Paola Antonelli of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has announced today that the museum will be exhibiting 14 video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection starting in March 2013. In addition to exhibi...
Jul 03 //
Rob Parker Now, that is a philosophical joke, which means partly that it’s not funny, but also that its profundity is revealed gradually, the deeper you consider it. The point is that, while it is easy for us to see water for what it is -- as outsiders looking in -- for the fish it is always there, and thus very hard to be aware of.
This is a message worth keeping in mind when thinking about Journey, the latest release from thatgamecompany, developers of the zen-like Cloud, Flow, and Flower. Journey is a remarkable videogame, a work of art that commentators across the spectrum of gaming have found much to ponder within.
For me, Journey is about the only thing that art worth any goddamn can ever be about, which is what it is we’re all doing here. Journey is about truth, about base reality, about this experience of being itself we so often ignore. It is a call to look around us and remember that, as David Foster Wallace puts it: “This is water. This is water.”
We humans like to think we’re pretty hot shit. We stand, like the figure in that screenshot up there, overlooking our kingdoms, lords of all we survey. We are intellectual beings, gods on Earth; we have split the atom, put man on the moon, invented squeezable jam. We have mastered chaos.
And yet we trudge onwards under a shadow. There is a great shape towering over us, and it is brought closer with every step. We are on a fixed path, ushered forwards, and there can be no escape. We stand upon a precipice, waiting for the moment we will be tipped off. And then ... who knows? For all our nuclear reactors and space shuttles and tubed-jams, we have no clue what will happen when we take the final fall. Our arrogance is really a mask for fear, for the truth of our situation, which is that we are but insignificant flames, blazing once in an endless void, soon to be extinguished forever.
There is, certainly, a sense of this evident within Journey. Its tale of an enigmatic robed figure traveling through a vast desert towards a distant mountain can be read as a treatise on death, a declaration of the inconsequentiality of man’s power and knowledge when measured against the vastness of the cosmos. We are tiny specks scuttling across a universe that feels nothing but cold indifference to our plight. We are alone, and we will all die.
The thing is, while Journey might present us with these facts, the conclusions it arrives at are far from nihilistic. In the vigor and exuberance engendered through traversing its undulating sands, you feel not despair at your insignificance, but liberation. The treatise on death is transformed into a treatise on life. And not life as opposed to death, but life including death.
Because the real truth of our situation is not that we are standing on a precipice, waiting to fall, but that we are falling already, and haven’t yet hit the ground. Rather than peering down into a dark unknown, we are actually in this dark unknown right now. The dark unknown is, at our most fundamental level, us.
It hardly matters that we don’t know what will happen when we die, because we don’t even know what will happen when we live. We don’t even know what we mean when we say “know.”
“The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
These wry, wise old words come from the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, a screed regarding the Tao, or hidden flow, of the universe. It’s telling that the lines, among the most penetrating -- and most quoted -- in philosophical discourse, comprise a negative statement -- telling us what is not, rather than what is. In much of Taoist (and subsequent Zen) thought, the assumption is that awareness of base reality -- and thus liberation, enlightenment -- is not something that can be intellectually arrived at, but a fundamental truth of existence that we simply have to stop trying to attain, and remember is here, right now, for us all to experience.
We don’t often think like this in the West. Our busy, fearful, left-hemisphere dominated minds have a hard time relinquishing control and placing faith in a more natural, less forced intelligence. A Zen master would remind us that a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, while our great thinkers tie themselves in knots wanting written instructions how to look from the finger to the moon, how eyes switch targets, how light is converted into electro-chemical impulses, and how that happens, and how that happens.
We believe it is possible to “know” everything, and we do so erroneously. For what we mean by “knowing” is really just grouping, ordering, filing away. To know a thing is to delineate it, to demarcate its boundaries, its opposites, to cut it away from the rest of the world so it may be observed. In doing so we build complex maps of the relationships between things, yet we say nothing of the things themselves. You cannot demarcate that which has no opposite. To try is to confuse the map with the territory.
I still remember this faux intellectual punk I used to know, who once sneered, “Everyone gets so soppy about love, without realizing it’s just a chemical reaction in the brain that means nothing.” The kid thought that because he could classify love, he could explain it away! He didn’t recognize that the whole universe is a chemical reaction -- if viewed through the framework of chemistry. Love, or fear, anxiety, joy, are what chemistry feels like from the inside. We are a chemical reaction experiencing itself! To borrow again from the Tao Te Ching, “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.”
