Goichi Suda, or “Suda51,” is an iconoclast video game auteur whose studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, has built a cult following with subversive and outrageous titles. His games are irreverent pieces of interactive punk rock, perhaps the most definitive being 2007’s No More Heroes. An inordinately bloody ordeal, it’s one of the most unforgiving meta-commentaries on action games and their binds to the male power fantasy. This year sees the release of the much-anticipated sequel, No More Heroes III, making for an opportune time to look back at the original.
In No More Heroes, players take on the role of Travis Touchdown, a stereotypical geek in his late 20s who is obsessed with video games, anime, and American film, dripping with the swagger of a wannabe badass. After purchasing a “beam katana” online, he enters a convoluted, murderous game to become the world’s number one ranked assassin. As he collects coins and heads in the fictional California town of Santa Destroy, he faces off with a roster of sad killers who are unamused with the game’s brutal antics. The game’s narrative beats directly undermine his quest to be number one.
While many audience proxies in action games are physically dominant, courageous, and charming (bolstering tired archetypes of heteronormative masculinity), Travis represents the result of interiorizing the messaging of such media. He is lonely because he prioritizes escapism, and the “cool” image he believes he projects is instead, to my eyes, off-putting. Travis represents an audience that has been taught to view games as something to conquer, not experience. To that end, his horniness leads him down a path of aggression. Male power fantasies often objectify women, who become trophies under the guise of a quest for true love or to fulfill an heroic duty. Sylvia, the organizer of the assassin battles, cuts through the bullshit, calling out Travis for what he really wants, which is for her to sleep with him. She uses his desire to nudge him further down the path of violence — and to extract money from him. Travis fights for a woman who needs no saving and for a title that has no meaning.
No More Heroes has a notoriously tedious core gameplay loop. In order to pay his entrance fee for each fight, Travis navigates the desolate environment of Santa Destroy in search of odd jobs. These jobs are purposefully mindless mini-games, consisting of everything from knocking coconuts out of trees to mowing lawns. It forces the player to power through mundanity to experience the actual gameplay, a sobering parallel with the real-life games/consumer relationship. Then, once the fights are underway, Travis confronts swarms of identical henchmen. The combat mechanics are intentionally rudimentary and unvarying, primarily involving mashing buttons. The process becomes tiresome and numbing. It hammers in the pointlessness of excessive, stylistic game violence, positing the romanticizing of honor and heroism as masturbatory. (In the original Nintendo Wii version, you even have to suggestively shake the motion-sensitive remote to recharge Travis’s weapons.) Once Travis encounters his main foes, the ranked assassins, most of them spend their screen time warning of the emptiness that comes with chasing the top rank and meditating on why they kill. The transparent subtext is an examination of why people play violent games. The characters don’t (usually) directly break the fourth wall, but their dialogue demonstrates self-awareness of their role as fodder for more gore.
Each of these encounters subverts various tropes of standard game boss fights. My favorite is Bad Girl, whom Travis calls “a perverted killing maniac,” only for her to immediately call him out on his hypocrisy. Another standout is Destroyman, a seemingly archetypical American superhero. In stark contrast to his noble appearance, he talks about how he “can’t stand people with their nonsense complaints,” and asks that Travis look away so he can put on his superhero getup, only to cheaply blast him when his back is turned. At one point, the game elaborately introduces a gargantuan robot enemy, only for it to be comedically destroyed before you can even press “A.” The intricate setup with no payoff functions as yet another moment in which Travis (and the player) are offered a standard male power fantasy trope, only for it to be ripped away.
The game’s 2010 sequel, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, was criticized for buying into everything the original poked fun at. Travis becomes an actual badass and iconic assassin within the game’s world. Rather than critique the genre, it centers on a revenge plot, glorifying Travis’s killing spree with over-the-top action set pieces, complete with an unironic mecha battle. Notably, Suda51 was mostly uninvolved with its production, which is perhaps why it lacked any biting perspective. Time will tell whether No More Heroes III, which sees him back in charge, will provide any fresh commentary. Though it’s been some years since the original, violent action-oriented games still rule supreme in this industry.