The 2008 review revue, part two

Just to clarify, my so-called review revue isn’t about me second-guessing myself — it’s more like an afterthoughts sort of thing. I stand by the scores I originally handed out, because none of them were wrong. But I might rate some titles a bit differently in retrospect, because reviews are of necessity more reactive than considered. (There are exceptions — the month-long gap between my playing Metal Gear Solid 4 and publishing the review gave me lots of time to think, and I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote; it’s dead-on.)

The nature of reviews is that we usually write down our feelings in the flush of having just experienced the game, and that’s perfectly fair: the result is an honest, emotional response to what we’ve just played, and is likely analogous to what someone reading the review will experience as well. But any work that makes an impression — be it game, book, movie, or album — continues to tumble around in our thoughts long after the review is written. We discuss them on forums, chat about them with friends and coworkers, and digest the praise and criticism of others. So no, I’m not second-guessing myself; I’m revisiting a few games and comparing my raw, immediate impressions to how my feelings have changed over time.

No More Heroes | Grasshopper/Ubisoft | Wii | Action
I gave it: B- (I think) | In retrospect, this was: About right.

Satire and deconstruction are tricky things. When done well, they make for insightful, memorable works that can push a medium to a new creative level. When botched, though, they come off as sort of hypocritical. Alas, much as I had high hopes for Suda51’s No More Heroes, it tends to be more of the latter than the former.

The game’s a crude-yet-intelligent send-up of action game clichés, movie tropes, and otaku culture with a heavy emphasis on the otaku part; the hero, an all-American Japanophile named Travis Touchdown, decides to become the world’s greatest assassin and soon finds himself drawn into a mission of killing everyone ranked higher than himself. It sounds grim and x-treem, but No More Heroes is really anything but. Its tone is sardonic, tongue-in-cheek satire, and it’s gleefully self-aware: a retro-style video game motif serves as a sort of overlay for the stylized 3D visuals, and Travis collects wrestling cards in order to learn new suplexes and body-blows — just like his favorite luchadores!

The crux of the game consists of Travis’ one-on-one encounters with the world’s top ten assassins, a series of brilliant battles that deftly integrate story, combat and quirk. Many of them seem culled straight from a Quintin Tarantino flick, like the Go-Go Yabari-esque schoolgirl and the grenade-happy lady with a few missing limbs, and each one plays out with its own specific gimmick that requires mastery of the game’s involving waggle-and-combo-based fighting system. These showdowns are simultaneously intense, hilarious and challenging, and the story sequences surrounding them are equally excellent (especially the ones featuring Travis’ coquettish tease of a contact, who treats her minion with an equal mix of admiration and disdain — just enough to keep him off-balance, basically).

If those were the whole of the game, No More Heroes would be almost impeccable. Unfortunately, they’re only a small portion of the overall experience. The rest of No More Heroes plays out through endlessly tedious and repetitive video game filler. For all that the game mocks the shortcomings of its medium, it also pads out its playtime with bland instances of everything it repudiates. Thus the feeling of hypocrisy.

The best deconstructive works rise above the flaws of their respective medium. Watchmen, for instance, skewered the clichés of comic books without succumbing to their worst habits. Even the parts that looked like they were going to be hackneyed proved to be carefully considered as they played out: take the “villain’s” monologue at the end, in which the “evil” mastermind reveals his plan to the heroes. Not only is the culprit not especially evil in motives (just pragmatic and slightly amoral in seeking his vision of the greater good), but his revelatory monologue comes after he’s put his plan into motion. His pronouncement that his scheme has already happened and the heroes’ stunned silence that follows is one of the series’ most powerful moments, because that’s not how superhero comics are supposed to work.

Unfortunately, No More Heroes never quite manages to pull that trick off, and the bulk of the game doesn’t consist of its engaging, subversive boss battles but rather of stupid minigames, an empty sandbox, and meaningless battles against faceless mooks. When No More Heroes is at its best, it’s amazing; unfortunately, Suda51 let his moments of brilliance be watered down with too much vapid nothingness. That’s a shame, because Heroes is a powerful indictment of gaming as a medium…but in the process, it also damns itself. Still, it’s worth playing, if only to see the good parts.

11 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part two

  1. That’s actually pretty close to my take on the game: “12 hours of a fun, stylish, well-designed swordfighting action game with the most entertainingly incoherent storyline I’ve seen in years, and 12 hours of having to run around doing a bunch of dumb crap in an authentically ugly recreation of southern California urban blight.”

    I give a pass to the meaningless battles against the grunts because, while repetitive, the generic fights were actually fun thanks to all the stylish tricks you could pull. (This, I gather, is also the draw of series like Devil May Cry.) I do not give a pass to the empty and hideous faux-GTA cityscape that serves as padding, but at least the game picked up once I figured out how to spend as little time as possible in it.

    And yes, the good parts are really, really, really good.

  2. Interesting idea: No More Heroes as JUST the boss battles.

    “Shadows of the Heroes”?

    I like it.

  3. I actually was having Shadow of the Colossus flashbacks while playing it, in that they both feature wildly inventive boss battles padded with a huge, stupid, empty overworld that seems to taunt you with its lack of anything interesting to do.

    Honestly, two or three missions in I pretty much hated the game. Once I learned what was fun and what was not and how to maximize that ratio, I had a much better time. And if that sounds like too much aggravation to anyone that hasn’t played it, I should note that the parts that are good are unlike anything else out there.

  4. Where others saw satire, I saw your standard Japanese wackiness. I guess I could kind of see what Suda was going for, but the satirical intent of the game really needed to have more focus.

  5. Parish: That’s the one thing I always think about when I think about Watchmen. No More Heros can be a chore between boss fights. The load times when you go to the mission office take longer than the activity you perform in there, and the guitar stingers just emphasize it. That said, the boss fights are awesome. I was playing with my friend and he was actually skipping the cut scenes. What the hell? Hopefully the sequel will be more polished.

  6. I couldn’t force my way through the complete garbage that was the overworld to get to the just OK combat missions. If they had cut the development on the overworld and focused on making the combat better it would have been a great game.

    And they should have gone with an even more stylized visual approach, because that game largely looked like shit.

  7. I had a lot of fun with this game. I like the boss where it seems to be heading to an explosive climax then…

  8. This is quite possibly the worst game that I’ve ever enjoyed the hell out of. The graphics (framerate) are awful and it commits so many crimes against good game design that it should be a complete mess, but it’s just so fun to play and has an interesting plot.

    Please give NMH2 a larger budget!

  9. I gotta say, I hated “grinding” for money, but other than that, I found the whole experience to be delightful. Yes, the city is empty, but there was something I liked about just cruising around on the Schpeltiger. Also, I enjoyed fighting the faceless mooks. Motion controlled suplexes are the best thing ever.

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