Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 26, Bayonetta 2

Nintendo bought themselves a discarded Sega game, and it's one of the best decisions they've made in years.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Bayonetta 2 is a spectacle. A tremendous spectacle. The enemies, the battles, the boss fights, the intensity of it all, the speed and reflexes you’re expected to hone. It’s a beautiful, amazing spectacle. And while it asks a lot of you, it gives back so much more: Bayonetta just feels great to play, and it’s understandable why that is, given the people behind its creation and subsequent tweaking since the release of the initial entry in the series.

PlatinumGames are the action developer of these times, and what sets them apart is that they often feel like they’re ahead of said times. Not all of their games are massive sellers — the publisher they initially worked with after forming as a studio, Sega, famously dropped support for this sequel to Bayonetta due to low sales for Platinum’s output — but again, from where I’m sitting, much of that comes down to them trying things that don’t necessarily appeal to the largest audience. The Wii’s MadWorld was a black-and-white, violent beat-em-up that reveled in its own excess, and in some ways, felt out of place on the “blue ocean,” less-mature-focused Wii. Infinite Space, in what, at first glance, seems like an anomaly for Platinum, was a tactical space opera RPG for the Nintendo DS. I say “at first glance,” because the game world was expansive and rich, the systems complicated on the surface but rewarding once you took the time to learn them. Those are all pure Platinum hallmarks, even if the genre seems off at this stage of their life, and they’re the kind of trademarks that marked these developers’ games even before Platinum existed.

Before Platinum, there was Clover Studio, an in-house developer at Capcom. Clover (and the developers who would form it) was responsible for the Viewtiful Joe games, Okami, and God Hand, and the formation of Clover itself came out of issues between Capcom and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami. Mikami had promised that his return to the franchise, Resident Evil 4, would remain a GameCube exclusive as part of the Capcom Five, but Capcom ported it to Sony’s Playstation 2. Mikami and other key Capcom developers retreated inward into Clover, where they would focus on new IP, but it wouldn’t be long before Mikami and others like Hideki Kamiya would bail on Capcom and form their own independent ventures. Those ended up merging and becoming Platinum: Mikami would go on to direct the stellar Vanquish before leaving Platinum for his own studio, while Kamiya focused on Bayonetta for his Platinum directorial debut.

I mention a bunch of other games besides the one I’m writing about here in part to give you context as to just who it was, and what kind of experience there was, behind the creation of Bayonetta 2’s exceptional gameplay and impossibly fluid action. Kamiya’s oeuvre includes the aforementioned Viewtiful Joe and Okami, as well as Resident Evil 2, and the series most directly responsible for the existence of Bayonetta: the fast-paced, heaven-and-hell-obsessed Devil May Cry.

Despite the exceptional developmental pedigree behind Bayonetta, and the fact that it’s more of a leap forward for the action genre than Capcom’s own Kamiya-less efforts with Devil May Cry, it just didn’t sell particularly well. It sold over a million copies, but Sega was expecting more, much like Capcom had been expecting more. If you’ve been reading this series for a while now, you’re well aware that I don’t think sales have anything to do with the quality of a game, and the original Bayonetta is certainly proof of that idea. Bayonetta 2, though, even more so: not just because it’s superior to the original, but also because it sold even less thanks to being on the Wii U.

Bayonetta 2 ended up as a Wii U exclusive despite the original game’s presence as a multiplatform title because Nintendo put forward the money to make it happen. Sega had abandoned Platinum as a publisher and declined to fund development of Bayonetta 2, which meant the game was at risk of being canceled. Nintendo, wanting to fill a gap in their console’s library in the same way MadWorld had done on the Wii, in the same way their collaboration with Treasure put Sin & Punishment on the Nintendo 64, in the way that the Capcom Five deal was supposed to give the GameCube an injection of mature, third-party exclusives, swooped in and funded development. Considering Platinum’s output on Nintendo systems since — not just Bayonetta 2, but Star Fox Zero (number 78 on this list), Astral Chain (not top 101, but damn good, and now officially a Nintendo IP), and the upcoming Bayonetta 3 — it was a partnership that paid dividends for both parties, and will likely continue to do so going forward. Sales aside, the quality of what they do, to me, is unquestioned, and their efforts on Nintendo’s systems are evidence of that.

