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Dispatches: No More Heroes, Part Two; Or: A Perfect Day For Bloodfish

This week month solstice on the Dispatches, we return to the Garden of Madness. Don’t expect too much in the way of landscaping, though…
Tease.

If you’ve been following my posts to this website for a while now (and let’s be honest, folks– who hasn’t?) you may have been wondering where I’ve been for so long, and why I haven’t gotten around to following up on my initial Dispatch for Goichi Suda’s No More Heroes, a game that appears to have been pretty much forgotten in the month’s time since I last sat down to play through its lightsaber shenanigans. Furthermore, since so much time has passed, you may even be asking yourself why I’m bothering to sit down and return to writing about the game, or even going back to playing it again at all.

Well, pleasant dreamers, there are answers to both of those questions, ones which I hope should satisfy your no-doubt insatiable curiosity. First of all, over last month I’ve been most of my time concentrating on my own games (coming soon– a Designer’s Dilemma post that doesn’t require you to run Power Point) and broadening my own library of often-owned, never-played games. For weeks on end I slogged through Half-Life, hoping I’d complete it soon enough to crack open the non-Portal first-person action of The Orange Box by Easter, but as Good Friday’s just around the corner, that was obviously not meant to be (despite my misgivings of all things Companion-Cube related, I’ll give the devil its due on one aspect– at least Portal is short). I’ve gotten hopelessly lost for the umpteenth time in Super Metroid, but have also at least finally found the jump-ball. Hell, I even downloaded Faxanadu, for crying out loud.

In other words, I’ve spent the last month playing good, classic games and trying to better understand how to build my own with the same quality. In playing and designing games, I’ve grown more and more aware of one of the cardinal rules of game design– a good game is built to win.

This is a sentiment that’s both entirely obvious and completely antithetical to certain types of gaming, especially when it’s competitive play between multiple gamers. In any two-player game, you’ve basically got three possible outcomes– you win, you lose, or you share a stalemate. The last option is usually dropped for serious matches, but it remains as a contingency in all sorts of games. Therefore, if you’re only able to win a game 30 to 50 percent of the time, how can you really say that the game is built to win? Well, save for stalemates, somebody always wins the game. Just because it wasn’t you doesn’t mean the game’s mechanics didn’t succeed in finding a victor– better luck next time.

For single-player games, this is also both a truism and a questionable condition. A game is only really over once you’ve completed it, and the only way to really complete a single-player game is to win. Only by giving up do you really lose, abandoning the game and accepting defeat. It’s an encouraging dilemma, but one that also steals a little bit of the fire behind it all. If victory is inevitable once you dedicate yourself to putting enough time and effort in it, is it really victory, or simply due diligence? The temporary loss of a “game over” screen is particularly meaningless in an age of quick-saves, and really only serves to punctuate the experience– the grammar of gameplay.

Therefore, if you want to build a game that the player can actually lose, you’ve got to build a game that actively encourages you to give it up not merely out of difficulty, but also out of absolute and utter frustration. If you want to really conquer the inevitability of the player’s success, you’ve got to make your game as insulting to the player’s expectations as possible, so that they won’t even think it’s worth it to continue any longer.

No More Heroes is exactly that kind of game, pleasant dreamers, and that’s exactly what makes it so good, and (appropriately and mind-numbingly ironically) one of the most hopeless pieces of nihilistic filth I’ve ever laid my thumbs on.

1: No Maps For These Territories

Now, last time I talked about the basic mechanics of the game, and how the lightsaber mechanics were at once disappointing, rewarding and entirely appropriate for the Wii’s motion sensitive aesthetic. Button-mashing punctuated by slashes of the Wii remote for finishing moves are genuinely fun, challenging and lends a much needed air of achievement to the title. After you’ve decapitated a thug with a wave of your arm, you feel much more involved in the game than after you’ve merely pressed the A button again to execute a kill-stroke. This is the part of the game where Goichi Suda really executed some well executed design, but it’s also pretty much where he drew the line. Almost everything else in the game feels rushed and cobbled-together, and whether that’s by intention or sloppy execution is anybody’s guess. The best place to start looking at this, however, is in the over-arching open-world of Santa Destroy, the game’s setting and the place in which you spend most of your time wasting.