This isn’t, however, to say that the Western mind is worse at perceiving truth than the Eastern mind. For where our intellectual discourse fails, our art provides answers. Art is a way of presenting truth as honestly as possible, a kind of meditation -- both in the creation and the contemplation -- that allows us to see deeply into things as they really are. Whether staring at a lapis lazuli pendant from ancient Mesopotamia, vibrant with preternatural color, or feeling a creeping dread at the hellish rabbit visions conjured onto film by David Lynch, or exploring the simulated realms of a modern videogame, art lets us step back and refocus on what is, reminds us of the incomprehensibility of this teeming mass of reality blossoming each moment around us, and within us.
And when we do so we are transformed. We no longer bustle along the forest path, eyes down, heads busy with What Jason Said Yesterday, or Why Sarah is Such a Cow -- but instead look up, and remember that we are, at this very moment, in paradise, and we better appreciate it now, before it is gone for good.
This is what Journey does for me. It is, I think, an antidote to the suffering we feel when we misjudge our place on Earth. Sometimes we trudge up dunes, and the going is tough. Sometimes we surf and sail downhill, and we feel borne on the wind. Such is life.
There is a mountain towering over us, the engulfing light at its peak drawing closer with each step. But this mountain need not be a specter. It can instead be a warden -- a lighthouse guiding us home, waiting patiently for our return. We soar up its slopes, our hearts glad. We are tiny, we are empty, we know nothing -- and how very beautiful that ultimate truth is. For when we are empty of ourselves we can let everything else in, and it is then when we find our real selves, not apart from the universe, but a part of it, growing out of it, growing back into it.
And we are far from alone. Look at all these other travelers around us, pilgrims on the same journey. When we meet others in Journey, we no longer care about measuring them, comparing them, judging them. We don’t wish to manipulate them, nor do we fear being manipulated by them. We see them for who they truly are, empty as well, and we can enjoy simply existing with them, being with them, as we once did as children in that half-forgotten world of dreams we used to inhabit.
There we stand, together, on the precipice of all things -- two tiny hearts beating in unison against the drone of an endless cosmos. What is there to do but sing? So we sing.
And, somewhere down there, over the precipice of all things, the endless cosmos sings back.
[Rob Parker is a freelance writer based in the North of England, where it rains every day. Except the days when it hails. Rob stays sane (and dry) by plunging himself into the simulated worlds of videogames, and writing st...
May 04 //
Unsurprisingly, this was in the first page of image results when I Googled "art."
I don't mean that in the passive teenage sense. I actually want to expose the types of people who so hope for videogames to be universally accepted as "art," and why it's so important to them. And just to be clear, I am not one of those people; so, if you are, then please leave, because I will unapologetically offend you ... most likely.
"Art" is mostly important to the individuals who have hijacked the term and turned it into a safety net, a self-reassuring title that provides a spiritual (and unverifiable) sense of worth where there likely is none. I stopped calling myself an "artist" a long time ago, because, as I learned in college, any cunty hipster can (and usually does) pick up a Polaroid camera, snap a few shitty photos of their feet or the old Asian guy who owns the corner store, and then call themselves ... well, you get the idea. The SF Museum of Modern Art has entire canvases painted one goddamned color. One of my art instructors in college presented a photo piece of a "renowned artist" with a bullwhip sticking out of his ass ... I kid you not. This is all because of two important factors: "True art" is completely subjective, and most people will admire the living fuck out of anything with that title. Hence why so many individuals bestow upon themselves the handle of "artist," and hence why I so obnoxiously feature the word in quotes. Gamers, as I've come to learn, are no less immune to developing this douche disease.
While I studied plenty of fine art in college, most of my curriculum centered on technical art (I majored in animation). For this reason, a lot of my fellow students were game design and programming majors. With the time I spent around these individuals, I learned the most passionate of students proudly considered their vocation the end all/be all of creative mediums. As my career in journalism progressed, I learned that consumers felt just as passionately about gaming as a hobby.
This would be a giant plaster cock. Apparently, it's supposed to mean something profound.
So what's that have to do with all this "art" ballyhoo? Well, anyone with such a fervent relationship with games will naturally aspire to legitimize and validate the medium as a job, hobby, competitive outlet, etc. I now refer to my aforementioned point: The most obvious way to add validity to anything you do is by somehow associating it with "art." This is not to assume that gamers can't enjoy the medium without such validity (a point of mine I'm about to make), but, come on ... why on Earth would anyone give a shit when a non-gamer says videogames aren't "art" if gamers somehow didn't feel that the assumption made the hobby seem less significant?