Anyway, Bayonetta 2. The story is still kind of bonkers, but it’s a lot easier to follow than it was in the original Bayonetta. Your focus, for the most part, is going to be on the action, however. The titular Bayonetta’s attacks are fast, fluid, and powerful, everything she does absolutely dripping with style, and that permeates throughout every part of the game’s design. She has guns on her shoes, people, and they aren’t just there because it’s odd or different to put them there. Bayonetta 2 is the kind of game that allows you to start breakdancing in order to attack enemies in all directions: obviously, you need some guns on your feet in that situation, since your hands aren’t always free. This is just practical.

It’s not just guns, though: like Devil May Cry’s Dante before her, Bayonetta masters a wide variety of demon weaponry, and, when she can rip it from their cold, dead fingers, angel weaponry, too. You see, Bayonetta is a witch, and the witches owe their souls to hell when they die — they get their powers from a contract with demons, and the demons expect to collect when a witch’s long life inevitably ends. And that end often comes at the hands of the heavens, who, as you can imagine, detest witches for their relationship to hell and their diversion from the traditional relationship between heaven, hell, and the “normal” plane of existence found on Earth.

In the original Bayonetta, the eponymous heroine fought angels and the forces of heaven, with demons on her side. In Bayonetta 2, she fights both heaven and hell, as fellow witch Jeanne has been kidnapped by unknown forces in hell. This makes for some new enemy types, as now you’re not just fighting angels, but also demons. You might think this really opens up the enemy designs, and while it does, the changes might not be as severe as you think. And that’s because the kind of angel the world of Bayonetta deals with isn’t your tall, white-robed, winged archangel type. It’s some Old Testament shit.

How many eyes can you put on one angel, anyway? How many cherubic faces fit onto a flesh-like mask fitted over a mass of muscle and bone, and also more eyes? Did you know that some angels are just like, giant guns with mouths and eyes, or maybe an arm that is also a whip? Platinum didn’t make humanoid angels the enemies here: they went to the Old Testament, terrifying-to-behold angels for inspiration, and took those concepts into the present day in a game about a seven-foot-tall witch with guns on her feet. Looking at what Kamiya and Co. came up with, it’s no wonder everyone in the Old Testament was scared shitless whenever an angel showed up.

Action isn’t constant, but is instead literally walled off. You do some platforming and exploring, and then some cosmic walls go up, and you fight some angels. Finish quickly and without taking much in the way of damage, and you will earn a gold or platinum medal. Take a bunch of hits, or fail to dispatch the enemies in a hurry, and you’ll be earning more like a bronze or the dreaded stone medals. Either way, the walls come down, but you’ll feel better or worse about yourself depending on the specifics of the outcome.

Some of these battles can take literal seconds if you know what you’re doing: they take much longer if you do not. There is a real flow of battle that you feel here, that allows you to avoid any attempt to damage you, but it’ll take practice before you get there. Witch Time is the key: dodge at the literal last second before being hit by an attack, and you freeze time around you for a spell, long enough to cause some major damage to whichever foes you dodged. Build up enough power, and unleash some massive attacks where Bayonetta summons demons from hell to attack, using her hair. Not a typo! The systems all feel great: Game Informer ran a piece earlier in 2021 that said Bayonetta is the “best-playing game ever made,” and it’s certainly up there in that specific arena:

Character action games such as the Devil May Cry, God of War, and Bayonetta series only work based on how good they feel to play. Because the action is fast and there's a lot happening on screen at any given moment, controls have to be responsive, quick, and feel right in order to not get lost in the chaos; it should look out of control, but the player should never not be in control. Bayonetta is one of the best examples of a character action game done right. Easy to play but tough to master, even when button mashing, you always feel in control of the flow of action. As you get better at the game, that control shifts to being in command of the action. Combined with stylish presentation, little details like time slowing just before an enemy attack (which in turn allows you to dodge, activating the time-stopping Witch Time, giving you the upperhand), and the ability to switch between two different weapon sets on the fly, combat feels incredibly precise.

