The early 2000s were something of a creative renaissance for gaming, with multiple brand new IPs standing tall alongside well-established franchises. It’s weird to think of how few new IPs have cropped up in the past few generations of gaming, at least from major studios. It kind of makes sense; video game development is more expensive than ever before, which means that major studios will usually go with the safer investment. It’s why there are 23 games bearing the Assassin’s Creed name. And while games look better than they ever have, I think there’s something to be said for the games of yesteryear, where lower development costs meant developers were encouraged to take more creative risks. Enter Viewtiful Joe, a long-dormant franchise that deserves some kind of comeback.
Harkening back to the era of 2D beat-em-ups, Viewtiful Joe sees players controlling, well, Joe, a movie lover who is sucked into the screen to rescue his girlfriend Sylvia from the clutches of an unknown evil while they’re at the theater one day. He adores Captain Blue, a superhero who has been a part of movie history for decades, and he is bestowed with the V Watch by the said hero. The V Watch allows him to transform into a red-hot superhero persona by yelling, “Henshin a-go-go, baby!” From there, he gains different powers referred to as “VFX”, which allow him to do things like slow time down, speed himself up, or zoom in on himself to perform special attacks.
If it isn’t already apparent, the game revels in its sheer creative energy and devil may care attitude. Nothing is taken too seriously, but that allows for the characters to really show off their larger than life attitudes. Joe himself is a wonderful hero, with a can-do attitude and plenty of cool moves and one-liners. Captain Blue takes on an almost mythic air during his various appearances throughout the game. The bosses, which are among the game’s highlights, all have ludicrous personalities, including Alastor, Joe’s arch rival who is basically a walking Devil May Cry reference. It helps that the visuals have aged well; the game employs a cel-shaded art style that gives it the appearance of a comic book in motion.
Like many games by Capcom from this time, the overall whimsical attitude betrays the hidden depths the game offers. The game uses a simple side-scrolling beat-’em-up style that combines with the aforementioned VFX powers to give players a real challenge. Each enemy has a specific attack pattern for players to exploit, and successfully dodging certain attacks leave them dizzy, which opens them up for a combo using your powers. If you slow time down and attack a dizzy enemy, they’ll be launched across the screen, and from there, any enemy you hit will also be sent flying and give you Juice, which will refill a small part of your VFX bar. The game favors an aggressive but smart play style, where the visuals look like pure chaos, but the player is in complete control of what’s happening on screen.
The game is old school as can be, sometimes to a fault. Racking up combos feels great, with terrific sound effects really emphasizing every punch and kick as your enemies fly through the air like they’re made of tissue paper, but that doesn’t mean the game is easy. Even on the lowest difficulty, this game gives players a stiff challenge, particularly in its boss fights, which are just that—boss fights in the oldest sense of the phrase. Apart from the phenomenal character design, each one offers players a unique challenge to go up against. For instance, the second boss, Hulk Davidson, is a rhino biker that will throw his axe around the room and charge at the player if given the chance. Some of his attacks do more than one point of damage if they connect, meaning that players have to remain on their toes and learn his pattern in order to get past him. Your limited lives also mean that failure sends you back to the last save point, which can feel punishing at times.
At the time, it was a game that felt wholly unique. It used old ideas and put unique twists on them and also delivered the start of what felt like a promising new franchise. Its sequel, Viewtiful Joe 2, was arguably just as good as the first game, refining different elements, adding in Sylvia as a playable character, and also giving players a challenge mode that would significantly extend play time. I’m assuming that game sold well, too, as we got two more games in the franchise, the DS exclusive and decent- enough Viewtiful Joe Double Trouble and the odd Smash Bros knockoff Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble, which saw players controlling a whole host of characters from the games and the (at the time) still airing anime.
As a kid, these last two entries didn’t really capture the magic of the first two but were enjoyable enough, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20, and with Red Hot Rumble it became clear that the series was simply not lucrative enough to continue. In the West, the game came with a coupon for a free burger at Johnny Rocket’s, and the game was simply lousy with advertisements for the restaurant chain. There were billboards in the background, and certain story scenes showed characters eating burgers with their logo plastered on the packaging. It was simply bizarre but was a sign of clear financial trouble. I don’t know about you, but until the game came out, I hadn’t even heard of the chain, and since then I’ve never been. Point being, it wasn’t exactly a set up for success.
The series celebrated movies, with each game packing in more references than I can count. It’s ironic, then, that the franchise went so quickly the way that movie franchises do. Each new entry brought about diminishing returns, with none of them measuring up to players’ expectations. On the one hand, I appreciate that the latter two games branched out and tried to mix the formula up a bit. On the other hand, neither were as good as the first two games, with Double Trouble being extremely short with little replay value, and Red Hot Rumble having serious balancing issues, as well as chaotic gameplay.
That being said, I think now is as good a time as ever for Capcom to attempt a resurrection. Soft reboots are all the rage these days, with some being better than others. I remember back in 2013 hoping that Capcom would do something for the first game’s tenth anniversary. My hopes were squashed, as nothing came of it. 2023 will mark 20 years since the first game’s release, and I am once again hoping that Capcom decides to give fans something. At this point, I’ll settle for a rerelease of the original, or, better yet, the first two games. Maybe add more checkpoints in the original game (including the hard as nails boss rush level) and add unlockable characters to the second game (fun fact: beating the first game on different difficulties would unlock new characters, each a unique twist on Joe’s standard playstyle; to this day, Viewtiful Joe is the only game that I’ve beaten on the hardest difficulty due to these cool characters).
Joe himself has appeared in a few fighting games since his franchise went under, which means that somebody at Capcom still has an appreciation for him. Franchise mastermind, Platinum Games founder, and all-round uber-Viewtiful guy Hideki Kamiya has expressed interesting in developing a full, proper third game in the franchise. Exploring the internet, it seems that many people still hold the games in high regard. I can’t imagine that developing a cel-shaded beat-’em-up in 2020 would be a terribly expensive endeavor, which means that Capcom wouldn’t need to sell a vast amount of units in order to turn a profit. Movies, and pop culture in general, have made a habit of celebrating what’s come before in the form of soft reboots. Considering that the whole franchise is based off a love of cinema and gaming in equal measure, it seems to me that a comeback would work out well. Unfortunately, I’m not a time traveler, which means that I have no way of knowing if Capcom will do anything for the franchise by 2023, but to me, it’s too creative and energetic not to bring back at least one more time. Oh well. A guy can dream.
In the meantime, friends, stay Viewtiful. Henshin a-go-go, baby!