There comes along, once in a while, a game that utterly stuns you with its uniqueness. It resides so far outside the bounds of what you, or others for that matter, are used to that even as you play it, you sit slack-jawed in disbelief. I’m not talking about a game with new, unique gameplay features or a boundry-pushing technological advancement. I’m talking about an air, a mood, a certain…something that lends it an aura of the special or the strange.
Looking through the catalogue of one Goichi “Suda 51” Suda, you will find several games that fit this category. His most recent contribution to gaming, Shadows of the Damned, was reviewed a ways back by my companion Suiko on this very site. Still, even that gem was diluted somewhat by the (not unappreciated) presence of Shinji Mikami. Suda’s games tend to be a bit rougher around the edges, both in terms of content and the game’s actual construction. Regarding his style, his magnum opus is probably Killer7, a horrifically dark and strange little gem that defies any real attempt at description. Being part surreal horror, part rail shooter, and 100% crazy and unique, not to mention touching on some rather ugly issues (terrorism, cult mentality, the variability of reality, child trafficking, suicide, rape), it handily shows Suda’s propensity for wholly individual and utterly unrestrained expression.
His other opus, No More Heroes, is similarly unbound, but for entirely different reasons. Where K7 was dark and disturbing, NMH is ridiculous and over-the-top. Where K7 asks you questions about the world around you, NMH just tells you to strap in for the ride. Where K7 casts you as seven psychotic killers, NMH casts you as one really, REALLY expressive one. And it is good, it is all good. NMH is one of the most enjoyable, fun and wholly unique experiences from this generation of consoles, and deserves to be played by anyone with an open mind and a taste for the eccentric.
Killin’ Ain’t Easy
In the town of Santa Destroy, Travis Touchdown (yes, that’s his name) is an aimless, sex obsessed twenty-something super otaku, and possible sociopath (but more on that later). He lives in the “No More Heroes” motel, in a tiny suite filled with toy models, posters, wrestling videos and anime games/DVDs. He is…well, to be honest, he’s more than a bit of a loser. One day, for kicks I assume, he decides to bid on a beam saber on an online auction, and actually wins, to his shock.
In celebration, he goes out and blows the rest of his money at a bar, where he meets a sexy french vixen who makes the now-broke Travis a deal: if he’ll go out and kill a man known as “The Drifter” (aka Helter Skelter) then she’ll give him a nice payday. And so he does, engaging in an epic battle which eventually sees Skelter minus one head.
However, Travis’ journey is far from over. The woman, Sylvia Christel, reappears, and instead of simply paying Travis off, she instead congratulates him on now being the 11th ranked assassin in America. Turns out there’s a little group called the UAA, the United Assassins Association, whose top ten members are the best in the world at what they do. So Sylvia makes Travis a proposal: to cut his way through the top ten, to ever greater rewards and riches. Of course, all Travis wants is some of that French wine, but the idea appeals to him, so he accepts. And so begins an orgiastic path filled with death, destruction, cool bikes, wrestling moves, collectible t-shirts, and more crazy than you can shake a beam stick at.
Welcome to the Jungle
The game has a fairly simple flow. Each main assassin fight, barring the first one, has an “entry fee” which you must raise performing various jobs. Said jobs come in what basically amounts to two varieties. Assassination jobs, which are basically “Kill X amount of thugs, sometimes with time limit”, and a motley collection of minigames, ranging from lawnmowing to coconut collecting to scorpion catching. The assassination jobs offer the expected bloody catharsis, while the minigames run the gamut from acceptable to absolutely awful. Scorpion catching in particular will make you wanna go out and punch a curator in the dick.
During these segments, you’ll have to navigate the “open world” of Santa Destroy in your impossibly cool motorcycle, the Schpeltiger (say that five times fast) to get to the various quest givers and boss locations. I say “open world” because Santa Destroy is mostly empty, save for the odd pedestrian and the necessary shops. And frankly, the Schpeltiger controls like shit on wheels. So really, the open world segments amount long swaths of time killing until you can get to the next “Assassin Fight”, which are essentially the stages of the game.
