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Review – No More Heroes

posted on February 14th, 2008 by christian

No More Heroes looks to be another feel good indie hit, which means it will be used as fodder in a growing debate in the entertainment world. These days, a surefire way of garnering critical acclaim and a small but fanatical following is to produce something that appears to have hipster/geek chic and indie cred. Do this, and watch people fawn over how “charming” your work is, while still containing a powerful message about something. Go far enough, and you will have something that goes beyond the rest, reaching a level of acclaim it has no right holding.

Examples of this are not too hard to find. On television there was Gilmore Girls, a show whose every DVD boxset had to include a booklet explaining every pop culture reference used in the season (making sure it looked like an old marble composition notebook for those who thrive on nostalgia). Its supporters considered this the best dialogue on television, while others couldn’t stand how any given scene sounded like a group of scriptwriters trying way too hard to sound clever. In music, you don’t have to go far to find love for The Arcade Fire and their zany church concerts. But try to find anyone who actually discusses their songs, or whether their recorded material is even close to being as good as their live work, and you might wonder if the band has a fanbase at all.

If you are too young to view the above image please do not look at it.

In film and gaming we have our darlings that exploded to the top of the heap. Portal is an amazing proof of concept and a delicious five hour long chunk of fun, one that in many eyes was the greatest game of 2007, with the best character (an inanimate object) and best song. In movieland, the film Juno went from being a simple indie film oozing with charm to a ten ton beast that may win the Academy Award for Best Picture, all while making a star out of a stripper/blogger turned script writer.

In all of these examples, the same thing happens: the fans become devoted to the work as if it were a religion, and it is shoved into the rest of the community’s face so much that others react violently against it. Some will have their hopes built up by all the praise, and then find a product that couldn’t possibly live up to their expectations, and thus form opinions that are overly harsh. Others throw heaps of hate upon it simply to get people to shut up. The line is drawn, and it becomes either the greatest thing ever, or the biggest joke in entertainment. Every so often however, someone will come around and tell both sides that they’re wrong, that it wasn’t as bad, or as good as everyone is saying. It wasn’t bad, wasn’t the best, so why don’t we leave it at that and move on to something else? Eventually this person will become one of the supporters of the “haters” camp after they see someone get thousands of hits on their website after they find the Companion Cube in their waffles.

No More Heroes will not have much financial success, but just like Killer 7 before it, it will draw one of these lines in the sand. The game has reviews ranging from solid to very high, with only a few haters lingering. Give it a few months for more people to discover it (or for a hipster games journalist to feature it in an article), and the love/hate divide will further unfold. Right now it is either a wonderful satire and a game that understands its fanbase, or it is nothing more than cheap pandering in the shell of a poor game. The truth again lies somewhere in the middle. No More Heroes is damn good entertainment. It has some endearing, deeper messages to explore, and some issues that should not be ignored. You don’t have to worship this one, but to damn it seems just as silly.

I won’t lie; some of the most heavily discussed problems with No More Heroes are of little importance to me. For instance, we know the graphics could be a lot better, but I’ll take what we have, especially considering that, in many minds “better” means “more realistic”. A game this strange and violent simply wouldn’t work with a realistic look (Kill Bill is a poor analogy until you can find a game that is as well choreographed). At the same time, I loathe to call the look “charming”. We can also establish that anyone who has serious issues with the driving segments would lose a 50cc race in Mario Kart, even if Travis is not riding the most graceful of motorcycles.

Travis’ bike looks and handles like a boat.

No, there are other, bigger fish to fry here. Much has been said about the various minigames you are often tasked with. Some reviewers feel they are a satire on gaming’s over-reliance on minigames as filler, and that they are meant as a contrast to the blood soaked assassin levels. The first point falls flat when you realize that if minigames aren’t fun, using them to prove that point isn’t entirely fun either. The second point is hampered because the minigames rank your performance for money, so getting the most out of them means beating them as efficiently as possible. Doing so makes them a very small sliver of the game; so small that I feel as if they could have been removed without detriment.

This removal would be even more welcome considering how great the actual assassination missions are. They deliver via a one-two punch of sharp combat and sheer variety. No More Heroes avoids a common pitfall among Wii games, which often take a simple controller and make a game that is a bear to control, usually thanks to horrible waggle-enabled actions. NMH is content to use the buttons it is given, and Wii motions are kept to a minimum, usually for satisfying finishing moves and throws. A simple combat system by modern standards, but one that works surprisingly well. Balance is the key here; enemies are not unfairly aggressive or powerful, and even when the game leans towards the easy side (which it does), the finishers and ridiculous fountains of blood and coins that spew from each enemy are an oddly satisfying reward.