Simply put, the word "art" is merely a synonym for "something inexplicably awesome," so telling a diehard gamer that his or her hobby doesn't fit that definition is like telling a person of extreme faith that God is an asshole.
Calling McDonalds "gourmet" wouldn't make it taste better.
Let me propose a hypothetical question: If, by some freakish turn of events, the entire world accepted videogames among the admirable essence of Caravaggio paintings or Wilhelm Richard Wagner compositions, would you then enjoy playing them more? Would that designation alone make them more engaging, intriguing and resonating? Obviously some of you will have different reactions than others, so I'll leave you to your own conclusions.
Seriously, though, the correct answer is "no."
With the exception of technology and application, few things about this medium have changed in the past couple of decades -- especially market trends. In fact, videogames are one of the few mediums that can humbly state that it has made a distinctive image of its own, birthed from the eclectic (and sometimes monotonous and predictable) world of geek culture.
Geekery has never been regarded well within the more pretentious world of fine arts (I can confirm this by experience), yet still -- and we should be proudly claiming this whenever this "art" crap comes up -- we've enjoyed comics, genre fiction, tabletop RPGs, videogames, etc. without the slightest bit of remorse or regret. In fact, I've seen plenty of pen-and-paper RPG players in the heat of a raid; they are quite blissfully shameless. And adorable, to boot.
Try calling these "chips." I'm sure that'll help.
The reason all of us enjoy such idiosyncratic activities is because of their emphasis on fun. Such personal enjoyment, and believe me when I say this, is not really an aspiration of the "art" world. Art is often a hands-off avenue, and one could argue that an emphasis on artistic integrity would be quite detrimental to that which has caused us to enjoy videogames for these many, many years.
Now, that's not to say a more focused and "emotional" approach towards videogames (namely their stories) should be avoided at all. In fact, I advocate the medium as a means of social commentary and evocative narration. Does that have anything to do with videogames being considered art, though? Again, no.
Some would make the argument that considering games as such would influence our speech regarding the medium, not to mention our respect for it and how we apply creative decisions towards it. Forewarning: Do not ever make this argument in my presence, because it will require every ounce of my strength not to drive my arthritic "artist" fist into your fucking face.
If a sudden, worldwide consensus was reached and games were considered art, I can guarantee you that we'd still be shooting zombies, roping dragons, and gawking at the latest titty physics. This industry isn't waiting for some "games are art" bell to go off, so everyone can finally start wearing berets and asking each other, "So what underlying theme did you feel was present when you learned that Andross was really a brain and a pair of eyes?" Those who have any real impact on this industry and the medium have made up their minds a long time ago when it comes to this "art" debate, so pushing it any further is incredibly pointless. Trust me, nothing would change if everyone else reached the same conclusion.
It's supposed to evoke the question: What is art? Something you piss on, I always assumed.
Actually, scratch that, one thing would change: You'd play a game that was nothing but a white screen ... and many keen artistic minds would argue that the point all along was for you to get up and blow into your CD feeder. Fuckin' deep, man.
Just shut up and keep doin' what you're doin'
Let me make one important thing clear: As cynical as I am by nature, there's absolutely no way I could completely discredit the entire history of the art world. I come from a creative background, so it's impossible for me to deny the significant impact that certain forms of art and specific art pieces have had on world cultures and the human condition. The best of art has brought the most rigid of grown men to tears, and has inspired a lot of us to do either what we do today, or what we aim to do in the future. Still, I would make the argument that such works were significant because they were skillful representations of whatever influenced their creation, not simply because they were ever considered "art."
Caravaggio was a pretentious sot with a reputation for sword dueling (yes, dueling), who created The Crucifixion of Saint Peter because he wanted to craft something admirable and make decent money in return, not because he wanted the now-worthless title of "artist." The games industry is full of similar people, and I would be willing to bet my first-born child (that I never plan on having) that the Caravaggios, Kubricks, Schafers, and Levines of this world would have made the exact amazing things they did, with or without the "art" stamp of approval.
The point of this article is not to argue whether or not games are art; my point, if you haven't figured it out yet, is that it doesn't matter. Games are what they are, and no mere single-syllable designation is going to change that. Therefore, you can be assured that further debate on the subject in the future is probably just as pointless as the individual who couldn't think of anything better to discuss. I know that's a blatantly hypocritical statement, considering everything I've just written, but please consider this nothing more than a declaration of my hope that this meaningless debate dies a sudden and permanent death. I keep seeing random articles pop up about this stinking subject; enough is enough.
