The House of the Dead: Overkill, SEGA's Wii-exclusive reboot of its undead shooting gallery, has a score combo system. Provided you don't miss the "mutants", or the pickups, or the panes of glass, or the conveniently-placed giant candelabras, you'll progress through a series of score-enhancing states called "extreme violence", "ultra violence", "psychotic" and finally - worth a delicious extra 1000 points per kill - "Goregasm". When you attain the latter splatter nirvana, the combo meter disappears and is replaced by a huge, fluttering, resplendent Stars and Stripes.
But you can't call Overkill subversive, really. Its blend of explosive gore, mindless profanity and puerile gross-out barely manages irony, despite being wrapped in quote marks borrowed from Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse. The developers at Headstrong Games - formerly Kuju London, the Nintendo specialists responsible for Battalion Wars - are having way too much fun to be ironic. They are the Brits let loose on a pulpy mash of American and Japanese pop-culture and told to do whatever the hell they like with it, and they're loving every second. Yes we can take the piss. And we will.
And despite the fact that Overkill isn't quite as funny as it thinks it is - and falls a few points short of entering its name on the scoreboard of arcade perfection - you will laugh along with them, and happily blast the cannonade of rotting flesh they fling at you into bloodied chunks again and again, for hour after hour. Because Overkill is that rarest of things, a brilliant "light-gun" game for the home.
That realisation comes later on, though. At first, you'll just be swept up in the game's stylistic twist and stunning production values. Pimping the pulp angle as hard as it can, Overkill transplants House of the Dead to a timeless trash-fiction freakshow, equal parts fifties horror, seventies exploitation and knowing nineties cool. Framed as a prequel, it trades in ripe clich, turning Agent G into a stuck-up white boy and teaming him, inevitably, with a hot-tempered Samuel L Jackson type with an excessive fondness for the Oedipal adjective. And adverb. And noun. If Headstrong was after the world record for cussing in games, well, it'll have to get someone else to count, but it has probably claimed it.
Each of the game's seven episodes - running at twenty minutes to half an hour each - is framed as a B-movie feature, interspersed with hammy cut-scenes. The pastiche is at its best at the start, when neckerchiefed, coiffed villain Papa Caesar is introduced in the deliberately and hilariously awful trailer jump-cuts of Papa's Palace of Pain. Sadly, as the game's conveyor belt of zombie extermination rolls on, the writing gets more self-indulgent and the scenes of aimless swearing and buddy-cop banter start to drag. But the enthusiasm can't be faulted, and the best gag - a variation on the "missing reel" tease that tops Tarantino's in Death Proof - is wisely saved for the end. There's a sprinkling of smart quotes from elsewhere in genre cinema too, notably The Birds and Ring.
Besides, the idea was surely to capture Grindhouse's visual and aural mood - specifically that of Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror - and it's an inspired one. The scratched-up film effects all over the screen, the lurid colour scheme, the pop and crackle in the speakers mesh perfectly with the seedy subject matter. And the music is fabulous, surely a soundtrack of the year candidate; note-perfect parodies of vintage funk and rockabilly, with thumping, dirty electro remixes for the boss battles.
It's not like there's a multitude of sins hiding under the clever overlays, either. House of the Dead: Overkill is a stunningly good-looking game, using the scripted limitations of the on-rails shooter (and Headstrong's experience with the hardware) to squeeze superlative performance from the Wii. Much-touted beauty-queen FPS The Conduit has plenty to live up to. Depth-of-field and motion-blur add thrilling dynamism, the lighting is faultless, the animation fluid, the textures rich, the bloody explosions are impressively... liquid. There's some slowdown in particularly busy moments, but as with a Treasure shmup, this just adds to the sense of glorious sensory overload.
It's not just a matter of technical prowess, either. Since this is a strictly on-rails target-shooter - "free look" allows very slight adjustment of the angle if you take your cursor to the edge of the screen - the game's good looks and high excitement are equally down to the level design, pacing and camera direction. All are superb, mixing stand-and-defend moments with run-and-gun, potshots at range, and brief flashes of bonus monsters to gun down before racing on. Every level has one or two memorable, iconic set-pieces like the ghost-train ride in Carny (a sly, self-aware dig at Overkill's own genre, surely).
