Where Did You Go, Viewtiful Joe?Games Features viewtiful joe
While COVID-19 has undeniably impacted release schedules for many bigger-budget games in recent years, a cursory look at Steam or other online distribution platforms shows we are in an era defined by a constant deluge of new stuff, a never-ending stream of titles which we can only take a small sample of. Since the rise of the indie gaming scene over the last decade and a half, developers have retrodden almost every gameplay paradigm imaginable, reviving dormant genres and blazing new trails. The rise of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter has created a wave of spiritual successors to beloved franchises, such as how Koji Igarashi reunited with other Castlevania alums to develop their own pseudo-sequel, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. And even if not directly associated with old-school devs, it feels like just about everything you can imagine has been revitalized or reconsidered, with all manner of Metroid homages, JRPGs, beat ‘em ups, shoot ‘em ups, and even Golden Eye-likes seeing modern incarnations. It feels like there are precious few rocks left unturned from gaming’s past. And then there’s Viewtiful Joe.
Released in 2003 for the GameCube, Viewtiful Joe was developed by a team of Capcom veterans who had previously worked on several of the company’s most high-profile outings. It was helmed by Hideki Kamiya, the director of Resident Evil 2 and Devil May Cry, who would go on to lead the Bayonetta series at PlatinumGames. The other two eventual founders of PlatinumGames, Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4) and Atsushi Inaba were producers on the project, with a host of programmers, sound designers, and artists who had worked on recent studio hits making up the rest of the internal Capcom unit “Team Viewtiful.”
Although there were traces of the company’s previous releases in the title, specifically in its links to character-action games like Devil May Cry, Capcom’s beloved brawler wasn’t quite like anything released before or since. You play as Joe, an incredibly annoying film nerd who gets sucked into the world of cinema. Heavily inspired by tokusatsu superhero fiction, our protagonist is transformed into a Kamen Rider-styled crimefighter and must work his way through a host of bad guys so he can fulfill the legacy of his mentor Captain Blue. The story is largely presented with a tongue-in-cheek affectation, reveling in genre antics like villains of the week, big robots, and spandexed vigilantism while also poking fun at its cliches. Its writing can be amusing, but its mechanics are where it stands alone.
Viewtiful Joe is a side-scrolling brawler and platformer that differentiates itself through novel filmmaking-themed abilities called “VFX Powers,” each allowing Joe to control Movieland’s reality. By holding the left trigger, you activate slow-motion, making it easier to dodge incoming attacks, strengthening your blows, and enabling impossible feats like redirecting bullets with a well-timed strike. Hitting the right trigger speeds up time, letting Joe move so fast that the screen fills with his afterimages. The last ability toggles close-ups, increasing his damage and granting access to new moves. On top of their combat capabilities, each mode is also used to solve environmental puzzles, like slowing down time so you can line up a slot machine or speeding things up so Joe’s punches ignite flammable substances. You can even mix and match two of these powers at once to capitalize on enemy vulnerabilities. While these maneuvers are essential to the flow of the experience, using them drains the VFX meter, and when empty, Joe reverts to his regular non-impressive form, taking increased damage and losing access to his reality-warping abilities. While the VFX bar refills quickly, much of the learning curve comes from managing this resource carefully to ensure you get the most out of these powers without overdoing it.
Although Viewtiful Joe is frequently categorized as a beat ‘em up, this descriptor doesn’t quite capture the experience. The most obvious disqualifying element is that while those titles let you move vertically, here you are restricted to an XY-plane like in other 2D platformers. And semantics aside, the experience feels fundamentally different because it encourages a different kind of defensive precision. For instance, in Final Fight offense is defense, and you’re incentivized to pre-emptively hit and grapple enemies to ensure the opposing thugs get in as few punches as possible. By contrast, in this title you want foes to take shots so you can turn the tables. Attacks are clearly labeled with warning icons that indicate a low or high swing. Highs can be ducked by hitting down on the right analog stick, while lows can be leaped over by hitting up. A successful dodge puts an enemy in a dizzy state, and if you hit them with a slow-motion blow while they’re off-balance, it sets up a beatdown session where every combatant in the vicinity becomes vulnerable to slow-mo strikes. This enables stylish combos where after ducking a wayward punch, you’ll tear through a screen full of robot henchmen, their metal frames letting out gratifying crunches as you send them colliding for massive damage. This emphasis on avoiding telegraphed attacks changes the cadence of gameplay compared to traditional beat ‘em ups, creating choreographed fistfights that evoke the flair of the kaijin-punching shows that inspired it.
Even almost 20 years after it was initially released, the core tenets of its combat feel fresh. The heavy tells on enemy attacks set up for tough but fair bouts, and the empowering film reel-bending abilities steal the show. Through these episodic adventures, you’ll redirect missiles to take down enemy fighter jets, rhythmically dodge onslaughts from special forces androids, and deal with a variety of tough bosses that are equal parts puzzle and execution test. While there are a few rough edges, like the brutal boss rush in the penultimate level or some of the grating writing, things hold up remarkably well. However, in some sense, this freshness isn’t exactly surprising, as nothing has come along to iterate on this particular style of experience and render its predecessors obsolete. These games represent an abandoned path of design, a rare well-received franchise that hasn’t seen any form of revival, formal or otherwise.
