The Viewtiful Joe series is one of my personal favourites. For me and the rest of its cult following, VJ was like a breath of fresh air amongst all the intoxicating chav-fuelled racers and urban-themed shooters. The Nintendo DS is also fast becoming one of my favourite gaming platforms. The simple interface makes it easy to pick up and play nearly any title. So surely a system that is simple to play and a game series that is essentially a no-fuss beat 'em-up would be a perfect match, right?
The answer is neither yes nor no. Rather it's somewhere in between.
The story is still the usual tongue-in-cheek, silly plot we've come to expect: Captain Blue (Joe's childhood superhero) is busy shooting his next blockbuster film, when all of a sudden the evil powers that be attack and steal the film reel. Thus begins their diabolical plan to rob all the world's heroes of their heroicness. It's up to Joe to don his pink cape and Power Ranger-like outfit and hunt down the bad guys in both the movie and real worlds (think The Matrix). While it's all very pantomime, it's what helps make Viewtiful Joe what it is: mindless, "popcorn" fun. Along the way we're treated to all the usual B-list cheese and slideshow presentation, as well as the expected movie/game references. This time, Freddy vs. Jason, Robocop, Power Rangers, Godzilla, and, almost inevitably, Resident Evil are the butt of good-natured parodies.
The DS incarnation does retain many of its console counterparts' features and the cel-shaded graphics are a true delight, but no longer can they be considered novel; everything has a sort of "been there, done that" dull sheen. And though Clover Studio could have easily brought the same gameplay found in the GameCube and PS2 versions to the DS, which would have added to the "been there" feeling, they decided against this and made a genuine attempt at producing something new and exciting with the touch screen. Unfortunately its implementation is awkward and has clearly been forced on.
For the uninitiated, Joe had three special VFX powers: Slow, Mach Speed, and Zoom. The latter allowed Joe to zoom in on himself and deal major damage to his robotic foes. For the DS though, only Slow has been retained; the others were replaced in favour of Split, Slide, Scratch, and Touch.
Joe uses all of these abilities to navigate the six chapters which have been cleverly divided into short levels thanks to a smart usage of savepoints; this is after all a handheld game, where brevity is king. But here represents the second big change: the shift from a combat-heavy action title to one more streamlined and focused on puzzle-solving.
Mach Speed, a VFX power that allowed you to speed up proceedings and execute lightning-quick moves, is cruelly missing. In its place, Scratch: a pointless feature that demands you to scratch the bottom screen frantically to destroy debris and enemies. Not only is Scratch gimmicky, but also, like the other new abilities, awkward. Having to continuously pause the action to ready your stylus while at the same time avoid being attacked by the respawning robots and monitoring how much juice you have left in your VFX meter can make proceedings seem like a chore. Slide on the other hand is infinitely more useful; you now have the ability to swap the top and bottom screens in order to solve puzzles... and destroy enemies. This then allows you to perform Touch... where all you do is stab at the highlighted section of the screen to solve even more puzzles. Again, however, this can be just as clumsy as Scratch, and can test the patience of even the most skilled gamer. Split is similar to Slide in both its use and difficulty to execute; instead of dividing the screen horizontally, Split does it vertically. While the abilities are genuinely innovative, I'd still much rather have the original VFX powers at my disposal -- rather than ones which made me yearn for a third hand.
While this is by no means a travesty, it isn't the handheld experience we Viewtiful Joe fans had hoped for. The VJ series has always been about skilfully navigating fast-paced action; Clover's departure from this is not only clumsy, but seems to imply that they didn't grasp what made Joe a cult hit in the first place.
8 May 2006