Joe is nothing more than an average… well, Joe, as it were. The guy loves old movies and their cheesy melodrama, so when a malevolent hand drags him into a superhero flick, he’s absolutely pumped. This is a chance to do the impossible; to pull off his favorite actions scenes with high-flying kicks, slow-motion thrills, and fancy close-up shots. All of these powers are laid before you with just enough explanation to get started, but putting the impressive mess of over-the-top abilities to effective use is a challenge that takes the course of an entire game to master. This side-scrolling brawler is deceptively deep and riddled with punishing challenges, demanding that players face frustration with an iron will to come out on top. After ten years of life on the Nintendo GameCube, it still takes a lot of guts to don the mantle of Viewtiful Joe.
That’s what our simple-minded protagonist is called in Movie Land. No longer a film buff with an uninterested girlfriend, Viewtiful Joe is a super-powered punching machine with a damsel to save. After following the love of his life into this alternate reality, he soon unravels an evil plot that threatens the real world’s very existence. This is a perfect excuse to take down heaps of supervillains in a host of movie sets that serve as a colorful background for the time-honored art of beating up bad guys.
The art direction and gameplay mechanics are of one mind: bold, chaotic, and unlike anything you’ve seen before. Watching someone play Viewtiful Joe is bewildering and marvelous, even if nothing makes sense. What at first appears to be a shallow beat ‘em up with an outrageous mix of colorful 2D and 3D elements soon evolves into a frenzy of lightning-fast special effects that turn it into an extravaganza more reminiscent of Marvel vs. Capcom than River City Ransom. When broken down into its base components, however, the combat becomes manageable and almost methodical (in a highly caffeinated sort of way).
Standard punches, kicks, and uppercuts make up the basics of your repertoire, but left to their own devices they would be nothing more than a curiously clunky and unfulfilling attempt at the genre. It’s the Viewtiful Effects — known as VFX — that transform the game into a different beast entirely. Slow-motion is the first power unveiled, which turns the fleet-footed enemies into dominoes ready for the toppling, assuming you can strike at the perfect time. This ability alone offers a whole new perspective on the world, giving you time to strategize and combo the opposition into oblivion. When time slows to a crawl, the precision and importance of each move is magnified, allowing you to dodge the quickest of blows and hand-pick the perfect counter.
This will usually serve as your go-to power in the hectic land of cinema, but turning Joe into a hyper-fast whirlwind of motion and zooming in the camera for extra powerful bursts of special attacks are vital skills to learn as well. Knowing when (and when not) to combine these absurd tactics is half the battle, especially when light puzzle solving comes into play. Without risk, of course, there’s no reward. Using VFX drains a meter that temporarily turns Viewtiful Joe back into regular old Joe, weak and ripe for the obliterating; and with or without these fancy powers, obliteration is something you’ll have to get used to.
Viewtiful Joe is a difficult game, partially because of its intense action and partially because of a deliberate use of checkpoints. Your first trip through a level may very well be an unrestrained ride on the pain train as unpredictable enemies and deadly environments trip you up left and right, slowly chipping away at your precious supply of lives. Succumbing to zero retries before reaching a checkpoint means bashing your way through the same trials all over again, which requires learning from mistakes and not making them again.
Restocking items during break screens is the saving grace to the unforgiving learning curve. Whether you choose to buy healing hamburgers, upgrades to existing VFX, or brand new moves, your decision can make or break the coming tribulations. Luckily, coins collected from failed attempts can be cashed in for goodies, which makes repeatedly grinding through tough spots a little more bearable. This is a game that demands practice, forcing you to adapt or die.
Sometimes the simplest of tricks can make all the difference, particularly when bosses are involved. These hulking monstrosities may seem intimidating at first glance, but falling into their rhythm of attack and selecting the right form of VFX can turn a nightmare into pure success. The trouble comes when that simple trick still hasn’t shown its face after your tenth attempt, compounding into raging frustration during the late-game medley of reused boss encounters. Skill will always prevail if you’ve enough of it, but sometimes the game doesn’t know when to quit. Although beginners can opt for a gentler difficulty mode, they’ll miss out on game-changing unlockable characters and even tougher modes down the road. With so many extras challenging you for another round, the first dash through Movie Land is only the beginning.
Bursting with vibrancy and ham-fisted movie gags, Viewtiful Joe can’t be mistaken for any other game. For those willing to learn, it serves up a complex system of intricate combat mechanics that constantly dance between risk and reward; those short on time or patience might be left in the dust. Somewhere between a fighting game and a fever dream, this brawler will engage and enrage in equal parts with a fiery vigor, and the effect is Viewtiful.