[One of the most fascinating games of 2008 thus far is Grasshopper Manufacture's critically acclaimedNo More Heroes, and TimeGate Studios designer Steve Gaynor analyzes the unique title for Gamasutra in this enthusiastic opinion piece.]
At this moment I am experiencing the post-game rush. The one that comes immediately after you complete a really great game and you're vibrating with excitement over it.
I just finished my playthrough of No More Heroes, and I'm feeling a serious love buzz for Grasshopper Manufacture: for the game itself, the ethic that brought it about, and everything it does that is unique and joyful and uninhibited.
Above all, No More Heroes is gleefully absurd and self-referential. It lampoons the standard pretenses of video games as well as its own audience. It revels in all the ridiculous elements of standard 'bad-ass, gritty' action games.
It refuses to take anything about itself seriously, while being fully aware of the culture and conventions it's playing off of. It speaks to an audience familiar with action video games as well as the ephemera that surround them, and can take pleasure in all of No More Heroes' knowing jabs and perversions.
The Plot That Matters
No More Heroes throws the player into the role of Travis Touchdown, a broke, idiotic otaku living in a cheap motel room filled with his anime posters and poseable figurines. Uncharacteristically, Travis is a good-looking, well built dude who shares fashion sense with Tyler Durden.
One day, Travis wins a lightsaber "beam sword" off of eBay an "internet auction site" and somehow ends up killing the United Assassins Association's (UAA) number 11 ranked member. A mysterious woman approaches him and suggests he climb the UAA ladder by eliminating each of the top ten ranked assassins one by one. So, the player leaves his anime pad to go on massive killing sprees with his lightsaber, driving to his assignments on his enormously tricked-out motor scooter and then suplexing and hacking up tons of goons like a cross between a Mexican luchador and the Star Wars Kid on meth.
The premise essentially takes a rabid anime nerd's ultimate fantasy life and turns it into a video game, showing how completely ridiculous and laughable it is in the process. Beside the premise and the protagonist, the gameplay itself pushes every element of action games over the top into the absurd. The combat is outrageously gory to the point of being a cartoon, and the bosses are so contrived and implausible as to put Metal Gear Solid villains to shame.
The Attitude That Matters
As the game boots up, The Grasshopper Manufacture crest is emblazoned with the credo "Punk's Not Dead," and declares GhM a "Video Game Band. Just seeing that logo as a splash screen is incredibly heartening, and the implied ethic really does show through in the product. No More Heroes takes the standards of the genre and throws them back in its face. It's loud, abrasive, concerned as much with image as substance, and completely exhilarating. Maybe it really is punk.
There's been some writing lately about the schism between the hardcore reviewership and the casual game market. Some bloggers dismissively condescend toward players engaged with the lineage of games that require high investment in and dedication to the act of play.
The anti-hardcore "like being treated gently" while playing a video game -- they "donít want to be knocked unconscious" by their entertainment; they "just want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything."
No More Heroes is not the game for them. No More Heroes grabs your collar and screams in your face. It revels in the sensory overload normally provided by a game like God of War or Devil May Cry and amps it up to an unprecedented, speaker-popping assault. It's just what Grasshopper set out for it to be: it's the Sex Pistols or The Stooges freaking out and pissing off your parents.
At its best, a good fight in No More Heroes is as unrelenting and destructive as a track off of Raw Power. And those leveling criticism are right, Pitchfork shouldn't be reviewing Enya. People who just want to relax in front of the televison, doing not much of anything while they play a video game need not apply.
The Things To Love
There's just too much to love about this game. I love that it's a Japanese title that blatantly draws inspiration from Grand Theft Auto. I love that it has character customization, including over 100 different shirts to collect and try on. I love that the majority of these shirts seem to have been designed by Suda 51 himself (under the transparent pseudonym "Mask de Uh," pointing to his ongoing infatuation with luchadors.) I love that it's a hardcore, gamer-focused, direct character inhabitation game that relies on the lo-fi graphics and technology of the Wii. It's pragmatic, and uses superfluous design sense to make up for technical shortcomings. It eschews HD. I love it for that.