California dreamin'...

Now, I remember when the news first come out that Suda’s new game would be taking place in an open-ended Grand Theft Auto-style environment, I was both fairly skeptical and hopeful. I haven’t been too keen on the GTA franchise in the past (though I’m sure I’ll get a copy of GTA IV, if only to have something other than The Orange Box or PS2 games to play on my PS3), but I figured that in the right hands, that sort of sandbox type of gameplay could really be streamlined into something quite fantastic. Fumito Ueda incorporated a little bit of that into Shadow of the Colossus, and while the boundary-free landscape didn’t really offer much in the way of actual gameplay, it certainly helped to craft a convincing world for the gameplay to take place in. Games as old as Zelda and Metroid have displayed the roots and core fun of the open-world experience, allowing you to go anywhere, limited only by skill-set ability, and providing you with plenty of enemies to kill in the meantime. Exploration was rewarded in those games because you were constantly given battles with which you could actively interact. Hell, even backtracking in a game as supposedly linear as the Metal Gear franchise packs the extra punch of enemies everywhere and new weapons to discover with upgraded keycards.

Therefore, when I fully appreciated the fact that No More Heroes would be a game with both lightsaber combat and an open-world environment, I brightened up. Sure, GTA gets boring after a while, but throw a lightsaber into the mix, and you’ve got a whole new story! This was part of the fun I had with the LEGO Star Wars games, especially on the Wii– running around wherever I wanted and slicing up battle droids, stormtroopers and bounty hunters with a laser sword. Imagine my dismay, then, when I realized that the open-world environment Suda had been talking about didn’t quite so resemble this…

Booyah!

…and instead, resembled this…

WTF?

Recognize it, anyone? It’s the overworld from The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, one of the more talked about and argued-over installments of Miyamoto’s epic series. For the sequel to the essential NES classic, this game offered two kinds of gameplay– sidescrolling action and bird’s-eye-view exploration– instead of the original’s consistent top-down action and exploration. While this experiment has certainly earned it a following that espouses its merits, emphasizing the greater depth of combat and wider scope of terrain to explore, it’s widely agreed that it was wise for Nintendo to move back to the original gameplay for all the subsequent 2D sequels, and now that we’ve been firmly in the 3D realm ever since Ocarina of Time, it’s been a question we haven’t had to worry about for some time (instead, now we just have to worry about when we’ll get Zelda game that’s actually good).

As unique as The Adventure of Link‘s presentation is, it’s hard to ignore that you’ve basically just got a side-scroller chopped up with a pretty static, uninvolving map that you walk around on. You can’t do anything except walk into towns, dungeons or enemies, and when you do the game just switches over to the side-scrolling portion, which is where the actual gameplay takes place. It’s basically the same as the maps in Super Mario Bros. 3 or the castle bridge-world from Super Mario 64– they’re frame-stages, contextualizing the action of the main gameplay by situating them in a largely fixed, non-interactive environment. They’re very elaborate stage-selection screens, and while some of the details and flourishes help them turn their games into much more inviting, nonlinear affairs, the fact remains that they’re basically the same thing as the screens where you choose a level and boss from the Mega Man games– do they help facilitate a bit of open-endedness into the proceedings? Sure. But if they’re not done right, there’s no point in doing them at all.

Therein lies one of the problems of No More Heroes’ Santa Destroy overworld. In the end, it’s just a map, because you can’t do anything in it. This is frustrating, largely, because you can see the potential of having that open-world every time you get to kill bad guys with your lightsaber– wouldn’t it be fun to get to roam around this big, lushly designed suburban/industrial landscape and kill everybody you can get your dirty little mitts on? Yes. Yes, it would. But the game won’t let you do that, see, because the game doesn’t want you to have fun. Instead, it wants you to earn that fun.

