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Analysis: The Design And Spiritual Evolution Of  No More Heroes 2

Analysis: The Design And Spiritual Evolution Of No More Heroes 2 Exclusive

February 8, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

[Is a better-designed game really "better" -- and what does that really mean? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes a look at how Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes 2 for Wii evolves on its predecessor.]

In the original No More Heroes, Suda51 had a brilliant concept which critics largely agreed stumbled slightly on the execution -- the main criticism being that the open world lacked depth. With very little to do in the city of Santa Destroy, most seemed to feel the sequences in between missions were sprawling empty space, listless filler that could have just as easily been bypassed.

In No More Heroes 2, that bypass wish is fulfilled; gone is the player's ability to take Travis' motorcycle to the streets, and in its place is a streamlined, 8 bit-inspired (naturally) navigation menu.

The game is still challenging enough that it requires a little bit of grinding -- as with the original No More Heroes, this takes the place of menial odd jobs that luckless otaku Travis can do to earn cash for weapons upgrades, or visits to the gym by which he can become stronger, and these are the spots that players can visit from Santa Destroy's new interface.

Here is another major change: whereas in the first title, players did weird chores like garbage pickup and pest control with the game's standard controls, No More Heroes 2 replaces Travis' part-time work with mini arcade games, brilliantly designed to look, feel and sound like real old-school replicas.

It's easy to see that the result is quite streamlined and compact relative to the original game -- rather than take the long, tedious drive to a work site, using a map to navigate, players essentially pick a mini-game from the menu, give it their best shot, and earn upgrade cash from the result. Levels feel like tauter, more segregated experiences, with far less prelude to the title fights.

In that way, No More Heroes 2 should be praised for addressing player criticisms of its predecessor; Gamasutra's own Chris Remo recently analyzed Mass Effect 2's efforts to do the same. But in this case, amid the changes that birthed No More Heroes 2, has a subtle character loss taken place?

It's not just the Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott who feels something subtle's missing in the leaner, meaner format for Travis' wild assassin's saga -- I've had a lot of conversations with gamer friends and fellow critics who agree.

But that stance certainly prompts a healthy scoop of mulling on what constitutes "character." Part of the spiritual shift in No More Heroes 2 is in the game's changed tone -- in the original, Travis' motive for ascending the ranks of the assassins' league was nothing more dire than to get laid. This time, he wants revenge for a murdered friend, lending the game a severity that makes it feel different -- less joyous, less silly.

Certainly, many players whose itches aren't quite scratched by No More Heroes 2 may be responding to that tonal shift: Sustaining the silliness is a reasonable wish. But perhaps there's another principle at work.

In the past, goes the theory, we've had two kinds of video games, if we're generalizing: gloss-polished, listless genre derivatives, and beloved, starkly flawed auteur projects. Has something of an expectation developed among game fans and critics that anything with grit and spirit must have something broken in it?

Perhaps there's a point where creators reach a crossroads: they can elect to follow their vision at the expense of intuitive game design -- as Metal Gear Solid's Hideo Kojima consciously did with the fourth installment's notorious yet self-aware protracted cutscenes -- or they can sacrifice an artistic goal in favor of wise best practices.

Has Suda51 done the latter in the polishing of No More Heroes 2? Save only for some balancing issues -- a difficulty ramp-up that could have been subtler, and a fairly broad schism between the game's two difficulty levels, for example -- and some gameplay sequences that many of my friends and colleagues have found needlessly repetitious, the sequel is watertight from a design perspective.

And from an artistic perspective, the same wild "punk's not dead" spirit seems to be on full, flagrantly absurd display -- within No More Heroes 2's first hour, for example, the player will have beheaded an overt send-up of Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife and engaged in a mecha battle in a football stadium against an athletic enemy who assembles his giant robot from a legion of identical blond cheerleaders.

But if many players feel like something's missing, it's worth wondering whether gamers have come to correlate tight design with a constraint of vision -- and whether there really is a trade-off.

And it's worth wondering whether Suda51 feels the same, and whether that emotion of constraint is expressed in the game. No More Heroes 2 opens with Travis having plummeted from the top spot in the assassin's league to the 51st -- a fall from grace that the game's exposition mocks the player for wondering about, so that initially it simply serves as a conceit to create new goals for the protagonist.

Lots has lapsed, in fact: Travis' cat Jeane has gotten fat, and weapons whiz Naomi also seems to have put on some weight -- to be specific, she appears to have had cosmetic surgery to boost her assets, and she'll even chide players for noticing.

So not only is No More Heroes 2's narrative darker, it's also peppered throughout with warnings of the kind of complacency that can come with success, along with the insincerity of artifice. Through and through, the game's a story of someone who's lost things amid the machinery of achievement, who's paid the price for skill. The first installment saw a hero-in-training flail his way to the top for his own dumb pleasure; the second gives us a hero cleaving coolly through obstacles with the kind of purpose that can only come from an external motive.

Maybe gamers do expect a somewhat broken game to be part of Suda51's "identity"; maybe they feel they've come to know the creator by being able to see his flaws. Perhaps instead they're reading those subtle messages of discontent from the narrative. Or maybe it's just that Travis acting on his friend Bishop's behalf isn't as convincing to some as Travis acting for the fun of it.

Two things are certain, though: First, No More Heroes 2 is absolutely and unequivocally a better-designed game than its predecessor. And second, better-designed doesn't mean "better" to everyone.

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