When you load up No More Heroes, Grasshopper’s logo appears on the screen bearing the legend ‘Punk’s Not Dead!’ It’s a comic moment – slightly desperate in its insistence, slightly banal in its sentiment – and wholly suited to No More Heroes, a game that reconciles rebellion and beam swords with a matter-of-fact take on the realities of life. It’s a singular vision, the script joking about emotions and toilets in the same breath, its tasks veering between insanity and mundanity: its greatest achievement is the melding of these diverse qualities into something coherent.
It begins with Travis Touchdown coming across a beam sword and killing a local assassin at the request of a pretty girl he desperately wants to impress, which sets him on the road to encounters with another 11 killers. The game is built around these 11 assignments, between each of which Travis can traverse a hub town on his motorbike, seek gainful employment or take on freelance assassination missions.
The world, and its characters, are skewed parodies that balance gaming functions with homely advice and bizarre voice-acting. The cardboard town is basic to say the least, and will be misconstrued as an attempt at GTA, but it’s a much less ambitious and compact space that concentrates on the minutiae of Travis’s life: thus, the only things of interest to him and the player are the bars, clothes shops, the odd friend, perhaps the gym, and the Job Centre.
There is one key surprise within this part of No More Heroes: though it’s full of events and distractions, it also dares to try to bore you. The jobs depend on your learning the technique for each before doing as much as you can, and make a virtue of their real-world mundanity with ridiculous 8bit fonts proudly trumpeting that you are a ‘Coconut Collector’ or ‘Lawn Mower’, while the boss stands around with his arms folded and watches “the third-class man” sweat. At three minutes long, there’s the suspicion that Grasshopper has timed exactly how long is too long for repetitive tasks, and made them stop right on the borderline.
But it doesn’t become boring because the game as a whole constantly alters the rhythms of the challenges you face. The fighting missions initially seem repetitious, but manage to introduce the basics and then push the possibilities. The structure is simple: Travis moves through a location and defeats scores of enemies before coming up against his target, the beam sword used by pressing the A button, and punches and kicks triggered with the B button. Attacks also depend on dodging, your position relative to the enemy and the angle at which you’re holding the Wii Remote – as well as, for finishing opponents, Remote gestures.
Acquiring a new beam sword will change all of Travis’s moves in both style and effectiveness, and each assassination mission brings with it a new wrestling throw to use on your many foes. It balances flowing attack and subtlety with a real challenge as the game progresses, and what initially appears to be a limited system reveals such variation beneath the surface that it can be mastered to a degree that once-unbeatable enemies won’t be able to touch you.
Beyond this, the later levels mix up the nature of the fighting to an almost schizophrenic degree: quite outside of the variations in locations and bosses, you’ll have to fight side-on, top-down and upside-down, as well as conquer Great White Giant Glastonbury – a discovery best left to the player.
And the bosses are a wonderful collection of freaks and eccentrics, with a level of invention in the battles that has more than a hint of Metal Gear Solid about it. That game’s tendency to tease the fourth wall is here nothing less than an explicit gouging: characters freely slip in and out of their roles to comment on the action, and as No More Heroes reaches its climax the twists become progressively more ludicrous and the ‘game’ becomes part of the broader story. It’s breathless stuff at times, and so inventive in adopting little cinematic tricks (the first time you re-centre the camera is a delight) and contradicting itself gleefully that it’s hard not to be swept along.
Needless to say, the game also has the trademark Grasshopper look, from the colored freeze-frames that mark loading (accompanied by a guitar riff) to the cel-shaded figures with whom you interact. It’s by far one of the best looking and most distinctive Wii games to date. There are some technical problems: there’s noticeable pop-up in the town, which leads to some invisible walls, the framerate occasionally drops, and certain models (notably cars) are basic.
The honorable exception is the audio, which has a sound effect for almost everything in the game of some comic note. The themes are infectious and you’ll frequently hear a snatch of a remixed 8bit tune as you progress through the assassination missions.
Amid these disparate elements the game does have a unifying theme, and perhaps a surprising one for a Wii title: gaming culture and gamers. It goes beyond the retro stylings (the scoreboard is a particular highlight) and incidental tributes to other titles to a wry fatalism about what lies outside the excesses of imagination: after the pyrotechnic thrills of each assassination, Travis returns to his motel room to two answer phone messages, one about the late return of a pornographic video with a highly inventive title, and one about the amount of money he has to pay for the next fight, necessitating a new job.
No More Heroes is a caricature of men’s fantasies. It takes the inner life of a young mind, then expands and explodes it. It’s overblown, out of proportion and ridiculous at times, numbingly familiar at others, and has a breadth of reference and a delicate touch with even its most obvious sources that is unusual in gaming. It’s a game in which you notice how loaded the dialogue is the second time around, a game full of niggly faults that ultimately feel irrelevant to the experience, a game that knows it’s a game and wants you to know that it knows you know. Yes, the narrative is driven mainly by cutscenes, it can be a little basic in places, and it isn’t a ‘paradigm shift’ in any sense, but it is proof that games can love their roots and use the quality of being a ‘game’ to give form to their stories – and excel at it.