It may seem repetitive in places but there’s nothing wrong with that
For a game about showing off with a lightsaber, No More Heroes has a fairly plain combat system. You attack high or low, you dodge. There’s more, but little of it essential. Despite the focus on stylised ultraviolence, it’s not a spectacle fighter in the way that Bayonetta or Devil May Cry are. Even the boss fights essentially boil down to finding and exploiting that boss’s moment of weakness.
But then the same could be said of Zelda’s swordplay – it’s simple but effective. The Zelda games become brilliant by what they surround their combat with; the same is true of No More Heroes.
Zelda’s fighting is part of a larger experience of item puzzles, a spirit of adventure and exploration and simple, almost fairy-tale like good versus evil narratives built around a mythology of cyclicity. What does No More Heroes offer to complement its functional but unexceptional combat system?
It is not in the strictest sense an enthralling narrative. In the first game douchebag antihero Travis Touchdown kills a bunch of people so a hot woman will sleep with him. In the second, slightly-less-douchey-but-still-a-jerk Travis kills a bunch of people in order to be in a position to kill one specific person, in order to avenge his murdered best friend. There are of course twists and nuances, but you can see the motivation and arcs are in both cases pretty simple, and in each no twist is big enough to divert Travis from his original cause.
There are two main things that make the series great, and the first of them is structure. The No More Heroes games are structural masterpieces. In both games Travis must advance through the ranks of the United Assassins’ Association (UAA) in a series of linear fights. The prize money for one fight is never enough to pay the entrance fee of the next, so between fights he has to take on menial busywork (mini-games) and contract assassinations. Repeat until rank #1.
If this sounds repetitive, it’s because it is. It’s also brilliant. In critic Yahtzee Croshaw’s ‘Three C’s’ theory of game satisfaction the three elements are Context, Challenge and Catharsis. It is context we’re interested in here. Context is more than just story partly because older games didn’t really have story – ‘it’s table tennis’ or ‘aliens, shoot them’ – but also because “Context is where you engage the player’s sympathies with the protagonists by establishing who they are and why they’re doing it, encouraging the player to push forward with the game to see what happens to them next and see plot arcs get resolved… But don’t consider context to be solely about cutscenes and dialogue.” Croshaw goes on to explain how aesthetics can be part of context. So too can structure.
The repetition adds tremendously to the world and story the game is trying to build. Despite the flashy laser-sword duels, wetwork is not glamorous. Games are not movies, and Travis’s entire life isn’t a string of set-pieces as many other video game characters’ appear to be, just like Travis is not the flawless hero or gruff dark-horse antihero of many other games. Just like anyone else, he needs to support himself, by mowing lawns and clearing graffiti and whatnot and he has a cat at home you can play with. The games do know that the line between thematic repetition and tedious repetition could get thin at times, so between each rank there’s a new ‘job’ mini-game and things are spiced up occasionally by sword upgrades.
Routines in narrative also serve to heighten the impact when something unusual happens. By setting us into a comfortable groove events that either eject us from the groove or don’t fall into it, they have more impact than those same events would in an unstructured narrative where the future is unknowable. When Travis gets on the subway and one level is a vertical shooter instead of the usual progression of goons it’s a refreshing change, not gimmicky. When Sylvia doesn’t show up after the rank #2 battle, it’s suspicious. When what you expect to be the final boss is slain in front of your eyes by a completely new character, it means so much more since you went through the motions of nine ranked fights in order to get to that specific guy.
Order bites both ways however. In both games whenever Travis wants to subvert standard process by sparing a defeated opponent, whether he succeeds or not there are always consequences: good or bad, immediately or down the line.
If the first game is about structure, then Desperate Struggle is about fragmentation: of the routine, of the UAA, and of Travis. While there’s still a rankings table, sometimes Travis jumps 25 places at once in a giant robot battle, sometimes other characters kill assassins for Travis, and sometimes instead of a boss being a ranked league fight you play as Travis’s comatose twin brother and fight an anime girl in a primary-coloured mech.
Desperate Struggle even goes even goes so far as to subvert not only standard video game narrative but the standard revenge narrative. The murder of Travis’s best friend that draws him back into the UAA league where he will hopefully die is orchestrated not by anyone related to the first game’s major players, nor anyone significant from Travis’s past. It is instigated by the brother of the #11 ranked assassin Travis killed in the trailer for the first game and the son of a CEO Travis killed as a contract job to make money.
In the same way that the Austin Powers films will show a henchman’s family receiving the news he’s been run over by a steamroller, this serves as a darkly comic reminder that though they might not have had cutscenes or unique character models, those hundreds of goons Travis diced into small pieces in the first game were people too. And now he’s got to do it again, because revenge begets revenge in the biggest repetitious cycle of all.
I mentioned two things that make the series great. The other is characters, and this article is about structure and long enough already, so they shall not be discussed here. Suffice it to say that though in Travis’s quest they serve mostly as obstacles, they all have their own stories and in their two minute cutscenes show more character than Mario or Sonic or Master Fucking Chief have done across the entire of their franchises.
Originally Wii exclusive, there was a 360/PS3 port of the first No More Heroes – so whatever your console you’ve no excuse for missing out. The games are not without flaws, but they are minor and more than compensated for.
All images: Marvellous Entertainment