Not all is lost in these segments, though. NMH plays host to an absolutely massive amount of unlockable fashionistic miscellany, ranging from shirts to pants to shades. Gameplay related, you have the gym where, for a nominal fee, your master Thunder Ryu will give you a lesson to help improve your stamina or your health. Or he molests you, they never make it quite clear.
Or you can wander to the pub, and let local drunk Lovikov teach you some new skills, ranging from a open world run to a jumping slash you can use during combat. Run to the video store and buy some wrestling tapes to teach you new wrestling moves (more on that later). Maybe you go back to your motel to save or play with your cat or check out your newly acquired duds. Or most likely, head to gadgeteer genius Naomi’s laboratory, and let her upgrade your beam saber. Said upgrades range from longer battery life to making it bigger and stronger, including at one point giving you four swords put together.
The Chewy Chunks of Degradation
This is all well and good, but what about the core gameplay, namely, killing shit? Well, NMH has that too. In spades.
The game functions as a standard hack and slash, utilizing the wii-mote and nunchuck for attack and movement. You lock on with the nunchuk’s Z button, move with the analogue stick, and attack with the A button on the wii-mote. B gives a staggering kick, and holding the + sign while shaking the remote charges your saber’s “battery”, which will run low with repeated usage. Yes, Travis looks like he’s jerking off when he charges. Frankly, the game is about as subtle with its innuendo as a blind rhino giving a colonoscopy while on fire.
Combat is fast and cathartic, as you lay into your opponents with a combination of high and low sword strikes (high for quick, light hits and low for slower, wider, heavier shots). When an opponent has reached his end, a prompt will appear onscreen telling you to swing your wiimote in a specific direction to deliver the coup de grace, usually rendering your opponent headless or limbless and eventually exploding into a fine red mist. You may think this would all be uncomfortably brutal, but the whole thing is so over the top that it reaches a sort of demented comedy after a while.
Adding wrinkles to the combat are your roulette and wrestling moves. Every time you kill an enemy, a roulette wheel on the side of the screen will spin, giving you a chance to attain any one of a number of temporary power ups, ranging from insta-kill slashes, to omni-directional finishers, to long-range energy blasts. They’re rare, but when they show up they’re quite fun. More frequent are the wrestling moves. When you manage to stun an enemy, an onscreen prompt will appear, telling you to swing your wiimote and nunchuck in such a way as to mimic a wrestling hold or drop of some kind. These usually finish the enemy in goofy, spectacular fashion and net you more money from your downed opponent.
Although combat is fun, it’s not exactly deep. Your biggest challenge is usually deciding whether to low-stance a crowd or high-stance a smaller group, with the occasional challenge in the form of enemy beamsaber users or gun-wielders. Admittedly, gun-wielders will quickly deplete your energy bar, while some saber users will fuck you up if you let them. But on rare occasions, especially on the longer stages, combat can become monotonous and, at worst, brainless.
Oh, but all that changes when you meet your fellow assassins…
The Spice of Life
After you’ve spent some time gathering money, you can choose to pay the “entry fee” and fight the next assassin on the ladder. These function as the game’s “levels”, and usually involve you fighting through some such environment, and dozens of goons, before reaching the boss du’jour.
Each of the assassins offers a uniquely challenging little trick to their fight, be it the hit-and-run stratagems of Holly Summers or the stage-long war of attrition that is Speed Buster’s fight. As brainless as some of the combat is, some of these bosses will definitely test you, particularly around the middle and toward the end, and each one offers a unique personality to contend with.
And segueing from the topic of personality, we arrive at easily the game’s strongest feature: its characters. The cast of NMH is like a comic book rogues gallery merged with a demented fever dream. Travis himself, the very man you play as, is a hero only in the barest sense of the word. He’s selfish, vain, sarcastic and arguably as much of a monster as the very men he’s slaying. His entire character is summed up beautifully in the game’s opening monologue, where he says, quite simply, that he’s doing all this killing and violence just “because”. He’s a gloriously ruthless subversion of the put-upon nerd, and almost feels like a dark parody of the very people who would play this game. We’re made to identify with this loser, and then watch as he does awful shit on a regular basis, and his constant vulgarity and vicious commentary, with the odd truly magnificent monologue, make him a one of a kind player character.
