(Kyoryu) Brave New World
Tokusatsu hero shows, and the worldwide fandom surrounding them, have changed greatly over the past fifteen years. Beyond genre, beyond formula, beyond character archetypes, beyond even cinematography and direction, the greatest way that change has manifested is cross-pollination.
Super Sentai—in its original, unedited form—currently gets official DVD releases in the West. GARO went from a pet project known only to the hardcore, to a running franchise and a mainstay event for one of the biggest MMOs in the world. Kamen Rider has radically reinvented itself several times tonally, and Ultraman is finally getting significant amounts of love by way of behemoth streaming service Crunchyroll. Meanwhile, more and more properties are adopting the “live-action, special effects, animation-events-in-real-life” style, and/or homaging their roots left and right.
Yet, in the world of video games, despite source material that would make for great combat-driven and even narrative-driven titles (yes, there is far more to our beloved costumed flipkickers than just… well, flippy kicks) toku-inspired offerings remain surprisingly sparse. When you consider that Power Rangers is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and its Super Sentai parent has been going on for even longer, it’s not unfair to question why.
There have definitely been a few dozen or so licensed games over the decades—property holders will definitely milk their rights for all they’re worth—and a good chunk of them are actually quite fun. There have even been a few creations from Western shores. However, when it comes down to really asking players to feel what it’s like to both be a henshin hero, and direct a henshin hero saga (as opposed to slapping a license on a pre-made genre template), there are still only two choices.
One of those choices came out only a few years ago, and believe me, we’ll be getting to it. However, to laud that game’s praises, we must first go back to the other. Back to the game whose spirit still burns in the hearts of the people who experienced it upon its release. If you’re one of those people and are still reading this site, it might do you well to fire it up again and see just how savvy its creators were at capturing the formula we all love and know to watch. However, if you’re new to the concept of toku and video games meeting up, getting married, and having a baby, or if you’ve only played a couple of the licensed games up to this point, then do we have a treat in store for you today!
If you’re up for the challenge, of course.
This is Viewtiful Joe. Henshin-a-go-go, baby.
Behind the Movie(land)
“Well along[sic] time ago in the sixties and seventies there were a lot of costumed super hero shows in Japan, they were called sentai shows which I’m sure you have heard about if you’re a fan of anime and Japanese culture. Basically this is where Joe comes from, the nineteen sixties and seventies super hero shows but with a blend of your typical American comic book super hero as well so it’s a blending of both cultures.”
– Viewtiful Joe producer Atsushi Inaba, in an interview with GameBunker
In the early 2000s, Japanese video game developer and publisher Capcom announced the Capcom Five, a series of five games then exclusive to the Nintendo Gamecube (though this would change later on when the Sony PlayStation 2 became far and away the dominant games console of that generation). From Capcom’s talent would surface Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya, who would respectively take the reins as Viewtiful Joe’s producer and director. Under their leadership, Team Viewtiful was born, which would become the more-known Clover Studio later.
Several key members of this team would go on to form PlatinumGames, one of the greatest makers of action games since the aughts. If you’ve played epics like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, NieR: Automata or Vanquish, rest well knowing that they got their start here.
Viewtiful Joe released in 2003, which in hindsight just might have been the perfect year for it to drop. 2003 was, ironically, the year when two of the Big Three toku properties (known to Western fandom, at least) were all about subversion, with Bakuryuu Sentai Abaranger‘s fifth ranger being a Big Bad for 99% of his appearances, and nearly the entire cast of Kamen Rider Ryuki having spent an entire year trying to kill each other in a massive Battle Royale-style, uh, battle royale (with current-running Kamen Rider Faiz not being that much happier). Good shows they might have been, they also might not have been what you were looking for if you were into classic heroism.
Sometimes you have to ask yourself, “I wonder what Ultraman is doing today?”
(And then you find out he’s on hiatus.)
