Do you remember being excited for the Wii? I sure do. I remember waiting in line for nearly three hours on a cold October morning, just to pre-order one. Back in ‘06 the Wii was Nintendo's promise to revolutionize our favorite game genres with a unique new interface that would make gaming more immersive than ever. Well, it's 2009 and for the most part that promise is still unfulfilled. Nintendo now caters to the casual crowd—bored housewives and grandparents who never played videogames before the Wii—and they've largely abandoned the hardcore gamers who’ve kept them in business since the ‘80s. We've begged and pleaded for more robust software on the Wii but Nintendo knows where their bread is buttered and they know they don’t have to keep any promises to the Nintendo faithful anymore. Aside from a few greats like Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3, Nintendo has been content to slap tech demos together into minigame collections, bundle them with a gimmicky peripheral and call it a game.
Ironically Nintendo's rival of old, Sega, is one of the few publishers who actually gets it. They understand that within the Wii's massive install base there is a hearty chunk of hardcore gamers, people who stood in line for those preorders, people who imagined more than lame minigames for the Wii. Sega knows that the Wii’s potential is being squandered, and its popularity exploited by lazy publishers (Nintendo included) who take advantage of the largely ignorant, cash-flush casual audience. Sega can see that there’s a lot of money to be made for a publisher that does some honest work and listens to its fans. That is why they are supporting developers who take the Wii platform seriously, developers like High Voltage Software and Platinum Games. Sega believes in the Wii and what it can do for gaming, even if Nintendo doesn’t. This is why we have MadWorld.
Like its more obscure cousin House of the Dead Overkill, Madworld is designed to see just how much they can get away with on the lily white, family friendly Wii. MadWorld, however, is not pure gratuity like Overkill; it has an artistic identity that strangely enough meshes well with its gruesome subject matter. Developer Platinum Games, the phoenix that rose from the tragic ashes of Clover Studios, took inspiration from Frank Miller’s Sin City when conceiving the game’s visual style and attitude. When the same people who made Viewtiful Joe and Okami are working on a game you know it’s going to be have a lot of artistic flair, but MadWorld is so striking because it’s so different from every Clover or Platinum did before. In fact, I don’t think any game developer has done anything quite like it.
MadWorld’s color palette consists almost entirely of three colors: black, white, and blood. There is little shading within the game’s graphic novel-noir world, creating a stark, sometimes harsh landscape that is all hard edges, grit and plasma. It is on this backdrop that Platinum tells its phenomenally violent and crudely humorous story.
You play Jack Cayman, a mercenary sent into the hellhole of Varrigan City. Some time prior to the start of the game the Manhattan-like Varrigan was besieged by the terrorists known as the Deathwatchers. The Deathwatchers saturated the city with a deadly virus, and the only way to get the cure is to participate in Death Watch, a televised, high stakes blood sport. As the city tears itself apart and the citizens kill each other out of desperation, wealthy betters contract professional Death Watch players to compete for the cure. Jack is hired by the mysterious Number 13 to compete, kill, and make him a lot of money. Jack may seem like he’s in Varrigan just for the sport and the cash, but he has a few ulterior motives as well. The plot isn’t Deus Ex or Eternal Darkness, but more akin to the campy-anime style of Metal Gear Solid and it does contain some nice twists and memorable characters.
There are some serious bits to the story but MadWorld always plays its violence and crudity purely for humor. This keeps it from getting pretentious and dull—similar games like Manhunt take themselves too seriously, and end up feeling like an angsty short story written a disgruntled 13-year-old desperately trying to look edgy. MadWorld looks artistic but Platinum understands that so much violence can only be played for laughs, and the seamless, intuitive gameplay follows suit.
Jack goes about his job in the vein of a traditional beat-em-up, and Sega kept the controls traditional too. Punches are mapped to the A button, while B revs up Jack’s signature chainsaw and Wii remote swipes swing it horizontally or vertically. The A button handles some context-sensitive actions, like carrying an object or hoisting a thug off the ground. As for the Nunchuk, the Z trigger makes Jack jump and a tap of the C button centers the camera, while holding it will lock on to an enemy. While holding a mook, shaking the Nunchuk makes Jack head-butt them, letting you stun a struggling enemy or even shatter their head. Swinging the remote with a baddie in hand will toss them overhead or with a shoulder throw, depending on how you swing.
The gestures were surprisingly responsive and simple to execute, and I appreciated that basic actions weren’t mapped to flailing waggle controls. The C-button lock doesn’t work well as it takes a few seconds to lock on and can get the camera turned around a bit, but it doesn’t ruin the experience.
With the intuitive control setup Jack handles as any typical brawler character would, but with the excessive flair of Sin City. Varrigan is divided into several levels populated by thugs and bosses, usually based on a theme like Asian Town or a medieval dungeon. Jack has thirty minutes in each level to rack up the highest score possible and unlock the final boss challenge, and the ways for Jack to score in Death Watch are nothing short of gruesomely brilliant. The only rule of the game is to kill the other contestants, but if Jack wants to score big he’ll have to do it creatively. To put this into perspective, remember that Jack has a chainsaw strapped to his arm as his standard weapon, and you are discouraged from using it too much because there are more inventive, point-rich ways to kill enemies.