See, the game-flow that Goichi Suda has in mind for players is actually pretty interesting, but it’s also pretty damn infuriating as well, although that’s exactly why it’s interesting in the first place. In order to fight each one of the bosses in this game, your protagonist, Travis Touchdown, has to pay an exorbitant fee that is mostly earned from cash performing part-time jobs around town and the occasional assassination mission. The part-time jobs are dreary, monotonous and boring as hell (Pick up garbage! Fill up cars with gas! Wash graffiti off the walls! Go look for lost kittens!), but they pay far more than the assassination missions which they unlock (which are often fairly dreary and monotonous, but not nearly as boring). Throughout the game you’ve got plenty of free assassination missions that you can access, but they’re all too mind-numbingly difficult to even consider most of the time if all you want to do is raise some quick cash. So, in other words, most of your time in the overworld-map you spend performing chores, and after you do enough of them, you get to actually play the game and kill bad guys with your lightsaber.

Sound like fun?

I’ll be honest, though– I kinda admire the taskmaster mentality that the game employs. I appreciate the satire it jabs at gamers, reminding them of how much real-world work needs to be put in so you can afford to pay for games like No More Heroes in the first place. It’s easy to see Suda’s parody of the GTA design-ethos of providing a huge open-world, tons of mini-games and not much else. The problem is that he takes that parody too far, and takes away the saving grace that makes up for all of GTA‘s rambling task-mastering in the first place– mindless, open-world killing sprees. People don’t ordinarily play GTA for the wide breadth of different missions they can unlock and accomplish– sure, dedicated gamers do that, but all everybody else really wants to do is beat up pedestrians, steal cars and run over hookers.

No More Heroes gives you so many tools that would be a blast to play in that kind of open-world exercise, and then doesn’t let you use them. It gives you a bad ass lightsaber, but only allows you to take it out during certain moments of the game, and never in the overworld, which is where it’d be the most fun to use it. It gives you a huge motorcycle to ride around town in, but doesn’t let you collide with pedestrians the way you’d really like to– you can bumb into them, sure, and they’ll run, but you can’t actually run over them. For a game as openly bloodthirsty and gory as this, it’s impossible to consider that Suda and his crew would shy away from these kinds of Rockstar-isms out of any sense of squeamishness or propriety. Instead, you have to accept that they’re doing it with the express intention of pissing the player off, or at the very best presenting some kind of contrast between the exhilarating fantasy of the game’s over-the-top violence and the mundane, soul-crushing reality of the game’s facsimile of reality.

Personally, I think it’s the former, but hey. Everybody gets to make excuses.

2: There’s No There, There

Now, all of these level-design issues really become frustrating when you actually start playing the boss-levels themselves, because the real reason not being able to play the game in the overworld is so frustrating is that the design of the overworld is pretty well executed, and the design of each and every boss level is (oh, how do I say this?) not. While the world of Santa Destroy is populated with all kinds of twists, turns, nooks, crannies and hidden passages, each and every boss-level pretty much consists of a series of cramped hallways and somewhat more open rooms sprinkled with a short assortment of weapon-wielding baddies who take turns variously ganging up on good ol’ Travis Touchdown. Sometimes, these claustrophobically inclined levels add a nice deal of challenge to the otherwise straight-forward proposition of button-mashing until you get the chance to slash with the Wiimote, but all too often the difficulty of confronting large swaths of enemies in areas just large enough to target one at a time feels like an artificial way to inject challenge into the space of a lazily designed level. If the same kind of creativity and inventiveness that had gone into crafting the open-world of Santa Destroy had gone into crafting the boss-levels, we might have had something really spectacular here. Instead, all we have are afterthoughts.

Occasionally, though, it becomes evident that the same misanthropic spirit that informs the task-master ethos and non-interactivity of the lightsaberless Santa Destroy overworld can also be found lurking in the boss-levels, as plenty of them not only consist of cramped hallways out of laziness, but also consist of cramped hallways out of a desire to punish the players for playing a game. This spirit of design is no clearer than in two of the game’s most frustrating experiences– Letz Shake and Speed Buster. Both of these boss-levels share one thing in common– nothing.

