Who would've thought there was still this much mileage in the 2D scrolling beat 'em up? Honestly. Anybody with more than five or six years of gaming pedigree will immediately recognise the model: little man walks from left to right kicking and punching other little men, occasionally battling a larger man and growing in strength and ability along the way. Apart from a few high platforms and a double-jump ability, on the surface this could be Final Fight. But while others are still unashamedly churning out that sort of game (Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remake project springs to mind), it's taken beat 'em up masters Capcom to truly reinvigorate the scrolling beat 'em up, with simple, addictive gameplay, a combo system of untold depth and some of the most gorgeous cel-shaded visuals ever entrenched on a disc. But more on those later.
It all starts off on a familiar footing. In keeping with the traditions of the scrolling beat 'em up, someone's girlfriend has, in fact, been kidnapped, and that someone has to trawl through a series of left-to-right levels, munching on Cheeseburgers In Crates(TM) to keep his health up, and bonking people on the head. The twist here is that star of the game Joe has just seen his girlfriend scooped up and buried deep in celluloid by his favourite superhero's on-screen nemesis. With the help of pot-bellied veteran Captain Blue, he has to chase her into the film, kill lots of robotic enemies and eventually rendezvous with his damsel in distress, even if the daft cow does get in the way during the best bits of his favourite movies.
Digested at its most basic, Viewtiful Joe is a competent scrolling beat 'em up with a nice gimmick - dodging. As Joe moves along from left-to-right (although he'll often end up heading down spiral staircases and turn plenty of corners, the camera retains the side-on perspective throughout, preserving the 2D gameplay instead of picking odd perspectives like some sort of modern day Crash Bandicoot), he is faced with various enemies who leap into the picture and stick up their dukes. Standing next to one, Joe is able to anticipate attacks thanks to little orange frowny-face icons that appear in high or low positions - by pressing the opposing direction on the analogue stick or D-pad, he can duck under or leap over incoming blows (all of which are levelled at a comfortable enough speed), which will leave the offending enemy dizzy (with little tweety-birds spinning round its head) and allow Joe to respond with some form of attack.
However there's much, much more to it than that. After a few quick screens of almost motionless adversaries, Joe meets up with Captain Blue, who hands him a powerful V-watch. Thanks to this little device, Joe is capable of moving in Slow-Motion (left trigger), giving him more of an edge over his enemies and allowing him to flap around in those well-documented Matrix bullet-dodging style contortions as he weaves past punches, kicks, bullets and even helicopter blades - but only if he has enough VFX.
How much VFX he has is a question of how full his (constantly, but slowly recharging) VFX meter is at the top of the screen. If Joe runs it the whole way down, he loses his Viewtiful abilities and slips back into regular, blue-shirted Joe mode (complete with messy, stuttering film layer over the top), and is vulnerable to any attack that takes Slow-Motion to dodge, not to mention incapable of using any other abilities and tools he may have accumulated. The trick obviously becomes maximising use of VFX without letting it slip too far, using it prudently to avoid only the sharpest of blows (bullets, rockets, tornadoes, etc). The good news is that Joe can collect VFX icons through each of the game's episodes to increase the VFX meter's capacity.
The Perfect Combination
It's a complex and rewarding enough set of mechanics at this stage, but this is before we take a host of other things into consideration - like the combo system, something of which we simply can't get enough. Let's be clear - we know people who own Viewtiful Joe and love it to bits, and they have no idea about the depth of the combo system, and that it's possible to rake in massive scores by collecting multipliers, keeping enemies in a dizzy state and smashing them into one another. They're happy anyway. The combo system is like a neat little extra for determined, stylish players who enjoy this sort of device. And though you might topple the easier "Kids" mode without much knowledge of it, beating the rock hard "Adults" difficulty setting (and the harder modes subsequently unlocked) requires a dedication to big points totals.
Combos, then, work a bit like this: when faced with a couple of enemies, it's generally best to jump so that you're positioned between them. With any luck, one will strike quicker than the other, allowing you to stylishly leap and duck their respective attacks, leaving them both dizzy and prone to your Viewtiful carnage. But instead of mercilessly dispatching them both, instead give them a few punches each, and then leap to one side of the pair of them and slip into Slow-Motion. As you'll see, each of them now has a whopping Virtua Cop-style target around them. Before they recover, quickly smash the first one into his mate. Continue to attack other enemies without slipping out of Slow-Mo, or pile more than two into the combo (this is a basic example, after all), and you can garner absolutely massive bonuses.