Mere "artists" don't make powerful scenes like these. Incredible talents and perceptive minds do.
This is where I tell any perpetuators of this debate to refer to the title of this article. In fact, I would absolutely adore it if others tossed that little sentence into the next "10 Reasons Why Games are Art" feature they see. Not that I want to start some silly movement; so no need to attach my name to such a benevolent statement, if you ever do make it. Just a simple "Shut the fuck up" will do nicely. Then perhaps we could move on, onto more important things: such as focusing on making good games. Calling something "art" doesn't make it good, it just makes it a collector's item for some asshole who will never bother to truly appreciate it.
Oh, and if you're one of those people who still can't seem to get over the implied significance of videogames (as art or otherwise), Sir Anthony Hopkins once said, "If none of us ever acted again, the world would not come to a stop. If I never acted on stage again, so what? Who cares?"
If such a revered talent -- a master and undeniable respecter of his craft -- can so openly admit his chosen profession, as amazing and fun as it can be, is completely irrelevant to the welfare of human life, then you, as a hobbyist, can do the same.
So, please, shut the fuck up, smoke a bowl, order some Chinese food, relax, and just play some freakin' games.
The greatest comment I've ever read from a community member anywhere was, "Son of a s**t-eating Christ, not another 'games as art' argument. Excuse me while I alleviate my pain by shooting out my left ball." Nope, I'm not mak...
[Editor's note: Community member Jonathan Chang (Changston on the site!) visited the recent opening of the Smithsonian's new exhibit: The Art of Video Games. Here is his great write-up on the experience. -Chad]
Games as art. ...
Mar 21 //
00:00 -- A new journey.
00:02 -- I move around for the first time.
00:03 -- Running through the sand, I experiment with my abilities. Huh. I just flashed some kind of light power. What does that do ...?
00:05 -- The mountain comes into view. I gasp. Gorgeous.
00:09 -- I learn to glide.
00:11 -- Ah, that's what that flash does. I activate a pack of flowing fabric and sail through the air. Beautiful.
00:12 -- I reach a circle of light and start to meditate.
00:13 -- Who is this shadowy character standing before me? And what will I find at that mountain?
00:14 -- I see a glimpse of someone running away from me in the distance. Did my eyes play tricks on me?
00:16 -- Whoa. Another player just joined me. I will follow him or her to see where they lead.
00:21 -- I run through the rolling sands with my new friend. We don't speak, but we guide each other on the correct path.
00:23 -- I made a new friend.
00:24 -- Our joint meditation begins.
00:25 -- I think about my real-life brother, and how much I care for him. I would love to experience this with him.
00:26 -- The sands part before us. We continue forward.
00:27 -- A shooting star? I can't take my eyes off it. The mountain is getting closer.
00:28 -- My partner disappeared. Did he not like me?
00:29 -- I sit down at the top of a dune to take in the beauty of the world around me.
00:30 -- I want to move forward, but this moment of reflection is quite beautiful. Maybe I will stay here for just a few more minutes ...
00:33 -- Oh! A flying ... carpet? Scarf? It is showing me the way! I have to follow.
00:34 -- The flying carpet has friends! And one of them is carrying me forward! Nice to interact with something -- anything! -- in this vast desert.
00:35 -- The friendly carpets dance and play around me as I head in the direction of the mountain. Their playful sounds of joy are comforting.
00:37 -- So this is where the carpets were leading me ...
00:40 -- My friend is back! But his scarf is much longer. Is it the same friend? Or is this someone new? He greets me with a friendly flash of his power. I didn't realize how much I missed having someone around.
00:43 -- We have reached a dark, scary place. And my friend is running so far ahead ...
00:44 -- Come back!
00:45 -- I am all alone again. But at least the carpets are here to guide me.
00:46 -- Maybe it's my fault my friend left. Maybe I was moving too slow. I miss him ...
00:47 -- Another friend appears!
00:48 -- I am abandoned right away. Please don't leave me! I need some help in this part!
00:50 -- Alone again, but entering a new area. I slide down sand, my scarf blowing behind me. The music picks up as I surge ahead. I feel better about being by myself. The experience is exhilarating.
00:51 -- I land softly at the base of some falling sand. An orange glow surrounds me and the nearby ruins.
