A few weeks ago, the Nintendo Switch received an exclusive release: the M-rated Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes. While Nintendo systems aren’t exactly known for their M-rated games, there are a number of notable standouts to this trend. MadWorld and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem are both strong examples that remain Nintendo-exclusive, both of which didn’t instantly get passed around to every system within reach, unlike a certain other game whose promise of this-will-totally-be-an-exclusive-game might go down as one of the biggest outright lies in gaming history.
But then there’s 2007’s No More Heroes, a game that kickstarted a minor franchise that’s been a quasi-Nintendo exclusive hack-and-slash, with the first game getting PS3 and Xbox 360 enhanced ports, but with the sequel and upcoming spin-off remaining Nintendo-exclusive. If you think that situation is weird, brace yourself, ’cause the games themselves are completely nuts, in the best of ways.
- Is it realistic? Does it work? Does it flow? Is it consistent to the character speaking? Does it serve a purpose beyond just exposition?
- Is there depth? If not, is there at least some level of intrigue?
- Does it make sense? Is it easy to follow the sequence of events? If there is no narrative, does the game’s basic sequence make sense?
- Does it work the way it’s supposed to?
- Do the mechanics lend themselves to second and third playthroughs?
- Is it an enjoyable experience to play the game?
- Is it easy to understand how to play? Are the basic mechanics easy to understand, but difficult to master? Is it easy to understand what the developer wanted you to do?
- Are the nice to look at, or a total eyesore? If the game is going for realistic, does it succeed? If it’s going for cartoony or stylized, does it work?
- If the game is going for a specific tone, do the graphics succeed in enhancing it? Or does it distract from the overall experience?
- Is the music something I’d want to hear again?
- Does it suit the work? Enhance the experience? Or is it inappropriate and distracting?
The story of No More Heroes is unquestionably the best part of the game, and I’ll assassinate anyone who says otherwise. It centers around Travis Touchdown, a 27-year-old otaku/gamer/pervert/pro-wrestling fanboy/loser who buys a light saber-like “Beam Katana” in an online auction and decides to become an assassin. Travis’ quest is to defeat the top 10 assassins in the world in order to be number one, and also to get laid by a hot seductress who’s talked him into the business. Said seductress, Sylvia Christel, feels like she was made to be perfect archetype of a “hot bitch”. She’s clearly a toxic and manipulative person, but I always thought of her treatment of Travis as being a statement on how stupid it is to pursue a woman for their looks alone. Though I imagine the team didn’t have any gripes on putting her in all her fanservice-y scenes and marketing either. Either way, I kinda love to hate her.
The story itself is straightforward, in that Travis kills his way to the top, and the cutscenes along the way develop more about his character through his interactions with Sylvia, as well as all the crazy assassins. These assassins are colorful enough to be a superhero rogue’s gallery, ranging from a stage magician, to a Yakuza swordsman, all the way to a punk guitarist from Singapore. Each time I was at the edge of my seat waiting to see what crazy motif or personality quirk the next assassin would be, because quite frankly I can’t point to a game that’s been as unpredictable in its character lineup. I almost find it bittersweet to kill most of them, simply ’cause half these assassins could serve as interesting characters in their own right.
Travis, meanwhile, does satirize the life of a geek in many ways, but it does so in a loving way, rather than a mean-spirited one: the sort of story that you trust is coming from a fellow geek at heart. Robin Atkin Downes absolutely sells Travis as the implausible blend of badass and nerd that he is. For as much as Travis may be an idiot, an asshole, and a creep, Robin somehow manages to imbue a strange sort of charisma that makes Travis quite likable.
Character dialogue feels very Quinton Tarantino inspired, minus all the uses of the N-word. I’m admittedly a huge Tarantino fan myself, but I also respect that it’s harder than it looks to recreate, which is why I still give Suda51 legitimate credit here. I look at some of Travis’ lines like “It’s open mic night in hell, old man. Sing all you want down there”, and can’t help but find it enduring. I think it’s because all of Travis’ grand speeches and one-liners feel so much like what I, as a fanboy, would probably end up sounding like if I suddenly were to try and take myself seriously and become some badass like all the action movie characters. It’s stuff like this that make Travis feel so authentic. But maybe I’m just a sucker for that sort of thing.
There’s a lot of heart in the story and world of No More Heroes that keeps bringing me back. It’s deceivingly simple to consume the first time around, but full of quirks to pick on if you wanna come back for more, which is my favorite kind of story.
