Auteur theory, and whether it should be applied to video games, is one of those more interesting debates that we can have about this medium. Most of the time it’s difficult to identify a single person as being responsible for the creativity in a game; the stuff that comes out of Activision, EA, and Ubisoft, for example, is very much the product of teams (and corporate interests) to the point that it’s usually hard to see a creative vision in them at all. However, among smaller developers, there does seem to be room for a single creative vision to come to the fore. One of the greatest examples of that is Goichi Suda. A Goichi Suda game is instantly recognisable as a Goichi Suda game, and No More Heroes III is most definitely a Goichi Suda game.
If you’ve ever played a Suda game, then you know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, the big keyword here is “energy.” Suda fills his games with what can only be described as a kaleidoscope of colour and an excess of everything. His games – including No More Heroes III – are a blend of everything that Suda loves, and playing “spot the pop reference” is particularly good fun here, since it indulges everything from 80’s arcades to Takeshi Miike, through to Gundam, Sentai, classic anime and a staggering range of the very finest music. Seriously. Suda’s music collection must be truly legendary if the stuff he references in his games is any indication. All of these disparate elements often clashes in-game and risks degenerating into an uneven mess, but then that’s also the aesthetic point of it all. It is barely coherent. It’s punky. It’s grindhouse. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer, and it’s beautiful.
No More Heroes III treads the same basic ground as its predecessors (and, yes, it’s very aware of that and more than willing to poke fun at itself). The main man, Travis Touchdown, is a nerd, a geek and a loser, who is also utterly convinced that he’s an utter badass. For reasons that the game really isn’t that bothered with properly explaining, the earth is subjected to an alien invasion, and the only way to stop it is for Travis to work his way up a ladder of intergalactic assassins (higher stakes than the previous games and their terrestrial-bound assassin rankings – sequels gotta sequel, after all) in his bid to take on the ultimate bad alien, FU. And yes, I’m 99 per cent sure FU is the acronym that you’re thinking it might be.
Travis does his fighting by using his beam sword (which still runs out of battery and still recharges with that shaking motion). The combat remains loud and visceral. Blood still goes everywhere with the slightest contact. When he’s not in combat, Travis gets to cruise around an open-world city that, at first, seems embarrassingly empty. There are almost no cars on the road, you’ll be lucky to see one pedestrian on the street and while, yes, there are some minigames to play (and we’ll get to those soon), but it’s not exactly a world jam-packed with them. That impression that this is all bad design should fade once you realise that all this is Goichi Suda’s sense of humour pointing out how vapid and pointless open-world experiences are, just as he did with previous games, but it is interesting that he has persisted with it after having already made that joke well enough previously.
In fact, if I was to level one criticism at No More Heroes III, it’s that it comes so very close to lacking the creative drive that I expect from Suda. I realise that sounds odd in the context of a game that is still so blindingly different to everything else that gets released these days, but within the context of Suda’s own oeuvre, this one comes across as almost… safe. It is almost a by-the-numbers thing, done for the fans, from a guy that once said he had less interest in sequels than coming up with new ideas. You want something comfortably familiar when you play a studio project. When it comes to Goichi Suda, you want something you’ve never experienced before, and this one is right on the cusp of being disappointing on that basis.
Four things save it. Firstly, the boss battles. Goichi Suda has always been known for his boss battles, and the variety and energy that you get out of No More Heroes III shows that he hasn’t lost his ability to surprise and delight here. I’m not even a person that usually enjoys boss battles, but Suda sees bosses less as big enemies with a lot of health to whittle down, and more a chance to work with the player to choreograph something mesmerising and memorable, and I took that from each boss battle that I fought here. They also have some magnificent mechanical quirks at times, and while I don’t want to ruin any of that, just wait until you get to the “RPG” boss. You’ll know it when you get there. Beyond the combat mechanics, too, these bosses are all silly, self-aware little works of characterisation, and while their individual roles within the game are brief, they’re basically all memorable and entertaining.
Secondly, No More Heroes III is so self-aware that it gets away with a lot by freely and openly recognising what it is. Travis is a video game avatar in the truest sense. He represents the player’s interests in the game, so when he mutters something like “the gamers are going to like this,” he’s speaking through us into the game. He’s a parody of the gamer, of course, making the fourth-wall-breaking humour a gentle ribbing at our own expense from Suda, but it’s surprising just how effective that self-awareness is at waving away how familiar much of the game is.
Finally, the range of minigames is an absolute highlight. Taking some time out to mow lawns, randomly mine for ore, unclog the toilets that you need to save the game, or play with the talking cat companion, injects a bit of variety into the play, but more importantly it adds to the surrealistic mishmash of ideas that help the game to find its creative core. There are also plenty of little narrative interactions that allow Suda to just indulge in being Goichi Suda. My favourite example of this is the little moments where a couple of characters pop up on screen to talk about Japanese filmmaker, Takashi Miike. There’s no point to these, other than for Suda to deliver us little essays on one of his favourite filmmakers, but they do highlight just how much No More Heroes III functions as a reflection on (Japanese) popular culture.
I’m certain that there will be some people that bellyache about the game on Switch, because on a technical level it does have issues. The developers have aimed for some pretty complex character models and boss designs for the console, and because of that, they’ve largely done away with “levels”, opting instead to cut to the chase and just throw combat rooms at players. Furthermore, the open-world bit is plagued by all kinds of pop-ins and issues, despite being as static as it is. What the developers want you to focus on (the characters and big action) is flawless, but I just know that people are going to object to the superfluous elements. Not me though. Nope. I’m here for the overall vision, and that’s been executed where it needs to.
Credit must go to Nintendo for supporting this project to bring it to Switch. Yes, it might be the “safest” game that Goichi Suda has produced in quite some time, and the energy is just not the same when he’s retreading old ideas rather than creating something new. But then Goichi Suda on a flat day is still more creative than 99 per cent of the auteurs out there, and No More Heroes III is still big, colourful, bold and filled with surrealistic humour. With the energy dialled right up to the maximum, it’s hard not to love something this brash.
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