00:55 -- Secrets are hidden everywhere in this massive area. A documented history? A series of clues? Clues to what?
00:58 -- Again, I slide down a sand drift. My heart races. A smile forms on my face. The mountain appears, silhouetted against the setting sun. A gorgeous sight.
00:59 -- I reach the bottom as day turns to night right before me. A new friend is waiting for me. Hopefully this one will stick by my side.
01:00 -- We enter the familiar glowing circle of light. A figure stands before me.
01:02 -- As I wake from meditation, my friend is gone. Again. Alone. My heart hurts.
01:03 -- Night. A beam of moonlight illuminates the sand below me.
01:04 -- As I walk into the dark horizon, my real-life dog Luna curls up at my feet and goes to sleep. Her warmth makes me feel better. Less alone. I pet her and tell her I love her.
01:07 -- A room full of flowing scarves! They move like seaweed at the bottom of a deep blue sea.
01:09 -- I fall to the bottom of a dark room. Trapped. It's dark. How do I get out?
01:10 -- A flash of light. What is it? No, wait, who is it? It's my friend! He is back! He flashes his light as if to guide me towards him. He is helping me!
01:11 -- I still don't know how to get out of here. But my friend won't leave me. He flashes his light to help me see.
01:14 -- I panic. I can't find a way out of the hole. I don't want my friend to leave!
01:15 -- He doesn't leave. He stays right there, flashing his light to show me the way. I flash back as if to say thank you.
01:16 -- Aha! I can use the "seaweed"! I glide up a scarf as if it were a ladder. I make it to the top of the deep pit. My friend is standing there. He waited this whole time. I flash once more. Thank you, friend. Thank you for not leaving me.
01:18 -- We move forward into a dark cave. Together. A stone monster emerges from the sand, but quickly flies off.
01:20 -- What is that in the distance? It is getting closer. It looks like ... THE MONSTER! It is back! It puts me in its sights and attacks. My friend tries to distract him, but it doesn't work. I am hit.
01:21 -- Recovering, I run behind a pillar for protection. My friend joins me.
01:22 -- We run forward from the monster. More monsters begin to give chase.
01:23 -- We slide down a hill, the monsters right behind us. They get closer. Closer.
01:24 -- At the last second, the monsters are knocked away by a field of light we activate using our powers. That was close. I catch my breath.
01:25 -- We meditate.
01:26 -- When I awake from my meditation, my friend is still there. He is still there! I smile. I am beginning to really like this new partner of mine.
01:27 -- We journey forward.
01:28 -- A massive tower stands before us.
01:35 -- By working together, my friend and I make it to the top of the complicated structure.
01:36 -- We enter another circle of light, side-by-side.
01:37 -- The music crescendoes just as the meditation begins. Breathtaking.
01:38 -- The mediation is over. A door opens.
01:39 -- As I run down a snow-filled hallway, I have glimpses of my family, friends, and loved ones. I think about how much I care for them. I smile.
01:40 -- The base of the mountain. I am almost there.
01:41 -- A snowstorm starts to build.
01:42 -- We find some shelter behind a few ornate stones to avoid being blown away.
01:43 -- One of the monsters is back, but far in the distance.
01:45 -- My friend falls behind on the snowy cliffs. I send out flashes of light to reassure him I am there.
01:48 -- We rest by a lantern, discovering a hidden secret.
01:50 -- We continue making our way up the side of the mountain. Snow blows all around us.
01:51 -- I see the monster again in the distance. I turn back to my friend, but he is gone. I lost him in the snow.
01:52 -- My search ends in heartbreak. He is nowhere to be found. The music seems to know this. It grows more menacing by the second.
01:53 -- My friend ... where did he go? Did he lose me as well? Did he abandon me?
01:55 -- I can't just wait around. I have to continue. But we have been through so much ...
01:56 -- The monster keeps circling the area. I have to move on. Sorry, friend. Sorry for losing you. Thank you for everything.
01:58 -- The monster attacks! I am thrown across the snow.
02:00 -- Another attack! I don't know how much more of this I can take!
02:02 -- I spot a path in the side of a cliff. I slowly make my way there. Scared. Sad. Alone.
02:03 -- Safety. From the snow. From the monster. Let me rest here for a bit ...
02:04 -- Was it my fault? Did I lose my friend? He helped me so much.
02:05 -- I have to move on.
02:06 -- The monster. Oh, please not now. Go away! You are scaring me!
02:07 -- Run! Run! It's coming! Just a little farther ...
