Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's No More Heroes
Goichi Suda is – well, I wouldn't go so far as to say crazy, but he's the kind of visionary that tends to baffle the crap out of people, and that type of personality is pretty easily mistaken for craziness. As the head of video game development house Grasshopper Manufacture, he's probably best known as SUDA51 ("Goichi" = "five one" in Japanese), the luchadore mask-sporting cinephile and former undertaker who broke into the industry by writing a storyline for a pro wrestling game where the hero commits suicide. His most infamous game as of last year, the GameCube/PS2 title killer7, is easily one of the most bizarre titles released this decade: it became notorious for its disorienting, somewhat awkward trapped-on-rails gameplay, weirdly-colored, cel-shaded pulp-comic graphics, bizarrely stylized violence and a storyline that mixed David Lynch surrealism with Takashi Miike horror to deliver some heavy ruminations on the relationship between Japanese and American culture. Like many of his games, it sold poorly on both sides of the Pacific, so there’s a good chance his new Wii title No More Heroes only got greenlit thanks to one magic, unit-shifting phrase in the pitch: "Grand Theft Auto with a lightsaber."
Two things: the weapon's actually a "beam katana," and No More Heroes isn't much of anything like Grand Theft Auto at all. Yes, there's a city – hilariously dubbed "Santa Destroy" -- that you can explore, but aside from a couple shops and a few job agencies where you can accept missions and odd jobs, it’s practically lifeless: pedestrians ignore you, cars don't react to you and you can’t run around indiscriminately slaughtering people. On the surface, it's essentially just a convoluted menu system disguised as a free-roam sandbox. On a deeper, subtler level, though, it's another way to drive home the tone of the game: Santa Destroy is Southern California as it exists primarily in Tarantino films and skateboarding videos and the fevered mind of one particular Japanese pop-culture addict, and No More Heroes is the culmination of every geeky obsession that just about every kind of nerd everywhere has ever fallen for -- anime, pro wrestling, giant robots, Star Wars, samurai movies, porn, punk rock, and above all else, video games themselves.
In fact, so much of the entertainment in No More Heroes hinges on taking the pretense and pomp out of video games. Many gamers spent 2006 championing the Wii as a system for people who were fed up with flashy graphics and overblown production values and just wanted to play something new – and finally, after a year and a half of mediocre ports, cash-in shovelware and flailing mini-game gimmickry (and Super Mario Galaxy, thank God), they’ve got it, warts and all. Not for nothing has this been called a punk rock game; I love the idea that SUDA51 has given the industry the swift kick in the butt that it so desperately deserves by prioritizing new, rebellious ideas over re-refining the usual surface details. (And I'm saying this as someone who still prefers Led Zeppelin to the Ramones.) This kick in the butt happens to be accompanied by a sort of lo-fi sensibility, with cel-shaded graphics that detractors have compared to the circa-’99 offerings found on the Dreamcast and an often-tedious, low-tech "open city" that might as well be a ghost town. These problems eventually lose a lot of their relevance, and No More Heroes shapes up to become the video game equivalent of Robert Quine’s guitar solo on Richard Hell's "Blank Generation": abrasive as hell, but evocative in the places that actually matter.
Like, for instance, the protagonist. If killer7 was concerned about how the clash between East and West could damage a national psyche or two and bring about deadly cultural warfare, the undercurrent to No More Heroes is largely about goofy it is when those two cultures get along a little too well. The (uh…) hero of this game is a Johnny Knoxville-gone-otaku manqué named Travis Touchdown, a lippy little dipshit in aviator shades who seems to be the personification of what geeks think is the ultimate level of cool: he’s a flashy dresser in the classic trying-too-hard mode that most Williamsburg kids would opt to dial down a notch, he obsesses over an anime starring doe-eyed teenish girls (the show’s wait-what title: Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly), he drives a motorcycle that looks like something Harley-Davidson would sell in Akira’s Neo-Tokyo, and he apparently spent some time up in Canada training to be a pro wrestler like his dirty-old-man hero/sensei Thunder Ryu before giving up and heading back down to Cali. (Given how skinny Travis is, the likelihood of the WWE taking notice of him would be approximately zero.) How does a schmuck like this become a candidate to join the world’s top ten ranked assassins, fated to face challenger after challenger until, and maybe even after, he becomes #1? Simple: he won a beam katana on an online auction and decided that using it to cut rivals down would be the best way to get some of that elusive real-live-girl action that's apparently been so absent from his life. Ryu Hayabusa he ain't.