The lack of a legitimate sequel makes sense considering the studio that made it no longer exists. After its first entry, Team Viewtiful was spun out into Clover Studio, a semi-autonomous outfit meant to create new intellectual properties for Capcom. Viewtiful Joe hadn’t set the world on fire in terms of sales, but it did receive glowing reviews and enough buzz to justify further installments and a tie-in anime. From here, they expanded the series with Viewtiful Joe 2, a great sequel that introduced new playable characters and tightened some of the difficulty spikes from the original. It was a classic “more of the same” follow-up that came out only a year and a half after its predecessor, but its mechanics still felt distinct, and it retained the first game’s charm. After this, there were two ill-fated successors; Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble, a poorly received Smash Bros. clone, and Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble!, a passable return to form that was constrained by Nintendo DS hardware. These last two outings sold poorly, and the series was permanently shelved.
From here, Clover would release the critical darling Okami along with the cult-classic God Hand, both of which underperformed Capcom’s expectations, and so the company attempted to re-absorb the studio’s staff in 2007. In response, Kamiya, Mikami, and Inaba decided to strike out on their own, founding SEEDS, Inc., which would later come together with Tatsuya Minami’s ODD, Inc., to form PlatinumGames. All of this is to say it’s unsurprising we haven’t seen Viewtiful Joe 3, as Capcom still owns the license, and those who worked on it parted ways with the company more than 15 years ago after it didn’t sell enough for their studio to continue. Even though Kamiya has signaled he wants to “finish that trilogy” (the second entry ends on an unresolved cliffhanger), it still feels like a longshot.
The closure of Clover Studio fits in neatly with larger trends that took shape at the end of the PS2/GameCube/Xbox era. As games became more expensive, major publishers increasingly focused their resources on big hits instead of smaller, experimental titles. Viewtiful Joe was made in only 21 months by a team specifically interested in making something that was a “gamble.” As the industry became even more hit-driven, large publishers began to sideline these smaller to mid-sized outings that could get by with just a few hundred thousand sales to justify a sequel.
Considering the landscape of the modern game industry and the departure of its creatives from Capcom, it’s unsurprising we haven’t seen a sanctioned sequel. However, while the biggest publishers have closed the door on many styles of experience, the indie scene has brought back or reimagined just about everything else. In this context, I find it bizarre that no one has attempted to emulate these games’ appeal, whether that be their reality-manipulating VFX powers or the highly legible 2D combat that combined beat ‘em up and character action elements. While not every good idea needs to be revisited to the point of exasperation, it feels like more lessons should have been learned from Viewtiful Joe. Undoubtedly the folks at Team Viewtiful applied the knowledge gained from its development on future projects at PlatinumGames and elsewhere (for instance, there are more than a few aesthetic similarities between the series and the studio’s The Wonderful 101). However, I wish its deliberate combat system made its way to other 2D action titles, if nothing else, so others who are unlikely ever to pick up a GameCube controller could experience its thrills.
But maybe there is a silver lining here. On the selfish side, whenever I return to Viewtiful Joe in the future, it will likely retain its luster. Since nothing else has iterated on or improved its core design, it will remain a game out of time, not subject to the same wear as many of my other favorites I’m too afraid to return to. While this halcyon view isn’t completely accurate, as there were a few new things that annoyed me on my latest revisit such as elements of its writing and difficulty spikes, the center of the experience remained largely unvarnished. While my opinions on the game might continue to change as the years pass, there likely won’t be the same calamitous feeling that accompanies the realization that a beloved favorite has “aged poorly” because other games have successfully built on its ideas and surpassed it.
And thinking about things from a less myopic perspective, there is another optimistic way to look at the series. For a long time, whenever I thought about the unceremonious end of this franchise, I saw it as representative of a paradigm shift in the medium. I viewed the death of Clover and this series as part of a greater trend of homogenization in the AAA gaming space, as the large publishers buckled under the rising costs of improving graphical fidelity and creative impulses were subsumed by shareholders’ demands for endless fiscal growth. In this view, Viewtiful Joe was a swan song for an era when games were more interesting, risky, and varied.
However, while I still believe that big-budget franchises are risk-averse, thankfully, there is so much more to the gaming scene than those alone. As this year’s releases can attest, smaller-scale efforts are pushing boundaries, such as how Citizen Sleeper, Norco, Signalis, and more delivered outstanding narratives. While Tunic is deeply inspired by The Legend of Zelda, its puzzles and mysteries go deeper than just about anything else in recent memory, and others like Neon White combined disparate influences to create something unique. Sure, there are many recurring tropes and common styles at this scope as well, but I think it’s fair to say games are as varied now as they have ever been, in large part because there are simply more of them being made now than in the past. While Viewtiful Joe and the time of big-name publishers pushing out experimental titles may largely be over, its spirit of creativity, innovation, and novelty is still alive and well.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.