02:08 -- Safe.
02:10 -- Wait. This lantern. This looks familiar.
02:11 -- It hits me. No. Oh no. I am going the wrong way. I am back at the start of the mountain trail. The snow must have turned me around. Now I know why I lost my friend. I have been going the wrong way! I am so sorry, friend. I failed you.
02:12 -- Back to my journey. I have to continue on ...
02:15 -- Back to the spot I lost my friend. Sorry again.
02:17 -- A quick glimpse of the mountain helps me focus. I must get there.
02:20 -- Approaching a temple. Leaving the snowy wasteland behind is making me feel a little better.
02:22 -- I am covered with snow as I make my way along the edge of the temple. The winds are brutal.
02:25 -- A flash. Of what?
02:27 -- It's hard to walk. The mountain is fading away. It is silent.
02:28 -- I collapse.
02:29 -- Surrounded by strangers. Or friends? I am revived. I shoot into the sky. My emotions are out of control. I am on the verge of tears.
02:30 -- The top of the mountain. I am reborn.
02:31 -- I fly freely. Unhindered. Unafraid.
02:32 -- The mountain peak is so close!
02:33 -- I glide ahead. Faster. Faster. Nothing can stop me!
02:34 -- I am free. I am happy. So, so happy!
02:35 -- This is glorious!
02:36 -- I am light itself! The mountain peak is right there!
02:38 -- I have arrived.
02:39 -- I walk forward into the light.
02:40 -- I think about all the friends on my journey. All the friends I have lost. I think about my family. My loved ones. My entire body fills with nothing but love.
02:41 -- A bell chimes.
02:42 -- Peace.
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Jan 27 //
No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Wii)Developer: Grasshopper ManufacturePublisher: UbisoftReleased: January 26, 2010MSRP: $49.99
Like its prequel, No More Heroes 2 focuses on Travis Touchdown, the living embodiment of the modern American videogame fan. In the first game, Travis started out as a regular guy. By the end of the story, he had become the #1-ranked assassin in the world, found out that his twin brother was married to the woman he'd been trying to seduce for the entire game, and discovered even creepier stuff about his half-sister Jeane. Speaking of Jeane, Travis also named his cat after her. He pets his cat pretty regularly, and just sort of stares off into space as he does so -- not something you see most videogame tough-guys do in their off time.
That's Travis, though; a man and a boy at the same time, predictable in some ways and completely unpredictable in others. Largely ruled by his instincts, he seems to value getting laid, kicking ass, and pulling off Bruce Campbell-quality one-liners more than anything else. You'll have him pegged as a douchebag alpha male one second, and then the next you'll see him do something humane, or even downright sensitive. He's also videogame character who's somewhat aware that he is a videogame character, and isn't always happy about it. He actually quit being an assassin (and in doing so, being a gamer) after the first game, but Sylvia (the game's mysterious narrator and head of the United Assassins Association, a metaphor for the game's developers themselves) has sucked him back into the game, almost literally.
Sexual innuendo and stylish violence are as unapologetic as they are constant in the No More Heroes world. The game vacillates between moments of horrific gore, ridiculous displays of sexuality, sudden surrealism, absurdist humor, cultural references, and sincerely beautiful words and pictures. You'll see a man rip off his own head one minute, and another frozen in carbonite the next. Later you'll see Travis' pet cat Jeane use her paws to kick the crap out of a fishing lure (with kung fu movie sound effects to match). Then, seconds later in a combat mission, you might see Travis himself turn into a giant cat and maul some strangers with his paws. These events are all interspersed between cut-aways to a lovely, mysterious sex worker who sits opposite the player on the wrong side of a one-way mirror. She describes the game's events to you from time to time, and always in the past tense. Why? You may never know.
No More Heroes 2 differs a little from the original in terms of overall tone. I'd say this game is brighter and more palatable on the whole, even with blood splattering everywhere as Travis splits his enemies in two. Part of that comes from the fact that the graphics, music, and writing are just better this time around, but that's not all. It also has to do with Travis, and how he's changed. If the first No More Heroes was Travis proving to himself that he was worth something while severing connections to his previous ideals, this game is about him learning who he is now and who he's connected to. Once a loner, he ends up with at least three people over at his bachelor pad over the course of the game, and two of them even land a spot in his bed. His world isn't as bleak and lonely as it once was. It's actually a pretty awesome place now.