The story of Viewtiful Joe centers around the titular hero, Joe, as he attends a theater showing of an old movie series by the name of Captain Blue with his girlfriend, Silvia. Silvia wants to drape herself all over Joe in the otherwise empty theater, but Joe is a cinephile and isn’t having any of that. These movies are drenched in film grain, suggesting that they’re all totally Showa-era stuff with cheesy narration and all as Captain Blue fights for justice.
However, at the end of the movie, Captain Blue actually loses his battle, which allows his adversary to come out of the movie screen and kidnap Silvia. Joe is naturally mystified by this, but he quickly finds that he’s able to enter the movie screen as well, a la Last Action Hero, to save his girlfriend. It’s the most basic of hero motivations, and while in Current Year “save the kidnapped damsel” may be a bit played out, it does at least fit the model of a vintage hero film, and they do course-correct from the end of this game onward through the series.
Better yet: normally, in most games that opening would be the end of it, but in Viewtiful Joe the conceit is played with and stretched to its breaking point. The game’s narrator “sticks to the script” between stages, talking about Joe as a stalwart hero on a dangerous quest to save his beloved, while the entire time Joe himself just geeks out about being in his favorite toku movie and being a henshin hero in the first place. Heck, for the entire first half, his biggest worry is coming up with a heroic name to call himself. What does this all say about Joe himself as a character? We’ll let you be the judge.
At any rate, once inside the screen, he deals with a few low-level mooks of the evil syndicate known as the Jadow who aim to take over Movieland, before being confronted by the spirit of Captain Blue. After a short test of heroic prowess, Captain Blue gives him the V-Watch (basically a wrist morpher) and told to shout his transformation phrase: “Henshin A-Go-Go, Baby!”
A lot of people now know what that phrase means (and how it’s played for silliness here) in Current Year, but if you knew in 2003 and didn’t live in Japan? Consider yourself part of an elite club… retroactively, I suppose.
Movieland is a romp through several mini-worlds which homage several movie tropes (and movies, period), both Eastern and Western. A very interesting thing to note here is that, true to Inaba’s words, the game plays very much like a Japanese tokusatsu hero show on the micro level, but with an abundance of Western trappings on the macro level. Joe himself can henshin and Rider Kick, has a mentor and a Fated Rival(tm), and the special effects are abundant and customizable. However, he’ll use all of these abilities while traipsing through levels and fighting enemies which are blatant homages to Jaws and Star Wars, while the titles of each level reference Hollywood classics such as Some Like it Hot, Starship Troopers, and The Magnificent Seven.
For the new folks in the crowd, we’ll refrain from divulging full spoilers for a fifteen-year old game, but suffice to say that its climax shamelessly pulls in iconic plot tropes from both sides of the pond—one second your trusty Six Machine puts you in a classic mecha fight of enormous scale, the next it’s lifting twists straight from a certain intergalactic movie about a certain Empire.
Even the best stories need good characters to serve as their foundation—more so stories that straddle the line between parable and parody. Fortunately, Viewiful Joe has a small but memorable cast to call its own. It’s not about the quality, but quantity. (The quantity will come later in this series—hoo boy, will it.)
Joe: The Hero
The star of the show, Joe is your “typical” fanboy of classic movies, who wants to be just like their starring heroes. In this game, he gets his chance, and you’d better believe he milks it for all it’s worth. Get ready to milk it right along with him as you guide him on his quest to meet his favorite heroes, smack down his favorite villains, come up with a real hero name, and maybe save his girlfriend if he can find the time.
Silvia: The Main Squeeze
We kid, really: Joe’s sometimes bad at showing it, but he really does love Silvia, and from the end of this game onward, the two share a delightful rapport, with Joe being the Fun and Silvia being the Business.
When it comes to the first game, however, that rapport is MIA as Silvia is Dame-Barely-Appearing-In-This-Film. That said, she’s actually playable after finishing the game on Adults (the “Normal”) difficulty setting. How is this possible, you might ask? Let’s just say that Silvia and Joe might have more of a heroic streak in common than meets the eye…
She does, however, take double damage from hits, so she’s there for people looking for an extra challenge to go with that fabulous outfit. On the plus side of things, she gets her own storyline through the game!
