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Viewtiful Joe retrospective

Henshin-a-go-go baby!

The movie's never been made, but Viewtiful Joe could be the best game tie-in ever. It's a Scott Pilgrim style ode to comics that were never drawn, dressed with the trappings of cinema.

More than that, though, it's a potent reminder of how accomplished the side-scrolling of yesteryear can still feel, the fantastic looks merely serving to complement to the experience.

It's hard to deny that the game owes a great debt to cinema, comics and, well, other games. The vibrant, cel-shaded art style couples with an endless supply of colourful on-screen words to draw us towards its comic book roots, while the 2D movement and combat brings back memories of a gaming era many assume is dead.

Rest assured, however, that Viewtiful Joe is two-dimensional in movement only. The whole screen is constantly bursting with three dimensions of visual glory as you zig-zag through its levels. As a result, the game doesn't feel as if it's really aged.

While VJ owes aesthetic similarities to comics and retro games it embraces cinema as its main theme. The whole game is set in one of vintage movie-loving Joe's favourite action flicks, which he's forced to fight his way through after its antagonist kidnaps his girlfriend, Silvia.

Your reaction to this ridiculous, yet fun, premise should tell you a great deal about how much you'll enjoy the story, since its tone changes little throughout.

SIMPLICITY EVOLVED
In keeping with the cinematic theme, your main power is the ability to slow down or speed up time. Combative advantages will be obvious to anyone who's seen The Matrix (sorry hermits); slow-mo allows you to see and avoid enemy punches, kicks and hot lead, and a faster pace entails a heap of quick damaging attacks, followed by Joe catching on fire.

Importantly, these mechanics also come in handy during some brief puzzle segments. Slow time to bring down platforms held in the air by spinning rotor blades, or gain the upper hand on the numerous slot machines. As for speeding things up - well, the potential associated with being flammable should speak for itself.

The real genius comes when the puzzle-solving uses bleed over into combat. Take an early encounter with a helicopter: you could wear yourself out with double jumps, getting a couple of strikes in before gravity plays its inevitable hand.

But if controlling the clock can make rotary blades useless then there's a much simpler way of bringing the chopper down... The solutions may be easy in many cases, but acting on them is another thing entirely. Viewtiful Joe is a hard game that chews up the careless and spits them out.

The difficulty comes not from memorising dozens of complicated combos - a blessing or curse depending on your attitude towards fighting games - but from the sheer number of attacks heading your way. Avoiding them is your top priority, and you're helped by the intuitive dodging system.

POWER-UP
Anyone confused as to why the series never progressed much past the first game need only look to the final few chapters. After Viewtiful has spent hours buttering you up with original level design and amazing art direction, it suddenly seems to run out of steam.

Capcom have proven that it's OK to repeat boss encounters, but your patience is tested by this game's insistence that you not only fight all its baddies in one level, but do it with no save points in between.

Given most players exhale quite a large sigh of relief after completing these fights the first time round, a second encounter feels like major punishment. It's a shame, because elsewhere in the game the initially simple-sounding combo system is kept fresh with a seemingly endless supply of new enemies.

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