Part of that comes from how the game plays. Gone is the quiet, uneventful overworld of the first game. It's been replaced by an equally real-feeling, instantly gratifying system that more or less amounts to a giant map. When I first heard about this idea, I hated it. I actually enjoyed the open world of the first game, despite all its faults. That said, I don't miss it at all now that I've played No More Heroes without it. Seeing the camera zoom out from your current location, and then into the location you've just moved to, is in itself fun. In fact, almost every little thing about this game is fun. The side-game jobs and workouts (for you and your cat) are fun (with one exception). The cut-scenes, though occasionally a little frame-y, are constantly fun. Perhaps most importantly, combat missions -- which make up roughly half of the game's content -- are also always fun, even more so than they were in the first game.
Everything about the combat in the first game has been expanded upon. For starters, you can now play with the Classic Controller, which will please fans of more traditional beat-'em-up gameplay. There are also ten different types of regular enemies now, and their AI is greatly improved. In terms of the combat system itself, all the ideas from the previous game, like the side-step maneuver, the high/low attacks, the wrestling moves, charge attacks, combos, and more, are back in the sequel. A big change is that there are now four distinctly different forms of weaponry for Travis to wield: a regular beam katana (whatever that is); the faster, more powerful katana that Travis obtains at the end of the first game; a new katana that grows in length and power the more aroused Travis gets; and a set of dual katanas that are amazing for huge, high-speed combos.
Speaking of arousal, Travis's level of metaphorical horniness plays an even bigger role this time around. Like in the first game, Travis's sword is a thinly veiled symbol of his "manhood" (that means his cock, by the way), and when it starts to get weak, you'll need to wank the Wii Remote a bit to get it going again. On top of that, the game now keeps track of how many hits you've taken and how many you've dealt out. Kick a lot of ass without taking a hit (or pick up an erotic magazine), and your arousal (symbolized by a little low-res pixel tiger in the left hand corner of the screen) will start to walk across the screen and turn red. The redder he gets, the more powerful one of your beam katanas gets. A red, fire-breathing tiger will give you a random chance to enter "Darkside mode" next time you kill somebody. That's when Travis may turn into that tiger I told you about, or gain any of four other special time-sensitive powers. You can also store up your arousal and release it into Darkside mode on command by hitting the minus button. It sounds like a little thing, but it actually goes a long way towards making every fight interesting.
So yeah, combat is fun, but that's nothing special for a videogame, right? Perhaps more impressive is how fun the game is when you're doing things that aren't supposed to be fun, like working or exercising. In order to earn money in No More Heroes 2 (which is optional this time around), you'll have to play old-school videogames, which is sort of a dream come true for most of us. I was skeptical about the game's "8-bit job missions" when I first heard about them. A lot of developers are trying to cash in on the retro revival that's going on right now with cheap, uninspired '80s "tribute" games. Thankfully, that's not what Grasshopper Manufacture has presented to us here. These old-style side-games are really well done, and would have made for great retail titles back in the days when Clu Clu Land was a moderate hit. They look good, sound even better (both music and sound effects) and almost always feature multiple stages and difficulties. For instance, the space job Star Chores, which plays a bit like Lunar Rover from the C64 days, is endlessly fun.
They also get a lot harder the deeper you get into them. For instance, I still can't beat the giant scorpions in the Luigi's Mansion/Pac-Man-inspired Bug Out, but not because the game is unfair. It just requires practice and excellent reflexes, and frankly, I was trying to beat NMH 2 as quickly as I could, so I gave up after five or six tries. Likewise, the game's exercise systems (also in 8-bit form) can get really tough. There are two types of workouts, one for stamina and one for strength. Each has eight levels of difficulty, and you'll want to train with them after every boss fight, though you'll probably have more trouble getting past the last strength exercise than you will any of those bosses. Seriously, the eighth strength exercise is on par with the last level of Bit.Trip BEAT. It's that tough.
Less stressful is the act of exercising your cat Jeane, who's gotten super-fat since the first game. I genuinely enjoyed these cat-training segments, and one of my few complaints about No More Heroes 2 is that after Jeane gets into shape, you can't train her anymore (and you can't make her fat again, either). I also could have used more of the Bizarre Jelly Five shmup and anime that you can play anytime on Travis's TV. Suda51 has hinted that he'd like to make a full Bizarre Jelly Five WiiWare game, and I hope he does. I ended up going back to this shmup more than a few times, partially to see if it would unlock anything, and partially just to try and beat my high scores. I probably would have played it more, but after a while, I started to feel guilty, like I had more important stuff to do.
