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February 5, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»no_more_heroes

The Garden of Madness

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.

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