Well, fun was never a given in a game made by Suda 51 anyway.
What do you want from a video game? Fun? What if it makes you laugh? And smile? What if it can surprise you? What if it's a sequel that removes the bad parts from its predecessor and replaces them with…. wait a minute… what if it replaces them with other un-fun stuff?
But what if this game has its main character save his progress while sitting on a toilet bowl? What if it interrupts each level with movie scenes that acknowledge modern gaming's hormones by showing a skimpily dressed woman from ever-new camera angles most of which go up her skirt but almost none of which show her face? What if it's got great Wii motion controls and one of its 15 boss battle turns into a fight between giant robots? What if it includes a side-quest of sorts all about helping your fat cat lose weight? What if it's the rarest of sequels to recognize that it might be time for the imitators to back off from the Grand Theft Auto formula?
Oh, but, again, it's a Suda 51 game, this No more Heroes 2, this return of ultra-Otaku assassin Travis Touchdown to the boss-battle-heavy ascent up the rankings of the world's most deadly killers. It's a game by Suda 51 and his design team at Grasshopper Manufacture and therefore — it seems this might be some sort of law — it's not guaranteed to be fun.
It's Nuts: See the list above. Or let me add to it. Under your control, pro-wrestling-addicted, porn-loving Travis Touchdown spends most of the game running around levels set in the city of Santa Destroy with lightsabers, chopping enemy henchmen in half vertically or horizontally, before fighting… a giant football-playing robot, a rapper who uses his bimbo groupies as projectiles, a young pizza mogul and more. He's doing this partially because he wants revenge for his buddy who was killed and partially because of the promise to have "five-course" sex with the woman who tracks Travis' progress up the ranks of assassins. She's good at yoga, she notes. In between assassinations you do indeed help Travis' cat lost weight by massaging it or picking it up off the floor. You may also sit in Travis' apartment and play a shoot-em-up send-up to those games that replace spaceships with sexualized girls. Also: Travis can learn new pro-wrestling moves by reading pro-wrestling magazines. If all that sounds trashy and gaudy, well, yeah, that's what these No More Heroes games are: trashy boys' fantasy.
Best Wii Combat: Transported from the first game, which had basically the same plot and mix of themes, No More Heroes 2 has arguably the best combat mechanic on the Wii. Most of Travis missions against the game's 15 bosses involve wandering through a few basic passageways full of enemies. These enemies may wield axes, chainsaws or guns and growl absurd things such as "Trouble in your virtual world?" These enemies are there to be cut in two or suplexed. Players lock onto enemies with a button press, then tap one button for melee moves, another button for lightsaber slashes. Tilting the Wii remote up or down during these button-presses affects whether the strike will be high or low. The player can swing the remote for a saber strike too, but motion controls are reserved mostly for the satisfying finishing moves. When an enemy is dizzy and you grapple him, or when an enemy is one saber swing from death, arrows on the screen tell you how to swing your two hands. A devastating throw or cut occurs and Travis wins again. Instead of the Wii's common shake-shake-shake controls, these are more like tap-tap-shake. As they did in the first game, they feel right.
Retreat From GTA: At last a game designer has recognized that imitating Grand Theft Auto isn't always a virtue. Both No More Heroes games are set in the city of Santa Destroy. On the map of the city are icons representing assassination missions, side missions and shops for new clothing, new lightsabers and other stuff. In the first No More Heroes, players had to drive to the those marked locations. That process of traveling to the mission-givers was GTA-esque. Or, make that GTA-lite, as all of Santa Destroy had about as much bustle and energy as a single block of a GTA city. Perhaps recognizing that a desolate imitation gained No More Heroes nothing, the designers of No More Heroes 2 now don't let you drive through Santa Destroy. Instead, the player just warps Travis from one map icon to the next. Getting there wasn't half of the fun before, so getting there has been reduced to teleportation. Good move.
Almost Unpredictable: There is no game like No More Heroes 2 ... except No More Heroes. And while this sequel's imitation of the same odd flavor offered in the first is a little disappointing, the game's lack of conformity to any other thematic gaming style is to be admired. Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture have created a game that runs in a world of little video game predictability. In the first game, one boss battle was cut short when another character showed up to beat the boss for Travis (and the player). In the new game we're suddenly playing in a primitive Resident Evil setting, then in a prison, then in a baseball stadium battling a giant robot. Just when you think you've deduced that the game is a repeated formula of minor skirmishes leading to boss battles, the game puts you on a peaceful motorcycle ride out of town that leads to a cornfield battle against an Cosmonaut and his satellite.
