The success and non-stop momentum of the Nintendo Switch makes it the perfect platform for old games to find a new lease of life. The availability of classics is all the more important when a number of highly anticipated new releases have already been delayed out of 2020.
One such casualty is No More Heroes III – delayed to sometime in 2021 thanks to COVID-19 – which would have seen the full-on return of gaming’s favourite anti-hero Travis Touchdown and pave over the rather underwhelming 2019 spin-off Travis Strikes Again.
However, to soothe fans of the bloodthirsty assassin otaku, developer Grasshopper Manufacture has surprised us with ports of the first two titles, something that’s been highly requested ever since creator Suda51 – aka the company’s CEO Goichi Suda – first strutted onto the stage of the Nintendo Switch’s official reveal event over three years ago. But just how well do two decade-old cult action games from the Wii era hold up in 2020?
For starters, it’s worth noting that No More Heroes has always been on the scrappier indie-punk side, which it compensates with excessive style. These may be straight HD ports rather than remasters, lacking any bonus content or improved textures, but the striking cel-shaded art style and character designs, as well as a soundtrack that dabbles in both retro gamer blips and punk rock (which gets extra panache in the sequel thanks to Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka joining the studio as sound director), remain standouts.
The games have always been rather simplistic in execution in search of quick ultra-violent gratification – with extra emphasis on execution. As Travis hacks and slashes his way through levels, the game revels in these encounters as the action briefly pauses with a prompt for you to swing your Wii controller like the beam katana in his hand for the finishing move. Even the audio mix sounds amped up especially for the faceless goons’ death throes as they’re decapitated or split in half showering the ground with blood.
Fans after the old-school Wii experience can still use motions with the Joy-Con, including shaking it to recharge your beam katana that makes it look like you’re jerking off. That’s just one of many purposely puerile jokes in the game, along with how toilet breaks function as saves. These motion actions are simple enough to easily translate to just flicking directions of the right stick too (or both sticks if you’re grabbing an enemy to perform a wrestling move on them), so playing these games with traditional controls or on a Switch Lite work perfectly fine.
There’s little skill or depth involved in taking apart the grunts, only an orgiastic bloodbath that occasionally rewards you with a time-limited special attack, such as transforming into a tiger that can one-shot enemies. But the highlights are reserved for the unique boss battles with assassins who vary wildly from cosplaying postman Destroyman to hip-hop assassin Nathan Copeland.
Most of them are more rivals than outright villains, considering that Travis himself is hardly a likeable protagonist. As the title suggests, he’s far from a heroic figure, with both a crude and misogynistic streak – even one of his primary motivations to become the number one assassin is just so he has a chance of banging ranking agent Sylvia Christel. Even if he’s initially reluctant to kill women, by the second instalment he’s blowing up dozens of cheerleaders in space and dicing up a poison-spewing femme fatale without batting an eyelid.
Yet when he’s not on the job, Travis is also a hilariously pitiful loser who’s holed up in a motel room while having to work menial jobs like picking up litter and filling cars with petrol in order to scrape together the funds for his next ranking battle.
As much as this juxtaposition is deliberate, there’s still no excuse for what amounts to very tedious gameplay. It isn’t helped by how empty the town of Santa Destroy is, along with some hilariously bad physics when speeding around on Travis’s bike, which also seems to be massively overcompensating. These shortcomings were apparent when the first game released back in 2008, and they remain as glaring as ever.
For these reasons, the sequel holds up considerably better, axing the pointless open world for a leaner, meaner game that jumps straight into the good stuff. While side jobs still exist, at least there’s some concerted effort to make these fun for the player by turning these into retro-style mini-games, with the money earned only needed for optional training, weapon upgrades and cosmetics instead of a mandatory battle fee.
More contentious however are the games’ excessive and unsubtle brand of satire, both from an American obsession with violence as is the toxic representation of geek culture and its treatment of women.
There’s an argument that Suda51 goes so over-the-top in this regard that you have to view it as satirical commentary without beating you over the head about the dangers of becoming desensitised to violence. But when female characters like Sylvia are introduced with their legs or cleavage first most of the time, you can’t help but think the game’s just trying to have its cake and eat it.
No More Heroes 1 & 2 are very much products of their time, when a game with ample violence and dollops of T&A can easily sell to horny teenage male geeks. If No More Heroes and its sequel were indeed satires of this toxic culture, they haven’t necessarily aged well. Nonetheless, the games’ unapologetically abrasive action remains an intoxicating guilty pleasure and a fair bargain romp on the eShop.
- Still dripping with (bloody) style from its character designs to the boss battles
- Simple yet nonetheless effective and violently gratifying combat, which works fine without motion controls
- The sequel’s retro-style mini-games are still fun
- Barebones ports, so don’t expect anything new
- Some of its deliberately offensive humour hasn’t aged well