Wait a sec: you want me to tie up all these loose ends? I don’t think so.
– Travis Touchdown, breaking the fourth wall.
It’s not difficult to gush over Goichi Suda: the man is responsible for the creative direction of some of the most amusing and idiosyncratic game worlds to have seen the light of production and widespread distribution. Aside from this aspect of novelty about the games he and Grasshopper Manufacture are responsible for, their games usually incorporate solid gameplay to back the running wild of the imagination up. No More Heroes is a entry into the Grasshopper annals that is true to both aspects of their heritage.
The world in which the player character Travis Touchdown lives is disturbingly aware of the fact that it is, in fact, not real: the game starts with Travis referring to the player directly, and commenting on the fact that they will be pressing the A Button on the Wii Remote a fair amount over the course of the game’s ten main story levels. The seemingly open-world Grand Theft Auto-esque city of Santa Destroy feels flat and empty, with only six real locations that remain on the game’s map outside of missions within the game, and with the most sparsely populated streets seen in a game that employs such a mechanic – almost a caricature of how games usually present the open city map. Driving around the city, it can seem as if there is simply nothing between the starting point and one’s destination: mundane though transport may seem, given the size of the city map to the number of used locations, it serves as a useful avenue of characterisation for Travis: the pub, the Job Centre, the gym, the motel and the assassin’s guild are all that matter to Travis. His life is finely organised around his quest to become the “number one ranked” assassin in the US by working through the list of those above him and performing a homicide of great utility to himself. His motivations around doing so are, as one may expect by the finely-defined set of locales he chooses to frequent, equally simple: Travis is trying to do little more than sleep with an attractive woman, and has decided that killing is the way to win their affection.
With all of this said, it may seem that Travis is to be an incredibly unlikeable character and, for the most part, he is: the brief respites of any positive emotion towards Travis are borne of pity more than anything else due to the pitiable way in which he goes about his life, which appears to revolve solely around wrestling and anime – the perfect stereotype of the otaku. Travis is not the otaku of Metal Gear Solid‘s Otacon- a kind-hearted, intelligent-if-a-little-misguided individual with some moral worth – Travis is shallow, pliable and obsessive over his hobbies to the detriment of his quality of life. In a word: pathetic. To pick on Travis as unlikable is, however, unfair: none of the characters in this game have much worth: Sylvia, the representative from the association of assassins which runs the machinery of the rankings, is manipulative and too quick to use the promise of sex to guide Travis into certain actions. The other assassins in the game are, as one would expect, equally empty human beings who take too much delight in taking advantage of our hero’s gullibility. They are, however, fantastically defined by their eccentricities and esoteric character flaws.
This world of unlikeable characters, however, is not an unenjoyable one: it is the fact that these people are so ridiculously nihilistic, so unredeemable that adds texture to the game’s story. The fact that everyone is uniformly ridiculous allows for further ridicule: some of the plot twists in the narrative could only work in a world full of morally questionable individuals with a lack of balance in their lives.
The gameplay of No More Heroes is varied: the core of the game’s story (the Ranking Battles) revolves around working through a level populated with a number of conventional enemies, finally coming to an end-of-level boss fight against the assassin currently ranked above Travis. The player has at their disposal slashes and charged attacks with Travis’s Beam Katana (performed using A on the Wii Remote), “Beat Attacks” (a sort of hand-to-hand attack for breaking blocks, performed by using B on the Wii Remote) and throws (performed by using B on enemies that are stunned) for attack, and a number of defensive rolls. While it may be expected that combat would descend into an eternal mashing of buttons to perform attacks with the blade, the fact that kills must be undertaken by a swipe of the Wii Remote in a direction indicated on the screen ensures that there is sufficient variety in gameplay to hold one’s attention. The requirement of certain attacks to be used on certain enemies equally bolsters the diversity of the game’s combat. Further variation appears once the player purchases new weapons – they increase Travis’s attack power and provide new ways in which he can attack his foes – and collects enough Lovikov Balls (a nondescript collectible on the Santa Destroy map) to be taught a new technique by the city’s Russian drunk.
