Submitted by: Retro Gamer
Viewtiful Joe was one of the Capcom Five, an initiative from the Japanese publisher that would bring five games exclusively to the Gamecube. Four would eventually make it, to commercially suicidal results – and Viewtiful Joe, from the mind of Devil May Cry creator and Resi 2 director Hideki Kamiya, was developed for the new hardware in 21 months (it was supposed to take 12). This was an experimental time for Capcom, and the game was also viewed internally as a kind of training exercise for a smaller team to improve its skills.
Initially dubbed Red Hot Man, with clear inspiration from both Japanese and American superhero archetypal comic book designs, Viewtiful Joe was shaped by two emerging early Noughties gaming trends: slow motion and cel-shaded design, yet these features were incorporated in an innovative, stunning fashion. The character of Joe wasn’t designed to be a cool guy – he was simply meant to be fun to play.
Kamiya explored the idea of focus-testing the title at one point, presenting it to a group of kids to gauge their interest, but the results turned him against the idea. “They were just trashing the game, so I just got pissed off and said I’m not changing anything,” he told 1UP in 2006. For the purposes of this feature, we approached director Kamiya on Twitter to ask how he’d describe the process of making Viewtiful Joe. His answer? “Viewtiful.”
Even by 2003, slow motion was considered a little passé in game design, since it had been rammed down our throats in a lot of third-person titles with little ingenuity. Viewtiful Joe combined the idea with a classic side-scrolling beat-’em-up. Hideki Kamiya’s favourite game of all-time is reportedly the original Castlevania on NES, and whether he was deliberately referencing that or not, Viewtiful Joe felt like a midway point between the classic Konami franchise and scrolling beat-’em-ups, with three key abilities that created a totally new vision of that genre.
Taking place within a film reel, Joe can slow time down, speed it up or zoom into the picture, each of which have different effects on the enemies and the level around you. In the case of slow motion, the most satisfying mechanic in Viewtiful Joe, you can boot missiles back at enemies or deliver a powerful beating, while navigating puzzles tailored around this skill, like reducing the speed of spinning fruit machines or dodging incoming deadly objects. It was a fresh take on an idea that most people were sick of – but it’s the rhythm of how all these concepts are put together that make Viewtiful Joe a masterpiece.
It’s a relatively short experience, really, with seven levels that absolutely zip by, yet each offers different ways to challenge the player’s strategy so that every last move counts. You learn that the language of Viewtiful Joe frequently requires a rethink of your tactics, with each boss battle designed with an almost Kojima-esque level of variety. None of the power-ups or moves in Viewtiful Joe offer an easy way out – they’re simply tools that have to be re-adapted to the changing nature of the levels. It never reduces to simple button-bashing, because, well, that simply doesn’t allow you to survive; the variety of level design is admirably diverse. The same thing is never waiting for you around the next corner, and due to the way the core abilities affect Joe’s opponents, you’re left with a good spread of powers to take them out in entertaining ways.
Climaxing with a Star Wars homage level, so jam-packed with attacking enemies and incoming gunfire that it recalls the later stages of a Cave shooter, Viewtiful Joe is familiar at its most basic level, yet is otherwise exploding with creativity across every department. It visually recalls French-style comic books, as well as Power Rangers-esque Japanese TV shows, but weaves countless influences together to create a world that feels like a tapestry of geeky pop culture – an unusual approach to visual design, sure, but one that manages to make Viewtiful Joe feel as graphically spectacular as its many inspirations.
Why It’s A Future Classic
If only Capcom still made them like this. This marks a smart balance of retro gameplay and 21st Century presentation, and the innovation of Viewtiful Joe comes where the line is drawn between the two. It’s a nostalgic beat-’em-up, but uses design touches that are very much of the present day.
The team behind Viewtiful Joe would go on to form Clover Studio, the symbol of Capcom’s early-mid Noughties design originality. The founding principles of that studio’s work can be seen in this game: taking the bare bones of a familiar genre and infusing them with a new, cooler identity, as well as throwing in ideas that revamp the way we think about playing. Viewtiful Joe still feels so new when you pick it up, and we don’t see that changing any time soon.