Meet Travis Touchdown. Despite being marked for death by every assassin in town, he's still the coolest cat in the violin factory. He has a cool name, a cool car, and his weapon of choice is a beam katana. (A "beam katana" is the the closest you can get to a light saber without George Lucas tossing you into a pit with teeth.) He also doesn't force the player to swing the Wii remote around to pull off his coolest moves, which is a true blessing. Instead, he allows us to calmly mash A most of the time, and "recharging the beam" involves a simple, dignified gesture familiar to all of us.
But Travis is also the lamest assassin you'll ever meet. He lives in a tiny apartment filled with collectible figurines of underdressed teen witches. The closest he gets to social interaction is renting videos in the "How to Make Love" series and returning them after watching the first two minutes. His friends barely tolerate him and his enemies always get the drop on him. His only motivation is to kill the top 10 assassins in the world, which is a noble endeavor, but what really keeps him going is that his employer Sylvia might sleep with him, once, when he gets to #1. Before every match, Sylvia gives him a pep talk about how stupid and pathetic he is, telling him he's sure to die. What a flirt! Ah, love in the time of beam katanas.
No More Heroes is the newest attempt by Goichi Suda (Suda51) to bring "punk rock gaming" to a Nintendo console. I enjoyed his earlier Gamecube work, Killer7, a dark, clever mashup of surreal violence, sadomasochism and Smiths lyrics, and told everyone I knew about it, even non-gamers. (I probably set the gaming cause back a few years right there. Sorry, everyone. I'll spend more time chatting up Peggle.) No More Heroes isn't a sequel, but explores many of the same themes, from assassination to lucha libre wrestling, and has a couple of Killer7 in-jokes. It also sports a similar cel-shaded style, with a well chosen palette, which helps disguise some painfully lo-fi character models. Sylvia, sexy as she is, could use a few more polygons in the right places, and Travis's cat looks like someone glued fur on a brick and taught it to meow.
Personally, all I really want from a game is an imaginative story. I don't care at all about well tuned mechanics if I have to play a space marine mowing down orc Nazis with his gold-plated gangsta Glock. No More Heroes, like all Suda51 games, definitely delivers on the story front. It begins as an ordinary though highly allusive tale about a loser who keeps winning, and rather than trying to present some kind of real-world moral, the game flees from reality and lets the player work out the message. For example, every time Travis completes an assassination, his name moves up a notch on an arcade leaderboard, to the accompaniment of classic 8-bit horn flourishes. His health powerups are little pixelated pizza slices and his signature moves involve a spinning slot machine and shouting things like, "Blueberry Cheese Brownie!" This game not only reminds you that it's a game, it fetishizes the silliest of video game tropes to the point where the jokes are the real story, not Travis's assassination missions. Without giving too much away, about halfway through the game, something truly dumb happens, and it feels like all bets are off.
Still, the core gameplay remains the same throughout, which is a mixed blessing. I loved the assassination missions, which involve slicing up a bunch of faceless goons and then outwitting some ridiculous boss. The bosses are the meat of the game, and everything else is just filler. Everything else. In order to enter each ranked battle, Travis needs to earn lots of money in a series of minimum wage jobs. The jobs are suitably humiliating, like pumping gas or cleaning graffiti, which is an amusing contrast, but the problem is that they're all incredibly boring. Most of the jobs also require trekking all across the city to get the assignment, then going to the job location, then back for more assignments. The city is so boring it's embarrassing. Remember when every other game tried to clone GTA and ended up with tiny "open world" areas with nothing to do outside of the real missions? This world is like a clone of a GTA clone. It has two pedestrians, no weather, and a hidden package right behind your house. Thanks to all the busywork and pointless travel, it becomes a very familiar, but never welcome, sight.
This is my dilemma: the real game of No More Heroes is clever and enjoyable, but the filler game is not good, and some of it is so bad it's unforgivable. I can sum it all up with this spoiler-free description of the last boss. As the game wrapped up, the story really sank its hooks into me and I couldn't wait to see what would happen. I entered the last battle, and found the opening cutscene to be flat-out hilarious. It's perfectly true to the punk rock, game fetish aesthetic, and it's rare that a game's writing truly climaxes just before the end. Then the battle itself began, and of course, the boss has several unblockable moves and three increasingly difficult stages. (That's only a spoiler if you've never played a game before in your life.) I was able to do some damage using a special move which is never introduced in the game, but which I'd randomly discovered on my own. (Bad designer, no twinkie.) Even so, I didn't have much health and kept getting killed. Each time I restarted, I got a little farther than before, and figured out some tricks. (Good designer. Swiss Cake Roll.) Finally, after the seventh try, I beat the boss. The final cutscene began, and then, no kidding, the game crashed. It was caught in a loop and couldn't even exit to the Wii Menu.
Now, maybe I'm the only person to get this glitch, but knowing that I'm special, that it's my personal glitch to feed and keep forever, does not take away the betrayal. No More Heroes, I was on your side, I forgave all the other flaws, and then you had to play me like that. That was too far. There's lack of polish, and then there's forgetting to wipe. I'll never respect myself as a reviewer if I don't dock you a point for that. I'm sorry, No More Heroes, but I'm taking a point off your review score. There it goes. Your score is one point lower now.
Attitude can add a lot to a game, especially one from a mid-range developer. I've played far too many well-executed but soulless games to be impressed by them. No More Heroes presents something genuinely different, and the best bits of it are highly inspired. It's especially slick to deliberately use some of the now-discarded effects of earlier generations of games for nostalgia and satire. Ultimately, it's a good game cleverly disguised as a "bad" game, but hidden away on the same disc, there is an abysmal game that will show up eventually and make you very, very angry. Maybe on an even deeper level there is another great game after that, but you'll need to glue the disc back together to find out.