Most of the levels are dense and interesting enough to survive plenty of replays. And they'll have to - Overkill is maybe three hours long, an epic in light-gun terms, but small beer in anyone else's. Headstrong is well aware that this isn't an arcade cab, however, and it has made a plethora of clever concessions aimed at extending the game's longevity and accessibility, turning in the ultimate smart-casual console blaster in the process.
Rather than eking more out of a short game by ramping up the challenge (and so the frustration for the non-hardcore), Headstrong has surprisingly decided to make the Story Mode a pushover. It's fairly forgiving, with infinite continues - but every continue costs you half your score. Score earns cash, which buys new guns and upgrades for the game's small but thunderous arsenal, which will take a couple of playthroughs to complete.
Buying continues with points is a great piece of design, simultaneously generous and motivating. You can also choose to add more enemies to any level in Story Mode to add variety, challenge and scoring opportunities. But the real carrot - and the answer to any light-gun veterans who might be questioning the game's hardcore credentials by now - is the Director's Cut, unlocked when you complete Story Mode. This is an extended run through the entire game, with new sections, different routes, tougher enemy patterns - and a strict three-continue limit per level. At a stroke, it more than doubles the game's lifespan.
Still not sure that Overkill represents good value? Then there's an achievement system (offering meaningless memorabilia unlocks instead of gamerpoints, but still), three decent mini-games that support four players, both campaigns playable with two of course, and an unlockable dual-wield mode for a single-player if you complete the Director's Cut. For a simple on-rails shooter, it's a handsome package; the only serious omission for a score-attack game is of course online leaderboards, but that's hardly Headstrong's fault.
Overkill is mostly well-tuned, too, although it's here that some small cracks start to show. A Wii remote is not a light-gun, and genre specialists might find its less literal aiming - you're guiding a cross-hair with gestures, rather than looking down your gun - disconcerting. Provided you're not sitting close to a large screen, you'll get used to it. Free look can be turned off (probably a good idea in two-player), as can the crosshair, and the tiny buzz of rumble that tells you you've targeted an enemy or pickup - an excellent innovation, but yes we suppose it is cheating, if you're going to be like that about it.
Interludes where you have to shake the remote to free yourself from a zombie's clutches don't really work - especially if you're using a Wii Blaster or similar gun frame for the remote. Much as we would like to, we can't recommend the official Hand Cannons - beautiful, chunky, gloriously out-sized pieces of moulded plastic they may be, but they're also heavy, off-balance and very uncomfortable to use. Try Venom's more compact Light Blaster instead. You can tip the controller upwards to reload your infinite ammo, but pressing A is faster if you're using a naked remote, which frankly, for an extended session, you will be.
The combo system is very simple but ruthlessly effective and addictive, and quickly becomes your focus once you've started to learn the enemy patterns. It dovetails nicely with the pickups too - health, golden brains (simply collectables for the sake of it), smart-bomb grenades, and the slow-mo pickups for calmly headshotting your way through the most frenzied assault. However, the combo system also exposes one of the game's bigger problems: weapon balance.
All of the guns are gratifying to use, the beefier ones sporting booming sound and camera-shaking recoil. But the SMG and assault rifle, while offering high survivability and the simple pleasure of spraying hails of bullets across walls of reanimated flesh, are simply hopeless from a scoring point of view, because it's too easy to send bullets astray and lose your combo. You're better off with the starting pistol or - especially - the shotgun, which is staggeringly effective, even at range. Too effective, perhaps - and to make matters worse there's an even more devastating automatic shotgun available (for a high price, though).
It's still worth equipping something a little more accurate in your second slot for the bosses. These are the game's other principal flaw - although imaginatively staged and conceived, many of them don't offer much in the way of reward, and their difficulty is all over the place. The first two (the second of which, the Ring-inspired Screamer, is actually a game highlight) are far more difficult than the middle three.
Combined with the occasionally grating script, these moments of weakness and imbalance can cause The House of the Dead: Overkill to feel flat at times. But that's only because they're thrown into stark relief by the rest of the game's frankly amazing quality, attention to detail and largesse: the impeccable presentation and production values, the clever and generous structure, the compelling scoring, the intoxicating flow of the levels. Incredibly for such a simple and strictly limited game, it almost never tries your patience, and it's made with such infectious and irreverent glee and such obvious pride, you can't help but join in.
8 / 10