07 June 2017

Viewtiful Joe | Revealing underlying talent - or exposing lack thereof?

Creative minds rarely start as they are now, only having gotten this far through hard work and an environment that allowed growth and experimentation. Itagaki from Ninja Gaiden fame had years to grow as a director, gain experience and preference - to find his style. Hideki Kamiya, the man of the hour in this piece, had no such environment. After his stint as system planner in the original Resident Evil he became director of the series moving forward with its sequel Resident Evil 2 and the later re-imaging of the franchise with Resident Evil 4. Yet during 4’s development Kamiya started to show his teeth as a creative element and as a result went a bit to far, leading to the change of Resident Evil 4 into Devil May Cry; a subject we’ll no doubt cover in later articles. But what’s important to note here is that Kamiya always had to focus on existing franchises and to build them further ahead, yet with Devil May Cry he proved he could create new material just as well if not better. As a result Capcom’s Production Studio 4, of which Kamiya was a member, started what would be known as “staff-focused projects”. These aimed to increase the skills and expertise of Capcom's staff but most importantly Kamiya himself. Born out of this came his first real own game.

"Viewtiful Joe" 

Style is the first word that is brought to mind when looking at Viewtiful Joe. Using graphics which mix rough outlines with strong shadows from comicbooks and character designs of a manga, intermixed with creature- and costumes designs from 80’s superhero shows like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai - Viewtiful Joe is quite the visual bombardment. All stages as a result have a theme and enemies that really pop out of the background thanks to their strong outlining. This element of the game is important as it is inherently Kamiya, who has led his past experiences within gaming and other media inspire him.
It’s always easy for me to get too wrapped up in my own world and tastes when creating a game,” 
 Hideki Kamiya
The more gothic style was prevalent throughout Devil May Cry and formed the basis for all elements within and the same is happening with Viewtiful Joe - story, gameplay and otherwise are built around its style. The first one being the actual platform it was made for. With the colorful designs and emphasis on comic-book and movie mythology the Gamecube was quickly selected, resulting in Viewtiful Joe being the first in line for the then planned Capcom Five (described more in depth in our P.N.03 article); a gaming launch of five exclusive titles for the Gamecube.
When looking at Viewtiful Joe and comparing it to his previous work it may seem a tad too similar, hinting that he played it safe for this project. Yet, the further one delves into Viewtiful Joe the more it will show that it is a game born from Kamiya’s desire to create something new within that which he loves; action games. The combat of Viewtiful Joe takes place on a 2d plane which immediately makes the game different than the director’s previous work. Outside of the regular double jump, kick and punch the game’s combat style is based around movie-editing techniques such as Slow-mo, Fast forward and Zoom-in; each providing a certain benefit for protagonist and superhero Joe. While he originally only possesses the basic array of punches and kicks these special effects change the combat formula completely. Using Slow-mo slows the game down but has other effects as well: enemies that are flying will fall down to the ground as their engines are slowed down, explosions become bigger, you deal more damage and more. Fast forward has the reverse effect speeding the game up and making you produce after-images while attacking. Zoom-in is an entity all on its own, greatly increasing damage done at the sacrifice of seeing less of the battlefield.
When used separately these would be nothing more than gimmicks, but as they can be combined the player will find themselves constantly switching back and forth. Slow-mo to approach the enemy, add in some Zoom to really dish out the pain and then fast-forward to the next enemy; the player becoming an action game director. At the center of all these mechanics is the VFX (visual effects) reel, which drains when these abilities are used. In a twist the collectibles each stage are small reels which, when 50 are collected, increase the bar by a set amount. Yet these are reset after each mission which essentially starts Joe all over again each mission. This urges new players to explore the stages each time as it will make them more powerful, but confident players can rush ahead as they don’t need the extra VFX reel to succeed. It also prevents the player from becoming too powerful for the designer to balance around, instead Joe can only have a certain amount of VFX reel at certain moments in the game with only a minor difference in ability being present between those who collected all and those who neglected to explore.
The actual fighting in Viewtiful Joe revolves around timed dodges and taken momentum away from the opponents. Enemies can attack high or low, pressing up will dodge low attacks and vice versa. Later-on in the game some enemies will move past this mechanic and have un-dodgeable moves that need to be jumped over or one can use Slow-mo during which Joe will automatically dodge any move at the cost of VFX meter. Performing a timed dodge opens up an enemy’s weakness allowing Joe to punch them in certain direction - effectively turning enemies into projectiles.


At its finest moments Viewtiful Joe’s combat has Joe dodge at high speeds, punishes enemies with Zoom-in Slow-mo, runs to the next foe with Fast-forward, quickly turns around to punch a bullet back in Slow-mo to cripple that one unsuspecting enemy and finish the last one off an uppercut - sending him flying into the sky only to hit that last chopper out of the sky. Truly a Viewtiful sight to behold.

