I'm still trying to figure out why I'm playing No More Heroes 2. I loved the first game, which wrapped every bizarre idea that Suda 51 has ever had in gleefully hideous, plush-velvet-and-8-bit upholstery. It was gaming's Grindhouse, all poor taste and subversion. Either the joke's wearing thin, or that's just not working anymore for the sequel.
The plot, for example, is more complicated but says less. It throws in two extra playable characters, one of whom gets only one (short, uninteresting) boss fight and neither of which is terribly interesting. It involves revenge for the death of a character that nobody remembers or cares about. Then it wraps all of the above in a series of flashbacks by some kind of stripper, the details of which are apparently supposed to be a big mystery, but who never really says anything that couldn't have been better summarized or left implicit. There's a lot going on here--and none of it hangs together particularly well. Possibly because it's actually trying too hard: attempting internal consistency asks a lot of an audience when the material is this dumb. It comes across as more unfocused than lovably eclectic.
The new game promises you a lot of fights by starting you at assassin rank 50 instead of 11, but then it cheats by jumping multiple ranks--sometimes lots of them--after a boss. The least interesting boss from the first game was probably Bad Girl, a filthy pop idol who batted bondage slaves at you from a conveyer belt. Few, if any of the new assassins manage to be so amusing, almost none of them have the elaborate setups that were the best part of NMH, and most of them (particularly the Resident Evil-ish Matt Helms and Metal Gear Solid parody Chloe Walsh) fail to rise above their obvious inspiration. Indeed, the parody settings themselves are half-hearted at best, although the bit where the stealth level almost immediately abandons sneaking in favor of killing everybody is a nice meta touch.
They kept the combat system, which is still very good and probably the main reason that I've stuck with it. They eliminated the overworld driving and replaced it with a static map, which would be fine, but then it's like they needed to do something with the old motorcycle code, so there's a couple of completely pointless driving segments (literally pointless--you can't fail them, and they don't have any enemies or challenges, just driving on a gently-curving road). Oh, and there's a gratuitous cameo by Takashi Miike for the hardcore, which is the kind of special feature I can get behind. I wish they'd pitched that in big letters on the box, just to confuse the average Best Buy shopper.
What I miss the most, oddly enough, are the phone conversations from the first NMH. Before each boss fight, assassination promoter Sylvia would call you on your cell phone, which you'd answer by pressing one of the wiimote buttons. Then you'd physically hold the thing to your ear while Travis did the same onscreen with his phone, both of you looking pretty stupid, and listen to an increasingly abusive, sociopathic, and demoralizing series of rants on the boss and your pitiful chances against it. Each ended with a plea to "trust your force, and head... for the Garden... of Madness!" Like so much of the game, they seemed mainly to exist just because the developer thought they'd be fun. But they also served to reinforce the game's driving dynamic: weird, immature nerd Travis chasing his way up the assassin rankings in order to impress a girl who is not only way out of his league, but also completely nuts.
Well, honestly, the whole game was nuts. And I can't decide if my problem with No More Heroes 2 is that it's not crazy enough, or I'm now acclimated to the crazy and the seams are showing through. But I suspect it's the former. For all their flaws, I always figured that part of the fun of games by Suda 51 was that they were one-offs by a disturbed auteur, without a lot of pressure to be successful in the market. Maybe that's why his first real sequel comes across as forced. And while mechanically, it's still one of his better games, I didn't really buy it for the mechanics. There are relatively few people who can still make a video game as outright odd as Killer 7 or the first No More Heroes. It'd be a shame for that to get lost in the rush to a franchise.
No More Heroes is weird. And that is the understatement of 2008 thus far. But I love it, for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, NMH almost exactly walks the fine line between the completist impulse and the time-budget of adult gamers. For example, there are basketballs hidden all over the game, which (when you take them to an abusive Russian drunk) grant special abilities inspired by the assassin team from Killer 7. There are 49 of these balls hidden around the overworld map. This sounds like the kind of thing that normally drives me nuts: the need to compulsively collect a bunch of random junk in order to be rewarded.
But it turns out that there's a cheap gadget that you can buy from Naomi, the beam-katana engineer, which makes all hidden items appear on the map. And once you've got it, collecting all the basketballs takes only about an hour, if that. So you still get the warm feeling of having gotten all the stupid secret options, without all the wasted time.
A lot of NMH does exactly this: it cons you into thinking that you're doing a lot more work than you're actually doing. The trappings of the visual design evoke 8-bit games, but more than that Grasshopper shows a keen insight into gaming conventions. It's not at all afraid to parody them--the entire overworld map is definitely a joke at the expense of GTA, but it's not the quicksand that many have made it out to be: once you realize that the motorcycle boost (triggered by the Z button) is completely recharged by powersliding (tilt the wiimote and press B), the city takes practically no time to navigate at all.
Now I am one of the few people who seem to have played significant chunks of Killer7, Grasshopper's previous console title, and actually enjoyed some of it. I enjoyed it more in abstract--the convoluted story fascinated me in a Twin Peaks kind of way, but the actual gameplay was just actively hostile to players, in part because at base level it relied on overused puzzle tasks for its challenge. Likewise, I tried to play Contact on DS, but it's basically a weird little RPG wrapped around incredibly boring MMO-style grinding. No thanks. No More Heroes does what neither of these games managed to do: underneath the weirdness and the self-referentiality, it's still fun to play. The wiimote slash, for example, starts off feeling gratuitous, but actually adds a visceral bit of activity to each combo.
The second thing I love about the game, honestly, is the complete and utter lunacy of it all. The looks that I got from Belle just from listening to the speeches--like the insane ranting of Dr. Peace about his estranged family--were priceless. And yet there are moments of pathos, like the death of Holly Summers, that are genuinely a little touching. Not to mention the final boss, which involves a delivery of six or seven plot cliches in a row, followed by denial of those cliches, followed by their re-affirmation in a hilariously self-aware monologue sequence. It's one long double-take.
And then you realize, in the end, that none of it really mattered. It was just so much fun to watch. Ninety percent of NHM is spent wondering "how are they going to screw with me now?" The fact that you don't have to worry about how painful that will be is what makes it possible to keep playing. The combination of the two illustrates that the studio behind these games might have finally learned how to make its high-concept narrative ideas into actual entertainment.