Viewtiful Joe + touch-screen controls = bad decision.
Looking back at the GC library, I fondly remember the original Viewtiful Joe. With its unique comic-book art style, deep fighting mechanics, and insane levels of challenge, it manages to be retro in a modern kind of way. The mix of fighting and puzzle-solving are perfectly balanced, and the sequences are intercut with some genuinely memorable cut-scenes that feature lots of humorous characters and cheesy catch-phrases. The end result is a game that truly stands out from the crowd.
Two years later, Viewtiful Joe is now a series entering the portable market. Subtitled Double Trouble, the latest instalment shares the look of its forefather but is also marked by some pretty unwelcome differences. These differences aren’t caused by the relatively limited horsepower of the DS, but rather by some really poor design choices made by the developer.
The first radical change is the implementation of touch-screen controls, which are linked to Joe’s new super powers. One of them is activated by drawing a vertical line. This action will switch the displays of the two screens. In Double Trouble, Joe’s battles normally take place on the bottom screen, and his actions are then duplicated in a zoomed-in view on the top screen. When the displays are switched, though, Joe’s attack power becomes stronger, and simpler enemies can be killed instantly by “scratching” them. You can also use the touch-screen to draw a horizontal line to split the screen in half. This power enables Joe to interact with both parts of this altered environment. Finally, holding R will make Joe hover in mid-air, unable to move. In this state, you can directly interact with objects on the screen by touching them.
These new features are quite imaginative and sound interesting on paper, but in practice, they severely detract from the gameplay experience. Having to juggle among the D-Pad, the face buttons, the shoulder triggers, and the touch screen is not only cumbersome, it’s also uncomfortable. This is especially true when you need to quickly combine several methods of input. For example, you sometimes have to split the screen in half and then quickly perform an uppercut. This process is neither easy nor intuitive, as it takes too much time to move your finger to and from the touch-screen. What’s more, the game has trouble recognising your touch commands. The screen might “split” when you actually want it to “switch” etc. This problem can be mitigated by using the stylus, but the process of grabbing it and putting it away again is even more time-consuming and clumsy. Overall, the fact that the controls rely so much on the touch-screen is a real shame. The game would have benefited immensely from an all-out traditional control scheme. This fact is particularly evident when using the classic “slow” ability and combining it with a flurry of kicks and punches. These actions are performed quickly and seamlessly – almost as if they were one action - and the results seen on screen are precisely what you expect them to be.
Another design flaw is the heavy emphasis on mindless puzzle-solving. Actually, Double Trouble resembles a puzzle game more so than an actual 2D side-scrolling beat’em-up. You’re presented with six levels, which are broken into several minor sequences. Nearly all of them require you to solve a puzzle in order to proceed. Most solutions are bound to Viewtiful Joe’s special powers. A platform might be too far away and must be moved closer using the “split” command, or a beam of electricity has to be disabled by turning a slider to the “off” position. The big problem with most puzzles is that the solutions are written with giant letters over the important objects explicitly telling you what to do. Even giant red buttons have “T.O.U.C.H.” written over them, and “S.C.R.A.T.C.H.” tells you exactly where to use the “scratch” command, and so forth. What’s more, each sequence is introduced by a sweeping camera movement that reveals where you must focus your attention. Obviously, you won’t get much satisfaction from solving these puzzles, since they require a minimum of effort. The solution given is usually the only one available, which leaves little room for creativity. Had the puzzles required actual thought and contemplation and awarded players who came up with creative solutions, this emphasis on puzzle-solving might actually have been an interesting new direction for the series. Instead, it just serves to remove much of the gameplay depth found in previous instalments.
More emphasis on puzzle-solving obviously means less emphasis on fighting. The most enjoyable moments in the original Viewtiful Joe took place when you were surrounded by a bunch of enemies and managed to line them up for massive damage by stringing together crazy combos. These moments happen far too rarely in Double Trouble due to its focus on puzzles. You’ll hardly ever fight against more than two enemies at a time. What’s more, these enemies tend to be surprisingly feeble. They are so slow that many of their attacks can be avoided easily even without using the slow-motion ability. Even the bosses have lost much of their toughness, as many can be beaten on your first try. There is, overall, a distinct lack of challenge in Double Trouble, which is surprising, considering the game’s heritage.
Fortunately, Double Trouble does have some positive aspects which prevent it from being a colossal disappointment. The graphics are almost indistinguishable from the GameCube instalments, which is impressive. Despite the 2D nature of the game, there is a great sense of depth to the environments. They appear to consist of several layers, which fits the comic-book style well. There is also a nice amount of variation in terms of the areas you visit. They range from busy neon-lit streets to gloomy caves and even inside a giant mansion. The mansion level is clearly a reference to the Resident Evil series, which is evident by the scary music and the zombie-like monsters roaming about. You even get to fight against vicious dogs that suddenly jump through a window. The humour and self-irony have always been key elements in the Viewtiful Joe series, and Double Trouble is no exception.
The shop in which you can buy new abilities has, thankfully, also returned. This implementation makes for some interesting decisions about which abilities to buy first. It also rewards the act of fighting “viewtifully” and generally makes the latter levels slightly more enjoyable, as you have more actions at your disposal.
The latter levels also feature slightly more challenging foes, such as knife-juggling clowns and gun-equipped robots that require you to slow down time and punch their bullets back at them. These gameplay moments of pure unadulterated action, in which the clumsy touch-screen controls are unused, clearly stand out as the most fun in Double Trouble. They give you a glimpse of what the game could have been, had the developers not felt such strong desire to take advantage of the special features of the DS.
Ultimately, that desire is the main reason why Double Trouble must be considered to be a disappointing addition to the series. The touch-screen controls interrupt the flow of the action and lead to plenty of frustration. Furthermore, the puzzles are too simple, the challenge too lacking, and the overall length too short. The game certainly has some high production values, as the graphics show. The look matches its GameCube predecessors, which is an impressive feat by any means. Unfortunately, good visuals aren’t enough. Double Trouble favours style over substance instead of focusing on both aspects, like the original Viewtiful Joe did so well.