I love that, in a strangely affecting twist, the game takes moments to acknowledge the aftermath of violence much more directly than its contemporaries: the mangled corpse of each boss character that you kill remains on the scene as you walk around collecting your reward, forcing you to face the evidence after the act is done. It's somewhat grotesque, and refreshingly so when death is otherwise so meaningless in the vast majority of action games.
I love that the game is legitimately challenging, and requires the player to pay great attention to the bosses' behaviors and precisely time his inputs. And I love that when you do die to a boss, an extremely player-friendly retry option lets you immediately jump back in and give it another shot. I love that it's not easy; I love that it expects more out of me.
I love how much actual gameplay lies outside the core mechanics in the form of side jobs and miniature distractions. You don't just run, jump, fight and kill. You exterminate poisonous scorpions, defuse land mines, gather up trash off the street, collect coconuts, whitewash graffiti, mow lawns, and rescue stray cats. It appeals to me for the same reason that Raw Danger!'s variety of non-standard interactions did: it's something new, a range of experience I'm not used to receiving through a video game.
I love how "gamey" the final product is-- it relies as much on the old-school pixelated tropes of the earliest arcade games as it does on the conventions of titles like GTA3. The UI is decidely 8-bit, with the UAA leaderboard being depicted as a Galaxian-alike arcade game high score board. There are segments of play that include side-scrolling, and even a mini shmup used for one of the lead-up levels. The game isn't trying to be something it's not-- there are cutscenes, but the overall presentation isn't anywhere near "cinematic." That would be too serious, too pedestrian, too commercial. No More Heroes is not of a piece; it's fragmented, eclectic, and in love with being a video game. Maybe that's why I love it so damn much myself.
In the end, I often judge the worth of a game on how much it makes me laugh. I love how much I laughed while playing No More Heroes.
The Things To Question
There are disappointments, though. I wish the bike controls were more intuitive. I wish that all the buyables didn't cost so much, so I didn't have to grind side-missions to buy all the clothes and upgrades I wanted. I wish that the side-missions had that nice instant retry option like the main missions do.
I wish the game had tried to play with its structure more. I love how devoted the developers were to making the lead-up to each boss fight unique: you spend levels doing everything from fighting on a moving bus to driving down a highway to running through a maze to pulling donuts on your motor scooter in the middle of a baseball field.
But the overall flow of the game is cyclical and repetitive, down to the very end. Play through level, beat boss, grind for money in town, buy upgrades, then on to the next level. Repeat. A game like Portal shows how effective messing with player assumptions of game flow can be: how excellent was it to be lulled into the idea of playing through 19 chambers, only to have your expectations turned upside down at the game's midpoint?
How excellent would it be for Travis to climb halfway up the UAA leader board, only for the game structure to change completely, introducing you to an entirely new view on the experience? No more of the same old routine, suddenly the course you thought you were on changes. But no, in No More Heroes you just keep stepping up one rung at a time til you hit the end you'd seen coming from the very start. It quickly becomes rote. An opportunity for subversion was missed.
I wish the f*cking manual included some credits for the developers. Yeah, I know, most gamers don't even open the manual, much less read the credits. But don't the men and women who toiled long and hard to give us this game deserve to have their name on it? Somewhere physical and permanent, not just in the scroll at the end of the game? Is that too much to ask? Is this standard with Japanese games brought over to the States?
I noticed that there are no Japanese credits in the Katamari Damacy manual either, though I remember there being credits in the Final Fantasy VII manual when I flipped through it long ago. It probably depends on the publisher. But it feels like an injustice to print an accompanying pamphlet and omit the names of the product's creators. Maybe nobody else cares, but I do.
No More Heroes is brash, daring, absurd, hilarious, exhilarating, and absolutely one of a kind. It speaks directly to me. It makes me feel happy that such a difficult, impossible thing could make it to market. Congratulations to everyone at Grasshopper for pulling it off. You have my deep respect.
[This is an adapted version of an article which originally ran on Gaynor's Fullbright weblog.]