The best game presentation I've ever witnessed? Bayonetta, no question. Bayonetta back at E3 2009.
A group of us were led into a weird portakabin setup on Sega's portion of the convention center floor. Inside we found Hideki Kamiya sat by himself below an enormous HD TV. On the table next to him was a small bottle of hand sanitiser and a 360 controller. We took our seats. The lights dimmed. The screen flickered to life. A colleague of Kamiya's came in and started to play.
Cue ten minutes of absolute carnage. Angels exploded, the sky bled crimson tears, heaven itself seemed ready to come apart. The colleague sweated at the controller; Kamiya's only contribution took the form of an occasional glance towards the screen, and then a purse-lipped nod. To himself? To us? To the wider universe, in recognition for having successfully contained such a thing as he had conceived and then created? Nobody spoke as far as I recall, and then suddenly it was all over. Kamiya smiled grimly, arms folded, and we all filed out. Blinking back into the light, a friend said to me, "Did you understand any of that?"
Four years have passed since then, and last week, I got to see Bayonetta 2 - the unlikeliest of sequels running on the unlikeliest of platforms. As I tapped away at the Wii U's GamePad, the screen was once again filled with absolute carnage. Angels exploded, the sky bled, and heaven seemed in even worse shape than the last time around, hemorrhaging a small army of loon-panted hood ornaments, arms ladened with knives and scythes. Although he's passed on directing duties for this one, I could almost imagine Kamiya standing next to me, nodding to himself, silent and self-contained. When I was finished, Tom Phillips, who had been checking out the action on the big screen, turned to me and frowned. He seemed to sway slightly on his feet. "Did you understand any of that?" he asked.
I guess Bayonetta's still got it.
Some of what it's now got may be prove slightly controversial, of course - and I'm not talking about that new hairdo. While the original game offered simplified controls for clumsy, all-thumbs players who just wanted to fumble their way through this most precise of action games without missing any of the spectacle, the sequel takes things considerably further. You can still use the triggers, bumpers, face buttons and sticks to enjoy Bayonetta in all its technical glory, but newcomers or casuals can opt for touch controls - the difficulty settings for touch are called easy and very easy - that turn the whole thing into what amounts to an astonishingly responsive smartphone game. They can then hammer their way through enemies and bosses alike with nothing more than taps and swipes.
Yes, this is basically blasphemy, but stay with me for a while, because it works a lot better than you might expect. Moving around and dodging are handled with swipes, while targeting - and laying on damage - is a matter of prodding the screen in specific places with a growing sense of frenzy. Special moves come with large UI prompts, and Bayonetta herself selects between different types of standard attacks and combos from one moment to the next.
Is it Bayonetta? Not in the slightest, although you can at least see your own agency in action when you dodge at just the right moment and witch time kicks in. It certainly looks like Bayonetta, though, and it's handled with the kind of gleeful showmanship you can expect from Platinum. If there's a gateway drug for these sorts of game, this is probably it. It's not Bayonetta Lite, perhaps, or even Bayonetta Lite Lite, but it's something absolute beginners can use for a toehold before they try to tackle any deeper challenges. The touchscreen strips out all of the stuff that makes the true game such a joy for virtuosos, then, but it isn't aimed at them - and it could help to bring a new audience in and give them a little bit of confidence.
And once that new audience is brave enough to opt for the standard controls, they'll discover a sequel that builds on the original game while losing none of its sense of crazed drama. Back on the sticks and triggers, it really is Bayonetta once more, and nothing appears to have been toned down for the Wii U. The current demo has you leaping around on the back of a jet-fighter, seeing off various sharp-edged foes and zipping through the skycraper canyons of a city that looks a lot like New York. Towards the end, a towering boss turns up with a series of lunges and sweeping attacks that should keep you nice and busy. After he's despatched, the real baddy shows himself - a gloopy, many-toother dinosaur type who scales the Empire State Building and then plummets from its mooring mast, lashing out as he falls.
As he hits the ground, the demo ends and, no matter which controls you've opted for, it's hard not to want another go. Bayonetta 2 promises a number of tweaks - new Umbra Climax super-powered attacks, a mysterious muiltiplayer mode, off-TV play and, of course, that new haircut - but the most surprising thing is how it's found a way to allow casual players to get a taste of the action without compromising the design for people who really know what they're doing.
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