VIEWTIFUL JOE 2 / Capcom / PS2
I never did get around to playing the original Viewtiful Joe but I recall it making a pretty big splash when it came out. I happened to see this copy of VJ2 at the local Gamestop for 4 bucks, and recalled the hype surrounding the first game (and that it generally looked like something that was pitched toward the Old School set), so I figured it was worth a gamble for a little less than a fiver.
Long story short - even for 4 bucks, I'm disappointed. At first I thought it might have been disconnect between the two games - maybe the first game was great and this one just was significantly less good for some reason. But nope, from everything I've seen online, the two games are almost identical and this one tends to get rated pretty highly. I guess it's just the appeal of the Viewtiful Joe formula itself that baffles me.
Viewtiful Joe is basically a revival of the classic arcade beat-em-up, a genre that we had some good fun with back in the day, but should really be left in the grave unless you have a REALLY compelling modern twist on it. Something like Dynasty Warriors, which had a great 3D update of the concept. Joe is a side-scrolling platformer, but it revolves around punching and kicking the shit out of enemies. And it takes place in a land called ... uh ... Cinemaland, so all of Joe's powers are basically based on an old VCR's controls. You can slow down time for more powerful punches (and making precision jumps), speed things up for rapid combos, etc. You also periodically solve puzzles that require manipulating the background of a screen using Joe's powers, usually to remove some obstacle blocking your path.
On the whole this is actually a pretty good concept, but what makes it fail is that the game seems to also be engineered to be as obnoxious as possible. Let's start with a brand new game and go through step-by-step to see what I mean by "obnoxious."
First of all, every new game puts you through literally nearly fifteen minutes of cinematics before you actually get to play. You can skip this with the Start button, so it's not that big of a deal, but it's indicative of a larger trend. Here is where you first get exposed to the game's sense of humor, which is rather lame and watered-down stock "quirky Japanese" stuff. Joe himself looks and acts like a douchebag American frat boy - why is he always sticking his tongue out of his mouth nastily? Was that explained in the first game? Anyway, apparently Joe had no partners in the first game but you could find hidden characters to switch out to ... in this one, there's no hidden characters, but Joe now has a permanent tag-team partner in Silvia, his girlfriend (who looks like something out of that old Bookworm Bitches site.)
Joe's powers also aren't all available at the beginning, but are trickled to you slowly as you progress through the first game world. This wouldn't be a big deal either, if the game didn't force you through a slow-mo, time-consuming "tutorial" for each one as you get it. They're pretty self-explanatory, so the tutorial is more than a little unnecessary and breaks up the pace of the game.
The deal with Joe and Silvia is that they punch and kick really rapidly, but their blows are pretty weak and it takes a shit ton of them to kill even a basic enemy. Plus, a lot of the enemies carry shields and such that totally negate your attacks. So, the deal is that you stand and wait for them to attack first - their attack is telegraphed a second early by a flashing skull - then dodge it to stun them and deal double damage while they are stunned. Dodging isn't too tough, but there's precious little margin for error as Joe and Silvia are both fragile as glass. They have five chili peppers representing health points, and the very first enemies you face take off two peppers per blow! In a beat-em-up, you're used to trading blows, so this was a little disconcerting at first and a lot more "perfectionist" than I expected. There's also a lot of environmental stuff that'll do damage to you as well, making loss of life a pretty frequent proposition. Later bosses are also fiendishly tough and like to deal out the cheap hits.
The levels also aren't totally contiguous - they're broken up into little sections where you usually kill off a handful of enemies, then you either have to do a Mega Man-esque jumping contest over environmental hazards, or you have to use the "VFX Powers" to solve a puzzle. The use of the powers to solve puzzles is often the very definition of arbitrary "dream logic" and can get really, really annoying. The game is also tied up in the Japanese obsession with "rating" everything - you get letter grades on every single little section of gameplay, which seemed like overkill to me.
The one point of the game that is done inarguably right is the cel-shaded graphical style. It really looks more like a graphic novel than keeping with the game's "cinema" theme, but oh well, it's really quite lovely in many areas, and the animation is fluid and detailed. I wish I could say the music and sound effects are on par with the graphics, but they aren't - they range from generic to annoying, upping yet again the obnoxiousness factor here. Especially the game's oft-repeated "Henshin A Go-Go" catch-phrase, which just baffles me as to how anyone thought it was cute, funny, or appealing in any possible way.
I don't know, man. The most positive spin I could put on all this is that the game is very "quirky", and it does have a fanbase that has taken to it pretty well. I think it's going to be a very hit-or-miss proposition, though. At least it's a cheap gamble if you pick it up used off the bargain bin.
* Gameplay Video