No More Heroes was a fine game, but it was one that worked best as a solitary experience. Parodies of gamer, geek, and otaku culture are a tricky business, and the game managed to address this issue well. Going for it a second time around would be pushing it, and having to reconcile the true ending of its predecessor would probably cheapen it in the end.
But really, it was the pessimist inside me that made me most concerned about NMH2. One of the E3 trailers indicated that the protagonist, Travis Touchdown, was going to start fighting as only the 50th ranked assassin. I knew there was a snowball’s chance in hell that Grasshopper Manufacture (or any developer, for that matter) was going to come up with fifty new boss battles to fight. Every bone in my body knew that this was going to be a game that would constantly yank my chain.
And that is exactly what it does. While NMH2 has some more battles than its predecessor, it is a far cry from fifty, and with all the new changes made to streamline the experience, it may not actually be as long for some players. Much as I like the idea of a leaner, meaner No More Heroes, this feels more like reheated leftovers.
One of the key features of the original No More Heroes was its open world city environment, which players had to navigate in order to reach battles, sidequests and job opportunities. It was a pain in the ass, both due to the clunkiness of your vehicle, and because the city was void of interesting sights. In response to this complaint, the sequel eliminates all driving and exploration. Instead, players simply choose their destination on a map, and find themselves there in seconds. It sounds like heaven, at least on paper, but it had the curious effect of making me miss traveling around town. It was unresponsive, sure, but once it is gone, you realize how much more weight it added to whatever it is you were doing. You got to mentally prepare yourself for an upcoming fight, and you knew that if you failed, you’d have to make that trip all over again. Without it, you simply bounce from one area to another. Are you going to the school? The stadium? The residential district? You won’t really know until the level begins, and once you’re done, you’ll think nothing of that location again. No More Heroes 2 makes a big enough stink about the how much the city has changed between the two games, but you’ll never see it for your own eyes.
This feeling of being shortchanged permeates throughout the rest of the game. No More Heroes did a good job of putting some meat into each of its chapters. They always began with a silhouette of the assassin you were going to face, teasing you as to who it might be. You woke up, did some training, earned some money, and registered for the fight. You’d arrive at the destination, battle some goons, and arrive at the endpoint. You’d get a cheeky phone call from Sylvia that came through the Wiimote’s speaker, and engage in some lengthy dialogue with your opponent, which served to flesh them out a bit before you cut their head off.
The sequel has none of this. Since battles require no money, you simply show up, (occasionally) fight some goons, and meet up with an assassin whom you are seeing for the very first time. You engage them with hardly any dialogue before or after the fight. NMH2 doesn’t feel like a challenge, or even much like a game. Instead, it is simply business as usual. If you really want to spend some time between each showdown, there are still things to do, but these activities have also lost their luster. The questionable minigames used for acquiring money have been replaced with small, 8 bit style games, much in the vein of Retro Game Challenge (though oddly, one minigame from NMH1 returns whole hog). Of course, RGC’s fake NES games are much more involved and fun, and the money earned from some of them is so good that you can become significantly wealthy simply by returning to the games that you can play best, and blasting through them as efficiently as possible. And what can you do with all that hardly earned cash? Once again, you can spend it on new beam sabers, but Dr. Naomi only has two to sell, making her appearance feel mandatory rather than wanted. You can also buy new clothing, though there’s still no reward for doing so. There’s a new gym where you can build stats, though this time, you have more 8 bit minigames to beat in order to earn them, and the only thing stopping you from maxing out your stats early on is the money you carry in your pocket. Should a player spend an hour or so grinding for money, they can find themselves stupidly strong before even the halfway point.
The bottom line is that No More Heroes 2 fails because it gives you the feeling that it doesn’t want to be here. Sure, the graphics have improved, and the same feeling of excitement via overviolence is present. But there’s no heart in it, no reason to invest any interest in the setting or the characters. They exist because they must, but the game wishes to deal with them as little as possible. While it is true that this ties into the major theme of the story – that the assassin’s guild trivializes violence for the sake of entertainment – it doesn’t address this concept with enough gusto to take it seriously. The cover of the North American boxart shows Travis with two beam sabers and a pathetic, incredibly desperate look on his face, as if he was an actor trying for a half assed action pose. It is about as indicative as anything about the kind of game you’re getting. There are worse ways that this sequel could have been handled, but in the end, it reminds us that sometimes sequels shouldn’t be handled in the first place.