I know a lot of people will take issue with such a bold statement. That in 12 years no developer across the global game industry has been able to top the heights of the Bayonetta series. I can hear the arguments now, about games such as The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3. But let me ask you: what do we always praise when we talk about these games? The stories. You know what else has stories? Books! You know what books don't have? The ability to spank an angel you just beat the s--t out of with big giant hair monsters and guns attached to stiletto heels, that's what. You show me one page in The Canterbury Tales where that happens and I'll change my tune. But until then Chaucer can suck a lemon for all I care.

There is more to a game and how good it is than just how it plays, as the article also mentions, but the point is that Bayonetta (and Bayonetta 2) nail how a game actually feels to play as well if not better than anything else out there. Not how it makes you feel, or what it makes you think, or how you engage with the story or its characters or whatever other stuff I use to justify where I rank Fire Emblem games on this list, but how the act of doing the thing the game is asking you to do feels. Witcher games might be critical darlings and beloved in the end, but they can feel shitty to play even when you aren’t discussing how much I dislike the amount of crafting you do in them. I like The Last of Us well enough, but you’ll never hear me praising its gameplay systems, which are done significantly better in plenty of other games that don’t have its story. To mention a game the author did not, I love Mass Effect, but do not ask me to name one part of its action that I enjoy, or you will begin to doubt my love for it.

Personally, I do like and care about how over-the-top the… well, everything of Bayonetta 2 is, in terms of story and characters. I do think about the way the game presents Bayonetta quite a bit — Maddy Myers’ article titled “Bayonetta Doesn’t Care If She’s Not Your Kink” is something I’ve been considering for seven years now, as it discusses how video game critics really just weren’t ready to talk about a character like her or how she’s presented. (Hell, it’s not fully my lane to explore to this day, which is one reason I’m linking Myers’ work.) Bayonetta herself, the character, is a joy to listen to, the world she inhabits and that exists in her orbit somehow both ridiculous and absolutely logical within the context Platinum has given you. The song “Moon River” plays a prominent role in Bayonetta 2: a remixed version of the tune is a battle theme in the game, and during the end credits, Bayonetta does a pole dance to an old version of it. None of this is a surprise to anyone who got to the point where they could see Bayonetta 2’s credits: it all makes sense, even when it doesn’t.

As Maddy Myers wrote, Bayonetta is clearly performing, all the time, and in a sexual way or at least with an implied sexuality. Performing for whom, though? She’s doing a bit, but she’s also very much herself and true to who she is, and it’s the confidence with which she’s her that draws you into the character and makes this whole world believable, as absurd as it can be.

Which is all a long way of saying that there’s more to Bayonetta than “just” how it plays, which is why it’s sitting here where it is on the list and in my mind. It feels great to play, better than almost anything you can name, but it also has a world I enjoy visiting and revisiting. How else am I supposed to feel about a fantastic action game with an amazing lead who at one point rides a Demon Unicorn in an on-rails shooter level as a break from the usual action?

You’ll want to play Bayonetta 2 more than just once, and not just so you can ride the Demon Unicorn again. As Platinum’s games always seem to be designed to do, you’re meant to play this game repeatedly. Play through on lower difficulties to learn the ins and outs of combat and the game’s systems, to familiarize yourself with the enemies and tactics. Earn your medals there, then move on to tougher difficulties. It’s not a super long game, as is to be expected from one where you are supposed to play three or four times to truly master it all, but even with the short length you’ll feel marked improvement as you progress. It might seem odd for me to say that my worst Bayonetta levels are always the early ones, and that I earn higher medals on the later, more difficult ones, but it’s because of how the game’s systems work, and how you adapt and learn and improve. I’m shaking the rust off early, re-learning how the game works, and then once I start to feel it, once I’m in that Bayonetta Zone, it’s over for those Old Testament nerds.

You can now pick up Bayonetta 2 on the Switch as well as the Wii U, as Nintendo ported it there from the latter like they did nearly everything worthwhile on that system. And if you haven’t yet played it, you truly should. It’s a joy to play, and like has been said repeatedly, it just feels great. Plus, it’ll tide you over until Bayonetta 3 releases in 2023 or whatever, whenever Platinum gets around to releasing the already announced Switch exclusive. If it’s anything like the first two games in the series, though, I’ll be happy to wait as long as it takes to get it right.

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