In terms of supporting characters, they don’t make quite as much of an impression, but are still a unique bunch nonetheless. Sylvia is a manipulative femme fatale, leading Travis along with the promise of glory and possible nookie, while playing a game that you really can’t put your finger on (and frankly, the game doesn’t seem to know either). The various vendors all have their own quirks, and even the quest givers spout out some gold in their limited time. The last supporter worth mentioning is Henry, a mysterious trench coated Irishman who appears to taunt Travis and steal his glory on occasion. His badassery and some truly staggering one-liners make him a show stealer in his few appearances.
But all these guys are merely build up to the real stars of the show: the assassins. The top ten assassins in the world are an insane hodgepodge of murderous eccentrics. They are to a one ruthless killers, and they are also to a one more fucked up than the sum total of every psychotherapy textbook on the planet. Each one is a different flavor of balls-out quirky insanity including, in no particular order: Death Metal, a tattooed English nobleman with a gigantic beam razor. Destroyman, a mailman who dresses up as a superhero and shoots lasers from whatever part of his body he can. Holly Summers, a one-legged fashion model who specializes in mines and missiles. Speed Buster, an old woman with what can only be described as a COLONY LASER in her shopping cart. And then there’s Bad Girl, an incredibly disturbing mutation of Lolita Fetishism who fights with a baseball bat, occasionally punts GIMPS at you, and is equal parts arousing and fucking TERRIFYING. And no, I didn’t even cover some of the more absurd ones.
There are more story-focused games that go their ENTIRE LENGTH without introducing characters as strange and memorable as these guys are in their one-off appearances. Every assassin is a gleeful exercise in joyous, demented brainfuckery, combining amazing quotability, obscene attacks and a true sense of intimidation as you try to figure out just what the hell they’re gonna unleash on you next. Not to mention that they provide a stiff challenge for the player, and together they constitute what may be one of the finest casts of villains in gaming history, bar none. They contribute a lot to the overall charm of the game, that of a sense of style somewhere between psychotic absurdity and eccentric brilliance. If there is one charge that can be leveled against the game, it’s that the story indulges a little too much in the surrealist nonsense. The basic story is quite comprehensible, and there are some appreciable little twists, thematic questions and character developments. But the game sometimes gets too caught up in its own weirdness, and forgets to iron out a few things. Then again, that could also be chalked up to that charm mentioned above, although some will say otherwise.
Let’s Get Away, Fly Away…
Said charm is also aided by the singularly oddball aesthetic of the game. Graphically, NMH is a mixed bag. Character designs are creative and fun, Travis and the assassins all having fashion styles which I’m sure will be common fixtures at cons for YEARS to come. And the technical side of the graphics, a sort of cel-shaded style similar to that of Killer7, helps in bringing the unique look to life. It’s worth mentioning that, whereas the cel-shading in K7 lent the game a harsh, surreal bent, its usage here is more conducive to the slightly more off-kilter, yet still surreal, feel the game tries to pull.
On the other hand, non-main characters are often ugly and blocky, and the world of Santa Destroy is about as vibrant as a sack of rice, with endless fields of grays and blacks surrounding the odd landmark here and there. I understand that to render such a world would require a lot more processing power than Grasshopper had at their disposal, but when the game otherwise bubbles over with life, it’s more than a little distracting.
Suffering not at all is the sound side of things. In fact, besides the overall personality, audio is this game’s strongest point. Battle sound effects are meaty and ridiculous, and equally ridiculous are the death cries of those you slay (prepare to hear alot about the kidneys of those you kill).
The soundtrack is truly something to behold, a weird techno mix as varied and insane as the crazy bastards you’ll be fighting against. The amazingness starts with the game’s main theme, a thread which makes its way into various remixes throughout.
To post them all would be annoying and repetitious, although it should be said that some remixes work better than others. The eerie echoing of “Cashmere Cannonball” and the pounding trance beats of “Blueberry Cheesecake Brownie” are standouts.
