Viewtiful Joe (GC/Capcom)
by Josh Hsieh
11122003

 


October 7th, 2003 was a day that movie stars aligned and parallel universes intersected. Action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger left the movie world for the political world as he became the 38th Governor of California. On that same day we watched an unknown Joe leave the real world for the movie world. Neither bloke had any prior experience in their new fields. While the jury is still out on Schwarzenegger’s political performance, the people seem to have judged Viewtiful Joe to be a movie maestro. But at Insertcredit, we know that while California is governed by percentages, the truth is not. Thus we show you both sides of the coin. Now in my opinion, no one gives the head’s up on VJ better than the back of the box it comes in, which says that “Viewtiful Joe will remind you how fun videogames can be.” The way Capcom tells it, you’d think VJ’s story is a nostalgic nod to the classic American cinema serial superheroes of the 1930s. In other words, too good to be true, but for once it’s all true. And that’s just the story. The gameplay is a nostalgic nod to the classic Japanese videogame sidescrolling superheroes of the 1980s. Thankfully the only spin in Viewtiful Joe is that of the rusty wheel that got gaming rolling: side scrolling. Now about that wheel…

Viewtiful Joe doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but then again it doesn’t try to. The revolution is that it spins the wheel faster than ever before, and outfits it with stylish new rims that go bling bling. Like a DJ, VJ puts that wheel on the turntable, scratches new grooves and samples old ones. And just as G-Funk makes the inaccessibly cold killer into an accessible funky fighter, VJ substitutes the complicated calculations of 1 on 1 fighting games with easy equations (hold one button, press another). Now even uncoordinated crackers can get in on the action. Like Fred-Durst look-alike Joe, who busts rhymes like so many caps in his music video Viewtiful World. But what’s a thug without his hoes? Not to worry. It seems Joe’s girlfriend Sylvia has a girlfriend of her own, and together they team up and steam up the big screen with hot girl-on-girl action. Speaking of big-screen, this game takes on big-screen big shots like Dracula, King Kong, and Jaws in levels that parley one parody into another. But no one gets hit with the funny stick as hard as George Lucas, whose life and empire are parodied to no end at the end of the game. If this seems too sensational to be true, remember that it’s both, and I have the pictures to prove it. Megaman NT wasn’t just a fluke, showtime is back like the 80s as Capcom kicks it old school, bringing the best side scrolling platforming this side of Nintendo only on Nintendo (for now). VJ samples everything good about the sidescrolling genre and becomes harder than the core it copies. Now about that core…

The core concept of Viewtiful Joe’s gameplay is the marriage of Nintendo’s platforming savvy with Capcom’s fighting sensibility. Yet this basic binary is transformed by the VFX watch, which stands for Viewtiful Effects but means Matrix magic. Put another way, it is as if one of the Mario Bros and one of the Puzzle Fighter gals had a lovechild inside the matrix and named it VJ. Fortunately X and Y chromosomes come handy in a 2D world. VJ moves merrily and measuredly like Mario, but marshals out martial arts against millions of masked minions as only a Capcom kid could. The aerial fighting is a style straight out of the Marvel Vs. Capcom series, but at heart it’s a royal rumble like Final Fight. The difference is that the ground that VJ walks on is flat like Street Fighter, not tilted like Final Fight. To do otherwise would disrupt the X&Y axis platforming, and like I said Joe is an X&Y kinda guy (unlike his girlfriend Silvia, who is a Y&Y kinda gal!). The only Z factor is the zoom-in, one of a trio of tricks in Joe’s superhero VFX watch. Together they are slow-down, speed-up and zoom-in and do different things to different parts of the game. For instance, the speed up allows you to hit background objects, the slow down button allows you to elongate explosions, and the zoom in button allows you to cap more combos. The difference between VFX mode and non-VFX mode is the difference between average Joe and Viewtiful Joe; Mr. Anderson and Neo. Without it, death is only a step away. Thus it is only natural that unlike the bullettime of other games, VJ’s VFX meter rapidly recharges to allow the game to be experienced in VFX mode, which is VJ’s radical realization of the pugilistic platformer. In this way the VFX mode takes the hub of VJ’s gameplay to the outermost rim of the wheel of sidescrolling, where no one has gone before. Yet all this would not be possible without the several supporting spokes that connect the hub to the rim. Now about those spokes…