Alastor: The ‘Eternal Rival’
Every hero’s gotta have one of these! Meet Blade Master Alastor, who may not be the big boss of Movieland, but who fears pretty much nobody else outside of said big boss. Sadly, you only fight him in a single chapter, but he still fulfills his role as “recurring rival boss” as you’re guaranteed to face off against him in all three games (plus one spinoff) in this series! Each battle against him increases in scale, which is quite an impressive feat considering the final game in this series to date is a portable title.
Alastor is playable upon beating V-Rated (“Hard”) difficulty in the game, once again with his own storyline.
TRIVIA ALERT for Capcom superfans: yes, this is indeed that Alastor, aka Dante’s lightning sword from the original Devil May Cry. In fact, if you play Viewtiful Joe on the Playstation 2, which allows you to play through the whole story as Dante himself, you’ll get some rather amusing twists on the plot when you reach Alastor in the game.
Captain Blue: Mentor From Beyond
Another classic staple of hero shows, Captain Blue is a hero who, you might say, was “betrayed and murdered” at the start of the movie—and we’ll say no more. It’s the spirit of Captain Blue who tests Joe in the early stages of the game and bestows upon him, and the player, the power of VFX.
And then you never. ever. ever see him again. Scout’s honor.
Captain Blue is playable after beating Ultra V-Rated (aka “Very Hard”) difficulty in the game.
Unleash the Power of VFX!
Over the course of the game you’ll have the chance to visit the Shop. Think of it as your star being sent to an acting coach—or in the toku world, sending your star to a crash course in stuntage. Here you can buy moves to complement the few that Joe already starts with—and everything in Joe’s repertoire, primary and potential, is able to wreak serious stylish havoc.
But the other cool and curious thing about the abilities in this game is that not all of them belong to Joe—at least, not in the meta sense. To put it another way, there are moves that Joe himself performs, and then there are actions the player takes as the director of the movie that Joe is in. Only by simultaneously taking advantage of Joe’s physical prowess and manipulating the movie itself can you hope to rescue Silvia.
Being The Director (VFX Powers)
Among other things, directing an action hero movie means choreographing the big action moments into satisfying set pieces for the audience. In Viewtiful Joe, VFX powers manipulate the universe, yielding different effects to those who inhabit it—in other words, you’re controlling how things look to the audience. The trick with VFX powers is that these also affect how the game plays.
Every single one of these powers is exactly what it says on the (film reel) tin, but their applications are myriad.
Slow slows down the action, which means all of the action. On the surface, this looks like a detriment—who wants to play the game more slowly? That’s when you throw a punch and realize you just hit the enemy like a truck, snapping their neck back or (if you just dodged one of their attacks) sending them flying across the screen.
Slow is the key to delivering big power hits in the game, as well as landing combos off multiple enemies. If you’re good with aiming your strikes, you can send enemies pinballing off the walls and off each other! Slow is also essential for bosses. Basically you want to be constantly Slowing down the action whenever you can for offense, shifting back to normal speed for maneuverability, then back into Slow for offense again.
Clock Up! Mach Speed allows you, the director, to repeal the laws of physics in the other direction from Slow. By speeding up the footage, Joe accelerates to superhuman speeds, enabling him to dispatch enemies as quickly as you can press buttons. This has two effects: the first is creating afterimages of himself (and more afterimages are purchasable in the shop), enabling Joe to hit multiple enemies at once, as well as background elements. The second is surrounding Joe with a fiery aura (because, you know, friction, right? Right?), which helps in combat as well as some puzzles.
Fun Fact: Using Mach Speed at the same time as Slow will allow Joe to “cheat” the laws of VFX a little, allowing him to move just a bit faster than everything else on the screen as opposed to the same speed. This little trick is key to getting big stylish combos with fireworks splaying everywhere.
