It’s been years since I’ve played No More Heroes since which time I’ve held it up as one of the great flashes of inspiration in game design this generation. It was balls-to-the-wall nuts, it was funny and it was the closest thing to a graphic novel gaming had seen to that date. Suda’s modern classic doesn’t try to be as pretentious or thought provoking as his other works, and that affords the game the freedom to be as bananas as it can possibly be without having to be confined to some greater narrative. Walking in the shoes of wannabe killer for hire and light-sabre totin’ Travis Touchdown was like taking a step into a carnival ride of blood and horror designed by Bill Murray and built by Audi. It was outrageous on the outside but beneath that surface was a well designed and sturdy and third person melee-based action game. No More Heroes was an absolute blast to play – flaws and all.
It’s perhaps not good form to talk about the flaws before anything else but I feel they in some ways define the whole experience and so it’d be disingenuous to give them any less attention. After the first level you’re presented with the vibrant, colourful and vast open world of Santa Destroy, put on your Akira-style bike and left to your own devices. Unfortunately the open world serves as nothing more than a glorified way of moving between your side activities and main missions that could’ve probably been better and more efficiently served by a menu. Sure it is nice that there are distractions but they’re nothing spectacular and they certainly don’t justify a largely barren open world. In the end the open world design of the game leads to the other thorn in its side which is its forced progression through a number of side activities (read: mini-games) to access the meat of the game. Put simply they’re for the most part not very much fun. And it’s a shame because this overarching structure and flow of the game will have you at times wondering whether its worth enduring these less than stellar moments.
Persevere though and you will be rewarded. No More Heroes’ main missions are violent trawls through gangs of enemies themed on each level ready for you to eviscerate with your lightsabre-esque beam katana and fancy lucha libre-inspired wrestling moves. Look at the game any more than surface deep and you’ll see that its no more than a series of elaborate boss-fights strung together with lacklustre corridor-based kill rooms, but doing so would be doing the game a disservice. The corridors and same-y, the enemies cookie cutter and the combat repetitive. But the combat is simple yet satisfying and looking beyond that would be missing the point. An enemy screaming “my spleen!” as you cut him in half or wrestle him to the ground manages to make a smile purse my lips every time. In some ways No More Heroes more closely resembles the beat-em ups of the 16 bit era than any popular genre of the modern era.
Which brings me to the boss fights. Racing your way to the top of the assassin list is the player’s main pursuit in the game and the moments that lead to it are nothing short of brilliant. While they may lack the scale of similarly ludicrous games such as Asura’s Wrath the boss battles are designed with such finesse that you cannot help but feel a certain sense of accomplishment in bringing down the next-best assassin. While on paper they boil down to nothing more than pattern memorisation and quick reflexes, the execution of this supremely elaborate set pieces which in combination with Travis’ suite of swordplay tricks is excellent, leaving for some incredibly memorable moments. Combine that with some extremely ridiculously cool boss character designs and you’ve got a series of ten of the best boss battles of recent times. Make no mistake these are the main event of No More Heroes.
No More Heroes represented a couple of things upon its release. The first is that games aimed at seasoned campaigners using motion controls were possible . The second was that ultra-violence on a Nintendo console was okay. Definitely a product of its time, the game succeeded on both counts and to this day remains a curio amongst a back catalogue of games that range from abhorrently generic to deviously garbage. It’s not the best game ever made but No More Heroes is a simple, accessible and most importantly outrageously fun romp that deserves to at least be tried if not finished. Don’t look too closely and you’ll see the game for what it is – the best non 16-bit-16-bit brawler ever made. Too bad about the sandbox.
Note: Revisiting No More Heroes was tarnished somewhat by the sloppiness by which it was ported over to the PS3, something that should’ve resulted in the definitive version of the game. Instead what we’ve ended up with is a technically worse game that fails to do justice to the unique motion-controller control scheme, but also looks and perform worse than the Wii game. I’m also a bit partial to the bloodless Japanese and European version, which the PS3 eschews in favour of the uncensored US version of the game. If you’re going to play it, seek out the Wii version. Grasshopper Manufacture were not involved in the development of the PS3 port.