A great deal of digital ink has already been spilled on No More Heroes and what an outstanding title it is. The unique style, the great combat, and the amazing script are all things that have been reiterated over and over again elsewhere on the web. It seems appropriate to discuss, then, just how nuanced this game really is. The protagonist is an excellent foil for gamers, the violence is hilariously over the top, and there are countless references to game culture throughout the game. This much is well established. But what’s underneath all of that?
There are two kinds of satires: ones that look down on their subject matter and ones that look up to it. A satire can scorn a subject, reveal all of its flaws and display its ridiculousness to everyone. But a satire can also make jokes with reverence, pushing a beloved subject in ways that only expand its scope. No More Heroes, written and directed by Suda 51 of Killer7 fame, is the latter kind of satire, and it takes an industry that has become entrenched in established ideas and dependent on predictable consumers, and turns it on its head.
Each of the bosses you fight, ten in all, have unique aesthetics and personalities, and encountering each one is the best part of the game. Where the joke begins is how surprisingly repetitive the henchmen of each boss are. Modern video games tend to sidestep the problem of creating hundreds of unique faces by putting storm trooper helmets on them all. True, each boss has its own unique brand of henchman, but past that, the game is unapologetically repetitive in throwing the same guy at you over and over throughout a level. No More Heroes doesn’t just ignore this nitpick, it parades it at the player with glee. There’s also the incredible violence that comes with each henchman’s death. In an almost savage comment on video games, Suda has each decapitated corpse gushing fonts of cash and blood. After all, the more violence in a video game, the more it sells. Each one of those exploding corpses appeals to the game’s violence prone audience and Suda has no qualms about making a joke of this fact all the way to the bank.
Even the main weapons used in these exchanges are unapologetically ridiculous yet critically thoughtful. What, precisely, do you do to make a weapon more powerful than a light saber? Well, obviously, put five together and start swinging it like a baseball bat. In the sea of video games that slowly parcel out ever bigger and badder weapons as they progress, it’s refreshing to see someone make light of the gimmick of two different swords or guns not being all that different. These kinds of jokes are just samples of the humor found throughout the game, each one taking the world of video games and parading its flaws around with glee. They are funny on the surface and, with just a little thought, can be poignant as well.
This humor does not end with merely the static elements of the game because Suda 51 doesn’t hesitate to drag the player into the jokes. Almost every game that features upgrades has some degree of grinding in it. In countless games, you repeat levels to make extra cash, wander in the woods killing monsters for experience, and basically grind away with the same mindless task until you have enough for your upgrade.
In No More Heroes, before the player can begin the assassination jobs that let him resume this clichéd task, he must do a literal part-time job for terrible pay. You only have to do it once, but the game still makes you do everything from collect garbage to clean spray paint off walls before you get back to the killing. What No More Heroes does here is remind the player what all these monotonous quests really are: work. And what do you need this cash for? To pay for access to the next level, for better gear, and the ever-growing ability to dominate the game. Every light saber upgrade, every new combat move, and the game’s ultimate challenge of becoming number one assassin are all paid for with demeaning part-time jobs. It’s an edgy joke because Suda 51 is making the player participate in it, but he balances it out with the always fun assassination missions. For all the whining the player may do about these side jobs, it is always that player choosing to buy the upgrades and stylish clothes that causes that predicament in the first place.
Cutscenes as rewards started out as a really fun way to make a game come alive for the player back in the day. In Final Fantasy VII, all those blocky characters would suddenly become fully realized once they were in CGI. These cut scenes not only advanced the plot, they rewarded the player by making the experience more visceral, more real. Yet video games still cling to this feature even though their game engines are now in HD and incredibly well animated. The switch in visual style between game & cut scene is now more jarring than anything else. No More Heroes dismisses the need for expensive animated sequences at all (despite the intro) and still derives its greatest appeal from the cut scenes. How it manages to still keep them rewarding is pure writing power.
Simply put, Suda 51 can write the tragic, the depraved, and the hilarious with equal skill.
Each boss is delivered as a vignette of sequences that will constantly keep you playing for the next surprise, the next brilliant moment. My personal favorite was the last section of the game and the hilarious lampooning of the clichéd Joseph Campbell endings that stifle video game plots now. The formula of player enters underworld, gains powers, discovers personal revelation, and conquers the epic foe is so overdone as to almost be expected. When was the last time you played a video game that didn’t feature amnesia as a plot device for your terrible secret? Hell, the biggest surprise of Knights of the Old Republic II is when you find out the main character isn’t an amnesiac, just confused. The last level of No More Heroes features not one, but five plot twists of ever growing ridiculousness, brilliantly reminding the player that all of these clichés are so expected in games that they might as well force a couple at the end just for fun.
Whether you’ll enjoy No More Heroes really boils down to whether you’re the kind of person who can make fun of yourself or you take yourself so seriously that you don’t get the joke. As an establishment, video games have become guilty of the latter. Every critique that tries to say video games have a long way to go before they can be art gets bashed by the game community. Every time someone suggests that a game might be about something besides better graphics or violence gets ignored by the hardcore scene. What Suda 51 did in this game was strip away all the pretty graphics and physics engines and whatnot to give us a game that showed people what hardcore gamers really want. They want over the top violence, a cool story to participate in, and they want the game to make them work enough that the ending feels like they’ve earned it.
Yet, by so cleverly giving people the ultimate hardcore game, Suda 51 puts the whole of gaming in front of a mirror. Can you really go back to replaying levels over and over to earn cash for upgrades after this game demeans you to the point of picking up garbage to do it? Can you really suffer through yet another amnesia or trite ‘What a twist!’ story after this? The incredible thing about No More Heroes is that it’s not looking down on these gimmicks. It doesn’t make you want to quit playing games. Rather, it makes you want the medium to go beyond the gimmicks. No More Heroes doesn’t make fun of the conventions of video games, it sets the player free of them.