Sinister Reviews #01: No More Heroes

#01: No More Heroes (Nintendo Wii)
Genre: Action-’em-Up, Third-Person Adventure
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: March 2008


It was with great trepidation that I booted up No More Heroes . My only previous experience with Suda51’s wacky Grasshopper dev team was the decidedly hit-and-miss puzzle-adventure Flower, Sun and Rain on the DS, which turned point-and-click adventure gaming completely on its head to produce something so unspeakably bizarre, to this day I can’t decide if it’s a work of genius or a product of lunacy. They’re a developer renowned for pushing the boundaries of traditional games, often adopting unconventional visual styles, gaming conventions or storytelling techniques to blur the line between games and “art”; though very much with a tongue firmly wedged in the cheek. From the off, however, No More Heroes is a barnstorming slash-’em-up that’s a riot from start to finish, even if the entertainment it provides feels ultimately hollow.

The game bundles you into the body of Travis Touchdown; a down-on-his-luck otaku who is coerced into the career of an assassin by chance meeting with “the girl of his dreams”, Sylvia Christel. After slaying his first victim with his recently-purchased lightsaber I mean “beam katana”, Travis rises to become the 11th-ranked assassin, and encouraged to slay the remaining ten ranked members of the United Assassin Association to take up the mantle of Number One assassin. From there on in, No More Heroes continues a semi-unrelenting pace of pre-boss, thug bashing warm-ups; closed-arena ‘ranking’ battles; and a smorgasbord of side-quests and distractions; and a meagre dollop of storyline to propel the action. Perhaps what’s so compelling is that this is all happening on a Wii, which aside from a few notable exceptions such as MadWorld, has seen titles for mature gaming audiences largely ignored by the masses (The Conduit, anyone?), leading No More Heroes to stand out from the crowd. While NMH has recently been exported to X360 and PS3 where it may get lost in the mire, its disposition on Nintendo’s White Box feels fresh-faced and exuberant, made all the more substantial given that it was developed with the console’s quirks in mind; not just a second-rate port. It’s not the third-party game to topple the monopoly Nintendo hold on Wii thanks to the Mario, Zelda & Metroid franchises, but at least it crosses the line in a race where, all too often, the visiting competitors fail to finish.

One thing that NMH dishes out in large quantities is absurdity; something which is to its credit as it’s one of the currents upon which the game rides to lift it above the competition. While a lot of the main game is on the SERIOUS BUSINESS side of the serious/absurd boundary, it’s rarely far from straying back into wacky territory which it does often and with alarming spontaneity. In terms of story, the game manages to maintain a largely straight face right until the completely batshit-crazy ending, even if the main plot is something out of a thousand comics or movies. The side-job mini-games are beacons of light-hearted in an ocean of thug-killing, and some of the humourous billboards and references dotted around the game’s locales muster a cheeky snicker every once in a while. Grasshopper Manufacture’s offbeat brand of humour reveals itself across the board, particularly evident in conveniently-placed toilet cubicles which act as save points; spawning branded NMH toilet paper (which must rank as one of the craziest game tie-ins yet seen), along with a thousand Suda51 on-toilet interviews. Further peculiarities which make an appearance are the necessity to perform masturbatory techniques with the Wii remote to re-charge the beam katana’s energy blade (even if you had previously thought about letting children watch you play NMH, you should probably think again); Travis’ pet cat Jeane , which you can ‘pet’ and play with in Travis’ motel room; and ‘cleaners’ which vacuum up the ashes of your opponent after each ranked battle. There’s an undercurrent of ridicule to the ‘serious’ aspects of the storyline, and there are several points during the game which self-reference or break the fourth wall, mocking that No More Heroes is merely just a video game. Overall, it combines a heavy dose of seriousness with small, bitesize touches of light humour to propel the experience forward without becoming so heavy that it drags along the ground, but weighty enough that it doesn’t dissipate into anonymity.

Let’s make no bones about it, No More Heroes is brutal. Combat-wise, there’s a lot here to remind one of the 16 bit-era of side-scrolling city brawlers a la the Streets of Rage series, which maintains a constant level of beat-’em-up streamrolling through urban settings, generi-thugs and over-the-top level bosses. Strangely for a third-party game, there’s a decent effort at adopting the Wii’s range of motion controls, from slashing ‘finishing’ moves to unleashing a range of wrestling take-downs. Even the criminally-underused Wii remote speaker gets an outing as it blares out phone calls from Travis’ UAA contact, Sylvia. It’s a shame that the beam katana’s moves are deployed by deft pressing of the A button rather than by gesturing with the Wiimote, but at least that means it avoids the pitfalls of inaccurate motion controls which would cripple a game where fast pacing and tricky enemy AI punish poor combat skills. The small number of quick-time-events during battles do, however, require some lightning-quick reactions with the remote’s motion-sensing, but they’re pretty hard to screw up as you can do pretty much anything with the Wiimote and it counts as a “pass”. But without any hand-to-hand or alternative combat techniques (not even a ‘jump’ button), the fact remains that you’d better get used to copious amount of beam katana button-mashing, because you’re going to be doing a heck of a lot of it. Dispatch a baddie and in the lower corner of the screen you’ll get a spin of the slot machine which, if it matches three icons, you’ll get a Dark Side attack where time is slowed and you’ll have access to some bonus powers – they’re pretty rare though, and inevitably, much of the time they do arrive it’s as you’re slashing through the last guy in the room when there’s no-one to beat down on. They’re a nice break from the usual hand-wavy Wiimote button-mashing, but they never feel like the  ‘step-up’ in power that they should have been. The dreaded Quick Time Events also makes an inevitable appearance along the way, but they’re saved for the plethora of wrestling moves that can be deployed by waving the Wiimote and nunchuk, but it’s a massive shame that there’s not more motion control action used to command the beam katana; perhaps heeding the warnings from the mediocre Red Steel, and not having the benefit of the Wii MotionPlus accessory which was unveiled after this release.