For instance, Jack can drop a tire onto a thug, or jam a street sign through his neck, or impale him on a wall of spikes. Each of these methods is fun enough, but do all three of them in order and you’ll get a huge point bonus. And this one-two-three method is only the first that you are introduced to; indeed, it becomes vanilla after a while, encouraging you to seek out more ridiculous types of fatalities. The theme for each level gives you a wide variety of props, items and environmental objects to use in cruel and unusual ways.
Every level has an item that can be shoved onto an enemy to disorient them and make them look silly—anime doll heads in Asian Town, spike balls in the dungeon, and humorously enough, pirate hats in the ninja level (ninjas hate pirates more than anything). This “hat” prop is a bit uniform, but the traps and hazards in the levels are quite varied. Circular saws, crushing rollers and various spiky implements are the routine hazards, joined by piranha-filled fish tanks, lethal toilets and even a deep-frying vat for turning guys into tempura. Jack can supplement his chainsaw with an arsenal of portable weapons like a spiked bat, torch and dual daggers. If he weakens an enemy enough he can perform grisly fatalities with his fists or weapons, and while the chainsaw lets him do some nice finishers, the other weapons are even nastier. Add to this several types of environmental bladed devices and you have a pretty deep list of ways to dispatch the other contestants.
As the levels progress you see weirder and weirder themes. At the beginning of the game you’ll be fighting thugs and gang bangers but toward the middle zombies will show up, followed by werewolves, aliens in what look like Imperial stormtrooper knockoffs. MadWorld is like a bizarre anime in that it satirizes several genres of storytelling with clever stereotypes, but never strays too far from its own central theme and style. Each level also has a miniboss, hidden Death Watch challenge and the ever-entertaining midlevel Bloodbath challenge.
Once you rack up enough points through random stylistic slaughter, a stereotypical pimp character will introduce the level’s Bloodbath challenge. These are minigames where you must toss as many enemies into a trap before the timer runs out. These range from a speeding train, human fireworks, a giant crushing hand that rises out of a bottomless pit, and even bottles of fizzy “mad juice” which you shake up with the Wii remote, jam down an enemy’s throat, and then watch as they spiral off into the distance.
Do well enough on the Bloodbath challenge and you’re probably close to unlocking the boss fight. I don’t want to spoil any of the bosses for you but rest assured that every one is a lot of fun to fight, with some truly epic finishers to end each battle. You’ll see a lot of gesture prompts during these boss battles, which initiate quick-time “power struggle” events but these are often the most spectacular and extreme parts of the game, and again the gestures work very well. You’ll also get a couple linear motorcycle levels to break up the on-foot stuff, and while these sections are the weakest part of MadWorld, they do offer a nice break from the action which, simply through the concentration of ludicrous violence, can get a bit exhausting.
All of this high-contrast gratuitous gore would get stale without the classy visuals, which work spectacularly well. Equally important, however, is the excellent sound design. First of all you have a great cast of voice actors. Jack is portrayed by the highly prolific Steven “Spike Spiegel” Blum of Cowboy Bebop fame, which adds some cult legitimacy. The ubiquitous Jim Ward and fan-favorite Dwight Shultz voice a couple of the villains, and then of course you have John Dimaggio and Greg Proops as the ever-present announcers. Because Death Watch is televised live, the two color commentators are always talking about what you are doing at any given moment, in a darkly humorous and vulgar fashion. These comments tend to repeat too much, but the things these guys say are outrageous, and having both a Who’s Line guy and the voice of Bender and Marcus Fenix performing them is priceless. The commentary alone adds a whole layer of attitude to MadWorld that defines the game as unabashedly offensive.
The music of MadWorld is a collection of original hip-hop pieces written and performed by professional artists. I’m not much of a hip-hop fan and even I appreciated how well the music complimented the art and gameplay, I might go so far to say that it’s worthy of an official soundtrack release.
Most every element of MadWorld comes together into a meaty, old-school brawler that crosses as many lines as it conceivably can. The game is quite short—about 4 to 5 hours long—but in that short time I had more fun with a game than I’ve had in years. Laughing at the crude jokes, staring gape-mouthed at an act of brutality Jack had just executed, and reveling in the gratuity of it all was such an unabashedly fun experience. MadWorld has all the makings of a guilty pleasure game, but the art and execution lift it several notches above forgettable gore-fests like Manhunt.
It’s also interesting that over a decade later, Sega still does what Nintendon’t. They understood what the devious developers at Platinum had in mind: take the inherent limitations of the Wii, use them to their advantage, and craft a game that flies straight in the face of Wii Fit, Wii Music and the like. MadWorld is an enormous middle finger to the Wii’s family image, crude, stylish and artistically striking, and damn does it feel good.
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I had considerable doubt that MadWorld would be more than an exploitation game, but it’s been done so smartly that I can’t help but love it. Its few technical flaws aside, MadWorld is worth owning for the artistic angle alone, and the gameplay itself is tight, addictive and satisfyingly primal. Every hardcore Wii owner should have MadWorld in their collection.