Alright, time to bring the mood in here way the fuck back up. Let’s get back to talking about old games.
Before I got sick a couple weeks back, I was playing and enjoying the Switch re-releases of No More Heroes 1 and 2. Well, playing and enjoying the first one, at least. The second one, uh, well, that’s a post for another time. My plan for this post is a bit off the beaten path. I want to bookend this with the review. And here’s the first part of the review: this port rules. It was done by the same team responsible for that really great PC port of Killer7. It feels as good to play as it did when I bought it back in 2007. It’s a goddamn steal at only $20.
I mostly want to talk about No More Heroes itself. Specifically, what it meant to me. How important it was to a very confused idiot in their early-20s, looking for their place in the world. The best place to start talking about No More Heroes is to start by talking about Killer7.
2005 was a weird, shitty year. I had just graduated high school, and within a week, was homeless. There was a length of time I lived in a run-down van, or crashed on a friend’s couch. My dinner was cans of Vienna sausages and orange soda I scavenged from my old house. I passed the time after work reading books I got from the local library, listening to the radio, or looking at back issues of Game Informer I had from the Gamestop membership I had at the time. With that last thing, I guess it was out of some desire for normalcy? Wanting to go back to having a good time playing games, and not sweating in a shitty car in the middle of the Summer.
A game that I saw in these magazines was Killer7. It got middling, if not outright negative reviews. Not like that mattered; lots of great games get terrible scores (see example: Godhand). A game where you played as a group of assassins, that were all one guy’s split personality, and one of them is a Luchador? Shit, that’s so on-brand for me! At the time, I was a big Quentin Tarantino fan. Vulgar assassins in an M for Mature title? Wrestling? A game that was aggressively lo-fi, where the characters and environment had extremely low polygon counts? Yeah, this was my kind of game. As cringe as it may sound, I swore to my 18-year-old self that, as soon as I had a place to live, I would buy Killer7. Just as a way to mark the fact that I had improved my life to a certain degree.
Very long story short, I eventually did do that. Got a shitty little apartment in a bad neighborhood, and a copy of Killer7. A copy of Killer7 on the PS2. Never ever play the PS2 version. Play that shit on the Gamecube, or spend $20 and get it on Steam. I fucking loved Killer7. Played it, over and over. Analyzed and over-analyzed every piece of dialogue and camera angle. Killer7 was a game that I connected with on a level that I really hadn’t with any other game. Looking back, it wasn’t like it really did anything different. Yeah, it had a message and it said things and it committed the sin of being political, but this wasn’t really anything new. I’ve talked about Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil also having Something To Say. Hell, this was the PS2 era, and I had definitely played Metal Gear, a series that despite its flaws, absolutely Says Things. I guess while these games were all great and still hold up in terms of politics, they were still these big-budget, 100+ dev team projects that told their stories with major bombast. Killer7 was different in that it was small. It was dirty. It didn’t give a fuck about convention. It confidently did its thing, and was gracious enough to let you ride along.
This haphazard, unfinished, surreal game about electoral politics and terrorism and religion and the fucking Power Rangers dominated the second half of my year. I didn’t know anything about Grasshopper Manufacture or Suda51 prior to this. Wasn’t like any of their games had come out over here until now. And, funny enough, despite being a PC Gamer Magazine published expert on Fire Pro Wrestling, I didn’t actually play the entries that Suda had a hand in. I had spent my teen years with the sequel that looked better and had a more robust Create-A-Wrestler. But after finishing Killer7, Grasshopper became my favorite developer, even though there was only one game I owned and was able to play, due to availability and language barrier.
Fast forwarding a few years. I’m now a manager at the local Target. Running the electronics department. Selling TVs, DVDs, video games, cameras, that sort of thing. It was an okay job in retrospect. Probably because I made more money than I do now. Dealing with passive-aggressive upper management and entitled shithead customers (sorry, “Guests”) after having woken up at 5 in the morning was the worst of it. It was an alright, if somewhat mediocre life I was living. Work all day, come home and play games or search the internet for some sort of an identity until I passed out and did it all again the next day.
This was right when Nintendo had announced its newest system, the Wii. I did not care for the Wii. It didn’t look interesting. I was skeptical of the motion control concept; I didn’t give a fuck about being able to virtually bowl with my grandmother. There was a PS2 and an XBox 360 hooked up to my TV, which did and would provide me years of entertainment. Didn’t want a Wii. Didn’t need one.
