Feature by Matt S.
Goichi Suda is a bit of a hero to many on the DDNet team. His unwavering commitment to games that are transgressive and creative, even to the detriment of their critical rating, is noble, and the fact he’s managed to build up a major Japanese development studio almost entirely around him shows that he’s both a visionary and a leader.
Over the next few weeks, through Tokyo Game Show and beyond, we’re going to do an extended series of feature articles, where we look back on various games that Suda-san has been involved in, and detail what makes them significant and unique to Suda’s vision. Further, we’re also going to feature interviews with various other creators that have worked with Suda over the years... and that’s all leading up to my third meeting with the man himself at Tokyo Game Show this year. I hope.
These articles are premium articles, but courtesy of the good people at Playism (who are handling the long-overdue port of one of Suda’s first games, The Silver Case), we are able to give all readers full access to each of the articles.
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Japan has a rigid caste system, and progression through it is a big deal to the Japanese. That’s why honorifics are so important in the nation’s language, and the term you use to address someone changes, according to your standing, relative to the person that you’re addressing.
This theme plays through an awful lot of Japanese entertainment – especially anime, and especially action anime aimed at boys. Explicit examples of this include anime like Bleach, where characters are constantly ranked against one another – often literally, with numbers printed on their bodies. But others do this in more subtle ways, from One Piece to Attack on Titan, Dragon Ball and Fist of the North Star.
A ranked and ordered social hierarchy is a deeply ingrained part of the Japanese culture, and as with so much of what Goichi Suda does, that made it ripe for deconstruction and satire. Enter No More Heroes: Heroes Paradise, which merges a critical analysis of this theme with a joke around open world games, and a pastiche of violent yakuza martial arts films.
In Heroes Paradise, a HD remake of the Nintendo Wii original No More Heroes, you play as Travis Touchdown, an assassin that roams around the world hunting down the top ten assassins ranked above him in order to kill them, and subsequently move up the ranks. These levels all run in much the same way – Travis will make his way through hordes of goons (and often surreal rooms that have special conditions, such as one where Travis needs to use baseballs hurled at him to knock out enemies) before finally reaching a boss that, in typical Suda style, will be a creative highlight, with flowing, multi-layered battles, and each enemy has their own, vastly different, combat style.
As with all Suda games, No More Heroes has more than its fair share of quirks that make it as much a satire of form than a genuine example of it. Travis himself is an otaku – or nerd – of the highest order, anime collectibles and all, and he proves himself to be easily manipulated as he gets caught up in his little adventure. At the start of the game we learn that Travis has the opportunity to move up through the ranks of the United Assassin’s Association by killing off its members in order. Which sounds silly, precisely because it is silly – the way the plot rolls out shows that this is more a satire of a nerd’s fantasy than it is interested in giving Travis a “real” story to follow.
This is Suda’s less than subtle way of digging at both otaku culture, but more significantly, that hierarchies that Japan organises itself into. Ultimately, there is no real hierarchy in No More Heroes, because the idea of ranking assassins is just nonsense. It’s Suda’s commentary on the way that games, anime, and other wish fulfilment fantasies end up offering the audience something without substance, meaning, or depth.
No More Heroes also takes the opportunity to poke fun at the open world structures that have become so popular in game design, and are equally illusionary in their value. No More Heroes doesn’t actually need to be an open world game; each of the battles with an assassin takes place at the end of a distinctive level that would have worked as well selected from a menu as it is as travelling there over an open world.
Between those missions you can cruise around a world that is almost entirely devoid of interesting things to do. Side quests are mundane, and there are very few pedestrians and other animate objects around. Existing in this world is an abject, absurd experience where you’ll be left craving the next proper level.
Those levels are intense, filled with action, humour, quirks, unique features and fast paced combat. The empty and dull open world by contrast is not from a lack of creative vision from Suda. Quite the opposite, actually; it’s quite brave, creatively speaking, to put players through this, assuming that they’ll be able to figure out for themselves what’s going on and get in on the joke.
No More Heroes’ gameplay is typically bombastic and high energy. Travis’ weapon of choice is a beam sword – lightsaber, effectively – which has the ability to carve enemies into tiny chunks. With each successful strike blood bursts out, filling the screen with dirty crimson, and accompanied by a comical scream from each enemy.
The effect here is a similar kind of splatter aesthetic that is so popular in Japanese yakuza films, and has been so consistently appropriated by the likes of Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill. Touching it off with a surreal edge, the beam sword runs out of energy with use, and once drained, Travis needs to recharge it with a shaking action which very much looks like a masturbatory action.
That crass action works as a fairly simple commentary on the over-the-top depiction of masculinity that features in so much of the Japanese entertainment that this game is based on. Anime such as Fist of the North Star through Bleach, JoJo through the yakuza films all closely associate masculinity with the ability to perform in combat, and therefore argues that conflict is a male attribute. This is true too in No More Heroes, but it is knowingly so, and it’s not coincidence that the tool of combat is represented as a, uh, tool.
So too are women reduced to basic sexual roles. The femme fatale that lead Travis on his blind flight of fantasy is of course one, but the only woman to survive Travis’s assassinations is another woman, which Travis decides to show mercy to. An unlockable bonus at the end of the game puts each of the women in… daring… costumes, to say the least.
The inclusion of beautiful women in a sexualised state is nothing unusual for Suda’s games, but the do generally have a point, as is the case here. In visually disempowering the female characters in the context of a game that satirises male power fantasies, Suda is bringing into sharp focus how normalised the treatment of these women characters are in other anime.
No More Heroes isn’t even subtle in its mockery; it’s an out-and-out teardown of otaku cultures and entertainment, as well as the ridiculous roles prescribed to masculinity and femininity that are pushed through these texts. You’re not meant to like Travis Touchdown, and you’re not even meant to enjoy the world he’s in. But, in a very self-deprecating manner, this is one oddly charming, silly, crazy game.
- Matt S.
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