"I can no longer fight for I have been defeated."
So says Captain Blue to his prodigy and soon-to-be action hero Viewtiful Joe. I quote the awkward line not because they're anything close to famous first words, but rather they firmly establish that this is not a game meant to be taken seriously. Capcom's Viewtiful Joe is an all-too-knowing parody of genre cliches in various forms of entertainment, from videogames to television to film. It's exactly the kind of game where one might expect a hearty wink after an enemy says, "Who do you think you are, some kind of Rock Man?"
However instead of a wink, what the gamer will get is gameplay that feels fresh, even if the concepts are shamelessly stolen from other games(including Capcom's own franchise bank). It's easy to see that all the creative juices were spent on fine-tuning the gameplay, the pacing and the inventive time manipulation engine, and not the story. Joe is an average Joe with a super-deformed buxom girlfriend named Sylvia. He's watching his favorite superhero film about Captain Blue while Sylvia tries to get some love seat action. Suddenly the evil entity that defeated Blue nabs Sylvia through the silver screen and Joe ventures off to Movieland to save her.
The player then takes control of Joe in what looks like grainy film footage, while learning the basic nuances of the fighting engine. Attacks can be dodged high or low, leaving the opponent open for a counterattack punch or kick. But it's not until Joe meets the ghost of Captain Blue that things get interesting. After feeding Joe his ridiculous reason for not fighting, Blue gives him a V-watch, transforming him into Viewtiful Joe, donning a cape so pink it would offend even Grand Theft Auto: Vice City's art designers. With his beady little eyes and exaggerated poses, he's almost a cross between Mega Man (Rock Man in Japan) and Stupendous Man, the alter ego of Calvin from the Bill Watterson comic strip.
Joe's V-watch allows the hero to manipulate time by speeding it up or slowing it down. The concept may seem pedestrian by now, but the most intriguing and original aspect of it is the fact that its time manipulation does not affect the in-game world's physics. If you were to slow down time near a helicopter, its rotors would slow down. Since the rotors aren't moving at the appropriate speed to keep the chopper afloat, naturally it would fall, giving Joe enough time to bash it to bits. Of course, speeding up time would make rotors on floating platforms move faster, lifting Joe to previously inaccessible areas. The game's puzzle solving and exploring elements rely on this function, and I found myself manipulating time just to see what in the environment is affected by it. Maybe speeding time up will fill the area up with pouring water, or slowing down time will supercharge a rocket for greater momentum.
But the game wouldn't be half as exciting if the time element wasn't factored into the robust combat system. A meter that empties the longer he is bending time limits Joe's powers. Once emptied, Viewtiful Joe reverts back to regular old Joe without special time powers. Throughout each stage are little V insignias that extend the meter if enough are collected, though the bonus lasts in that stage only. Slowing down time will make Joe's attacks stronger and makes it easier to dodge attacks. In fact, it's the only way Joe can dodge tank shells and bullets, though that sucks up the meter faster. Speeding up time will literally burn up the atmosphere as his attacks tear up the entire screen. The more enemies you defeat with the least amount of moves, the more points you get that can go towards earning new moves, items and life extensions.
All of this is not unheard of. Hearts used as health indicators, junk food as "health" items, buying new moves and collecting little coins or logos have all been done to death in games that date back to previous decades. But it's the meshing of these old elements with the millennial concepts of cel-shading and bullet-time effects that make the experience so rewarding.
It all came together for me during the fight with the Apache helicopter. My V-meter was still low, so I couldn't manipulate time for very long. Most of the time, I was using it to dodge the maelstrom of bullets and missiles it was hurling at me. The meter was finally vanquished and I had to revert back to regular Joe. The chopper doubled back for another strafing run while three robots chopped and kicked at my very existence. By the time my meter filled back up, the chopper's bullets were right on top of me. I was able to transform into the superhero just in time, with just enough of the meter to dodge the bullet before reverting back to regular old Joe.
That was a close call, and thanks to the challenging difficulty, the game's full of them. Viewtiful Joe is as difficult as the player wants it to be. The Kids mode is forgiving, and can give a player ample time to get used to the game's nuances. The subsequent modes—Adults, V-rated and Ultra V-rated—are all punishing but even more rewarding. After spending ample time with all the modes, the game was able to connect a nerve from my brain to the onscreen Joe avatar. It's difficult, but the challenges come as natural as if camera zooming (with the C-stick) and dodging with the "Viewtiful World" move were instinctual.
For the final paragraphs of this review, it's only appropriate that I shamelessly steal from review cliches, as well as ripping myself off. Viewtiful Joe is the spiritual successor to the 8-bit games of old. Not just because it's about running from left to right and collecting things, but that it requires an acute sense of rhythm and timing that can only be achieved by spending more time with the game. It helps that all of Joe's moves are simple to pull off.
Viewtiful Joe is a wonderful action game lovingly crafted with the weathered but timeless elements of rusty genres along with the new, postmodern concepts of parody and time manipulation. The new concepts were in danger of being trite and meaningless, but Capcom's latest breaths new life into them. The appeal of Viewtiful Joe relies solely on its gameplay, and not from its genre-bending, medium-hopping aesthetics, self-awareness and loopy sense of humor. The game is far from a one-trick pony. Rather, it's an amalgamation of one-trick ponies (cel-shading, time bending, old school nostalgia tickling) to make a fulfilling, satisfying and jaw-dropping experience. Meet the new action game, better than the old action game. Or more appropriately, something old becomes new again.