It is nice to be able to consider a game, not merely in comparison to similar games, but as it emerges within a body of work. Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture have put a unique stamp on gaming culture with some truly unique titles that speak clearly to their claim that “Punk’s not dead.”
One wouldn’t think that the raw, ugliness of a punk aesthetic would necessarily translate into an aesthetic conducive to video games, especially in this generation that seems so intensely focused on a kind of very clean and technical approach to detail and life-like graphics.
In the previous generation of consoles, Killer 7 struck a raw pose with its dark noir look and bizarre examination of video game violence in the form of seven personae that served as avatars to the assassin Harman Smith. Suda and Grasshopper didn’t score many points with their odd approach to simple mechanics like the way that movement was handled in the game, and it is hard to claim that Killer 7 is exactly “fun” to play as a result. However, it served up a sophisticated, thoroughly bizarre critique of the solipsistic content of violence in video games.
The follow up No More Heroes proved to be similarly obtuse but interesting in its representation and parody of the open world genre. Lots of grinding for blood soaked cash to get the opportunity to throw down with ranked assassins in the fictional city of Santa Destroy was slowed down even more by a seemingly unnecessary empty open world environment.
However, much of the gameplay was part of the joke, and the game shone in its boss battles, which featured innovative gameplay and more analysis of violence through the unique introductions to each assassin in some of the best and weirdest cutscenes in gaming. Despite its flaws, the story of Travis Touchdown had interesting things to say about video game players’ appetites for violence and misogyny, and its parodies of violent attitudes through the vehicle of each new bosses’ escalating oddness was often funny and even at times provoked real pathos.
Suffice it to say that Suda 51’s brand of gaming is not for everyone, but as long as you are not put off by potty humor and his tendency towards featuring deviant sexual and intense violent imagery, he has offered a number of really fascinating experiences. Unfortunately, seeing through the filter of this brief but intriguing body of work makes No More Heroes 2 that much more of a disappointment.
In Suda’s return to Santa Destroy is a seeming effort to “clean up” the jagged edges of No More Heroes, but while some have claimed that solutions to the flaws of the previous games have fixed the series, in truth a lot of solutions have led to similarly problematic gameplay (and grinding). Worse still, the thematic interests that were what made the first game so worthy of play despite some gameplay problems have all but evaporated in the sequel.
While characters like Sylvia still egg on both Travis (and more importantly the player in the game’s metanarrative) with comments like, “violence is the only way you can express yourself”, in order to encourage self reflection about why the hobby has become such a vicious form of self expression, Suda 51’s critique of games becomes less nuanced this time out. Gone are the extended dialogues from No More Heroes in which the bosses express individuated motivations for their own demented past-time. Instead, the game seems to want to only explore the reactive violence evoked by using revenge as a means of narrowing the discussion of what fuels Travis’s murderous rampage.
In this case, Travis’s singular interest in taking part in an assassination contest is driven by a desire to avenge the death of his “friend”, Bishop. Admittedly, Sylvia observes that this time around Travis’s thirst for revenge has made him different from the other assassins, which suggests an interesting premise that gamers justify violence to themselves by finding “humanity” in violence when that violence is supplemented by added “meaning”, that of justice and revenge. Travis responds to Sylvias, saying that “assassins aren’t tools. As fucked up as we might be, we’re still humans”, further suggesting that those of us who take part in competitive assassination (gamers themselves) need these kinds of excuses (a narrative purpose that speaks to a moral concern) to justify our own cruel expressions of ourselves. But as L.B. Jeffries pointed out in “The Problem With No More Heroes 2” that is the central irony of the game, the hollowness of such a conceit: “Then the game gets underway by having the NPC that sold us wrestling tapes in the first game killed off. Nobody gives a shit about this guy. That’s the joke. The player starts killing people under this nonsensical plot device.”
With only this thin thread of a theme to dangle by, the game regresses into uninspired boss battles and the “solution” to grinding through 3-D isometric sidejobs around the map of Santa Destroy, which is to grind through 2-D sidejobs in Santa Destroy. While remaking the sidejob missions into something resembling 8-bit classics is quaint and cute for awhile, these jobs become just as gratingly redundant as they did in the first game. The retro game ethos only lasts beyond one or two attempts at each one, then the player wants to get back to the central plotline again — or at least the player wanted to when playing the first one, not so much in this quieter and less compelling version of Santa Destroy.
Now the weirdest thing about all of this griping about the game, though, along with my subpar scoring of it is this: I will be first in line for Suda’s next game. It may seem contradictory but the truth is that as anemic as this No More Heroes is, Suda’s strange aesthetic is just that compelling. I am always interested in seeing what he will do next. I think what No More Heroes 2 might suggest is that sequels may not be the right direction for a designer like Suda. This is a guy who excels at innovating, not at building franchises. No more sequels, Suda, but, please, more games.