And Ninja Gaiden this ain't, either – good thing, because the last thing this world needs is yet another sword-based hack-and-slash game that takes its heavy, tough-guy violence way too seriously. Travis is a dork, but he's an entertaining dork, and he's frequently put in positions of hilarious indignity. (In one level, an underling discovers a unique way to overload the electronics in Travis' beam katana, and the subsequently-zapped Travis has to run around like a ferret on a hot plate in search of a way to fix it.) And sometimes, as he faces an adversary, he has odd little moments of unexpected maturity mixed in with the more dominant traits of self-absorbed selfishness and deluded arrogance. During the first boss fight, we get an extended internal monologue/voiceover where Travis starts planning his future as a successful assassin ("On the weekends, tanned babes knocking on my door every two hours... every day, full of excitement and luxury"), gets cocky about decimating the old guard ("Hypocrites lusting for their own desires get killed by young rookies like me. This is how it goes down. And for the old killers? They'll croak anyway"), then starts getting anxious about the possibility that he’s in over his head ("There's this sense of doom running down my spine like it's... like it's trying to suck the life out of me"). And there's more than one fight where his conscience gets the better of him and he drops his smartmouth badass pretense to show a bit of mercy or sympathy. Of course, most of this is treated with an irreverent tone and isn't taken 100% seriously -- eventually, when the game realizes Travis needs a backstory, it's delivered at the damnedest place and time and makes just about zero sense, as if to say that the motivation behind pressing all these buttons isn't as important as how much fun you're having while you're doing it.
All this emphasis on style and characterization might lead you to think that the gameplay itself is secondary, but it's only one of the less interesting parts of the game because the rest of the game's personality is so damned crazy. As it stands, No More Heroes relies on a perfectly entertaining control scheme of the easy-to-learn/hard-to-master school: sword slashes are handled by pressing the A button, you can switch your stance from low attacks to high (essential for bypassing an opponent's defenses) by tilting the Wii remote, blocking and dishing out melee attacks are pulled off by simple, eventually-reflexive button presses, and actual remote waggle gestures are saved for pivotal moments – like the enemy-bisecting finishing moves (a sweeping, one-directional motion with the remote) or the impactful wrestling suplexes you can nail stunned bad guys with (a combination of motions using the remote and nunchuck). It gradually becomes so natural and intuitive that it nearly becomes almost an afterthought, though higher difficulties put a bit more pressure on you to be more carefully aware of your actions. Upping your rank as an assassin usually means you fight through waves of weaker enemies before making it to the big boss, who usually has a series of special attacks and patterns that need to be figured out and countered – a time-tested and classic game mechanic that, upon each victory, nudges Travis’ name up a circa-1982 arcade game high score list. And in a dual poke at the vagaries of the day-to-day working life and the Wii's glut of frivolous little mini-games, making enough money to face the next opponent in the ten-strong line of specialized assassins requires undertaking a succession of inexplicably mundane odd jobs like collecting coconuts and retrieving lost cats.
No More Heroes is easily more accessible than killer7, though it still threatens to be a little too absurd to be as populist as other hack-n-slashers like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. One good reference point you might want to keep in mind: NMH is to swordplay what PS2 cult classic God Hand was to hand-to-hand combat -- completely over the top, parodic, ridiculous and still packed with depth and challenge. (Suda does give it a sideways nod of sorts – next door to his in-game equivalent's clothing boutique is a store named 'Clover,' the name of God Hand’s development studio.) If you take anything away from this game - besides the reoccuring theme song, a little techno number that's the hardest thing to dislodge from your head this side of Super Mario Bros. Stage 1-1 music - it should be the idea that great games can break rules and follow them at the same time, undercutting both hardcore purism and casual shallowness yet still appealing to people on both sides of the hopefully-narrowing console demographic divide. No More Heroes may be irreverent, but it not-so-secretly loves the things it mocks - you, the player, included.