A game where conformity should probably not be considered a positive for once. Mild Spoilers in the next to last paragraph.
Any review of No More Heroes 2 is probably best started with the caveat that if you didn’t play the first one, the sequel is a solid investment. To a person unfamiliar with Grasshopper Manufacture or Suda 51 games, the game will be an explosion of new ideas in an accessible design that’s engaging all the way to the end. The problem with No More Heroes 2 is that for all the fans who plowed through Killer 7 and No More Heroes for the sake of insane cutscenes, bizarre game design, and dark humor you’re going to find a lot of those things missing. If No More Heroes was the equivalent of a live punk concert, No More Heroes 2 is the I-pod friendly studio album.
Everything that was supposedly broken about the old game has been removed and everything that was praised has been enhanced. The wonky physics and tedious driving in the first game have been replaced with a handy menu system that lets you travel to all relevant destinations instantly. Travis now has access to four different beam weapons that offer different fighting styles along with sections where you play as two other characters with their own unique moves. No more just bashing A and wildly swinging the remote while heads explode. The generic repetitive bad guys of the first game have been replaced with a diversity of fighters who make the much shorter levels quick and always a reasonable length. The awkward side jobs have been replaced with well designed 8-bit mini-games. The assassination missions that would challenge you to kill a hundred people in a minute are gone. No more chopping off 8 people’s heads at once, no more running over every single street light in Santa Destroy, or trying to to do donuts on your enormous motorcycle.
What exactly does that have to do with the original No More Heroes? The game was never what I would call "good" in the traditional sense of the term. It was a wild explosion of humor and quirky game design appearing on the Wii right when the console desperately needed to show it could do something besides Wii Sports. It didn’t always work but between the boss fights and seeing what crazy thing it was going to throw at you next, the game ended up being a great experience on its own bizarre terms.
No More Heroes 2 is, instead, essentially a brawler for the Wii. The pacing of mini-jobs, unlocking new gear, and then finally purchasing the next boss fight as a reward for your work in No More Heroes has been replaced with just doing each mission. You’ll buy the only two weapon upgrades relatively early in the game and stat upgrades can usually be paid for by what you earn during a ranking match. While the 8-bit games are fun, you don’t really have to do that many unless you plan to buy all the clothing in the game. The levels all take about thirty minutes and with a few exceptions basically consist of a series of arena spaces. Go into an area, kill everything, go into next area, repeat until done. Combat tactics are exactly the same in every level. If you’re fighting chainsaw guy or beam katana guy, you have to dodge occasionally, and thugs with guns can cause problems if you ignore them too long. That’ll get you by until you get to the boss. By contrast, No More Heroes had a minefield, a tunnel where you chase a shadowy figure, a bus, and a level that makes you play baseball with a bunch of thugs. Not having to grind to unlock the next mission or gear means No More Heroes 2’s pacing is gone. You don’t really even have to play the mini-games. Occasionally the game will break things up by not having thugs or one section where you ride on your motorcycle, but otherwise, it was business as usual for most missions. Sometimes the level was a maze or had awkward platforming. The camera still definitely drives me completely insane and, hell, yeah, on making me become obsessed with exercising a cat.
The overly good game design brings up the issue of the bosses themselves. While the first game would start each level with a bizarre name to let you wonder what they would be like and reward you with them rambling forever before the fight, here you don’t even find out their name until after you kill them. In the first game, the overly long cutscene would then establish the design element of the game, in which you got to know the boss through fighting him or her on top of the strange characterization provided by the cutscene. Instead, each boss in No More Heroes 2 only talks for about a minute, often less than that. Like any brawler, to beat a boss you just study the pattern and figure out when it’s safe to strike. Finding a safe place to recharge your weapon and managing health during all of this is the chief challenge. The game does mess with your expectations here and there, the best moment being very early in the game involving a giant robot, but after that, it’s that same task of learning about how characters fight and then using that knowledge to kill them.
Instead of letting the bosses talk, the game focuses its attention on just Travis and Sylvia. Travis is an everyman foil for the average gamer stereotype mixed with Tyler Durden. Sylvia is a temptress who is always unattainable and gets us to do violent things for her like any basic video game damsel in distress. The game is about Travis resolving his issues with objectifying women. After you kill Helter Skelter’s brother, he claims that he is giving Travis the curse of revenge by making him lose someone that he cares about. Then the game gets underway by having the NPC that sold us wrestling tapes in the first game killed off. Nobody gives a shit about this guy. That’s the joke. The player starts killing people under this nonsensical plot device until the game begins to prod at us to care about characters. The most obvious attempt at this is not having the bosses talk, which is what every fan will be wanting because they expect it. Before each boss fight is a cutscene that pokes fun at the male gaze by making us constantly look at a woman’s cleavage or thighs while she goes on bizarre monologues about the people that you’re about to kill. You never see her face until well after the joke gets tedious, and it constantly keeps you wondering who she is. In either case, the game is getting us to care about someone because we want to know more about them. The boss cutscenes emphasize the point of objectifying women by having the first involve a boss who literally throws women at Travis (which Travis kills) and the last rounds all involving complex, difficult to kill women that Travis ends up respecting. The final boss is a juvenile man-child that you see in the opening moments that must be killed to allow Travis to move on with his relationship with women. Between having to kill people that you wish would entertain you and not being able to see the faceless lady that the cutscenes objectify, the game gets you to question your relationship with video game characters. What are you really caring about when you take interest in a video game character? Is it their looks, the things they say, or maybe just what they provide us in the design? This culminates in a couple of speeches from Travis about game characters being real and a plot twist.
Which is awesome, but it’s all told through smooth gameplay and easy-to-follow cutscenes. By not having any of the bosses talk, it plays like the Letz Shake gag from the original but dragged out for an entire game (except instead of never fighting these characters--as was the case in the Letz Shake scene--they never talk at all). This brings up a point that Leigh Alexander raises when she asks, “Did we come to associate those design shortfalls [of the original] with the 'identity' of the creator?” The big word here being "shortfalls". Typical reviews praise the game as “fixed” but what that translates to is that it removed every design element that didn't reward the player in a certain amount of time. Out of every long, asinine diatribe about fun in games that you've had to sit through, the fact that an argument even exists indicates that fun is relative, which means that there really is no such thing as a game design being improved, just modified to suit someone's tastes. No More Heroes is a game that claimed that it was going to bring a new punk rock aesthetic to games, and it actually did it. The sequel instead abandons that goal for conformity to modern AAA sensibilities. No More Heroes 2 sold out.