All right, the review is done and I've been able to read what some other people have to say about No More Heroes. I recommend both the Brainy Gamer and the Aberrant Gamer, each of whom covers much of the same ground that I did in my review (to be posted next week). On one hand, I'm glad that my impressions of the game seem valid. On the other hand, this may mean that I'm not as singularly insightful as I thought I was.
No More Heroes is a game about games. In the larger world of media, I can only think to compare Suda 51's work here to the filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Not because No More Heroes and Pulp Fiction share a fondness for sex, violence, and profanity, but because you get the impression that Suda 51 has played every game ever made and wants to give them all a shout-out, just as Tarantino does with films. No More Heroes is a pastiche that incorporates influences from the earliest arcade games through last fall's Manhunt 2. It seems to revel in the hoky symbols and twisted logic that took root in games by necessity.
In the early days, if designers wanted to denote enemies dropping loot, they had no real choice but to represent it graphically with something like a big ol' dollar sign. These days, games are trending toward more realism in this regard. Recent shooters like Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War try to minimize their HUDs, for example, in order to break down that fourth wall. No More Heroes seems to feel that the fourth wall is crucial to a game's identity. Your area map is a blocky grid, but only slightly more blocky than the streets and buildings of Santa Destroy itself. Important locations are marked by enormous, pixilated icons that hover over the sidewalks. Power-ups are placed inside treasure chests, which are barely concealed around corners of the mostly straight-ahead levels. And loot? Your fallen enemies blast you with a torrent of jingling coins.
The trend toward open-world games has resulted in games like Grand Theft Auto giving your character side missions, simple tasks that don't advance the storyline but earn your character money or items. Here, again, No More Heroes doesn't try to shoehorn side missions into the narrative, but celebrates them in all their superfluous glory. In order to get the money he needs to advance in the game, Travis takes on such arduous tasks as mowing lawns, picking up trash, and gassing up cars. The banality is so extreme that it crosses the line to audacity. (The only problem is that, well, they're still not that much fun to play.)
For as much as No More Heroes seems to be a mish-mash of other people's ideas, I was also intrigued by its take on its characters' physicality, which takes an angle I'm not sure I've seen before. To the extent that most game characters seem to have functioning bodies, it's either to bleed or to indulge in occasional hot alien sex. In the essays I've read, most people have glossed over the fact that, in No More Heroes, the save point is the toilet. Potty humor on one level, yes, but I don't believe anything in this game is so insignificant. I think it's a rebuke to all the games that treat their virtual denizens as the artificial constructs we'd like to think they aren't. Travis picks his nose, lusts after his female employer, and, yes, frequently uses the bathroom. It's about time somebody in a game did. All that running water in BioShock, and your character never gets the urge to go, even once?
No More Heroes doesn't necessarily strike me as a game of the year contender, but it's an important breakthrough precisely because it doesn't need to be judged along the traditional review axes. In fact, on the Metacritic page is this excerpt from the IGN review: "...it’s a pain to trek through, and a painfully low-tech visual offering. Pop-in is everywhere, control is irritating at best, and the frame rate is all over the charts. It’s an absolute mess." It's not often I feel justified in saying something like this, but it's hard to imagine a reviewer so completely missing the point (except maybe when I reviewed Mass Effect, but that's neither here nor there). That's like bitching about a movie being shot in black and white after 1950. The look of this game was a choice. No More Heroes is a game with things on its mind, not least of which is its own identity. I feel richer for having played it.
And, frankly, I'm just glad I finally got to play a game that let me use the word "pastiche" without having to strain for it.