Thursday, 7 January 2010


Only at the start of this week Sega of America's development director Constantine Hantzopoulos cast doubt on the company's plans to release further mature-rated Wii titles, following the poor sales of both The Conduit and MadWorld, with the admission: "Are we going to do more mature titles for the Wii? Probably not. It was a space that was open and we took a gamble on it. It's like, 'wow, there's no mature games on the Wii, is there an audience out there?'. We did some research and it said that there was an audience out there." This research was presumably flawed.

At the time of MadWorld's release back in March I read its delirious, quasi-slapstick tone as a satire of console-based videogaming's overwhelming focus on violence as entertainment. The issue of violent games is of course something that will be discussed for a while yet, with a new controversy ever ready - hello MW2! - to drag the issue back into the mainstream. But on reflection MadWorld is also something else: a mockery of the average internet forum dweller's clamour for more violent and yes, "mature" Wii games. For MadWorld is at such an aesthetic extreme to the style of the Wii's more expected software that the fact it failed to sell speaks volumes about the console's demographic, and perhaps how detached some gamers might be feeling at the inarguable rise of the so-called 'casual' market. Although the same example could be made of Dead Space: Extraction's commercial failure, or indeed Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the difference is that only MadWorld feels like a conscious comment on the very console on which it is played. In this context MadWorld wouldn't really work - or be as fun to play - on any other format.

The following text is my original review of MadWorld, previously published by D+PAD Magazine in March 2009.

It’s with no little sense of delicious timing that MadWorld arrives in the same week that House Of The Dead: Overkill was confirmed as having broken the world record for use of expletives in a videogame. Of course, the most noteworthy statistic is not this liberal use of swearing (a frankly brilliant 189 uses of the f-word) or MadWorld’s predilection for a bit of the old ultra violence (more on that later), but that both titles are exclusive to the cuddly, family-friendly Wii.

Nintendo’s sales-freak of a console, a veritable money-printing machine, is nothing if not riddled with anomalies: demographics have been skewed, decades-old control system conventions have been upended…two years on even the price is set to increase. Similarly, whereas games like the aforementioned Overkill and MadWorld would be relatively generic in terms of subject matter on any other console, here they certainly stand out, on first impression, as total contrasts to the inclusive, immediate, industry-shaping titles that have otherwise defined Wii.

MadWorld is the brainchild of one PlatinumGames, a Japanese development house founded by former key personnel of Clover Studio (the now dissolved branch of Capcom that birthed the indelible likes of God Hand, Viewtiful Joe and Okami). Similar to its forebears, MadWorld’s charm rests on a gleeful combination of irreverence, pop-cultural sass (the art style and pulp fiction tone is a recognizable nod to Frank Miller’s Sin City) and more than a little wink towards the history of videogaming in general. However all this risks being overlooked by simply focusing on the one reason why MadWorld exists, the one hook that holds the entire crazy experience together: its depiction of violence, the most striking example in videogaming for quite some time.

Much has been made of this violence, with the expected outcries from the expected corners, and to a certain extent MadWorld lives up to the hype. Laid out on paper the charge sheet would indeed make uncomfortable reading for Mr Daily Mail: impaling with signpost, impaling on a wall of spikes, being first impaled with a signpost before being thrown into a wall of spikes… But such a treatment stripped of context would be utterly missing the point. In its way MadWorld is almost on the same side as the dissenters: it agrees that videogaming violence is often ludicrous, unnecessary and glorified, and underlines this by showing us just how ludicrous, unnecessary, glorified – and damn entertaining – violence within the medium can get.

The stylized visuals are perfect for this message: less graphic novel and more bubblegum comic book, the black and white aesthetic is certainly uncompromising, and leaves no room for pretensions of realism or gravitas. Though in the midst of a large brawl things can sometimes become disorientating, the frequent swathes of bright red blood and yellow exclamations help liven the palette. The pretext for these exercises in brutality is that lead character Jack (who recalls an even more immoral Hellboy) is in a game show called Death Watch, his increasingly inventive way with weapons slowly winning over more viewers and sponsors (there’s also something about a virus – the cut scenes are superbly directed, the narrative surprisingly meaty). Both Smash TV and Manhunt covered similar issues of voyeurism and playing to a crowd, albeit with nowhere near the outrageous disregard for subtlety.

Despite the surface appearance suggesting otherwise, MadWorld is actually, in its structure and mechanics, a lot closer to the compilation party games that have come to define Wii. The driving force behind everything is the quest for a high score: it’s your means of progress, of competition between players and your reward for an inventive use of the various mini-games, contraptions and secret rooms scattered across each self-contained arena. Neatly underpinning this all is the thirty minute time-limit for each stage. Though the game is short and not especially challenging on the first playthrough, its long-term appeal lies in scouring each level for the best score opportunities, as well as trying to clear the game on the unforgiving hard mode. MadWorld may be repetitive on a base level, but there’s enough variety and emphasis on player experimentation to see the game prevail.

The controls are another large factor in MadWorld’s success. Any errors in input (more often than not intended side swipes tend to come out as uppercuts) are compensated by generosity – you’re never required to be precise in the manner of, say, Trauma Centre – and a visual, visceral payoff. There’s a completely regressive pleasure in puling the Nunchuk and remote apart to rip someone’s head in two, or in swinging the remote back and forth to hammer an enemy into the side of a train. One of the reasons Manhunt 2 got into such censorial trouble for similar actions was because of its adherence to a more realist, consciously sensational agenda. MadWorld takes the more ridiculous, honest approach; PlatinumGames’ insistence on tapping into the fascination with high score tables hardwired into every gamer’s psyche ensures that underneath a game as visually brutal as God of War lies an experience as compulsive as Geometry Wars.

MadWorld may well be a highly nuanced comment on the role violence plays within our entertainment, as well as a gleeful two fingers to the Wii’s so-called casual audience. Right now we’re too engrossed in working out how best to combine a candlestick, meat grinder and exploding barrel on that zombie over there to care.

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