As with the characters themselves, each assassin gets a unique theme catering to their own strange personalities. Whether it be the piercing, almost chiptune-esque weirdness of Destroyman’s “Stop Hanging DJs” (yes, that’s the title)
Or the whispering, discordant, truly off-putting madness of Bad Girl’s “Pleather for Breakfast”, which gets more and more frantic and insane the longer it goes.
Probably the best theme, however, goes to the true final boss of the game (who will be withheld here for spoiler’s sake), whose theme “We are Finally Cowboys” is a truly epic, rocking remix of the main theme that is almost unrecognizable underneath the staggering percussion and power-balled like guitar work. It’s probably one of the absolute best boss themes I’ve heard this generation.
Before we move on, I should mention the obnoxiously catchy “Heavenly Star”, a song by Genki Rockets that plays in all the game’s shops. It’s an awful earworm of a theme, and the comparatively saccharine lyrics both are incongruous with the game surrounding it and are also somehow FUCKING PERFECT.
Equally amazing is the voice cast. As a matter of fact NMH has pound for pound some of the best voice over this side of a Disney film, and put to MUCH less cuddly ends. Robin Atkin Downes is truly wonderful as Travis, lending him this sense of brash, overconfident prickishness while somehow still making him somehow likeable, and delivers every one of Travis’ MANY golden lines brilliantly, in all their vulgar, insane glory. It’s one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard, and he really goes at it full force.
Sylvia’s Paula Tiso plays the sexified, occasionally bipolar French woman that she’s given with all the seductive, possibly insane flair needed, and Quinton Flynn puts on his best Irish accent to voice “Sir Henry Motherfucker” (as he’s affectionately called by Travis), with the gleefully vicious brogue only increasing the awesomeness of Henry’s lines.
In terms of the assassins, they are expectedly excellent, from the Englishman’s drawl of Grant Albrecht’s Death Metal to the Charles Bronson-like growling of Doctor Peace, given wonderful life by Richard McGonagle, and the manic showmanship of Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii channeled by an absolutely gleeful James Horan, every assassin sounds as good as they look and act. And considering the sheer lunacy on display here, that’s something to be admired.
I’m Holding out for a Hero
No More Heroes is truly a one of a kind experience. I know that term gets bandied about quite often by game companies trying to make their latest shill seem worth the dollar of the buying public, but in terms of sheer personality, there is really nothing quite as fully amazing as this one. It’s gameplay may occasionally stumble, and there are some visual hiccups here and there, but the game positively inundates you with so much enthusiastic insanity that I dare you to really let any minor nitpicks ruin your fun.
The Breakdown (five sections, 20 possible points each)
Playability: A wide variety of gameplay styles keeps the game reasonably fresh, and the hack and slash works as expected. The controls on the overworld and several of the minigames are busted to the point of insanity, but since they constitute a smaller part of the experience, they don’t drag it down too much. 17 out of 20
Graphics: The character and enemy designs are truly memorable and unique, lending each encounter its own visual flair, and the cel shaded models animate well. Some muddy textures and bland environments make the whole visual package feel somewhat uneven, though. 15 out of 20
Sound: An amazing aural experience, almost every piece of music is unique and suited to the madness onscreen, and the boss themes are really something to behold. Voice work is amazing, bringing the varied and unique personalities of the characters to life with palpable gusto. 20 out of 20
Gameplay: A hack and slash in the strictest sense of the word, carving enemies luckily never quite loses its fun. The ugliness of repetition sets in on occasion, and boring or outright frustrating minigames rear their ugly head, but the progressive enjoyment and cathartic battle override those quibbles. 18 out of 20
Content: Appreciably lengthy, at about 12 hours, but more importantly, those twelve hours are filled with some of the absolute best characters and personalities you’ll find. A truly singular experience, the strange, psychotic world of NMH lends itself well to replays, and if you need more tangible reasoning, a truly masochistic hard mode offers further unlockables for the brave. 20 out of 20
Score Weighting: Five points up for Fantastic universe content. Overall 95/100
10/10 – Manic, Mad and Delightful