With tougher enemies down the line (whose attack patterns take a lot more to overcome - like the gunslinging robots whose bullets need to be smacked back at them in Slow-Motion to achieve a dizzying effect), getting a big combo becomes increasingly hard, but increasingly rewarding, with more points on offer and more objects in the environment to crumple and explode their way into the combo.
But Viewtiful Joe is more than just a playground for the dextrous hardcore. One of the reasons you're almost guaranteed to persist, whether you're into the combo mechanism or not, is that it's been scripted, drawn and programmed with so much loving care. The visuals may look obscure to those of you with just screenshots to go by, but you'll love them from the very first cut sequence - as a towering, mechanised Captain Blue finds his beautifully detailed metallic backside crumpled unceremoniously across a cinema full of empty seats - to the very last boss.
Joe may look like a dinky platform hero better suited to the 2D adventures of the Super Nintendo than the polygon-belting GameCube, but every aspect of his make-up - from his flapping cape, which forms the V in the logo, by the by, to his endearingly stylish moves and Neo-shaming dodges - had us grinning with unchecked delight. We're particularly taken with the way he opens his visor to smack talk boss characters, then slides it closed to take them on, but surely the best thing is the way robots are smashed to splintered pieces like wooden puppets in a meat grinder.
Plunge Joe into Slow-Motion, or use his latter Mach Speed (right trigger, for a flurry of lightning attacks) or Zoom (C-stick/B) abilities, and the game uses speed lines, and negates the backgrounds to drag the action into focus, much as a comic book would. And that reminds us - those are some seriously detailed backgrounds. Right the way through, the scenery is exquisite and hand-drawn; beautiful in ways that tens of thousands of polygons and bumpy textures couldn't possibly convey. Coupled with some of the most engaging combat we've ever encountered, a sharp, witty script (complete with over-the-top voice acting and larger than life characters - boss Hulk Davidson is our favourite), and a lot of unnecessary but lovable polish ("Take a break!" bellows the 'director' as we hit the Pause button; an audience applauds as we rack up a multi-thousand point combo), and here's a game that deserves to be championed as much as the likes of ICO.
Capcom has even managed to break up the combat sections with the odd puzzle, which usually draws on recently acquired abilities. We don't want to spoil anything, but we can't resist the temptation to draw attention to them. Seen a tap dripping on a time-delay switch? Think about how you might build up a bigger droplet. Need to clamber onto a floating, propeller-driven platform, but can't seem to reach it? Think about how you might be able to influence the speed of the propeller blades. It's all just so clever, and helps to make the game feel complete.
Leader of the Pack
Finally, it would churlish of us to ignore the bosses. They might be hard as nails to begin with, but they're effectively big, brash, beautiful puzzles. Each will attack you in countless ways (once they're done talking), and the trick is to work out how to combine the environment, rank and file enemies and your abilities to the best effect. You could just leap in and pound away like a bull in a china shop, but if you want to avoid spending hours repeating the same cycle of wimpy attacks, it's best to explore other possibilities until you settle on something effective.
It's fair to say that a lot of the hair pulling you'll inevitably end up doing in Viewtiful Joe will be down to the bosses. It's a very tough game anyway (completing it will push you harder than virtually any of this year's Christmas blockbusters), but these chaps will require concentration, and unfortunately a lot of repetition. And although you can buy up extra lives and swankier abilities in a between-level shop, you're still going to spend a lot of time endlessly repeating the same sections to get to them. A shame? Well, maybe, but on the other hand, the way enemies start to put up more of a challenge, and the value in perfecting each minute section of the game (obtaining a firm 'Viewtiful' rating across the board will test just about any gamer's mettle), means that Viewtiful Joe can also be one of the most satisfying Cube games there is. Even if you have to abandon the WaveBird for an hour or so here and there to recharge your patience, you'll still find yourself coming back for more. Viewtiful Joe is just one of those games, and we truly hope it holds up for a long time to come.
Although it won't be to everybody's tastes, Viewtiful Joe is imaginative, beautiful, engaging and above all else entertaining. It's a timeless piece of quality gaming that, with the exception of its visual element, would probably work on any format, past or present. We could level a couple of criticisms at it, maybe arguing that it's overcompensating for its relative brevity with a rock hard difficulty level, or that the camera doesn't always capture enough of the action, but those are points we've had to sit here and dream up, because unless you really try not to like it, very little is likely to dent your appreciation of Viewtiful Joe.