Every great game has a series of supporting spokes that bridge the gap from core concept to peripheral progress. The effect is contained creativity, a term Brandon touched upon in our editorial on the state of gaming. It doesn’t constrain so much as it coheres Viewtiful Joe, which is the latest step in the march to merge multiple media into one medium. Without this containment, Viewtiful Joe’s ambitious gameplay would have pushed the hard core of side-scrolling past its critical mass. The immediate constraint is graphic, as the word videogames implies that graphics are the most essential component to games. Firstly, the art and animation is all in-game and thereby consistent. Furthermore, they are cel-shaded and achieve the aesthetic of a complete cartoon world that was the holy grail that 2D game designers such as Dave Perry sought after in games like Aladdin and Earthworm Jim. Ironically, it is the teamwork of a 2D texture upon a 3D model that finally realizes this dream to create a seamless cartoon side-scroller. .But it is not the high fidelity of the art that sets it apart from other cel-shaded graphics. Rather, it is the spirit and style found in the most original and organized outfit of characters to grace a game in a long time. The art design and direction is evident throughout the game, but when you see the character crews during the end credits, you really see the outstanding organized effort of the art team. They are bathed in brilliant and bright colors, which are made coherent by carefully chosen character color schemes, which are very noticeable in a side-scroller that displays all the action at one time. The graphics also inform the player of what to do. Skull markers tell you whether to duck or raise up (a quasi-jump), and words like SLOW tell you what to do in VFX mode. But this well-animated world is brought to life not only by art, but by audio…

Voices indicate characters’ intelligence, nature and next move. For Rosetta the slutty soldier in pink, the orgasmic oohs and ahhs reveal that behind the mechanical face and blond hair is the heart of a giddy Japanese schoolgirl. For the Gelbys, the big but brainless Blanka-Baseball Baddies, their primal scream indicates they are powerful but easily fooled. In the higher difficulty modes, the skull markers disappear and make you rely on sound scheme that indicates whether an enemy will throw a high or a low attack. There are no gaps in the animation, and the game runs at a refreshingly uncompromised 60 FPS. This is accentuated by the shattering sound effects, which change pitch in the different VFX modes. The audio is smoothly synchronized to the video, and the result is a symphony of smack down. Underpinning this synchronization is a very accurate collision detection, which is essential for a game in which every puzzle and punk requires a tough tactile solution. Furthermore, the visuals are cleanly cut, and the sounds smack-sharp as they must be. All this allows for the ethereal quality of slow-down and zoom in, and the fiery frenzy of mach speed. Without these supporting spokes, the VFX mode would be both insipid and incoherent, badly-looking and badly-timed. And that would thwart your attempt to reach out and touch something in the levels. Now about those levels.

Like Sylvia and Joe, level design and gameplay share a lock and key relationship. There is a very healthy integration between pugilism and platforming puzzles. Put another way to fight is to figure out, and to figure out is to fight. Like the Bust-A-Planet Missles that you must kick off course to destroy Star-Destroyers that are hounding you with long-range cutting beams. And how about the slow-mode smack back? VJ 1-ups Neo and doesn’t just dodge projectiles, but punches them back horizontally, and kicks them back diagonally. Knowing this will allow you to kick-back and relax the next time a one-armed bandit shoots you from an aerial angle. But how about the classic hammer and bell puzzles that require you to measure your distance just right? I’d say that’s a tight metric system that they have there in movie land. Overall I’d say that the fighting depends on more rapid rhythmic patterns than the puzzles, because the fighters wait for no man (nor woman or demon) while the solution to the puzzles often only effect the time grade. Speaking of which, the grading system is as funny and funky as the fonts that it appears in. It gauges you and allows you to figure out what moves are the most efficient. It’s a puzzle in itself, and its helps you get the most out of the level. Then there is this crafty combo of enemy A.I and platform placement, which will have both you and your enemies moving in rhythmic patterns. But unlike PN03, the side-scrolling plane of Viewtiful Joe’s existence is much easier to manipulate than the sterile 3D science labs or bare deserts. In fact it is the exact opposite, for whereas PN03 is barren, VJ is bountiful, with more enemies and more patterns. The reason for this increase in on-screen action and decrease in directional difficulty is that side-scrolling has just one plane of punks, puzzles, and players. Now about those players…

What is often overlooked is that Viewtiful Joe is not an eponymous title, but rather a game about a gang of four. Within this quartet are two related pairs, father (Captain Blue) and daughter (Sylvia) & cosmos and chaos (VJ & Alestor). In an innovative throwback to Super Mario Bros 2, the game is playable with 4 characters that do the same thing differently. You encounter these characters, both friend and foe, throughout the first required round with Viewtiful Joe and can unlock them through completion of the Adults, V-Rated and Ultra V-rated versions. As you may have already heard, the game is incredibly hard on Adults alone, let alone V-rated or Ultra V-rated. Suffice it to say the A.I. has a third eye. But the new characters and storylines make it worth the wrist-wrenching. Take Joe’s girlfriend Sylvia for instance, who is playable after completion of Adults difficulty. She is by far the fastest but by far the weakest (and by far the most experimental). Her VFX mode is cheerleader. Alastor, named for the sword in Devil May Cry, is playable after completion of the V-Rated difficulty. His VFX mode is a Kazuya Mishima like devil mode that drains faster than the other VFX meters. Captain Blue rounds out the bunch as a rotund but robust hero who can float speedily and endlessly. His VFX mode is Captain Blue. With 4 characters and 4 difficulties, that’s 4(!) ways to play the game. The story changes for each game and the gameplay of each character is as different as Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess in SMB 2. Now about the story...

