unleash such a fast and fanatical string of attacks that Joe will heat up and burst into flames--which is handy for, say, lighting the fuses on any nearby bombs you might encounter. Mach speed is also great for getting away from incoming attacks, and just as slow will lower any propeller-based platforms, speeding things up will cause them to rise.
The third and final superpower you'll earn is slightly more esoteric than the others, but it's definitely useful. Zoom gives you a close-up of Joe in action, and the resulting screen time can cause lesser enemies to freeze in their tracks. Zooming also increases your damage and gives you access to a few different attacks.
All three of Joe's unique powers drain your VFX meter, which automatically replenishes when you aren't using any powers. At the start of each of the game's worlds, you'll have a relatively short meter. But collectible items strewn about the levels let you increase the length of your VFX bar. If you drain the meter completely by overusing any of your powers, Viewtiful Joe will lose his superhero suit and just become regular old Joe. With that loss, you'll also lose the ability to double-jump and use any of the VFX powers until the meter crosses its original threshold, at which point you'll automatically become Viewtiful again.
Aside from using Joe's main powers, you can also purchase upgrades in a shop that pops up between areas. The currency in the game is the "viewtiful," and you earn these by eliminating enemies. Standard punches and kicks make for a pretty low payout. But if you kill off the bad guys in a stylish way--say by dodging a drone's attack to make it dizzy, then countering with a slow-motion kick, and finally laying into all the other enemies in the area in one combo--you'll earn a significantly higher number of viewtifuls. You can spend viewtifuls on simple upgrades, like extra lives and a longer life meter, but the real upgrades are new attacks and other cool enhancements. The most obvious improvement is one that makes your VFX meter recharge faster, which makes the longer-lasting slow-motion combos easier to maintain. You can also purchase bomb and boomerang attacks, a diving kick, and more-damaging versions of the mach speed power.
Viewtiful Joe is a polygonally rendered game, but the action takes place on a 2D plane. So in general, the action will consist of your running from one side of a level to the other, stopping frequently to deal with an enemy attack or to solve a puzzle to open the way ahead. When you lose a life, you'll return to the beginning of the current scene. The first level isn't broken up into many scenes, so if you run out of lives here and have to continue, you'll actually return to the beginning of the whole level. The following levels are broken up a little more frequently, though, so you won't have to do as much backtracking as the first level might indicate. The game takes you through several different episodes, each with a colorful boss character at the end for you to face off against. The boss fights are diverse and nicely challenging on the whole, though most of them boil down to learning a pattern and being sure to execute your most devastating technique when the boss shows an opening.
The challenge isn't limited to the boss fights. While taking out one or two of the game's regular drones is pretty easy, the game is good at tossing enough enemies at you to make things tough. But the game is really quite skill-based and never really feels like it's unfairly difficult. The difference between success and failure is knowing how and when to use your VFX powers and, in boss fights, your ability to recognize attack patterns and adapt to them. For players who can't hang with the standard difficulty, the game also has "kids" mode, which is easier. You can also unlock harder difficulty settings by beating the game. All in all, the gameplay is very exciting, with plenty of room for you to develop your own personal playing style. When that aspect is combined with the game's well-rounded difficulty, you're left with an action game that offers much more lasting value than most. The average player should be able to finish the game at or around the 15-hour mark, but then there's still more to do. There are also a few unlockable characters, giving you the option to go through the game a second or third time with someone other than Joe.
Tons of games have used and abused the cartoon-style cel-shading technique over the last few years, but Viewtiful Joe is anything but stale in the graphics department. The over-the-top comiclike appearance of the game works very well with the superhero-themed subject matter, and the look complements the game's ultra-exciting gameplay very effectively. The game is full of snazzy effects, and there are usually lots of things going on at once, but the game runs at a continually smooth speed, which really assists the game's already-cool animation. The look of the game is as unique as it is well done--this is a game that is equally impressive both artistically and technically.
The sound effects in Viewtiful Joe are the most impressive part of the game's audio presentation. From the sounds of gunfire coming from the cannon of an attack helicopter to the whoosh of entering slow-motion mode, the sound really does a lot to create the game's over-the-top feel. The music does its job, but a few sections--such as one that has a robot voice repeatedly telling you that a bomb has been armed--loop a little too often and get pretty repetitive. Other than that, the game has some voice work in its cutscenes, and Joe talks from time to time during gameplay. Most of the voices in the game are well done, though Joe's high-pitched shouts are a little grating.
But who cares? The bottom line is that Viewtiful Joe is a really impressive achievement. It manages to simultaneously recall the simpler times of 2D platforming action games while modernizing the genre in several major ways. It pulls off its stylized gameplay without compromising the rest of the game for the sake of a few flashy moves and ideas. It also has an incredible look to it and enough depth (and enough extras) to keep you playing after you've finished the game once through. In short, those looking for something new and exciting in action gaming should definitely add Viewtiful Joe to their collection.