Sunday, January 27, 2008

No More Heroes

No More Heroes, for the Wii, is the latest bit of insanity from SUDA51 and his crew at Grasshopper Manufacture. Their last game, Killer 7, was an incredibly audacious and daring ... uh... monstrosity. While the Sin City-inspired graphical style was unique for a game, and the story was a mind-bending bit of weirdness, the actual gameplay left a lot to be desired.

Still, with Killer 7, it was hard not to admire its total devotion to insanity. The tutorial system was a strange, bondage gear-clad man who randomly appear, the main character was an assassin with a variety of different personalities... the whole game, from its core concept down to how it dealt with very basic gameplay concepts (moving forward required you to press the A button) was crazy. It was like the game wanted to break every expectation you might have had about what a game was. In that regard, it succeeded - the problem was that it also failed to be comprehensible, or in many cases, genuinely engaging.

I don't mean that it wasn't "fun" - I'm really pretty sick of games being pigeonholed into 'fun' being the only metric by which a game is judged. Killer 7 was a disappointment because while it was incredibly interesting, and challenged my preconceptions, the core mechanics were actually actively boring, and the story was so bizarre it simply failed to keep my interest after a few hours of play.

Given that, I was really looking forward to No More Heroes - it promised to be a bit more accessible, but still push the boundaries of normalcy. In that regard, it's quite a success. Think of No More Heroes as a classic hack & slash - that's what the core of the game is. The main character, Travis Touchdown, runs around and hacks people to bits with his lightsaber (they call it a Beam Katana, but come on, let's call a spade a spade). For the most part, this is accomplished by just mashing the A button, but finishing moves are gesture-controlled. A quick swipe of the Wiimote in the direction of the arrow, and Travis hacks his opponents in two.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten, as a game designer, was to take a long, hard look at your game, figure out what the player is doing most of the time, and focus on making that fun. It's also a pretty good metric of whether a game is actually good or not. Is what you're doing for the majority of the time fun? Why? Why not?

In Final Fantasy X, you spend most of your time walking around. There's simply nothing to do while walking around. You walk at a middling pace, there's rarely a genuine reason to walk anywhere but the obvious direction the game guides you to, and as a result, the vast bulk of the time you're playing FFX, you're simply walking, slowly, to your next destination. The end result was that the game bored me to tears. That the "reward" for walking around was more of the hamfisted, stupid story didn't help matters.

This is also where Killer 7 and No More Heroes differ. By really changing up the basic control scheme for a game, Killer 7 made tasks that are normally simple quite tedious or confusing. In No More Heroes, the core mechanics of the game are relatively familiar and accessible. It's pretty easy to just jump into the game and do things.

Still, the thing that really stands out about No More Heroes is how dedicated it is to its particular vision of the world. Travis, the main character, is a bit of a loser slacker. His whole existence is a mix of the absolutely tedious and the extraordinarily bizarre. The game has the player both mowing lawns and getting into full-scale lightsaber fights with opera-singing assassins or school janitors.

The Grasshopper Manufacture logo which appears when you load the game has the slogan "Punk's Not Dead" at the base of their crest. It's clear that the game is meant to have a bit of over-the-top excess mixed with a bit of nihilism. There's something very ... exuberant about the game. It's like a high-school slacker's notebook illustrations and fantasies come to life - intense, rebellious, a bit angry and a bit entitled. It's completely weird, but also completely dedicated to that vision.

That dedication is what sets the game apart, and what keeps me interested in where it'll go next. In a sea of this last holiday season's excellent, even extraordinary games, No More Heroes stands out. Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, Mass Effect - there's something about them that does feel similar, and eventually, you feel the need for something different. No More Heroes is that something. There sure as hell ain't anything else out there like it.

(Still in progress) A/85

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