Hello my pretties. It's time for another spellbinding journey into the world of my relationship with Japanese Cube imports. Or, at least, it would be, if it wasn't 3:59 in the morning and this feature didn't have to be online by nine. You see, every time I've stopped playing Viewtiful Joe over the last 24 hours to try and write something, nothing's happened. I've sat here, prodding the odd key and reading over my notes, chewing my imaginary spectacles and occasionally sighing pensively, and the best I've come up with is about fourteen variations on "well, cripes, I didn't expect it to be this good." We almost got to the "I am a fish"/handprint scenario this time, chaps, so apologies in advance, but I'm going to have to just ramble through it in the hope that when the sun comes up we'll be looking at a reasonable, albeit meandering explanation of why Freeloader or Jap Cube owners should fire up Internet Explorer and Ctrl-Enter hastily in the direction of their nearest importer right now.
Better than the average Joe
Firstly, let's consider what it actually is. In this day and age, 2D scrolling beat 'em ups are generally consigned to the Game Boy Advance, where they're ignored like a crusty donut that's past its sell-by date, but that hasn't stopped Capcom making another one. In this one, you control a budding superhero - Viewtiful Joe - working under the tutelage of movie hero Captain Blue, and you're on a quest to rescue Joe's girlfriend, who has been wrenched from his arms by a big-screen bad guy and hidden somewhere in the depths of celluloid.
Given that Joe has been transported into a movie, his abilities are tied into how much film he has to play with. Each level is packed with robot bad guys who jump into the screen and start attacking, and the player has to avoid their attacks by pressing up or down on the D-pad or analogue stick to hop or duck their blows - which can be anticipated by watching out for a grumpy looking orange icon that pops up in a particular position whenever someone plans to strike there. Every time Joe dodges one of these attacks successfully, that enemy is dazed - in classic Street Fighter style - opening them up to furious, satisfying mutilation.
Along the way, Joe has to collect various blue icons dotted high and low around the landscape, jumping and double jumping for the farthest ones, and totting them up in lots of 50 - each of which adds another frame to his "movie-o-meter". That's not what it's actually called, and that's probably not what I'm going to call it from now on either, but what's said is said. This "power bar" of sorts [make your mind up -Ed] [sod off with your unreasonable deadlines, Glastoskiver! -Tom] - ahem - can then be gradually drained by Joe's Slow-Mo ability (left trigger), which gives him a better chance to lay heavy punches (Y) and kicks (X) on his foes, and batter dazed enemies into one another to accumulate combo points.
But alas, using Slow-Mo - and any of Joe's other unlockable abilities, of which more later - will sap film from his movie-o-meter [gah -Ed]. Oh shit, it's called VFX! Yeah, that's what it is: VFX. You're collecting VFX. Anyway, lose all your VFX and Viewtiful Joe will become normal Joe, an ineffectual combatant if ever there was one, and the game will emphasise just how useless he is by throwing a dirty, grainy filter over the entire screen - it's like having Star Wars special edition interspersed with the dirty old film reels once in a while, and it's also one of the best uses of the Cube's graphics processor since god knows when. It'll take a few seconds for Joe's meter to fill back up enough for him to scream "Henshin-a-go-go-baby!" and transform back into his Viewtiful alter-ego.
This is quite significant, because dodging bullets and attacks and particularly massive bloody great bosses is only really possible in Slow-Mo, and if you happen to turn back into vanilla Joe or stop using Slow-Mo as you're negotiating chopper blades upside down whilst trying to punch a bat in the face, you are going to take a hit, and you can't take too many before things go pear-shaped. So the trick is to make sure you never have to take it all the way down, or stop using it when you really need it. Fortunately VFX recharges gradually back to whatever capacity you've built up, and fallen enemies drop little potions (or something) which help speed up its recovery, but it's a fine art - and a brilliant tool for keeping the adrenaline pumping.
Now, here's some good news: what we've covered so far is nothing like the full extent of the gameplay in Viewtiful Joe! In fact, particularly the combat here is so deep that I haven't even got the most out of it yet, and I've played it for so long that my thumbs are blistered and aching, my RSI is burning a hole in my wrist and my WaveBird has run out of batteries.
The combat, then, is something to be reckoned with. At first you'll do okay just hammering X and Y, holding down to uppercut or sweep enemies, or up to do flying karate kicks and punches, and you'll rack up a decent amount of points and may even make it to the end of level boss if you throw in a bit of Slow-Mo usage, but what you'll be missing is the potential reward gained from keeping a combo going and then queuing up multipliers. It's a bit like Tony Hawk or SSX or any one of those fantastic "how long can you hold it" games, and it dares you to try and keep things going for as long as possible.
So, for me, the average combo goes something like this: coming up against a pack of, say, four enemies - the basic punch/kick type that fill most of the levels - I'll duck under or step over the first one's attack, dizzying him, and that's worth one "V" in the top left of the screen. Then I'll give him a quick bonk on the noggin with my left hook, adding another V. From here, I'll leap over his head and do the same with the next fellow, pausing once I'm done to knuckle the chap behind me in the snout to keep him comboed up. At this point I've got five Vs. Now I'll hop over him and keep going, leaping back and forth at intervals to try and keep each dizzied enemy in play, before eventually - as the counter tells me I've got plenty of Vs in store - dropping into Slow-Mo and battering dizzied, almost finished enemies into one another to accumulate multipliers. Once I exit Slow-Mo, or run out of VFX, I'll reap the rewards.