Travis himself is much like No More Heroes as a whole; posessing many flaws but ending up just on the right side of ‘likable’ to maintain interest until the end. Character development and staging is handled pretty well, and the gameplay experience is expanded with some beautifully-orchestrated pre-battle cut-scenes and well-written dialogue which remains polished and punchy throughout. Travis remains unpredictable and intriguing to the end, and it’s easy to stick with both the story and characters to the close just to see if the story implodes and we get to see Travis completely off the chain. The ongoing exposition very nearly justifyies the banality of some of the between-batttle ‘side jobs’ that Travis must perform to earn enough cash to enter the next ranked battle. The most amenable are the range of ‘legitimate’ jobs, which end up being fun minigames revolving around harvesting coconuts, mowing lawns or collecting cats. The flip side are “assassination” and “free fight” missions which earn considerably more money, but are merely more exercise in button-mashing grind with generic bad guys, that becomes a chore largely from the off. Despite some shameless fun to be had with the side-jobs in very short, detached bursts, they merely serve to pad out what is a woefully short main game and tend to distract from the main storyline enough that it’s ultimately watered-down near the end. Still, if you finish it and still want more, there are a bunch of harder difficulty modes and a few collectible/scavenger hunts to fill in some time. They’re as throwaway as anything and ultimately count for nothing aside from any burning desire to unlock all Travis’ clothing customisations or view development art (surely the least rewarding ‘unlockable’ most modern games offer), but they do at least partially justify the presence of the game’s open-world environment and its surplus of empty streets, lack of zeal and collision issues.

While No More Heroes exists as a linear, 3-D scrolling beat-‘em-up during combat, the remaining time is spent around the Santa Destroy’s sandbox city, which ends  up being a somewhat muffled open-world environment. Compared to established sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto with fully-fledged cities inhabited by all kinds of potential, Santa Destroy exists merely as a corridor for Travis to travel between jobs or battles. Off the beaten track, there’s very little to find or explore within, and with no other pedestrians and relatively few cars, there’s no NPC interaction or recreation to be had. Travis’ transport of choice is a supercharged motorbike, albeit with arguably the worst driving controls of any open-world game – You’ll get caught on scenery (Santa Destroy may as well be renamed “Clipping Central”), fall off at the slightest collision, and there’s no coherent tutorial. The presence of the Santa Destroy sandbox merely slows down the action, which in a game that’s so rapid and unrelenting as No More Heroes’ main game, it’s particularly debilitating. It’s telling that, for the sequel No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, the open-world presence was removed and a more linear mission development was put in place. After a tense boss battle and a bit more exposition, you’re ready to take on the next foe; only to be metaphorically cock-blocked by the necessity to trawl all across town to earn enough money, then trawl back to pay the entry fee, head over to Travis’ flat to await Sylvia’s call, ride over to the next mission, and finally get the gameplay bit firmly back in teeth. That said, the requirement to pay up front for each ranked battle, in cash, is also a source of in-jokery at Travis’ expense, so it’s arguable that it’s presence is there to parody those more ‘serious’ games in which in-game currency counts for everything yet is drip-fed to the player (see: Grand Theft Auto IV) rather than letting them swim in gold (see: Grand Theft Auto III). To thieve a concept from Zero Punctuation’s review of No More Heroes, it’s as though all of the game’s foibles are meant to be there; taking NMH from the usual action canon to light-hearted parody of more serious titles. For me, NMH just about pulls it off, but there’s plenty of evidence to argue otherwise.

In that respect, No More Heroes remains an anomaly. In short, intense bursts, there’s little more on the Wii that’s more fun for a quick, twenty-minute blast than No More Heroes for the mature, hardcore crowd. But it’s those very same, ‘arcade’ sensibilities that makes the experience sour so much quicker into a gaming session, making it tragically unsuitable for prolonged bouts of action as the repetition and little change in the gameplay experience grate all the sooner. It’s by no means the best action game on the Wii and has more flaws than it’s possible to overlook, but it’s full of enough amusement, hook and charm to just about make up for it all, and if you can look past the foibles to the wealth of possibly that’s lurking underneath, you’ll have a hoot. [7]


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