Released to critical fanfare, but middling sales back in 2003, Viewtiful Joe has been in my backlog of GameCube games for a while. Finally having gotten a chance to play through and beat it, I am now going to tell you why if you haven't already played this game (and you probably haven't), you really should. You ready? Henshin a go-go, baby! (I...can't believe I just typed that.)
It may have one of the lamest puns - ever - in its title, but don't let that turn you off. Viewtiful Joe is quite possibly one of the most original and fun games from the GameCube days. The plot of Viewtiful Joe involves Joe, an average movie fanatic, literally getting pulled into a superhero movie after the old hero of the movie, Captain Blue, is defeated. Becoming the film's new hero, he has to not only rescue his girlfriend, Silvia, but he also has to stop a mysterious gang called the "Jadow" from carrying out their evil plot, whatever that may be. The game is extremely cheesy and over-the-top, but intentionally so. It's meant to be an affectionate parody of both American and Japanese superhero films and comics. As such, we see things like Joe donning a red jumpsuit and striking poses whilst spouting catchphrases such as "Henshin a go-go baby!" or "Henshin a bye-bye!" (or something else involving the word "henshin") and a cast of hammy and ridiculous villains such as Hulk Davidson, the axe-weilding, green rhinoceros biker who somehow owns a hotel or Gran Bruce, a shark that, for whatever reason, wears a scuba tank. Oh, and don't forget the giant freakin' robots.
Viewtiful Joe's cel-shaded art style still looks great even eight years after its release.
Gameplay-wise, Viewtiful Joe is mostly a side-scrolling beat-em-up with some puzzle solving and platforming elements. On the outside, the gameplay looks very simple. Joe's main attacks are a simple punch (Y button) and kick (X button), and up and down on the control stick are used to dodge enemy attacks. There are a few extra moves that can be learned, but there are no flashy combo moves or anything like that. However, this is where we get to one of the things that sets Viewtiful Joe apart from other beat-em-ups: the VFX powers. Thanks to the game taking place inside of a movie, Joe can use video effects to his advantage. These video effects include slowing down the action, speeding UP the action, and making the camera zoom in on him. However, note that your use of the VFX powers is not unlimited. In the HUD, under your health, is the VFX gauge. It decreases the longer you use a VFX power, and if it fully depletes, Joe reverts back to his normal, not superpowered self, at which point he can take more damage from enemy attacks. The VFX gauge replenishes on its own, though, and it can be increased a little bit each time you collect 50 film reel pickups (although it reverts back to the original amount each time a new episode of the game starts).
Each VFX power has different effects during gameplay. For instance, holding down the L button to slow down time will make your attacks stronger, allowing you to break through enemy barriers or knock away disoriented enemies (you can disorient enemies by dodging their attacks). If you knock away a disoriented enemy, you will be able to knock away any nearby enemies, allowing you to get tons of Viewtifuls (which are converted into V-Points that can be spent on upgrades at the in-game store, and Viewtifuls are also accumulated by stringing together attacks, dodging enemy attacks and completing in-game challenges with a high rank). When in slow motion, Joe will also automatically dodge certain attacks at the expense of some of the VFX gauge. Slow motion also has varying effects on the environment, such as making explosions larger (useful for attacking enemies and blowing open certain walls) and grounding otherwise unreachable enemies or floating platforms. Holding down the R button to go into "Mach Speed" mode allows Joe to attack enemies with lightning-fast flurries of punches and kicks, which will cause afterimages to attack other enemies and even set Joe on fire, allowing him to burn other enemies. The Mach Speed move also has effects on the environment, such as causing floating platforms to rise even higher or making water run faster, raising the water level. The final VFX power causes the camera to zoom in on Joe. While the camera is like this, Joe can no longer string together punches and kicks, but his punches become far stronger and his kick becomes a spinning kick that can attack several enemies at once. Jumping while the camera is zoomed in causes Joe to do a spinning attack upwards, and if you zoom in while in the air, Joe will do a ground pound, damaging all nearby enemies. This power can be used along with one of the others to have different effects.
VFX powers aren't just used during combat. You will often find yourself using them to solve puzzles as well. For the most part, puzzles in the game are pretty quick and straightforward so as not to break up the fast-paced action. There will be very few times when you will be outright stumped as to what to do. However, puzzles are still fun and keep the game from getting repetitive, and often make clever use of your abilities.
Quite possibly the best thing about the game, however, is its difficulty, particularly how it handles it. Viewtiful Joe is a very hard game. The first episode is easy enough, but the difficulty really picks up and steadily increases after that, with the game becoming extremely hard by the end. It's not too forgiving, either; following the first episode, health pickups won't be all that common, and if you get a game over, it's back to the start of the area for you. That said, Viewtiful Joe is pretty much the definition of "fair". The game's enemies are challenging, but you never feel overwhelmed, and you can usually avoid their attacks if you're careful enough. Also, before the start of an episode, at an episode's mid-point, and before a boss, you are allowed to trade in V-Points, collected in the form of coins and also by accumulating Viewtifuls in combat, for upgrades. If you get a game over, you keep all the V-Points you collected before you got a game over and you are sent back to the store, allowing you to buy upgrades that might make your life easier the next time through. Bosses in the game are a similar case. They all have attack patterns and fairly simplistic ways of beating them, but it's not always easy to figure it out. Even when you DO figure it out, they're still not quite easy, as you have to be careful about dodging their attacks lest you get owned, and thanks to the ever present threat of combo breakers, you have to know when to STOP attacking. In short, Viewtiful Joe is one of the few games where having a high difficulty level actually adds to the experience rather than takes away from it. If you die - and you WILL die - it's YOUR fault, and that's something I always love to see in a video game.
As for flaws, there aren't that many, but they are there. My main problem with the game is that, while you are able to save before and at the mid-point of each new episode, you can't save before the bosses. Not only is this a bit pointless, but bosses generally take quite a long time to defeat. If I want to take a break, I should be able to take a freaking break! The only other flaw in the game may or may not bother you. I personally found the fourth episode of the game to be a bit tedious. For one thing, it's a lot slower than the others, which, to me, felt like it was breaking the game's otherwise fast pace. It also features some mildly confusing level design and a couple of annoying puzzles, and the second area of it felt like it was dragging on a bit. It's not a bad or unfun episode, but it definitely felt like the low point of the game for me. These flaws don't make the game any less worth your time, but they still deserve mentioning.
Even at its lowest points, Viewtiful Joe is a dang good time. Featuring unique gameplay and a difficulty level that will kick your butt but remains fair throughout, it was one of the best games on the GameCube and it's still one of the most fun games you could be playing on a Nintendo console right now. If you're looking for a good challenge, or if you're a fan of beat-em-ups or just action games in general, Viewtiful Joe is the game for you. With that said, henshin a-bye-bye! (...Did I seriously type that? AGAIN?!)