No More Heroes III
Boutique action game developer Treasure once proposed a theory: if the climactic boss fight represents the most exhilarating moment in any videogame, then any game composed primarily of boss fights would surely be the most exhilarating yet. Alien Soldier was the result, and the game – one of the last to arrive on Sega’s Mega Drive – remains a design masterclass. Its foundational principle has since appeared in varied shapes, from Fumito Ueda’s stately, dour Shadow Of The Colossus to Goichi Suda’s No More Heroes, a high-fructose series built around a succession of battles with screeching pantomime villains.
No More Heroes III follows the template established by the series’ 2008 debut: a series of climactic fights with unforgettable assassins, interspersed with unhurried interstitial downtime. Here you knock around a city so devoid of life that it borders on a satire of the sumptuous open-world games that have come to dominate in the years since the previous instalment.
You again play as Travis Touchdown, a character who embodies two opposing archetypes: the American cool guy, all leather jacket, shades, Fonz-slicked hair and lithe physique, and the loner Japanese otaku, in his grotty bedsit surrounded by capsule toys, unable to parse the world and its challenges in anything other than videogame terms. Ever primed to be the protagonist in someone else’s drama, Travis is drawn into a plot of galactic proportions: the return of an alien being, FU, to Earth to reunite with a boy, who, 20 years earlier, found him crash-landed in the woods and nursed him back to health. Now both alien and boy are fully grown and, together with FU’s entourage of interplanetary supervillains, seem set on world domination. Travis believes he is the only one who can stop them.
In 2008, No More Heroes’ feverish animation style, sweary antihero and hyperactive direction contrasted starkly with Nintendo Wii’s stable of family-oriented games. No More Heroes III enters a different marketplace and, with its jagged, low-poly models, Ceefax fonts and Geocities-era clip art, feels more like a pastiche than transgression. Suda’s leftfield playfulness drapes more comfortably on this world than most others in his oeuvre, and while the five urban islands on which the game takes place are asset-starved and enclosed by invisible walls, they are at least filled with jokes and minigames. These vignettes (which have a distinctly community service feel: municipal lawnmowing, litterpicking, toilet unblocking) are more than distractions. Travis must pay a fee to fight each assassin, and the best way to raise the cash is through busywork.
Of course, the success of any game built around a series of set-piece battles depends on the potency of its combat. Here, No More Heroes’ old systems prove enduringly robust. The pitter-patter button mash of beam-sword attacks chips away at a foe’s health bar.
Execute a perfectly timed dodge and time slows for your enemies, while Travis remains unaffected, free to continue his barrage of attacks. These moments of uninterrupted violence allow you to power up a Tension Gauge and trigger a death blow. After the correct input is made (a conductor’s flourish of the Joy-Con, or flick of the analogue stick if you’re using the Pro Controller), the camera lingeringly sweeps and zooms to take in the dramatic slash before a shower of fluorescent pixels gamifies the arterial blood spurts of samurai cinema.
Each successful kill triggers a jackpot reel, overlaid in the centre of the screen. Various combinations offer various rewards. You hope for three 7s, which enables Travis to enter Full Armor mode – a Gundam-like suit that fires a volley of missiles to obliterate remaining enemies. This sequence of microevents, repeated hundreds of times across the game, never quite loses its satisfying, kinetic thrill, and carries you through the dull interludes from which most players, in a lesser game, would step away.
Travis’s beam sword – bought at auction in the first game – drains a little battery charge with each strike and must be re-energised mid-fight, either by shaking the Switch controllers or by waggling the right analogue stick. What seems at first an inconvenient imposition forces a tactical rhythm, as attacks and retreats must be managed carefully. Further interest is layered onto the combat via the addition of a Death Glove, a device that facilitates bonus special moves, and which can be fitted with three bespoke microchips. Junk collected from battles and side-quests can be used to craft these microchips – implants that will, for example, increase your attack power at the cost of making Travis more susceptible to damage, allowing tinkerers to adjust his strengths and weaknesses.
The influence of Marvel films on Suda’s writing here is clear, but this is more than a conventional tribute; Travis’s grim bedsit has a superhero-style basement filled not only with gadgets but also, in a dreamlike embellishment, a giant cherry-blossom tree. The game benefits tremendously from the weirdness and specificity of Suda’s imagination, and the fact that his vision feels like it has survived intact. For all its rough edges, this is indisputably a game of singular tone – something to which any number of polished, designby-committee open world games cannot lay claim.
Still, the truth is that, like its nerd-as-world-savingswashbuckler protagonist, No More Heroes III is an anachronism. Even the whizz-bang UI’s tribute to the Atari 2600 aesthetic is, as pastiches go, stale stuff in 2021. This doesn’t mean it’s not charming, or enjoyable, or, in its escalation of challenge, compelling. But for all its appealing idiosyncrasies, No More Heroes has lost some of its urgency and, with that, its potency.
The game benefits tremendously from the weirdness and specificity of Suda’s imagination