This indifference would turn into outright hate soon enough. Having to run the electronics department at a large American retail chain during a holiday season when Nintendo is intentionally not making enough Wii consoles to meet demand, meaning that I got to spend a lot of days getting yelled at by every piece of shit in the state of Colorado who absolutely, positively needed to bowl with their grandma right fucking now. I hated people. I hated this company. I hated their service rep who was a total douchebag who always had some rude sarcastic quip to make at my expense, and because he didn’t actually work there, I couldn’t fire him or at least tell him to knock off the bullshit. I hated coming to work in the freezing cold at the crack of dawn just so I could field a bunch of assholes who wanted a shitty gaming system with a shitty name and all the shitty plastic accessories that literally did nothing (hey look, a fake tennis racket you can put on the end of your remote before you shot-put it through your TV like a fucking idiot!). I hated having to listen to the promotional videos for the Wii that played on the store TVs at all hours of the day. The start of Nintendo’s marketing strategy of “get a complete charisma vacuum to stand in a white void and blandly recite the features of whatever bullshit we’re selling” began here. Eight to ten hours a day, having to listen to this fucking Wine Mom who probably voted for Trump years later tell me that the Nintendo Wii would revolutionize game-ing like nev-er be-fore, like she’s Smithers computer. Hel-lo Gamers, you are quite GOOD at TURNING me ON. Calling your analog thumbstick a “nunchuck,” give me a fucking break. I came home cold and miserable and wanting nothing more than to be away from the world. So fucking over this shit, and over Nintendo, too. They were causing me all sorts of stress.
Then Grasshopper Manufacture said they were making a new game for the Wii.
The next day, I went back to that store and bought the one Wii we somehow had in stock on my lunch break.
I think that really speaks to just how much of an impact Killer7 left on me. That I was willing to buy a video game system that I hated, all for a game that didn’t even have a name yet, and with no guarantee that it was even coming out in America, solely due to how much I loved a previous game made by the same developer. Now, while I would eventually go on to actually like the Wii, at this time, it was a very reluctant purchase.
To say that I was obsessively devouring any incoming info on the game would be an understatement. The blog I maintained at the time had me constantly going on about how excited I was for a new Grasshopper game, in between posts about how much I hated my job and the Nintendo Wii, even though I owned one. Going to the official website every night like it was the Smash Bros Dojo (which I would also later do), and looking at the postage stamp sized screenshots and Japanese text I couldn’t read. I wanted No More Fucking Heroes in my life.
This shot of Travis Touchdown sitting in his chair watching a music video was something that captivated me. I hadn’t played Lumines at the time, so I had no idea what the fuck a “Genki Rockets” even was.
This music video. This song. When I watched it, something in my brain clicked. This girl living in outer space, singing songs about wanting to live on Earth. This lonely girl. In space. The final frontier.
It all makes sense now.
Thanks Suda, for introducing me to Genki Rockets.
No More Heroes was like seeing Joe Namath’s hair, in that it opened my eyes to a new reality. For the first time in a long time, I was inspired again. Inspired to create. The cutthroat world of mid-level corporate management had made me soft. I lost my edge, the thing that gives me the power to write and draw and put together works that bring out your emotions. And keep in mind, the game still wasn’t even out yet. For all I could have known, it could have been dogshit! I had the disastrous Japanese launch in the back of my mind, where literally nobody showed up to buy a copy. In the end, the only sale made and autograph given was to a press photographer, who clearly only got the game out of pity. He probably never played it. He probably gave it to some second-hand shop in Akihabara.
Eventually, February came. I went out and I bought that fucking video game on Day One. I burst through my apartment door and I yelled out into the void NOBODY FUCKING BOTHER ME I GOT SHIT TO DO!! I put that disc into that Wii, knowing that I was about to play a masterpiece. And guess what? I was fucking right!
I know that I’m nearly two thousand words into this piece, but here it is folks:
THE PART WHERE I ACTUALLY START TALKING ABOUT NO MORE HEROES
No More Heroes is awesome. It was a significant departure for Grasshopper who, at the point, had done visual novels, visual novels with puzzle solving, or visual novels with on-rails shooting. This was an open-world action game focused around combat. It, like other GhM games, had loads of personality. The protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is this absolute dorkus malorkus who thinks he’s the kind of badass he obsesses over when consuming way too much anime, video games, or pro wrestling, as opposed to the confident if unlikable detectives and assassins or previous games. What keeps Travis in common with other GhM protagonists is that his one skill other than the consumption of media is his ability to kill.
I’ll not be doing the usual plot synopsis, as this is a Suda51 game, where everything is surreal and trying to make sense of things is its own meta-game. Instead, I’ll be focusing more on its commentary and other things that make it great.
