Punk Heroes

The new logo for Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture is a mixmash coat of arms, which clearly reads across the bottom “Punk’s Not Dead” and it would seem that No More Heroes is Suda 51’s very real effort to prove that fact. The game is loud and garish and completely over the top, from the cutscene dialogue right down to the half motorcycle, half tank that protagonist Travis Touchdown drives. No More Heroes is about breaking the rules.

But not just in the obvious ways. The game breaks a lot of design rules as well. Unfortunately, one of those rules is, “In the year 2008, it is completely fucking unacceptable for objects and scenery to ‘pop’ into existence at a walkable distance.” Luckily, that rule only gets broken in non-combat areas. But that’s really a technical issue, and I mention it first as a personal irritant. There are many more important rules that No More Heroes breaks, such as the ubiquitous need that games have lately to try to disguise the fact that they are games. It started, I think, as 3D graphics began making serious advances. When characters’ hands had actual fingers instead of being blunted trapazoids with lines on them. When skin suddenly had texture. When clothing moved like actual cloth instead of plates of cardboard.

Studios were spending all of this money trying to make their games look more realistic. They still are, obviously, and with the advent of real physics engines in games, that’s going to continue to escalate. But somewhere along the line, it became common wisdom that the graphics were a function of the realism, and that realism was the goal. So the gaming industry began cramming all sorts of ridiculous tropes into games that they didn’t need in order to keep them realistic (where the term realistic can encompass worlds where aliens invade, zombies walk the earth, and World War II never bloody ends). The idea is that you can increase the realism if you prevent people from remembering they are playing a game.

And in certain genres, that’s a good thing. Part of what made Resident Evil 4 such a success was that despite thinking about aiming mechanics and ammo collection, there were plenty of moments where a enemy leaped out at you and it scared you pissless. A game like RE4 had to strive for realism in order to achieve its mood and feel. But now it seems that every game is doing this, many to the point of either hiding the user interface or else trying to make it part of the scenery. The new Ghostbusters game, for example, will not have a UI at all, but rather all of your relevant statistics will be indicated by the lights on the back of your proton pack. And don’t get me wrong, that’s cool as hell. But for every game that does integration brilliantly, there are another ten that do it like crap. And then you still remember you are playing a game, because you are struggling with the UI. So the realism is lost, and on top of that, you’re annoyed at the developers.

No More Heroes doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you remember it’s a game. In fact, it goes out of its way to remind you that you’re playing a game. All of the on-screen indicators, from waggle information to locations on the map, are indicated with huge, square, three dimensional pixels. The UI is this insane compilation of a digital watch minimap, a rolling slot machine, a battery life indicator, a large, beating pixel-based heart, and a lounging 8-bit tiger. Even as you progress through the ranks in the game, that progress is tracked via a “High Scores” list that looks like it was pulled from a 1980’s Galaga clone arcade machine. The mini-missions and side quests are designed to both be non-realistic and poke fun at the arbitrary side quests that are accepted as gaming convention. I mean, you’re an assassin with a laser sword, but you earn cash on the side pumping gas, cutting lawns, and even picking up litter with over-the-top animations and arbitrary time limits. It’s all Suda 51’s way of telling you, “Hey, asshole. You’re playing a game. Remember?” He leaves the fourth wall just barely in tact.

But he goes beyond simply making the game-ness of No More Heroes obvious. In a lot of ways, what Suda 51 has created is a living embodiment of the idea of a modern video game. It’s the caricature that people accusingly point their finger at when ridiculing games. It’s unrealistic, the violence is so gratuitous that you can’t even take it seriously (you can slice people clean in half, and they literally erupt in blood and coins like you just blasted open a very bloody, wealthy fire hydrant). All of the female characters are exceptionally hot, wear almost no clothing, and flirt with Travis (even the one who’s missing a leg). Though Suda 51 paints Travis as such an out of touch geek that nothing ever comes from it, and actually manages to work some character development into that otherwise obvious internet cliche.

When irate pundits on Fox And Friends decide they need something to be outraged about, and begin talking about the violence orgies that all video games clearly are, those of us who play just shake our heads and sigh. No More Heroes stops and asks the question, “Well, what would happen if you did get extra points for cutting peoples’ heads off and breaking their spines?” The first answer is that it would be hilarious. The second, less obvious answer is that it would actually make the violence itself much less realistic. It removes the hightened sense emotional charge from combat that you get in a game like Resident Evil 4, while still keeping the combat fun, satisfying, and completely over the top. That is the other way in which No More Heroes retains its punk lineage. It says to the world, “This is what video games are, eh? Well be careful what you ask for, bitches, you just might get it.”

And just a note on the combat – yes, if you walk around randomly mashing the “A” button, you can probably slog through most of the normal enemies on easy mode. But that’s true of most games. Most enemies in Twilight Princess could have been killed by rushing up to them and flailing the Wiimote like an idiot. But the combat system can be a game of finesse and style if you want it to be. Certainly, on larger packs of enemies and bosses it quite literally has to be if you want to progress. The inclusion of the “killing blow” mechanic, where you get an arrow telling you which way to perform your kill strike, and you must swipe the Wiimote accordingly, gives me just enough sword swinging action to keep me satisfied without making my arm tired after a few hours of progression.

As for the graphics, which I know I’ve already criticized? They are what they are. Sometimes, they look very cool. Other times, you’re running around a large mansion thinking, “Oh, there’s that ugly ass texture again.” Honestly, I think the first stage where the tutorial takes place was a very poor choice because it’s probably one of the least interesting looking stages in the game (until you reach the boss). The style is like a very updated version Killer 7, in that it’s both textured and cell shaded, and the characters are slightly cartoony while retaining mostly realistic animations. It is supposed to look like an underground comic book, and in that sense it finds success. And the special effects themselves, the combat lighting and the explosions, look very sharp. In other words, it’s not going to be Bioshock. But thankfully, it’s not Daikatana, either.

A lot of people have been writing that if you liked Killer 7 (and in that case, welcome to my very small minority), then this game is for you. But I’d expand that, because even I can admit there was a lot not to like about the brilliantly flawed Killer 7. Instead, I think it’s fair to say that if you wanted to like Killer 7, then you will like No More Heroes. Not because they are the same game – far from it. But because No More Heroes does a lot of the things that Killer 7 wanted to or should have done, but was simply unable to accomplish. It fulfills the promise of the early Killer 7 previews, while managing to remain light hearted and amusing. And for sheer stress relief, I don’t know if I’ll ever find a game where hacking through a pack of baddies with a great big laser sword will be quite as satisfying.

The game does take some adjustment. I first played it for an hour or so, beat the initial mission, then put it down to do some other things. I enjoyed it, but the compulsion to continue playing wasn’t quite there yet. Then I picked it back up about an hour and a half later and played it for almost half of a day straight. Maybe I needed that time to process what I’d just played. Who can say? Being only half-way through the game, it’s possible that my final verdict will be different (and I certainly will have a completion post and review). But for those of you wondering if No More Heroes is worth your $50? Well, that probably depends. If you want to play Grand Theft Lightsaber, don’t bother buying No More Heroes. If you refused to play Wind Waker because it didn’t use reflection maps on Link’s sword, skip out on Suda 51’s latest. But if you like games, and have an actual sense of humor? I’m officially making No More Heroes your next mandatory purchase.

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