But The Fun Is Often Missing: A great core combat mechanic is no good if the level design mandate in 95% of the game's levels is to kill every last one of the enemies in a room before proceeding to the next room. That gets old in three minutes. The boss battles are the interesting part of the game. The battles leading up to them are the worst of video game tedium, requiring the player to hack away at the handful of enemy types with the same moves, listening to the same audio cues, more than a few hundred times after it has become boring. I'd rather count grains of sand than play No More Heroes 2's parking lot level again. It's the worst offender of levels that you'd be inclined to train your dog to play for you, given that they require so little imagination and so much repetition.
The Fun Is Even Missing In The Zany Parts: Travis needs to get around Santa Destroy to make money, it seems. And he's up for anything that will make him profit. How to get around and what to do? That retreat from GTA design was good, yes. The transformation of many of the side missions into abstracted 8-bit-style games, however, is a retreat off a cliff. At first, it seems clever to present Travis' money-making odd-jobs as retro-gaming activities. Why use No More Heroes 2's graphics engine to have Travis do dopey side tasks? Let 8-bit Travis do them. That could have been a triumph of using different video game generational styles as different ways of expressing life in a virtual world. But it could only have been a triumph if these 8-bit games were fun. Exterminating bugs, holding a button to fry beef patty after beef patty, dragging garbage into the space shuttle — none of it is enjoyable. Thankfully, the money earned in these games is irrelevant for those not interested in upgrading Travis' wardrobe, so they can be ignored. The only thing worse in NMH2 than these 8-bit games is the short-hand 8-bit gym-training needed to make Travis a better fighter. The only way to get stronger is to punch and kick flying dumbbells while dodging kisses from the effeminate male trainer; the only way to increase one's health bar is to mash the Wii's Z and B buttons while holding the control stick in one of two directions, the most physically absurd thing I've ever had to do with a Wii remote and nunchuk. Either Grasshopper Manufacture loved the 8-bit era so much that it is blindly incapable of recreating its joys or this is an extended joke about how brutally dull so many 8-bit games were. Either way, it's intolerable.
The Dulled Marketing Points: You are invited to play No More Heroes 2 and experience three times as many playable characters as the original game contained. You are encouraged to dual-wield Travis' beam katana. In an almost-positive move, Grasshopper undermines these sequel-standard multiplications of features. The two other playable characters are used in all of three levels. The dual katana feels no different to control than the single one. Maybe that's a joke too, and not a bad one. But it sure isn't a selling point or two.
No More Heroes 2 not being a ton of fun wasn't necessarily going to be a dealbreaker. Games don't have to be fun. Suda 51's own games have proven this to me.
One of the best arguments for a lack of fun being a successful video game element is Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture's Killer 7. The GameCube on-rails first-person shooter is a mad and clunky game rendered in a shattered stained-glass aesthetic. As much of a slog and an incoherent screech as it can be, it's also an emotionally powerful game with some daring twists. Ultimately it was trying to evoke an unusually dark and tortured mood, an extended meditation on guilt. Seldom was it fun, but often it was fascinating. The first No More Heroes, with its better combat than Killer 7, was a more fun game and was almost as thematically interesting and quirky. If it had a point, it was one of devil-may-care inconsequential trashiness. It laughed at geek obsessions while loving them, less of an original idea, but one presented with winning glee.
For people who come to No More Heroes 2 without having played those earlier Grasshopper games, this sequel will be a refreshing non-conformist oddity. To Grasshopper-playing veterans it will feel badly routine in parts and badly revised in others. The game is amusingly crass and populated with some fun boss characters. But it wastes its core mechanic and punishes the player with its tedium. It's a rebel on repeat, losing its credibility the second time around. It exhausts the patience of those who were ready, even if it wasn't guaranteed to be fun, to enjoy the Desperate Struggle.
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle was developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and published by Ubisoft for the Wii on January 26. Retails for $49.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the campaign, lowered the weight of Travis' cat by about 14 pounds, avoided mentioning the game's fascination with masturbation until now.
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