You may not be able to sever limbs, but you can cut off five heads at once, and that is a rush that doesn’t die down. Adding to this are the many different ways each mission can unfold. In each one there is always a segment or two that come out of nowhere, sometimes to give you something new to do, and almost always to evoke a chuckle. Along with such consistently pleasant action, they make each new hit something to look forward to.

That being said, the missions themselves aren’t all equally creative. The bosses, while all very clever characters, do not scale at all in difficulty. The hardest fight I had was with one of the earliest, while the final two bosses went down on one try each. This is remedied by Bitter mode, but sadly the hardest difficulty is locked away until you have played through once.

Accessorizing can mean the difference between life and death for an assassin.

Some tweaks could do so much to an already wonderful game. I know there has been some backlash about how the game seems to try too hard to be “retro” from head to toe, but it really does work. Take away the free-roaming city (which was so simple as not to be offensive), and you have a very singular and straightforward concept that is executed through some engaging levels and capped off with worthwhile bosses. All lead by one very catchy tune. It sounds an awful lot like Super Mario Bros. and other classic games, which may be all the explanation one needs. Ditch the excess content, up the challenge just a tad, give us some more assassinations, and spit shine each encounter to a perfect polish. The result would be a game worth loving.

Finally, as for the game’s overall style, what can I say that hasn’t been stated already. It is a fascinating mix of violence, humor and gaming/anime in jokes. Don’t listen to the most jaded individuals who say that this has all been done before by doujin and ecchi games in Japan. These aren’t even close to being mainstream games, and in the big picture there is nothing on the market quite like this.

I am hesitant to say that this is a game that “gets” this community. Of course, it is entirely true that it does, but I don’t think every joke is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, nor that No More Heroes is singing constant praise of the lifestyles of gamers and otaku. There is a very clear theme of growing up and destroying the idols of our youth in order to gain power, money, and sex, and even then things don’t always work out so well. It isn’t that Suda51 feels we should be ashamed of our hobbies; this game is clearly not hateful or insulting. Rather, the message seems to be that games, anime, and anything else we do for fun should be taken a little more lightly than they presently are.

If anything, the “vibe” that I got from No More Heroes was the most important thing I took from it. The mission of Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture is perfectly embodied in their motto, “Punk Rock is not dead.” No More Heroes may not be genuine punk (since no one knows what the hell that is), but it has the spirit behind it. Suda is willing to put his heart and energy and ideas into his projects, put them out there, and see what happens. Maybe it will stick, and maybe it will be dammed (more often than not it will be dammed). Sometimes it might not even be good (which can be argued about Killer 7).

Travis is probably a bigger nerd than you.

None of this seems to matter This is not Amy Winehouse causing drug-fueled drama before being awarded a Grammy, or Diablo Cody scoring a hit with Juno and then continuing to bombard us with articles in Entertainment Weekly. Suda51 sold No More Heroes branded toilet paper the night of the Japanese launch. No one came, and Suda has yet to make a huge stink about it in the press. He cares about his games, but he doesn’t seem to care if they stick with everyone in the industry. He shouldn’t either; as much respect as I have for him, he doesn’t get it right all the time. He still needs more practice refining his ideas into something consistently playable, and sometimes his ideas are as pedestrian as you can possibly get.

Something tells me he knows these things, and quite frankly he doesn’t care. Neither do I. Suda, Grasshopper, and their latest game feel genuine. If a band like The Sex Pistols or the Ramones can take minimum competence and turn it into something amazing, then so can a game designer. No More Heroes doens’t need a 25 page dissertation about how every detail is a parody of some sort. It is merely a game that uses some bare bones concepts just well enough, and puts a hell of a lot of energy into them. Forget the haters, and forget the fanatics. This is great entertainment, and that is all that matters.

4 Comments

  1. shota said on February 17, 2008:

    Dead on, Christian. dead on.

  2. Stefan said on February 18, 2008:

    I just saw the game for the first time this weekend, and I have to say this is exactly right. It reminded me of a David Byrne quote: “Well, I don’t care that I’m not an expert in this. I know my limitations, but I think I can express what I want to express within those limitations. You know, like I may only know three chords, but that’s all I need.”

  3. Dan said on February 18, 2008:

    Excellent article.

  4. TrueTallus said on February 27, 2008:

    Also chiming in my agreement, great job!

    The weird ebb and flow of popularity for titles like this makes trying to decide if they are worth playing months after release difficult. The commotion behind whether a game was good or trash is often so dense that I end up figuring it’s not worth the bother to be informed.

    Anyway, thanks for the honest appraisal, Christian, I’m definitely going to have to give NMH a try whenever I finally get a Wii.

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