Monday, August 23, 2021

No More Heroes (Wii)

Our gradual journey through the work of Suda51 led us to one of his more well-known works, No More Heroes, developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and published by Ubisoft in the US in 2008. Though we got a copy over a decade after its original release, and even got it signed by character designer Yusuke Kozaki at a character design workshop, we wouldn’t get around to actually playing it until we started burning through our gaming backlog during a global pandemic. After all the good things we had heard about it until then, I can safely say that the original Wii release of the game holds up surprisingly well, but holds itself back with some design choices that obviously came from changes in direction during development.

The story follows Travis Touchdown, a stereotypical otaku loser who lives in near poverty in the No More Heroes motel in Santa Destroy, California. After winning a beam katana in an online auction, he kills the assassin Helter Skelter, aka “The Drifter”, and becomes the Rank 11 assassin according to the United Assassins Association. He is then convinced by Silvia Christel to kill the ten assassins above him and earn the coveted position of Rank 1.

Travis Touchdown's (left) journey begins with
the Rank 10 assassin, Death Metal (right).

Travis Touchdown’s journey to achieve Rank 1 is well-written and paced, with a gradual exploration of his character and insights into the circumstances behind his goal. There’s a masterful commentary on the topics of revenge and the cycle of violence within video games, with some characters unsuccessfully trying to talk Travis out of achieving his goal because he’ll only make himself a bigger target with no sense of reward. Travis himself is also a satire of the stereotypical mid-2000s gamer, clearly written as a loser otaku who lives in near poverty because he spends all of his money on anime and wrestling memorabilia and kills people not for any deep personal reason, but so he can spend even more money on his hobbies and potentially get laid. It’s clear that he had no idea what he was getting himself into and the story has characters constantly calling him out for the person he is and how he’s unlikely to change.

When Travis reaches the Rank 1 assassin, the game starts dishing out twists that recontextualize the entire story while also annihilating the fourth wall in a way only Suda51 can. For instance, a major character’s backstory is sped through explicitly to avoid an AO rating and a conversation during the Real Ending calls out both Travis and the player for not putting two and two together. I generally like this kind of meta commentary anyway, though No More Heroes handles it pretty tastefully.

As much as I like the story and the memorable characters, however, Suda51 could probably have pushed Travis’ loser status a little harder. Though I generally understood the message, I had to look it up to confirm the intent, so it’s possible that it might fly over some people’s heads.

As a Wii title, No More Heroes uses both the Wiimote and Nunchuk for actions and movement respectively. Combat involves switching between High and Low stances by tilting the Wiimote to attack with the Beam Katana or kick. If Travis kicks an enemy a certain number of times, he can grab them and perform a wrestling move by flicking the Wiimote and Nunchuk together to either lower their health or down them for a quick kill. Players can use the Nunchuk to lock-on enemies, which also lets Travis block attacks (on Sweet difficulty, Travis will automatically block while standing still). Blocking and attacking, however, will gradually drain the Beam Katana’s battery, so the player may have to occasionally shake the Wiimote to recharge the battery.

The combat system is fairly easy to pick up.

When Travis kills an enemy normally with the Beam Katana, the player can flick the Wiimote to trigger a Death Blow that kills one or more enemies within range. Each successful Death Blow spins a slot machine at the bottom of the screen for a chance at activating Dark Side Mode, which has different effects based on which slots lined up. For example, three Grasshoppers will activate “Strawberry on the Shortcake”, increasing Travis’ speed and enabling easy Death Blows. No matter the result, Dark Side Mode is timed by how long it takes for a pixelated tiger at the top right of the screen to reach an exit sign that pops up in the top center.

Travis can’t just fight the next ranked assassin whenever he wants to, however. He must first pay an increasingly expensive entry fee that he can earn from various Side Jobs, which are essentially dead-end jobs, and Assassination Gigs, which are unlocked from doing well in Side Jobs and let him take out minor targets. These Side Jobs are presented in a funny way, but are hit and miss in quality and get outclassed as the game goes on once more lucrative side jobs are available. Perhaps the worst one is Scorpion Extermination, since Travis can possibly get stung while picking up scorpions, requiring him to run all the way back to the employer for antidote. Persevering and getting a silver medal on this job, however, unlocks Gamble Fight, the best Assassination Gig in terms of distance from K-Entertainment and the amount of LB dollars (LB$) earned each time.

Earning money isn’t the only thing Travis can do around Santa Destroy. Players can spend LB$ each day to increase his stats at the gym through mini-games and purchase optional clothing or Beam Katanas and parts (incidentally, the Real Ending is locked behind buying all the Beam Katanas). Hidden throughout the city are extra LB$ and t-shirts, as well as Lovikov Balls that can be exchanged at the bar (bar plastic model) for new techniques. Among these techniques, Memory of Child is one to get ASAP, since it grants Travis a Dash move that makes traveling around far easier. During Rank Fights, Travis can also collect trading and luchador masks, the latter of which expand his arsenal of wrestling moves.

As well as the game has aged, however, there are some lingering issues partially owing to the hardware the game was developed for. Driving Travis’ bike around Santa Destroy feels a little stiff at times, especially when boosting, and though you can Power Slide, it can take a number of tries before you can execute it reliably. Santa Destroy also feels a little too big and empty for what you can do, not helped by the lack of a fast travel option to close long gaps. There’s some clipping that’s relatively easy to ignore, but not so much the framerate dips that occur when too many objects are drawn at once, especially if you’re adept at using the strongest Beam Katana during the Gamble Fight gig. It’s also fortunate that you can hear nearby Lovikov Balls, since the low draw distance can temporarily obscure their existence until you’re pretty close. There could be other issues, but these stood out to me the most.

Santa Destroy is big and empty.

No More Heroes
impresses visually, with a cel-shaded art direction that still holds up well in spite of the game’s age. Santa Destroy feels like an actual town with a clear identity and Travis’ motel room has great environmental storytelling, with little details like the gradually growing size of his luchador mask collection and the state of the rooms painting a clear picture of who he is while giving a sense of progression. I also liked how the game incorporates elements of retro gaming, with pixelated elements like motion control prompts adding to the unique style. The assassins also have simple but striking character designs from Yusuke Kozaki, who injects a lot of personality into their appearances so you know what they’re all about from a glance. Highlights include Shinobu, Destroyman and Bad Girl, as well as Travis Touchdown.

The audio also still impresses, with great performances from the English voice cast and the inclusion of retro sound effects that add a lot of flavor to the sound design, including the satisfying noise you hear when you fully recharge the Beam Katana. Speaking of, I liked how certain sounds, including phone calls from Silvia and the Beam Katana’s blade, come out of the Wiimote speaker to add to the immersion of the experience. Then there’s the music by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda, which has so many memorable tracks and has such a great leitmotif that I’d want to own a physical CD so I could hear it whenever I wanted. Highlights include “N.M.H.”, “Oxygen Graffiti”, “Pleather for Breakfast” and “We Are Finally Cowboys”, among others.

I’m glad that I found the time to play No More Heroes thirteen years after its original release, as it holds up really well and is a great taste of Suda51’s unique “punk” style of game design and sharp writing. If you have a Wii or a Switch, this is a great addition to your library.

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