As for the story I suspected that Viewtiful Joe would be seen as post-modern, because post-modernism engages in self-conscious deconstruction of an ideological construct. In VJ, the construct seems to be the movie world, but upon closer inspection it is a partial deconstruction of the heroic ideals of 1930s -1940s superhero serials (like the Flash Gordon adventures that inspired Lucas). It is Joe looking at the ideal of the hero played by Captain Blue and seeing it to be nothing but a marvel comic book Saturday matinee fairy tale. Joe then finds himself on the precipice of post-modernity as he must ask himself whether heroism, and the belief in good that it is predicated upon, is an arbitrary construct or an eternal truth. If it is the former, then he may fight with conviction despite the failure of the human heroic standard. If it is the latter, then he may realize relativism and eschew his heroic idealism. Joe chooses the latter, and in an ode to Luke Skywalker, Sylvia weeds out the root of cynicism in her father and kills it with the sincerity of love. VJ would be post-modern if not for its happy ending which redeems the heroic ideal. Now about that post-modernity…

What is Post-Modern? Better yet, what is modern? Modern is Fitter Happier on Radiohead’s OK Computer. Post Modern is what Smith has to say of Neo’s idealism in their final fight in Matrix Revolutions: “A feeble attempt of the intellect to justify an existence with no meaning!” Historically, modernity was the 19th century optimism that the world would get better through science and technology. But World War I and its sequel shattered that dream, and in its aftermath a disillusioned generation of Western intellectuals decided there was no absolute truth. With no truth, it became harder to construct and easier to deconstruct. Society became cynically self-conscious about the belief systems that shaped society such as religion, science, language. gender and sexuality. But Viewtiful Joe is a parody, and parody preceded post-modernism. Not just any parody, however, but the best of parodies for a legion of fans let down by a producer who once led one of the greatest revolutions of all time. Now about this producer...

Viewtiful Joe’s seemingly saccharine and superficial storytelling belie a poignant parody that shares in the subtle subversion of the Simpsons. While the delivery suffers from some unintelligibility (Hulk Davidson) and is not as delivered as the Simpsons, the humorous and witty social commentary is out there. Particularly praiseworthy is the parallel between “The Producer”, and George Lucas, which becomes explicit in the final level. Here it is revealed that the producer is a man who 20 years ago was hailed as the most revolutionary producer ever. A revolutionary who over the course of 20 years became a forgotten and fat man. A fat man who was sucked into his own movie world only to fall to the dark side and become a villain. A villian who commands “DIE- Fighters” on a Space Station with enough power to destroy a planet. Once one realizes that Captain Blue is a caricature of George Lucas, the humor really shines through. As scripted in the opening cinema, Joe is the diehard fan of a movie that, as he explains to his twenty something girlfriend, came out when they were just kids. Sound like anyone you know? Having lost his touch, Captain Blue then passed the torch to Joe, and in this manner plays the role of both Obi and Ani. A fantasy that has crossed the mind of nearly every Starwars fan who has seen the prequels. But I don’t think George Lucas has a bisexual blonde daughter. The allegory has to end somewhere…

I’ll cap this commentary by saying that Capcom has gotten the rusty side-scrolling wheel rolling again, first with Megaman NT, and now with Team Viewtiful’s Viewtiful Joe. And like a DeLorean, the wheel goes back in time and takes classic cinema serials and videogame sidescrollers back to future. Put another way it’s both nostalgic and new. Like the pioneers it is predicated upon, VJ pioneers its own brand of side-scrolling: the pugilistic platformer. The press has praised the efforts, but I think Big Snoop Dogg says it best: “Viewtiful Jizzle is the shizzle for rizzle my nizzle” Preach.

Graphics & Sound: V
Gameplay: V
Difficulty: V
Storytelling: A
Replayability: A
Total: V

Josh hopes he got your wheels turning.

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Developer
Capcom Studio 4

Publisher
Capcom

Release Date
10/07/03 (US)
24/10/03 (EU)