The quirkiest yet deceptively most versatile of the VFX powers, Zoom In is built around taking all your other VFX powers and moves, and amping them up to eleven. The screen literally zooms in on Joe, spurring him on to bring out his absolute heroic best. Several moves will take on different, usually augmented forms when Zoom In is active, for even more power. Combine with Slow especially to turn Joe into an absolute wrecking machine.
Being The Actor (Joe’s Moves)
A director is nothing without actors to direct, or in this case heroes to work with. The name of the game isn’t Viewtiful Joe for nothing, and our titular hero comes equipped with a ton of rad hero moves.
A silly-looking but destructive weapon favored by some toku heroes of old, the Shocking Pink is… well, it’s a time-delayed bomb. Use Slow on it to give it a massive blast radius.
A staple weapon for heroes on both sides of the pond, the Voomerang is a large V-shaped boomerang that comes off of Joe’s V-symbol helmet. Spin it round to turn it into a dangerous star that smacks into enemies wherever they hide.
Who doesn’t love launching people skyward, and then smacking them before they have the chance to land for the most badass combo ever? Failing that, who doesn’t love those movies where two fated enemies meet each other for a midair melee battle? That’s what Air Joe is for—a rapid flurry of punches and kicks that goes faster the faster you press buttons. It’s able to dispatch enemies in short order without even having to activate Mach Speed.
Red Hot Kick
A Rider Kick by any other name is still just as stylish! At any time while airborne, Joe can angle himself into a beautiful downward 45-degree angled kick towards any target he wishes.
This move is great on its own, but it’s when combined with VFX powers that it gets really powerful. Adding Slow adds more impact and power, while adding Zoom to it turns Joe into a flaming conical spiral of death.
Now we’re talking style! If Joe at any point gets hit and knocked off his rocker, he can instantly flip back up the moment a single atom of him hits the ground, and launch himself back into the action. You’ve seen this sort of thing in kung-fu movies a bunch, and now it’s yours for the using (and abusing).
If Ukemi is style, then Viewtiful Forever is sheer flamboyance. Dodge an enemy attack while in Slow motion, and then Zoom In to make all of your complicated showmanship worth it as Joe strikes a pose, sparks fly across the screen, the audience cheers, and every enemy in the area gets smacked by an invisible force powered by sheer viewtifulness. It doesn’t get crazier than this, folks.
We Need Six Machine Power, Now!
Or does it? Late in the game, you’ll come across a fearsome, gigantic foe who will take things to a planetary scale! That’s when Six Machine, your trusty vehicle, morphs into a massive mecha to take them on. It’s everything you’re thinking and hoping.
When Plans Come Together
An action star is nothing without an audience, and a director is nothing without actors.
Joe’s physical abilities are of an active nature. They are his to use and to call on, so long as the player wills it. Were those abilities all he had on his side to progress through the game, he could likely save Silvia, but it would be an enormous task.
Enter the VFX powers, which are of a passive nature. They are environmental, and they act independently of Joe’s moves… again, at the command of the player. The player can click any of the required buttons to activate these powers, but enabling them does absolutely nothing by themselves.
Only when both Joe and VFX are used in tandem does Viewtiful Joe come to exist. The resulting powers and abilities mentioned above, when working in harmony, create a ballet of beauty and violence—which one might be indeed inclined to dub “viewtiful”.
And we, as toku fans, witness and appreciate that viewtifulness every week.
An excellent showcase of Slow, Mach Speed and Zoom In working together in harmony with stylish moves in real life. Pay special attention at the 6:00 mark.
That’s A Wrap!
Upon its release, Viewtiful Joe was both nostalgic and forward looking, and in 2018, it still retains both qualities. However, outside of its home territory, the homages woven into every facet of its creation were likely lost on most people, making it a pleasant surprise that it became a franchise solely based on its worth as a video game and its universal audiovisual appeal. However, dyed-in-the-wool toku fans, new and old alike, would do well to take another look at this title. This far in the future, you’ll undoubtedly find something new to appreciate.
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