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Dispatches: No More Heroes, Part One; Or: For Esme, With Love and Rockets

It’s taken a while now, but in the new action smörgåsbord No More Heroes the Nintendo Wii finally has one of those lynchpin titles necessary to prove its strength as a console in the long run– an original, exclusive third-party game that capitalizes on the best aspects of the system’s motion-controls while delivering a universally solid gameplay experience. Furthermore, it’s from one of the premier modern gaming auteurs, the ever avant-garde Goicha Suda, creator of the Gamecube curiosity Killer 7. As such, it stands as one of the most perversely satisfying and deeply frustrating gaming experiences of the next-gen generation, and even half-way through at this point, I feel like I’ve got more to say about it than most other games I’ve played in quite a while. Not all of it is good, of course, but that’s so much the better.

What I can say is this: No More Heroes is quite possibly the most important game that may ever be released for the Wii, and very probably the single most offensive piece of shit I’ve ever laid my thumbs on. Strangely enough, both these sentiments come from one of the game’s defining features:

It’s pretentious.

Rated M for a reason.

1: Punk is Dead (Thank God)

Now, I say that No More Heroes is pretentious, but not in the sense that it would appeal to the Masterpiece Theater crowd. It doesn’t carry the same lofty aspirations of appealing to established culture at large that designers like Kojima or Ueda do. While Metal Gear and Ico count inspirations like Jean Cocteau and Giorgio de Chirico, the closest cultural ancestors Suda appears to adhere are is Walter Hill, maybe Derek Jarman. In terms of its fluid, raucous style, the game’s neuvo-retro aesthetics remind me quite a bit of the proto-New Wave Jubilee or the almost post-apocalyptic streetscapes of The Warriors, though in the latter case it may just be a flashback to Rockstar’s bizarre shot-for-shot prequel/adaptation/fanfic of the game.

As far as its gaming vocabulary goes, No More Heroes’ heart is rooted as deeply in the arcade experience as anything can get. What sets it apart from mere arcade-era button-mashing or even the now standard quick-timing acrobatics of God of War or the combo-driven assaults of the latter-day Ninja Gaiden is the dynamics of the Wii motion-control, and how surprising it manages to be in execution.

You’d probably expect a game about a bloodthirsty American otaku wielding a lightsaber would find its combat almost exclusively handled by flicks of the wrist in the Wii remote. That’s the sort of thing that pretty much has been taken for granted since the system came out, and while flinging your arm wildly in Twilight Princess was certainly a lot more immersive than simply pressing the B-button in every other Zelda game known to man, it’s never really done anything to elevate a game’s overall quality as a whole. Suda’s a fair deal smarter than to give into the easy temptation of letting a lightsaber control like a lightsaber, at least most of the time. Settling the A-button to act as the sword attack, as usual, No More Heroes sets aside the Wii’s motions for finishing moves instead, prompting the player to slash in a certain direction to make a kill-strikes and parry blows, or juggling the Wiimote and Nunchuck together to execute mid-fight wrestling moves.

Instead of dominating the gameplay, Suda lets the Wii controls punctuate it instead. As it stands, it’s a far more engaging prompt than the sing-along-with-the-bouncing-button tactics of God of War or Resident Evil 4, even in the latter’s grin-inducing Wii edition. Still, there’s a crucial area where Suda’s clever control doesn’t quite go through all the motions that it should, and sadly it’s in the area where otherwise the game might shine its brightest against all its little brothers and sisters on the console: The end-fights.

2: The Garden of Madness

The best part of No More Heroe‘s combat are the Wii-finishing moves. They’re the rewards for surviving the mostly by-the-numbers button mashing you perform through crowds of teeming droogs. When it comes to the boss battles, however, you face significantly more challenging foes– creatively envisioned assassins with idiosyncrasies as entertaining as any of Kojima’s midnight-snack induced fever dreams. Waiting at the end of every level stands a duelist that demands attention, quick pacing and tight execution, and in the midst of such heart rate elevating effort, you might imagine that the inevitable finishing moves would prove that much more satisfying, wouldn’t you? So would I. Except there’s just one small problem.

YOU DON’T GET TO USE THEM ON THE BOSSES.

No, instead you get to watch a cut-scene. Now, this is the sort of thing I’ve excused in the Metal Gear games, and while they’re sometimes guilty as sin for stretching out the cinematics long enough to test even the most Melvillian patience, at least they’ve always arrived after the player delivers the definitive kill-stroke. In No More Heroes, on the other hand, after the player successfully drains their foe’s energy away to thin air, they don’t get to deliver the last, fatal slash as they have with every other know-nothing throughout the rest of the game. No, they get to watch as their character (Travis Touchdown– but more on him later) gets to do the slicing and dicing without them, if he does at all. It’s a terrible interruption of the player’s agency, but in its own way I suspect that it’s Suda’s crowning joke, as well.

He teases us with a lot of foreplay, but denies us the climax we so richly expect after so much build-up, squarely putting the sexual frustration of a lonely, anime obsessed wannabe-assassin (are there any other people obsessed with anime, really?) into the gameplay itself– just check out the controls for recharging your lightsaber in the heat of battle and see what I mean. Suda knows the art of proper drama is largely one of building up suspense and denying closure until absolutely necessary– I just wish he wasn’t so well versed in it, at times.

3: Boss Rush

So far, I’ve completed half the game’s top-ten assassins, on the way to the number-one spot, with a bullet. Here’s a sampling, in brief, of my thoughts concerning the first five:

Death Metal: A decent introductory bout, but little else. The defining feature of this boss battle is Travis’ running voice-overs, narrating his battle with the first duel as though he’s already won.
Dr. Peace: The first boss of No More Heroes with a recognizably predictable pattern, and the first one that prefers long-range projectile attacks, which creates an interesting clash with the player’s arsenal of short-range lightsaber maneuvers.
Shinobu: Easily the most challenging boss of the game so far. A ninja-quick afro-topped girl whose devastating combos forces the player to resort to components of dodging controls that one could’ve coasted without previously. Thankfully, there’s quite a few moments when Wii motion controls are used in this battle, making it one of the most genuinely rewarding fights of the game’s first half.
Destroyman: Another long-range based enemy, this guy has some of the most predictable and easy-to-recognize patterns of any boss fight, not to mention a rather painfully over-the-top personality. The ease with which he can kill you through sheer firepower somewhat makes up for these deficiencies in challenge.
Holly Summers: More long-range projectiles, these ones with homing missiles that force the player to move constantly. Thankfully, there’s a double-bind here in the place of a booby-trapped battleground, which makes erratic running just as dangerous as standing still. Getting up close to an enemy has never been this frustrating.

In the interests of keeping things short, I’ll end here for the time being. Next time we’ll get back with the next five assassins, and I’ll explain why I feel Suda’s disappointingly open-ended level design owes more to Link’s Awakening than Grand Theft Auto, despite all appearances to the contrary. Until then, pleasant dreamers, keep that lightsaber fully charged…

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