Console Yourself: No More Heroes
“Your hair looks shit!” - Low-Raking Opponent
Format: Wii • Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture • Released: Dec 2007
Travis Touchdown is a man with a mission. Or, to be more exact, ten of them. After the light sabre-owning nerd falls under the spell of a glamorous stranger, a near-inexplicable series of events sees him killing an assassin on the beach of his dreary hometown. Rather than capturing his crush’s heart, this action enrols him as eleventh in the national league of hitmen, where the only way to rise through the rankings is by killing your superior. Travis quickly resolves to move up the table in a further bid to win over the mysterious Ms Christel, but there’s also the little matter of the small-fry killers now seeking his head…
Right from the opening cut-scene, it’s clear that No More Heroes isn’t a game to be taken at face value. While most action games commence with an overblown introduction explaining the hero’s task and motivation, this title instead has a very truncated sequence, with Travis explaining that gamers don’t care about character and plot, merely wanting to get into the action. This approach continues right up to the final battle, where Travis fast-forwards the dialogue between himself and his nemesis, on the grounds that the truth behind their relationship is so horrific that the game would be banned from sale. This reference to the Manhunt 2 controversy isn’t the only time when the game breaks the fourth wall, with a dig at Duke Nukem Forever and several homages to Shenmue. These verbal barbs, however, are just the tip of the iceberg, with the game being entirely structured as a parody of its genre.
The town of Santa Destroy initially appears rather empty - although a substantial map, the only real points of interaction in this overworld are Travis’s home, the agencies where he can obtain both legal and illegal work and the occasional shop where he can upgrade his fighting skills or purchase a new outfit. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that this is a deliberate jab at the likes of Ninja Gaiden, where the only shop open in the entire city of Vigor is the one that sells the hero new weapons. Before the association of assassins will arrange a “title fight” between Travis and one of the unforgettable figures higher up the rankings, it demands an extortionate payment. Touchdown must save to get sufficient funds together, by undertaking both menial jobs and assassin-for-hire work. The former take the form of simple mini-games such as collecting fruit for a smoothie stall or being a petrol pump attendant, mirroring the part-time jobs many teenagers endure to fund the purchase of video games. These, predictably, pay a pittance, but must be completed to access the more lucrative assassination missions against an array of faceless opponents. Although the game’s humour shines throughout, with Travis saving his progress whilst on the toilet and being told “Your hair looks like shit!” by the cannon fodder he decimates, it really comes to the fore during the face-offs with ranked assassins. A striking rogues gallery, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid’s bosses, leaves an impression on the player, who quickly begins to share Travis’s growing disenchantment with mindless killing.
The reaction of gamers to No More Heroes has fallen into two main camps. Those left cold by Suda 51’s previous title Killer7, a surreal political thriller which ended with the destruction of either the US or Japan (the outcome entirely at the player’s discretion), have once again roundly attacked the man’s extremely stylised output. In contrast, the group who embraced Harman Smith’s war with Heaven Smile have by and large rallied to Travis’s side, hailing his self-mockery as a breath of fresh air compared to the rudimentary narratives of many quest games. I say “by and large”, because although second-to-none in my admiration of Killer7, this spoof strikes me as rather a waste of its creator’s undeniable talent. Suda 51 isn’t an observer, commenting on the action genre’s problems. He’s one of the most dynamic, intelligent and interesting creators of the very type of game that he mocks. In short, he’s exactly the sort of person who should be finding solutions to these absurdities, not just pointing them out. It’s as if a generation-defining politician had been swept into power, and then spent his first two years in office producing political cartoons attacking his own party. Satire and parody are the weapons of critics and commentators, not those with the ability to act.
The game is rather ill-served by its format, as the detailed cell shading often dissolves into mince and the draw-in during motorbike sections is noticeable. The undoing of No More Heroes, however, is its existence as a fully priced and budgeted game. Travis begins to voice his concerns at the hollowness of his quest before it’s even thirty percent complete, but the title continues, despite adding no more insight or thinking than that already shown during its initial stages. Suda 51 has taken a brave move in actively seeking to make the player disenchanted by deliberate deficiencies in the game, but the points he is making are dulled by the protracted nature of the proceedings, as players quickly condition themselves to overlook matters such as hoops that must be jumped through before every boss fight. Playing the first two hours of No More Heroes provides some striking food for thought. Thereafter, there’s little entertainment on offer.