Well, I shouldn’t be all that surprised, really. After an irreverent video game series sends you blasting through gangsters, corporate goons, and all manner of psycho assassins, there’s really only one way to go.
Saints Row 4 might have done it first, but I think No More Heroes III wears it better. This is an absolute nut-job of a game, and that’s saying something, considering that its developer made Killer7. Reviewers have complained that it looks ugly, its edge has dulled, and that it leans too heavily on style, but I can’t help but love it. Here’s a game that just wants to be your buddy. “Hey, man,” it says, “come party with us.”
And party I did, three times over. I can’t get enough of it.
Like its numbered predecessors, NMH3 is an over-the-top slash-em-up set in the California town of Santa Destroy. You play as the dorky-but-lovable Travis Touchdown, professional assassin and proud japanophile. He may be pushing forty, and married with children, but nothing will stop him from rocking leather jackets, collecting gashapon, and playing film critic about the Miike oeuvre. Shacked up with his former rivals, Shinobu Jacobs and Charlotte “Bad Girl” Birkin, as well as his aged kitty Jeane, Travis is living the dream.
That is, until FU shows up.
Twenty years ago, a larval alien named Jess-Baptiste VI crash-landed on Earth, and was saved by a young Damon Ricotello. In gratitude for this kindness, Baptiste gifted Damon with great alien knowledge, which he used to help the alien return home. Before departing, Baptiste promised that he’d visit Earth again to see his good friend.
Now, Baptiste, a.k.a. Lord FU, has made good on his vow. Grown to his full measure, FU is strong, intelligent, and a total psychopath. He’s a conqueror of worlds with a court full of criminals, and now he wants Earth for his own. He drags a reluctant Damon into his plans, and wields Damon’s burgeoning media corporation to spread his influence.
FU decides to make the conflict sporting, so he commissions the United Assassins Association to set up a ranking system for Earthlings to challenge him. So, along comes Travis to take the alien bastards down one by one.
Now, I have to say that for all their wackiness, the villains in past No More Heroes games have never really made a lasting impact. They mostly came in strutting and went out bleeding, like the opponents in a Punch-Out!! game. FU, on the other hand, is something else. He’s a constant presence in this game, lording over the proceedings with an unpredictable menace. I love this guy. It’s hard to believe he’s voiced by Charles Smith from Red Dead Redemption II.
Before you can cross blades with the guy, you’ll need to rise in the rankings. You do this by exploring the various regions surrounding Santa Destroy, fighting rank-and-file members of the alien army, and making money off odd jobs. Once you have the cash and have won a few qualifying matches, it’s off to the boss fights for another spectacular battle.
These battles rarely go the way you expect them to, though the twists aren’t always surprising if you’ve played previous games in the series. There’s plenty of kill-stealing, returning champions, and other odd callbacks. At times it feels disjointed, like Suda and his team tossed together a big odd soup, but it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t take itself seriously.
In fact, the whole game has that odd-soup quality. Polygon’s review called it a “multimedia art project,” and I think that’s the best way to describe its presentation. The game is framed as a streaming anime series, with a repeating intro and outro, varying art styles and classic TV editing. You even get a Netflix-like next-episode countdown timer. The characters are all aware of their existence in a video game, and make snarky jokes about it constantly. Travis himself talks to the player like an old friend. Some folks might roll their eyes at at all this, but I dig it. It never comes off as hostile or resigned, but joyous in its revelry. During the game’s first action sequence, the character Sylvia advises the player to surrender to the gaming addiction, play for ten hours at a time, and “drink a shitload of soda.” And you know what? Part of me said, “why the hell not?”
The combat is what feeds that gaming fix, as it’s nice and tight. In fact, it’s far more technical than it was in its predecessors. Mashing buttons won’t get you far; you’ll have to time your strikes and limit your combos to survive. You’ll also need to make wise use of your Death Glove, which shoves and slows enemies, and causes damage over time. Dodging the aliens’ attacks and slashing their health away makes the game feel like a mixture of Diablo III and Breath of the Wild. The controls are different from previous games, but some mainstays remain, like the directional finishing moves, Dark Side death reels, and recharging your sword battery by treating your Joy-Con like a shake weight.
Yes, the game still has motion controls in it, but they’re very limited, and you don’t need to use them if you don’t want to. I like using them, though, as it’s quite satisfying to swing my arm and decapitate an irritating baddie.
I’m willing to admit that the fighting wouldn’t make this game on its own. The series has proven that too much of it can get tiresome. The rewards of a Grasshopper game are the things that happen outside of battle. Santa Destroy and its environs are full of humor, intentional or not. You have odd jobs that are easy and silly-looking, collectible scorpions and kittens, and visual novel sequences designed to look and sound like Apple II programs (did people really play games like these?).
Aside from the fourth-wall breaking I mentioned earlier, there are also references to pro wrestling, Zelda, Mario, Smash Bros., and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The atmosphere is ridiculous, but it’s also earnest, passionate, and true to its creator, Goichi Suda. Critics have said that Suda’s voice is no longer unique–that it’s been lost in the storm of nerd culture that now pervades the mainstream. Maybe we do see a lot more dragons and superheroes on our TVs than we once did, and maybe we do have a lot of geeky podcasts jabbering about them, but I don’t think that makes Suda any less relevant than before. Seeing his own personal goofs on games and movies is still enjoyable to me, especially because of his not-quite-in-the-club viewpoint.
Aside from complaints about over reliance on style, most folks have been bitching about NMH3‘s graphics. It’s true: the frame rate chugs badly when driving around the open world. Pop-in is rampant, and there’s something odd about the lighting too. This never really bothered me, though; this is a Grasshopper Manufacture game, after all. Suda and his crew don’t have the genius of Nintendo, or the resources of Rockstar on their side. They’ve always played rough and dirty, and I think that’s part of their appeal. I daresay that their failure to meet today’s AAA standards was intentional, to remain in keeping with their punk-band attitude.
Of course, this raises the question of whether Suda’s games are really “punk” or not, and even whether video games can be “punk” at all. I suppose that if one considers the money required to make NMH3, along with the heavy marketing Nintendo put behind it, one could call Suda a sell-out. If we’re honoring the original spirit of “punk,” I’d have to say that the real “video game bands” are the indie developers pounding out code in their garages. I don’t know. That’s a discussion for obsessive literary types who are far smarter than I am.
My primary complaint about this game is that it simply isn’t big enough. I really enjoyed just being in Travis’s world, and I wanted to see more of it. I was disappointed to see just how much of the map is sealed off as “forbidden zones.” I also would have liked to have some actual “levels” in the game to fight through, as opposed to simple arenas. I think the alien monsters are varied and unique enough that they could allow for some interesting level design.
Just keep the levels at a reasonable length, Mr. Suda. We can’t take too much of it at once.
What I’d really like to see is a No More Heroes game with an open structure, something like Super Mario Odyssey. It should ditch the Assassin rankings, and allow Travis to drive between mini-cities at will. He could run and climb and explore. He could go shopping, fight aliens, and complete challenges scattered across the map. The story could develop as each new region is unlocked, as opposed to the attainment of new ranks. Of course, there could be lots of separate arena challenges accessed via special locations. I think it could work!
I’m sure it’d end up on a smaller scale than Odyssey, and it would look a little scruffy here and there. I’d still be happy with it, though. No matter how much pop-up it has, I can’t help but adore this scrappy little underdog that keeps on partying, all the way to the end of the world.