It's weird to feel guilty about procrastinating in a videogame world by playing a videogame that's in the videogame, but that's the sort of deconstructionist trickery that No More Heroes is known for. The game isn't shy about taking a look at other popular games as well. There are two levels in NMH 2 that Travis accesses through "a dimensional gateway" that takes him to places that look a lot like other videogames. There is a hillside graveyard in one such level that looks exactly like the one from from Resident Evil 4 (a game made by Suda51's buddy Shinji Mikami). It even features chainsaw-wielding maniacs. I swear, when I first played this level, I was sure I was playing Resident Evil 4 again. I had a visceral reaction to the setting, and to the sound of the chainsaw, like I was sure I was about to die. Is this shameless borrowing, coincidence, or something more?
There's another level that seems a lot like a Metal Gear Solid title (a series created by another one of Suda51's buddies, Hideo Kojima). Stealth-style gameplay, searchlights, and a boss that seems like a cross between Psycho Mantis and one of the beauties from Metal Gear Solid 4 all make the cut. To me, these references all play out more like tributes, though there is one more "dimensional gateway" level that I'm not so sure about. I think it may be a reference to GTA, but at the end of the level, you fight a sexy bikini woman named Alice who wields multiple beam katanas, General Grievous-style. She also complains that living a life that's only about killing and trying to rise to greater heights of power is a trap she can't get out of. Could that be a critique on the direction the GTA games are going? I'll be crapped if I know, but it's fun to try to figure out.
Not all of the game's bosses are this thought-provoking. All fifteen of them are visually striking, but two or three of them are otherwise pretty forgettable. That's about the same amount of throwaway bosses as the first game, which had fewer bosses in total, so the overall ratio is better. The thirteen or so boss fights that are memorable are some of my favorite ever. Kimmy Howel is a new legend in my opinion, and I hope to see her in future Grasshopper games. Speaking of which, there are quite a few bosses here who are returning from the first game. Even better, you actually get to play as some of them (sexy teenager Shinobu and Travis's twin Henry), if only on a limited-time basis. Henry is incredibly fast, so fast that I actually felt like I was playing a game based on The Flash during his level. Shinobu is more the multi-talented type. Unlike Travis and Henry, she can jump and dash and fire projectiles. This makes for a lot of unexpected fun. If there is ever a No More Heroes 3, I wouldn't mind if Shinobu was the star.
Clearly I could go on about this game forever, and I haven't even talked about whore/game developer metaphors, the giant robot battles, the Takashi Miike cameo (seriously), all the awesome collectible toys, clothes, and furniture you can get for your room, or the unlockable Boss Rush mode you get for beating the game. Man, the bosses are so much tougher in Boss Rush mode; trying to take them on again was a total rude awakening. I only got killed by the tougher bosses six or seven times each during the main game, but in Boss Rush mode, they're murdering the fuck out of me. I can only beat one of them with my current skills, and even that was with one hit point left.
I guess that brings me to the "flaws" section of this review. Is it a flaw that some of the bosses were a little easy the first time around if it didn't detract from the experience, and there is a higher difficulty unlocked after you beat the game that makes them harder, and a kick-ass Boss Rush mode that makes them even harder than that? Is it a flaw to say that, right now, I feel that the ending is a little anti-climactic, although the last boss fight (which may or may not be a parody of/tribute to Batman: Arkham Asylum) is as amazing as they come? Is it lame that Shinobu isn't he best jumper, or is it just a defining character trait? Is it bad that the last job you unlock, the only one that doesn't go 8-bit like the rest of them (a scorpion catching game called Stings So Good) is really annoying to play when compared to a previously unlocked, 8-bit work-game (Bug Out) that focuses on the same task? Could this be the developer's way of saying that "work" based gaming (like Paperboy and Burger Time!) used to be more fun in the old days?
The thing about Suda's games is that there is always that question -- "Is that a mistake, or is it a comment on gaming/society/meaning of life?" It's an impossible question to answer, and one that invigorates Suda's fans as much as it infuriates his detractors. That's the thing about No More Heroes 2 that will probably puzzle people on both sides of that divide the most: the game is really low on anything that could be interpreted as a mistake. It's extremely well crafted from beginning to end, and rarely (if ever) sacrifices fun for delivering a message. No More Heroes 2 still makes me laugh, scream, think, and violently air-masturbate, even more so after the first play-through. That's more than I can say for almost any game this generation.
Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
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