Confused? Well, pleasant dreamers, let me spell it out for you.

In the first case, you’ve got a pretty interesting build-up going on. First, you discover and follow a trail of blood in the overworld of Santa Destroy, one of the first hopeful incorporations of that open-ended environment into the actual game-flow of the boss experience. The blood leads to the gateway to the boss-level, which consists entirely of a completely straight underground tunnel in which you move forward, kill bad guys, and catch glimpses of the boss running away from you. Throughout this whole sequence, I felt the suspense racking up pretty quickly. The more straight-forward and boring the level was, the more spectacular I kept expecting the actual boss-fight to be.

Finally, after you reach the end of the tunnel, the game switches to a cut-scene taking place in a wide open desert populated solely by a highway and eco-friendly windmills– already, I thought the surroundings more than made up for the subterranean blues below. Then, we meet the level’s boss, a German-accented, mohawk sporting, Virtual-Boy wearing punk-rock guitarist with a giant bomb that has a huge, talking brain encased in it. Even after all the weird characters I’d faced so far in No More Heroes, I felt genuinely rewarded with the chance to face up against a boss as insanely put together as this clown. It looked cool, funny and most importantly challenging– honestly, how the hell are you supposed to fight a guy with a giant brain-fueled bomb? More importantly, how does a guy with a giant brain-fueled bomb actually fight? I didn’t have the slightest idea before the fight began, and I couldn’t have been more anxious to find out. Unfortunately, as it turns out, I didn’t even have the slightest idea after the fight ended, either, because after all of that build-up, the fight didn’t actually happen.

Instead? Some guy runs up and kills the boss ahead of you. All you get is a cut-scene. After all that mind-numbing, repetitive boredom, all you get is a fucking cut-scene.

On the other end, we’ve got the boss-level of another insanely created character– the mega-gun toting witch Speed Buster. After the single most cramped pre-boss levels the game has to offer (seriously– fighting a dozen bad guys inside of a bus?), Suda and his crew actually provide a boss level that’s pretty well designed. Speed Buster’s huge cannon periodically fires a blast that pushes Travis back way far and drains his health severely, even if you block with your lightsaber. What you’re forced to do, then, is slowly inch your way up through a set of post-apocalyptic ruins, knocking down doors to find shelter from the blasts, ducking into alcoves for cover in the nick of time and fighting enemies sprinkled here and there, trying to push you back into the line of fire. Altogether the level may be just another straight hallway like the others, but the addition of secret passageways and nooks & crannies like Santa Destroy’s open-ended overworld gives this stage a much needed demand of strategy and invention the others are sorely lacking.

The problem arrives, however, at the end– after all of this slowly building challenge and difficulty, reaching the dead end puts the player in a delicate situation, as you’re given pretty much no indication for how to actually approach the boss. The only solution I could think of, at first, was to simply run towards her and use the lightsaber to block, shaking the Wiimote to charge its batteries every so often and run ahead, a strategy that’s at once incredibly difficult to master and increasingly awkward once you recognize how Onanistic that is. On my third time playing through the level, though, I noticed a red-blip on my HUD’s radar, indicating a breakable item of some kind that wasn’t a power-up or a door, as I’d already busted over all of those. I’d seen this phantom blip before, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the fuck it was supposed to be. Out of sheer frustration, I button-mashed wildly everywhere and everything in sight, just hoping that I might find whatever this thing was and get back to figuring out how the hell you beat the boss. Then, I found the red blip, and broke it.

Know what it was? It was a telephone pole. And do you know what the telephone pole did, pleasant dreamers? It destroyed the boss’ giant gun.

Now, already, that made me feel pretty cheated. Sure, this level had gotten me used to breaking down doors, but this was the first time in the game you could slash at a telephone pole with your lightsaber. After this long, you’re not prepared to even recognize a telephone pole as something you’re able to attack in the first place. You can very easily just walk by it and assume it’s another one of those assets in the game that’s there simply to look good, and not actually be interactive. Therefore, when I saw the red blip, and didn’t see anything the game had trained me to recognize as breakable, I assumed it was just a glitch, at first. I was only able to discover the telephone pole by accident, and that feels pretty cheap to me.