The city of Santa Destroy, where No More Heroes is set, is a dull looking, desolate, frankly boring place. The buildings are all various shades of white and gray, surrounded by pavement and desert. The only signs of life are your objectives and points of interest. The video store or “bar plastic model,” for example, are brightly lit and have some sort of eye-catching design to separate them from the rest of the generic buildings. It’s funny how this would have been a parody of open-world games in 2007. But when you look at the amount of bloated, soulless, AAA games here at the end of 2020, where their worlds are way too fucking big and not especially satisfying to explore, the commentary becomes even more pointed. If there’s no point to this giant, sprawling city, why waste the players’ time? To check off a bullet point on the back of the box?
Think about the side jobs in this game. Lawn mowing. Coconut collecting. Pumping gas. Not too far removed from Grand Theft Auto’s side jobs of taxi driving and pizza delivery (or Rockstar’s Bully actually having a lawn mowing side job), right? Pretty boring! Why is my super cool sociopath main character doing shit like this? No More Heroes really has you sit down and think about things like this.
Another reading is that, because Travis is this greasy otaku loser who sucks, Santa Destroy is portrayed from his point of view. He only cares about renting movies or buying new clothes before he goes to kill someone. Everything else? Fades into the background. While I’m not one to take credit for things, I was the first person to make this connection, so all your favorite games essayists owe me a “thank you.” You’re welcome.
The big point of this game, the boss battles, are incredible. Each assassin has their own unique look, their own unique fighting style and level gimmick. Most of them begin their fights with the resigned sense of finality. They are waiting to die. To die on their own terms, in a fight that pushes them to their absolute limit. Travis is, for most of the game, oblivious to this. Travis wants to be number one, because he wants to have sex with the woman who brought him into the world of assassination, and probably also because it would be the first time he’s ever been the best at something. Even the bosses that don’t have as much screen time still matter, and are all as much integral to No More Heroes as Travis himself.
I’m actively avoiding spoiling the game, so I apologize for not going super in-depth with the analysis here. The game may have been released in 2007, but the re-releases are still pretty new, and I’m trying to get you, the reader, to play the games if you haven’t done so already. But just know that No More Heroes has more things to say. Things to say about nerd culture, revenge, competition, video games in general. Stuff that, outside of a reference to Duke Nukem Forever, still holds up very well today. And it does so in a way that is raw, dirty, uncomfortable, confident. That “messy” fiction we all clamor for. It doesn’t care what Geoff Keighley thinks, it cares what you think. Thank God Suda51 isn’t a trans woman, the world would have killed her twenty years ago.
No More Heroes dominated my life the moment I bought it until I 100% completed every difficulty. Got every ability, every weapon upgrade, every t-shirt, every luchador mask, every last belt. This was a game on a whole other level than what I had seen before. The reason why I started getting off my ass and actually learning various artistic skills was due to the time I spent with this game. Depending on how you feel, you have No More Heroes to thank or to blame for that. You have Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture to thank or to blame for that.
Replaying the games on Switch, though, did cause me to notice a couple of things that are missing from the original. “Heavenly Star” used to play in every store, and various cutscenes. In the Japanese version, you could watch the music video on Travis’ TV. The Switch version has replaced this song with various tracks from No More Heroes 2. Before every boss fight, you would get a phone call, and the audio would play from the speaker on the Wii remote, so you would have to hold it to your ear to listen. Now the audio plays on-screen, like everything else.
I’ve been contemplating these minor removals for a few weeks now. I’m torn. Does a lack of Genki Rockets and a Wii remote gimmick make the game an actively worse experience, or am I just sad that it’s not 2008 anymore? This entire post is an overly-long dedication to my nostalgia, and to what made me Me. Something that began as a curiosity for when I was no longer living in a van has evolved to this font of creativity and personality that you see today. The anticipation alone served as the inspiration for the name of this web site! Sitting here and writing this, I’m reminded of that time. Dark mornings. Cold weather. The best shoegaze I’ve ever fucking heard. My growing obsession with outer space. I used to come home from work, and divide my time between NMH and Noctis. Now I’m coming home from work and dividing my time between No More Heroes and Elite Dangerous; some thing never change, or at least don’t change much. Reminded of the time I spent discovering myself. Not the scared, abused child that I was, but the fashionable, take-no-shit adult that earns your respect. A part of that lies entirely on this game, and the time I spent on the system it was on (see: my love/hate relationship with Mega Man 9), that I didn’t even want in the first place. It’s been well over a decade since No More Heroes rocked my world. Maybe some punk kid will get inspired by it all over it again on the Switch.
Goddamn this game rules.