No More Heroes
By Alex Kierkegaard / December 17, 2007
This game fucking sssssssucks and I fucking hated almost every moment I spent playing it. It's nothing more than an ugly, gimmicky, cheap-ass, third-rate, five-dollar GTA knock-off, whose only redeeming feature is its funky comic book vibe, and perhaps also its at-times slightly amusing dialogue. Well, actually it has one more redeeming feature -- it's only after playing it that you will come to fully realize the genius of the guys who made Grand Theft Auto III.
Or at least a few of you will realize it -- that is what I realized after browsing rllmuk shortly after the game's release. There, two guys lucky enough to be in possession of NTSC-J Wiis and copies of NMH, were busy one-upping each other, praising the fuck out of this lazy, trashy, heaping slop of a videogame to an audience of enthralled, and really quite jealous, spectators. Choice quotes: "This is pure gaming nirvana!11", "I've never seen a game so in love with being a game", "Seriously now, folks: Game of the Year. I liked it even more than Galaxy", "Absolutely fucking spectacular", et cetera, et cetera for several pages.
And I sit here and ask myself: how could these people be so terribly, terribly wrong? Videogames are not paintings; beauty here is not in the eye of the beholder -- games are more like cars or motorcycles: comparing them is usually more of a technical matter than anything else. In the case of No More Heroes, a 3D hack-and-slash free-roaming action title, without a doubt the games it should be measured by are Grand Theft Auto III and Ninja Gaiden -- the first for still being the best free-roaming action game we have, and the second for being by far the best 3D hack-and-slasher yet.
So did these people never get around to playing those games? Did they get into videogames last week, or are they simply just dumb? You also have to factor in that they are the only ones in that whole forum (of 9,500+ registered users) who have access to NMH, so I guess all their exclamation marks are a way of "rubbing it in" and attracting attention?
I don't know, man, I just don't know. But whatever -- forget about those clowns. Let's concentrate on No More Heroes shall we.
So here's the set-up. You've got this tiny town called Santa Destroy, in which all the action takes place. You -- Travis Touchdown, the geek protagonist who's just won a beam katana on an online auction -- live in a motel called No More Heroes. Your goal is to kill the top ten ranked assassins in this tiny town and become number one. But the association that arranges duels between assassins is a greedy one, and for every fight they set up they ask for an increasing amount of cash. So, in order to move on to the next fight, you have to basically run around town doing odd jobs to earn the cash, and... that's the whole game, basically. A series of boss fights interspersed with long stretches of random assassination missions and mini-games.
Now this perhaps wouldn't have been so bad if a) the fighting system wasn't pants, and/or b) the "odd jobs" didn't suck. However it is and they do.
In regards to the first point, what's happened here is that the remote/nunchuk functionality is used to mask how terribly shallow the fighting system is. So shallow, that it is quite possible to win half the fights in the game by -- get this -- turning your back on the TV and mashing the A button while vigorously shaking the remote in random directions. There's essentially only one slash and one kick, and the gimmick is that when an enemy is near death you get a prompt to "slash" with the remote in a specific direction to finish them off, though it usually doesn't matter in which direction you slash -- nine times out of ten the game will register a hit regardless of direction. And the various wrestling moves you acquire (which you are prompted to use once you've stunned an enemy with a kick) are yet another smokescreen, since all they do is add variety to the finishing moves, but not to all the fighting that precedes them.
The "odd jobs", meanwhile, are pathetic. There's this one dude in a tracksuit and sunglasses who pays you to collect coconuts or pick up trash or mow his lawn or some shit, and after you do that he sends you to this TV station that's a front for an assassination agency, which gives you missions that usually involve a large room and a couple dozen identical enemies.
And then you have the boss fights, which are basically just one step above the boss fights seen in games like Berserk (1999) or the recent Oneechanbara Vortex, in which you basically sit in front of the boss and keep slashing furiously, hoping that his health bar will deplete faster than yours. Only NMH is a step up 'cause you have this one sideways-roll move, and if you don't constantly use it you are dead meat. And that's it.
Driving around Santa Destroy is depressing, since it's devoid of any kind of life, or any location worth seeing. But it's while cruising the streets of this depressing little town that the full genius of the GTA III designers becomes apparent.
In the streets of Santa Destroy nothing ever happens. There are no cops to chase you down when you do something illegal (you are not allowed to do anything illegal anyway -- there aren't even any red lights to run). There are no rival gang members to attack you if you happen to cross their territory. There's no danger. You can't screw up.
Since you can't jack other vehicles, you've only got your indestructible bike (that handles like a dog, by the way), and you can't even change radio stations to break up the monotony of the one or two tunes that play the whole time. There's no night/day cycle, no illegal street races, not even any people whose random conversations you can overhear.
Turns out that every single element we nowadays associate with GTA III was there for a reason. There's a good reason you were a compulsive criminal in GTA III -- if you were not the game would have been boring. There's a good reason it gave you such a huge amount of excellent music to listen to in your car (not to mention the talk shows!). There's a very good reason the cars were so flimsy, forcing you to keep jacking more and more of them, and running into more and more trouble. And there was a good reason the city was huge and not fully accessibly to you from the very beginning.
It all added up to turning every trek across town into a mini-adventure. You were headed for adventure anyway (the missions), but even the little trips from one mission to the next were full of randomly-generated excitement. As for GTA III's combat mechanics -- they were a gift from heaven compared to what you get in NMH. Because in GTA you could shoot, skewer or burn an enemy or even run him over with a car -- the possibilities were endless, and the battles extended across the whole city -- whereas here you are trapped in an area with invisible walls all around, mashing a button at point-blank range against a horde of identical thugs.
And let's not even bring Ninja Gaiden into this discussion. Let's just not.
I was really looking forward to No More Heroes. Killer 7 was among the most worthwhile gaming experiences of 2005, and I was naturally expecting something of at least similar calibre. Killer 7 made me think that GHM was through with the shoddy unplayable rubbish they usually churn out; but I was deceived, as were those dudes on rllmuk, by the fancy cel-shaded character designs and show-offish trailers. In fact, even the graphics in this game suck -- in perfect post-graphics style NMH is a huge step back from Killer 7, with basic 3D models and cheap textures for every object in Santa Destroy except the characters, and aliasing that's worse than what you'd expect from a first-gen PS2 game.
I'll say one and only one good thing about this poor GTA-ripoff cash-in of a videogame: in combat, the slow-motion action that precedes the finishing moves has quite a dramatic effect, and in the hands of a capable designer could be used to open up new possibilities for hack-and-slashers, much like Max Payne's bullet time did for FPSes. I trust Itagaki's taking notes.
Since posting this review, Alex has also posted a somewhat-related article on parody in videogames. If you think that No More Heroes deserves to be praised as a parody, you'd do well to check it out.