Still, you know what the worst part about it was? After all that, after the whole difficult level, all of the challenge and effort, you once again don’t get to actually fight the boss. You run up to her once her gun is down, and then watch as Travis kills her in a cut-scene. It would’ve been nice to be able to at least run up to her and press the A button a couple of times. It would’ve been nice to actually fight the boss, instead of just fighting a telephone pole. But in the end, there’s nothing, and that’s exactly what it has in common with Letz Shake.

Anyway, I’m closer to the end of the game now, and soon it’ll actually be finished, thank God. Next time, I’ll give you guys the rundown on the last few bosses, wrap up my opinion on the story, and tell you all why Goichi Suda isn’t quite in the same league as Hideo Kojima, George Lucas or Nicholas Ray, even though he borrows from all three of them more than you or even he might be aware of. Until then, pleasant dreamers, ask yourselves which boss fight is the more frustrating– the one that follows up a boring level with nothing but a cut-scene, or the one that follows up a disastrously difficult level with nothing but a cut-scene?

7 Comments

  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    “…if you want to build a game that the player can actually lose, you’ve got to build a game that actively encourages you to give it up not merely out of difficulty, but also out of absolute and utter frustration.

    No More Heroes is exactly that kind of game…”

    You should really play Killer7.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    Oh, I have. And I can honestly say I lost that game.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    You should really finish Killer7.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    Agreed, but don’t hold your breath. Something tells me I’m going to need a break from all things Suda after I’m done with the saga of Travis Touchdown.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 12:30 am | Permalink
  5. tank wrote:

    Just want to point out that your complaints are a matter of taste. I thought Letz Shake was genius, I didn’t spend as much time on the overworld as I did playing the missions, I thought the “work” minigames were funny and short enough not to bore me (you actually earn much more money on the assassination missions, by the way), and I thought the contrast between the mundane overworld and the batfuck insane missions was pretty clever and both improved the flow and made the game that much more interesting. And keep in mind, I absolutely hated Killer 7.

    Also, you really shouldn’t compare a hack who gets by on other people’s work like Lucas and a flawed visionary like Goichi.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  6. Bob wrote:

    Clever? True. But those elements aren’t clever in spite of being frustrating, annoying and boring. I’d argue that they’re clever precisely because they’re frustrsating, annoying and boring. They directly confront the player’s expectations of what they’re meant to find in a game, and are therefore incredibly fresh and stimulating, while at the same time trying, to say the least. The best I can say is that those parts of the game try my patience, which is exactly what they aim to do. So, score one for Suda.

    As for the Lucas thing, I’ll leave that for next time, except to ask this: don’t the terms “hack who gets by on other people’s work” and “flawed visionary” pretty much mean the same thing, or is it just another matter of taste?

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  7. Ryan D. wrote:

    Letz Shake is one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever had in a video game. From the way you talked about it, I’d say it was one of yours too:

    “Throughout this whole sequence, I felt the suspense racking up pretty quickly. The more straight-forward and boring the level was, the more spectacular I kept expecting the actual boss-fight to be… Instead? Some guy runs up and kills the boss ahead of you. All you get is a cut-scene. After all that mind-numbing, repetitive boredom, all you get is a fucking cut-scene.”

    I’m a pretty cool, collected guy, but after that moment, I was actually angry at the game. And not only was I angry at the game, Travis was angry at the game. I felt exactly how my character felt, and he was angry for the same reason. When Sylvia then proceeded to tell me that I couldn’t even fight the person who took my ranking boss from me, I saw Travis get even more angry and I got even more angry.

    I didn’t have any problem killing all the little sisters in Bioshock, and it’s tough for me to care about most characters that I play as, even in RPGs. It’s just a game. But at this moment, I actually felt connected to Travis in my frustration. He was playing a game, just like I was. And he got gypped out of the fun part, just like I did.

    It was a strange, memorable feeling… and that’s got to count for something.

    Monday, December 8, 2008 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

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