I'm approaching the end of No More Heroes 2, with a save right before the final ranked battle, with most of my stats maxed. I agree with the general criticism that it feels unfinished, especially with the lack of swords and the oh-so-brief playable segments with Shinobu and Henry (moreso Henry), but overall I think it's a better game than the first one. It's made me think of why I dig No More Heroes as a whole so much, despite so many of their flaws, and I think it's because they create a bridge across the Western/Eastern cultural divide in an entirely unique way.
It's no secret that Japanese console development is floundering, with their own market shrinking while the Western market is expanding. Still, it'd be a mistake to say that the Japanese should make games primarily for a Western audience. They might be able to look at the games we like and try to emulate them, but ultimately, they might not understand why we like the games we do.
As has been said many times before, looking at bits of other cultures is something like looking at American culture through a distorted mirror. Sometimes this works in favor, sometimes it...doesn't. But there are some examples which have strong Western influences which have gone over well in both territories, so let's take a look at a few series which accomplish this.
Capcom has excelled this generation because it's one of the few Japanese developers that really understands Western tastes. Look at Resident Evil - at first glance, there's really nothing that seems notably Japanese about it, since so much of it is based off Western horror movies in the first place. There are some incongruities, notably the awful voice acting and the cheesy dialogue from RE4, but these don't stand out all that much, considering that the zombie movie genre is already loaded with irony. Dead Rising is very similar in that regard, although I can't imagine a Western developer using anything like that game's timed structure or save system. And the same applies with Lost Planet, despite the main character being modeled after a Korean star. However, these all tip on one side of the scale though - they're almost too Western, I think.
On another topic - Metal Gear. Hideo Kojima has been in love with American cinema, something which has been obvious since his days working on Snatcher and the original Metal Gear. But the way he translates some of this influence into his games is completely hit or miss. For example, one of my favorite lines from Jeremy Blaustein, the game's translator, talks about how the names for the villains would sound totally ridiculous to a native English speaker. Kojima refused to change them. Blaustein admitted that the names ended up working, but not for the same reasons that they would in Japanese - "Decoy Octopus" sounds absurd, but that lends itself to the game's lovable goofiness. Kojima, however, he doesn't know where to draw the line between "adorably cheesy" and "just plain stupid". For instances of the latter, we point to "can love bloom on the battlefield?", the very concept of Rose, the whole node/nerd debacle, the President feeling Raiden up, Otacon's step-mom banging confession, and everything involved with that soda drinking monkey. I'm not sure how much of this is due to a cultural divide - the naming definitely is - and how much of it is just Kojima being an occasionally terrible writer, but in the end it's still weird and distracting. If Ryan Payton's task was truly to provide an American perspective on MGS4, then he did a pretty bad job of it.
And here's Grasshopper did such an outstanding job with No More Heroes - it combines the best of crazy Japanese artistic and game design sensibilities, but largely sidesteps the awkwardness that seems to come inherent with them.
As much as Western developers have picked up the slack this gen, the graphical styles are still notably uniform, and the soundtracks are the same way - they take too much from mainstream cinema. No More Heroes is the antithesis of that - it's got style in droves, and what's more, it manages to pull it off with some level of restraint, without devolving into the big-hair-big-swords excess that's become disparagingly associated with shounen anime (and JRPGs, for that matter.) Despite the fact that it still has ridiculously over-the-top villains with a just silly amounts of violence, it manages to find that nebulous balance where Kojima - and for that matter, the Final Fantasy games - really haven't.
The writing doesn't feel particularly foreign either - some of the minigames titles like Man the Meat, Lay the Pipe, Coconut Grabber and Getting Trashed are double entendres that only make sense in English, and it makes me wonder how they'll be translated into Japanese, if they are at all. When beginning any of the 8-bit minigames, you can hear Travis blowing into a cartridge - since the whole blinking fiasco with the NES was largely due to the system's lousy lock out chip, which didn't exist on the Famicom, I've always thought of this as a distinctly Western thing. (Might be wrong on this, though.) (I'm also going to be pedantic and say that the clicking noise when the cartridge is inserted doesn't sound enough like an NES.) And I don't know how they sound to a native Japanese, but in English, the names Santa Destroy and Travis Touchdown are pretty damned awesome. There's the Bizarre Jelly loli anime, of course, but all of that is very tongue-in-cheek and extremely self-deprecating.
The absolute perfect metaphor for this is Shinobu, the sole surviving boss from the first game (semi-spoiler: kind of) and a playable character in the second. Despite being a samurai influenced by Harajuku fashion sense (so super Japanese), she's also black (so very not Japanese at all), complete with an intensely stylized bright white afro. She represents a unification of two cultures, and is all the more awesome because of it.
There are still some missteps, though. The whole overworld in the first game seemed like an attempt to emulate GTA and the like, something which didn't really work out since it was so empty. And the peep show scenes in the second game, what with all of the closeups on the jiggling boobs and the panty shots, are uncomfortably voyeuristic. I'm not entirely sure I can explain the nature of America's sexual attitudes, although I'm going to try. A Japanese person might look at Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and wonder why that was OK but the bouncy girls in Dead or Alive are creepy. I think the answer, from an American perspective, is that we don't want it to be so overt. We like looking at girls in skimpy clothing, but we don't want it tossed in our faces, because such pandering makes us feel uncomfortable and guilty. (That might just be my Catholic upbringing, though.)
I find it curious how hugely the original No More Heroes flopped in Japan. Perhaps it was the result it feeling to Western? The line, the balance, is going to be different for everyone. Or perhaps it was just it being on the Wii - that's apparently what Marvelous felt, given that they're putting it out on the HD platforms in a few months. It would be interesting to hear what the Japanese think of it, at least.