A view to a kill
But the best thing about the combo system - apart from the fact that it's life-sappingly addictive - is that the entire game is geared towards it! Finishing a combo brings gasps and applause from invisible onlookers, and for each enemy I overplay and prematurely finish off, the game will throw in another to bring the opposition numbers back to whatever they were. Keeping this going for ages and ages - and with tougher enemies to boot - will give you much better overall ratings for each section of each level, for which you are rated V to C (Viewtiful, Awesome, Baaad or Crappy) in V-Point, Defense and Time categories.
When you do finish a level, each of which throws up an ingenious boss with patterns to figure out, minions to overcome (and uppercut into his flying, machine gun-toting belly) and more explosive outbursts of filthy language from this writer than sessions of being forced to watch Big Brother over dinner at my folks' place, you'll be given the opportunity to save your game and spend those hard-earned points on upgrades - from extra hearts on your life bar atop the screen to special attacks and projectiles like the Voomerang, which is the perfect thing for finishing off combos.
Of course, the game wouldn't be much fun if all you could do was go into bullet time and combo enemies, especially given how much VJ makes you restart, and how much importance it places on perfecting each section of each level to reap maximum rewards. (A little aside here: I actually know some people who are concentrating on perfecting each level before they even save and move onto the next one - apparently because the better your rating at the end of the game, the more stuff you unlock, from secret characters to even harder difficulty levels.) In order to keep things fresh, Capcom has included a few other abilities to boot.
The best a man can get
Mach Speed (right trigger), for example, which you unlock just after the game's first save point, allows you to race along with speed lines blurring the entire screen, and throw more kicks and punches per second than everyone's favourite black-suited Zion dweller, while the Zoom function (toggled by B or activated via the C-stick), takes you closer to the action, framing it nicely, and lets you pull off crazy multi-directional attacks, and rain down on your opponents like anvils. There are even more moves to unlock and things to do in the game, and often you'll find that its infrequent puzzles require you to apply your combat techniques to the real world. Jumping over an otherwise unassailable sewage-jetting manhole by getting a propeller-driven platform to fly higher, for example. Now, what would make a propeller go round faster?
But the most obvious and brilliant aspect of Viewtiful Joe's genius - and it is genius - is probably the game's magnificent visuals. Sure, it'd still be fun if it looked like Enter The Matrix or Wolverine's Revenge or something, but Capcom were hardly going to use an off-the-shelf 3D engine to polish one of the most stylish beat 'em ups ever conceived, were they? No, not content with what everyone else does, they've created the bastard hybrid of Jet Set Radio and Yoshi's Island, with hard-edged but sketchy characters whose cels are roughly shaded in varying tones and whose close quarters kung fu could be lifted right off the page of a comic book.
The environments, as you can see from the screenshots and will soon see as you scramble all over the net trying to track down the Japanese TV adverts, are beautifully hand-drawn, with items of scenery standing out like cardboard props in a school play. It's a look almost entirely of its own, and coupled with all the film and comic ideas it creates one hell of a sight. We particularly enjoy all the different visual filters and effects employed in emphasising Slow-Mo, Mach Speed and Zoom. It's a cliché (05:21am, gimme a break, I'm getting there), but this one really did draw a lot of stares and comments from my co-workers. In an industry these days obsessed with realism, licences and authenticity, there isn't much that gets further away from it all than Viewtiful Joe.
Anyway, with the sun creeping over the horizon it's about time I drew this to a close, but before I go I thought I'd pepper the end of this write-up with a few interesting bits and bobs that might be important but, to me, with this little sleep and this much caffeine, look more like blobs of ink on an already well-blotted notepad:
The story may be stupid, but it's funny, the characters (and particularly the bosses - most notably Hulk Davidson) are great and the dialogue is sharp and witty rather than comical Japlish.
The game is almost entirely in English, from the main, upgrade and save menus to the words coming out of everyone's mouths, but you may need to consult a guide to get your head round the controls. Just remember that Z is like a "skip" button for cut scenes and tutorials and you'll get through things though.
Although some people have laid some criticism at the game's feet already, we can't see their point about the camera, which for us always keeps the action firmly in view, and picks up more incidental detail than a Sun photographer in Ibiza.
It works perfectly with FreeLoader 1.06b and even 1.04, and presumably the latest sneakily exported 1.06B version which Datel somehow forgot to tell us about.
In my experience, if you fail at Viewtiful Joe, it's always a matter of skill and never down to poor design, and that's enough to keep my frustration in check. It's really hard (although even Belgian diplomats could get through the Kids mode, and probably ought to), but it's rewarding too.
Oh, and finally, here's one I scribbled after finally getting a "Viewtiful" rating on chapter two: "It's the best pure videogame since ICO." There, that should do it...