To pretend that the gameplay of No More Heroes is anything innovative on a technical level is to pretend that the Subway sandwich I got last week was fine dining. You have basic slashes, block-breaking beatdowns that stun enemies so you can follow-up with more powerful attacks. Travis’ controls and gameplay are fully functional and serviceable, but he might be a bit shy to confront the likes of Dante and Bayonetta if the topic of advanced gameplay mechanics comes up at the hack-and-slash reunion.
What makes the game work, however, is the sheer ridiculousness of presentation of the mechanics. Jerking off the Wii remote to recharge your beam katana, and performing pro-wrestling moves aren’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of assassins in hack-and-slashes. Nor is going to the bathroom to save the game, which somehow ends up being an enduring staple of the series rather than some Adam Sandler-tier lazy poop joke. So while yes, it is very basic gameplay dressed up in a fancy suit, it’s a damn nice suit. At least in my opinion. Not mandatory replay value gameplay, but as a vehicle to carry you through every other part of the game, it’s serviceable.
However, as much as I love this game, I can’t deny that the game suffers from a HUGE padding problem. The boss stages are where the real creativity and fun is, and the developers know this, but if it was the whole game it would be really goddamn short, so instead you have to save up money by doing odd jobs to pay “registration fees” for the fights. This is either through silly little minigames where Travis has to do odd jobs like carry coconuts, mow lawns, or gather poisonous scorpions, or do assassination missions. I’ll admit I can’t help but laugh at the odd jobs simply for the absurdity of going from Travis chopping off heads and having them explode into blood to him mowing lawns like an average joe. Problem is, the odd jobs don’t pay like the assassination missions, and the assassination missions are just fighting more groups of faceless goons. My first time playing, my gleeful anticipation of what the next boss fight would be would often begin degrading into impatient frustration of just wanting to get to the next boss fight.
The second huge problem, which partly contributes to the first being so bad, is the “open world”. It’s really not an open world though, because there’s hardly anything to do, and hardly any reason for it to exist. There are no enemies, no way to die, no combat, and no challenges. There’s even less to do than there is in a Grand Theft Auto game file that’s been completed 100%, since at least there you can always piss off the cops or kill yourself in some funny car stunts. I can’t look at it and NOT think that there was plans for something more, since the collectable T-shits found in dumpsters and the “Lovikov Balls” used to unlock new techniques feel like the beginning of making an open world. Like… What happened, guys? Why not just scrap it and use a level selection screen that lets me bring up a list of assassination mission options, select one, and just start the level? Why make me drive back and forth through an empty overworld every time when I’m grinding for cash?
Luckily, a major saving grace of the game is that once you’ve beaten it, you can New Game Plus that shit without having to re-buy upgrades, and by the end you’ll have unlocked the 18th Assassination Gig, which can be done over and over to get the registration money really quickly. Through this, you can skip most of the padding and get straight to the good stuff.
Modern pure hack-and-slash games are practically legally obligated to at least attempt style, but here I find it almost 100% works. The game makes use of cell-shading, though not quite at Wind Waker levels, because it also mixes this in with retro pixelated stylization. I said earlier that I found the characters to be really interesting, and I found their designs are on the same level of creativity and colorfulness.
The game is gleefully violent (also practically a legal obligation of the genre), with sliced apart enemies disintegrating as they spray out blood with cartoonish mayhem, unless you live in Europe. I like to imagine Suda51 planted No More Heroes on the Wii with the hopes of reigning champion as the most violent game on the system, and if it wasn’t for MadWorld, he might’ve unambiguously succeeded. Nonetheless, he does indeed make the visual presentation of combat fun when he mixes the cell shading, pixel style, and blood all together.
While the game may overuse remixes of the main theme in the regular gameplay sections before the boss fights (as catchy as it is), the complete soundtrack is pretty damn colorful. One of the assassins actually singles an original song before his fight called “The Virgin Child Makes Her Wish Without Feeling Anything”, which really cemented for me the idea that the game was willing to try just about anything. I also absolutely love the final boss fight music “We Are Finally Cowboys”, and the credits music, both which I think perfectly book-end the game. Not every song is a hit, and I do wish there were a few more highlights, but overall it’s a pretty damn good soundtrack. It genuinely feels like an extension of the game’s core creative personality.
‘Til I rise again,
- Clever writing, great story, unique characters
- Stylish and funny
- Great soundtrack
- Padding, padding, paaaaaaaaaading!
- Scrap the overworld; it's a lost cause
- Camera and controls are a little stiff