Over the years, Nintendo has built itself a reputation for catering to the all-ages market, with even their more mature titles never really pushing anything beyond the teen demographic. This extends even into third party efforts, with many exclusives still being aimed at younger or general audiences. So to have a game come along where the protagonist’s first line of non-narration dialogue is a hard expletive right after he’s decapitated a pair of guards, blood exaggeratingly spraying dozens of feet into the air is both astonishing and also very exciting. Welcome to the brutal world of No More Heroes, where assassins fight each other to the death to attain the glorious ranking title of number one.
No More Heroes
Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture/Engine Software
Published by Marvelous Europe/Xseed Games
Released: 28th October 2020
Coming from the weird and creative mind of Suda51, previously known for Killer7 on the Gamecube, brings us into a wild and wonderful punk-rock world of Santa Destroy, a fictional west coast American town inspired by various cities in California. The influences of the game’s style spread far and wide, with the name of the game coming from UK punk band The Stranglers, the premise from the film El Tapo, and the hero himself, Travis, being heavily inspired by Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville. I could go on for ages about the various nods to other media, from TV, film and anime all the way down to Mexican masked wrestling, but that would spread this review out considerably. It’s hard not to notice them though and they all fuse together to create a wonderfully diverse and colourful experience.
The visual stylings are exuberantly bold and clashing with other mature media of the time, which had opted for realistic and shocking depictions of violence. The harsh, comic book inspired cel-shaded visuals are exceptionally gritty with all its ugliness on display as if by design, accentuated by the bold colours brought upon by the clashing of weapons and exceptionally over the top sprays of blood upon every kill. Loading screens are hit with transitions turning the current frame into a bright splash of graffiti, as well as a smattering of unique stickers rapidly spreading across the screen when loading into a boss battle. Travis himself also contributes to the graphic design of the game, with a heavily customisable set of clothing with many bold and bombastic t-shirts to be collected and bought across the game.
Primary to the game’s central premise comes the various ranked assassins, again all styled on various archetypes in many, many different influences. Each one is a bombastic and incredibly fun character so deadset in their ways of murder in a variety of ways, from the usual fighting for revenge to only feeling anything when killing, and each one is a delight to fight against with wonderfully creative boss encounters that stand as the highlight of each of the game’s ten levels. It’s amazing to see how much of an impact these characters have despite most of them only appearing for maybe fifteen minutes. No battle is alike, as they all have unique gimmicks to set themselves apart from the rest, especially the game’s many average goons that flood the levels themselves.
Next comes the music, helmed by the weird and wonderful Masafumi Takada. No More Heroes primary leitmotif is immediately catchy and repeated numerous times across the game’s levels with new arrangements This would normally become repetitive, but each arrangement takes on a different musical approach with only the core melody being intact each time around. This helps set the game’s identity and even flows into making all the death and destruction just a routine affair. The assassins each have their own unique battle music that have the most variety of them all, with every battle taking on its own musical genre and further accentuates the character’s personalities further, wordlessly, without need for explanation. Outside of this, there are various oddities scattered across the soundtrack that are just bizarre and ever so wonderful, fitting into the smorgasbord of styles and influences No More Heroes wears with pride.
Now, you may have noticed that thus far I have neglected to actually mention how the game itself plays, instead focusing on the general aesthetic and theming. Now, there is a reason for that, as the gameplay is probably tertiary to the experience and presentation. The core action is fairly serviceable, with basic combat insisting of high and low attacks and a basic melee attack used for stunning enemies. Each of the high and low of your beam katana is capable of attacking past enemies guarding on the opposite end. Using the melee attacks to stun an enemy makes stars hover around their heads, from there you can engage in a wrestling move, which knocks an enemy down for a short while where you can either finish them off or focus on another guy instead.
