Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Funday

Another weekend, another classic video game review* over at Game Informer's Reader Reviews section. This one's for Viewtiful Joe, one of the best action games of the last generation. Yes, this will probably become an ongoing thing.

I've got some college-type work in the library tomorrow, but the second half of A Young Man's Tribulation will still be posted by tomorrow evening.

*Actually, you can't anymore, because everything there got deleted. So you can find it right here instead.

Yet another of these; this one shouldn't be so long as the first one.

Viewtiful Joe

May Hero-ness Be With You!

Viewtiful Joe is a game with very few pretensions, beyond being an enthusiastic parody/homage to comic books, action movies, and things that go boom on a screen. The colors are garish, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot is nonsensical; the game makes no apology for these things, and needs none. This is a game of nearly constant motion and action, a tribute to the most maligned pop arts with a healthy sense of humor and fun.

2D brawlers and platformers were long out of fashion in 2003, but then, Viewtiful Joe is unabashedly retro. There's a largely familiar, predictable system of levels, stages, checkpoint, bosses and minibosses. Most of the scenarios are copies of film or video game cliches, from creepy castles to space stations, from sinking subs to runaway trains. There's a Metroid-esque escape scene, and the plot is the most venerable of all video game tropes: "save the princess." If the question is style versus substance, then Viewtiful Joe's answer is emphatically style, but even the minimal substance is built on sturdy foundations. Some cliches, however, it might have done without. Level Six is a boss-battle recap, perhaps the most noxious of all game conventions. The fact that the level ends with a significantly more difficult new boss doesn't make it any better.

Joe (the hero) has a number of super powers, but the game is well aware of the first rule of super heroics; a hero's most important power is his ability to look cool while fighting guys in spandex. Joe's powers are designed with this in mind; he can slow down time for Matrix-style bullet dodges, speed up and make multiple images of himself, or zoom in for a dramatic close-up (and magnify the power of his punches and kicks).

Of all of these, the most useful and visually appealing is slowing down, which allows the player to defeat enemies in combinations and rack up big points. However, all the powers are useful in combat, and most of the game's puzzle solving elements require their use. For example, Joe can light torches by punching them at high speed, or increase the size of an explosion with slow. The use of these powers is the real meat of the game, at their best producing spectacular imagery and flowing together with the kind of acrobatic grace the game strives so hard to evoke. Unfortunately, you can't leave them on forever; a gauge decreases while a power is in use, until they run out, and you must do without them for a few seconds.

As in most platformers, the stages are strewn with collectible items, some of them useful (VFX reels increase the duration for which you can use your powers), some of them not so much (coins do.....nothing). Points are critical, as they allow you to purchase new moves and extra lives, adding even more incentive to use (and abuse) Joe's fabulous powers. Sometimes it's hard to tell why you scored lower on any given stage than you expected, but the game really does seem to consider the aesthetics of your attacks to be paramount.

Viewtiful Joe is often praised for its visuals, which have the look of a pulp comic come to life. When Joe's powers run out, the screen temporarily takes on the grainy, scratchy look of old film. Heroes and villains alike strike dashing poses during cinematics, and stylistic effects like motion lines leap out at every opportunity. Flat colors and thick black lines dominate the palette, for a distinctly adolescent look. It's bold and campy and beautiful.

Likewise, the sound is strongly evocative of the material. The voice acting is cheesy, but deliberately so, and Joe sounds like a nerd whose wildest dreams have come true as he cheerfully puts out one-liners and praises his own impeccable style. The game also includes a music video for a song called "Viewtiful World" after the credits, which seems superfluous. The rest of the soundtrack is appropriate, but mainly forgettable.

It must be said that this game is absurdly hard. There are two modes, "Kids" and "Adults." Kids is guaranteed to kick your ass at least once. Adults is simply not for those with anger issues. I just beat Kids mode in about two and a half hours, dying more times in the last two levels than I care to admit, but ultimately muscling my way to the final boss. Indeed, the game becomes significantly less "viewtiful" in the end, as enemies become obnoxiously numerous. I'll admit it, I suck, but getting knocked around is still less fun than opening a beautiful can of whoop ass. I suppose it's relative.

If you choose to play through a second time, the game starts you off with all the upgrades you acquired on the way. Whether you choose to proceed right away ultimately depends on your tolerance for punishment, but you'll probably feel the urge to return to Movieland after a while.


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