Wrap it up
Digital feelies

When better is worse


No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle is a better game than the original NMH. It streamlines or eliminates most of the problems folks complained about in the first game - vacuous open world, monotonous required side jobs, muddy visuals - and reviewers have rewarded it with generally higher scores (Metacritic 89 for NMH2 vs 83 for NMH). As 1UP's review notes, it "takes the fun parts of the original...and tries to make those the focus while practically quartering off the weaker parts."

So you should definitely play NMH2, if only to reward Grasshopper Manufacture for its signature pursuit of brash idiosyncrasy and deviant design.  

Sadly, NMH2 is also a worse game than the original in ways that can't be tallied on a feature checklist. Designer Goichi Suda missile-launched the first game at our heads - rough edges, obtuse objectives, design misfires and all - and his singular vision exploded on impact. NMH was a bombastic mess, but a startlingly prodigious one. When it appeared two years ago, NMH was the game for gamers sick of cookie-cutter games. A turd in the punchbowl.

Audacity is tough to do twice. The first time feels like inspiration; the second time can feel like calculation. NMH2 doesn't ease off on the stuff that grabbed our attention the first time. Suda's adolescent fascination with potty humor, sexual innuendo, splattering blood, and general bad-boy punkster 'tude permeates the sequel no less than the original. 

But discovery is a precious one-time event, and NMH2 faces a nearly impossible task in that regard. This cleaned-up, streamlined version of Santa Destroy doesn't grab us by the throat as much as it eases our re-entry. The original NMH may have been a better experience than a game, but its sequel reverses that formula and the result feels less satisfying. 

Remember that "joy of iteration" essay I wrote a while back? I guess I was lying.

It's hard to quantify such things, but NMH2 often feels less creatively invigorated than its predecessor. Indelible bosses like Doctor Peace and Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii have no equals in NMH2. The fabulously wacky boss intros are simplified and diminished, as are most of the strategies needed to beat them. 

Remember receiving phone calls from Sylvia on your Wiimote? The baseballs slung at you in Destroy Stadium that required you to hit them? The sprinkler system used as a weapon to shock you with your katana? Surprising and clever little ideas like these are missing from NMH2, and the game suffers for it. 

And I miss Travis' bike. Okay, okay, I know it was a pain to control, and I know the dead open world was a charming joke that wore off after about an hour. But Travis is a biker, and I say he needs his bike. I won't argue that an open world works better than NMH2's menu system, but I wish Grasshopper had found a way to connect Travis to his bike more inventively than an awful bike joust battle and an oddly meaningless open road ride near the end of the game.

After WWII, Italian Neorealism arose to challenge Hollywood's "tradition of quality," and the French New Wave later extended the argument. Those filmmakers objected to the values and standards of Hollywood production, arguing that such a system codified narrative and stylistic conventions and imprisoned artists in a paint-by-number process of filmmaking. The punk aesthetic Suda espouses advances the same essential argument.

Suda's second No More Heroes game makes a series of concessions to conventional game design that improve the game, but the overall experience feels diminished. So by embracing a certain tradition of quality, is Suda a sellout? Maybe, but I don't think so. 

It seems to me NMH2 suffers, not because of its smoother interface and less irksome gameplay, but because the game feels less personal, less defiant, less inspired, less insistent...less like the creation of an uncompromising artist with a head full of big ideas.