And… there you go! That’s your combat depth. As mentioned before, the bosses actually contain the most variety, as you have to watch for tells and openings before you can get in a strike, lest you get countered and kicked down, but your average common fodder mooks you spend most of the game fighting generally don’t display much variety. Some may have more health and the odd unblockable attack, but most end up just being button mashing until their health hits zero. One unique aspect though, which never gets tiring, is the death blow. Once you do deplete an enemy’s HP, a direction prompt appears on screen. With a flick of the right stick (or a flick of the right Joy-Con if playing with motion controls) activates a unique kill depending on the direction it shows. These are gloriously satisfying, resulting in Travis slicing up the foe with ridiculously over the top spurts of blood. It’s so silly and can’t really be taken seriously, a far cry from any realistic shock value that most other violent media trends toward.
The interim between ranked battles takes up a massive chunk of the game’s runtime too. With each rank you must earn enough money to pay for participation, something even Travis begrudges considerably. In order to do this you have to take on side jobs and common assassination gigs, neither of which are terribly exciting. The jobs are all tedious, though you might get a chuckle out of them the first time you play them, but you’re terribly unlikely to repeat them more than once as not much money is dished out for doing them. Once you have completed each job, a new assassination gig or two is unlocked, which is where the real money comes from. These generally put you into a unique scenario, from killing everyone only with wrestling moves to targeting only a specific enemy. Considering these are your biggest source of cash, they do get repetitive really quickly. Not only that, but everything is punctuated with an empty and pointless open world which is neither big enough to truly explore or dense enough with activities to make it worthwhile. All three of these aspects punctuate just how mundane it is to work towards the actual exciting aspects of life, be it our hobbies or, in Travis’ case, going onto the next ranking fight.
Now the review so far could very well apply to the 2007 Wii original, but many of you reading this likely never played it. Very recently both of the Wii No More Heroes games got ported to Switch, much to the excitement of longtime fans and also to people curious about what the fuss surrounding No More Heroes 3 is all about. Well, luckily for everyone, the porting work from Engine Software is absolutely top-notch. The game performs well at a near-constant 60fps, with much less slowdown and even faster loading times over the Wii originals. There isn’t much else to these games though, they are just straight ports through and through. There were also a couple of music licensing issues too, as a couple songs did not make the transition to Switch, but they don’t ruin the experience by any means. The motion controls are also intact, with the Joy-Cons bringing over full motion compatibility, though with how heavily the game uses the sticks for quick flicks and even rapid full-rotations, do be wary of the dreaded Joy-Con drift. Use of the Pro Controller is actually astonishingly playable though, as the motion controls were not heavily tacked on in the original, making the transition very harmless.
At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that this game is garishly crude for its premise of kill-em-all hyper-violent action with seemingly no substance to be had in sight, and that is the intent of the game. Every single character is so single-mindedly obsessed with the act of killing to a fault in reflection of all the other violent games coming out around the time of the original Wii game’s release. Violence is routine, expected and even celebrated. Many games and media wouldn’t give any justification for the viscera, purely acting as a form of entertainment, which the United Assassins Association of No More Heroes is actively capitalising on. This isn’t something directly stated in the game, not this one anyway, but picked up on as Travis gradually ponders the point of it all as he plows through the competition.
No More Heroes is a game I can’t recommend enough, but it’s also a game that’s hard to recommend. It takes a particular mindset to appreciate it, one that’s capable of looking past the clumsiness and intentionally mundane aspects and look at the greater picture. If you can take in all the influences and appreciate the message being told, No More Heroes is a game that stands above many others, but if not then it feels and plays like a bargain bin leftover. While it’s hard for me not to love every bit of craziness the game has to offer, I can certainly recognise that the deliberate grindhouse theming might not go down well with some. That’s the thing with cult classics like this, if it clicks there’s nothing better, but without that click, it’s hard to justify your reasonings to the outside. Take that in mind when looking at the score, as it can vary between a 3 and 4.5 depending on your tastes, but for me, it’s most certainly the latter.
Final rating – 4.5 out of 5
No More Heroes is available now for Nintendo Switch.
Long time fan of Nintendo and games in general, I always lean on the quirkier and unique sides of things in particular. It all started when I was lucky enough to get a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow for my tenth birthday and it’s been going strong ever since. I’ve always had a need to get my voice heard and share anything I find interesting with the world.