Between these Ranking Battles, it is necessary for the player to earn enough money to pay their entrance fee for the next round. To this end, Travis must perform mundane, everyday tasks to earn money and unlock “Assassination Gigs” and “Free Fights” that will allow him to earn further funds. The tasks range from collecting coconuts to fetching lost cats to cleaning up graffiti around the city, with each requiring some fairly tedious timed button-pressing to get through them. There is some wonderful subtext on show in these minigames: each is prefixed by the person giving the job to you describing how Santa Destroy is a lawless place and that performing this task is somehow a manner of bringing order to it. The fact is that these minigames have no replay value and are incredibly tedious for the most part: for Travis, who “lives for killing”, as he reveals, this earning of funds would be equally mundane. Timed at around three minutes per task, however, the tedium soon ends and the player can move back to the combat aspect of the game.
The “Assassination Gigs” and “Free Fights” are essentially timed combat missions with specific conditions and rewards for victory, varying from not taking a single hit to using only certain types of attacks to win. The variety in these is lacking and seem to be detached from the story entirely, save for being a mechanism for Travis to earn money to make his payments. They also vary tremendously in difficulty, from insultingly easy to cripplingly difficult: without a sense of balance across them, and with bigger payouts for easier tasks, it seems inevitable that when the player needs to earn a lot of money to make their large payments for Ranking Battle entry later in the game that certain Assassination Gigs will be repeated to make the tedious process of money-earning go by more quickly.
The biggest let-down of the game is the driving mechanic: Travis’s motorcycle has an inexplicable affinity for parts of the map where it will be able to enter, but not reverse out of. There will be at least one point in a playthrough where resetting the console will be necessary to avoid walking around the entire map for the rest of the game. No More Heroes does also suffer from Grasshopper Manufacture’s seeming incapability to write a convincing, worthy female character. They are either psychotic or manipulative, and always busty and skimpily-clad: admittedly, making concessions to political correctness in a world where the men are equally treated in demeaning ways – nothing about Travis, as mentioned, is likeable – would severely hamper the sense of the ridiculous that the game has.
To look at, the only description that seems fitting of the game is that it has the ‘Grasshopper Manufacture aesthetic’: shaded graphics, grindhouse influences and a certain indescribable charm. The 8-bit graphic assets in conjunction with the modern shaded graphics create an aesthetic fitting to the world of Travis Touchdown and his love of anime, wrestling and videogames. In missions, the graphics are smooth and sound perfect to accompany on-screen events. Perhaps fan service, perhaps coincidence, but the announcement of each assassin’s name prior to the start of their Ranking Battle is carried out in a voice that is the perfect homophone of killer7’s Iwazaru – a nod to the past that confirms that the visual and audio identity of No More Heroes is very much that of Grasshopper.
The indisputable highlight of the game of its last boss fight and the “Real Ending”, unlocked by obtaining all four beam katanas. Grasshopper Manufacture clearly had a lot of fun with the medium here, topping off the aforementioned acknowledgement of the player by Travis in the introduction and the use of the Wii Remote’s speaker as a telephone for calls with Sylvia prior to boss battles with even more breaking of the fourth wall and references to the well-known artefact that should have remained vapourware that is Duke Nukem Forever. There is such careless abandon in how the plot turns ludicrously in its last ten minutes that it is close to impossible to actively take it seriously and not just let it run its course, taking Travis’s confusion as to his role as protagonist as nothing more than humorous, rather than strained from a lack of will to produce a coherent plot. Grasshopper’s silliness is fully on show here, and it is glorious.
GAME OVER SCREEN ANALYSIS: A departure from the style of the game more generally, but it is befitting of Travis. An image of Travis’s favourite anime serves as the background to a clean menu that asks if you would like to continue or quit. If the death occurs during a boss battle, a handy tip will appear to aid one in one’s combat. Nice.