This is a stark contrast to Kamiya’s previous work where characters had a core set of offensive abilities with more powerful moves being used as a supplementary; here the regular attacks are a fall-back with all the offensive coming from the special moves. As such the combat is an outright reversal of Kamiya’s previous work - at least within the same genre. This is extended in the way V-points are given - which determine your final score. These work via a multiplier when a VFX is activated, increasing the longer it is used. Instead of promoting the constant switching between VFX one one enemy it punishes it, demanding dedication. It is also this emphasis on VFX combinations that makes the game’s combat what it is: one about meter-management paired with efficiency and positioning - again contrasting his previous work. Every battle one is constantly eyeing their meter, pushing it further and further to the brink to deal as much damage as possible and as a result gain V-points. Positioning plays a side-role in this as the player will constantly be gauging their range to the foes so that, should they run out of VFX, they’ll be in a safe spot so it can regenerate. Lastly, 'efficiency' completes the triangle of Kamiya’s design; urging players not to waste meter on being stylish but to spend each blow well and timed perfectly. All in all the game is a full 180 degree turn from Devil May Cry which emphasized using all your tools all the time and where showing off was the key design philosophy.
This system is slightly hampered by balancing issues as once Zoom-in is unlocked, it - when paired with Slow-mo - becomes the most powerful attack combination in the game as it makes you safe due to the dodge capabilities of Slow-mo while also combining the damage bonuses gained from both Zoom-in and Slow-mo. While the move is visually appealing with strong sound effects, it can get a bit repetitive.
Thankfully enemies are varied, offering a good combination of foes without falling down the trap of delivering annoying to fight foes. While the game starts with normal Bianky type enemies, which attack slowly, it will later ramp up difficulty with enemies like Bianky Primas that conceal their attack direction via spinning rapidly to Cromartys which fill the end of the game with their hard to read punches and constant movement. Again though Zoom-in Slow-mo is the way to go, being almost a requirement in later sections of the game against enemies like Gelby with their high health pool.
By design enemies can be distinguished in two types, those that put you on the offensive and those that make you play defensive. Some like the Cromartys and Biankys don’t move as much and don’t get a chance to start an offense of their own when pressured. But Gelby are more classical enemies, nearly immune to pain unless their attack is dodged and then punished from behind. Once these enemies are mixed together the encounters can have a very dynamic feeling to them with the player constantly switching between an offensive and defensive play-style. Bosses mix this together as they promote a combination of all the different styles of combat and VFX’s. Bosses like Hulk Davidson urge you to use Slow-mo to dodge his overhead attack while Fast Forward will help douse you if you are on fire. On the other side Charles The Third and The Omnipotent are more vulnerable to bought items and Another Joe and Alastor are fights more based around positioning and pressure; each element of the game is put to use across these encounters. This is further highlighted when they all have to be faced in a row near the end without checkpoints, testing the player to his very limits. This is a mechanic
Kamiya is known for throughout his games and it is one deeply versed in his design philosophy that bosses are just normal enemies but more complex in their move-set and mechanics.
The combat extends further in subsequent playthroughs where enemy setups are remixed to balance around a more powerful Joe who now has all his abilities and to challenge the player further. New characters can also be unlocked each being a remix of Joe, some have more speed but less damage output and health while others remix the VFX system to provide a fresh experience. As a whole Viewtiful Joe really shows the experimental roots of Kamiya. Given the opportunity to create a new game that is unrestricted by prequels or former design documents, it is refreshing to see him make something new instead of sticking to something familiar - albeit be it in his preferred genre of design. This is even more evident when Viewtiful Joe is compared to its competitors of the generation, Ninja Gaiden Black and the later Devil May Cry 3. While each boasted its own style of combat and had a different emphasis, Viewtiful Joe really falls outside of the spectrum often being forgotten to even be mentioned next to those two names even though it fully deserves it. Thus as a project that served to have Kamiya grow as a game designer and director, Viewtiful Joe is very successful and would lead to him creating many more new games and series as a result. But outside of growth it also gave us one of the more unknown pillars of the genre, forever holding it steady from the cell-shaded shadows.



opinion style

In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.
Viewtiful Joe was a game I always wanted to play, but never got a chance to until a friend saw it in a store and bought it to me. I remember getting the text “I bought Viewtiful Joe for you, you owe me 20 euros” - I was ecstatic due to the rarity of the game here in my home country. And then I played it and was disappointed. As with Devil May Cry before it and God of War, I simply expected a Ninja Gaiden style game that played like that but was instead greeted by a whole new beast. It went on to be one of the few games in my household (the other being The Smurfs for the Gameboy - more on that some other time) that was not completed even once as I got stuck on the repeat boss section; where you have to beat all main bosses in a row without continues. I slammed the game, tried contacting an old friend named Gen2000 for tips but eventually dropped the game. It wasn’t until recently when I started Stinger that I decided to give the game another try and fell in love with it immediately. Certain gameplay aspects really have to click like the usage of enemies as projectiles and the constant meter-management. Something I just didn’t do back then.
As it stands now it is an action title I pick up regularly now as it is extremely easy to pick up and play and, due to its short nature, invites you to replay it often for new unlocks or challenges. An element I love in these games as evident with my love for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Vanquish. Now my question remains though: how is the sequel?

postscript notes

  • This is the first main article on Stinger that is made in HTML - others were styled in Google Docs which...lead to the sometimes strange layouts.
  • Due to the Youtube-channel being launched and arranging interviews for Stinger Magazine this article had suffered many delays, apologies for that.
  • It was generally really hard to find any information on Viewtiful Joe - in most interviews Kamiya simply gets a quick question about the game with the rest revolving around Okami, Scalebound or The Wonderful 101.
sources



Release-date:  June 26, 2003 |  Director: Hideki Kamiya| Producer: Atsushi Inaba| Platform: Gamecube (played), Playstation 2

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