Throughout the history of video game development, there have been several big-name developers who made their own pedigree much like film directors, examples of such including Yoko Taro, Masahiro Sakurai, Gabe Newell etc. However, playing through the recently released No More Heroes 3 has gotten me thinking about the work of Grasshopper Manufacture’s founder and long-time video game developer Goichi Suda AKA Suda 51. Suda 51’s most popular games include the No More Heroes series, Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer 7, Killer is Dead and Shadows of the Damned, which while not all connected directly have certain elements which the fans can see as a Suda 51 experience. Each of these games have very noticeable flaws, yet each of them at one point or another have had dedicated cult followings and I’m interested in seeing why through looking at Suda’s most popular series No More Heroes.
(Spoilers included for No More Heroes & No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle)
Pastiche And Parody Done Right
One element very evident in every Suda 51 game to differing levels is a pastiche that leads to the point of parody. Lollipop Chainsaw shows this very blatantly with just its concept of a cheerleader wielding a chainsaw to fight zombies, making a mockery of 80’s monster movies with the chainsaw and cheerleader outfit being reminiscent of many slashers of the time. More than that Lollipop Chainsaw serves as a parody of the gaming landscape of the time. Back in 2012 when the game was released there was a massive influx of zombie-based videogames which started to blend together in the worst cases. Suda 51 often focuses on mocking elements of pop culture within his games, with the assassins within each of the No More Heroes games as a key example.
From long-lost siblings to samurai duels to a giant mech battle, No More Heroes as a series thrives off of pastiche and parody. The main weapon used by the protagonist Travis Touchdown is unambiguously a parody of the lightsaber from Star Wars that Travis won in a bid on eBay. The ending of the first game makes a mockery of last-minute surprise boss fights by having the game fast forward through the final boss’s backstory because and I quote: ‘It alone would jack up the age rating of this game even further.’ That quote in and of itself also mocks the gaming industry as a whole considering how much blood, swearing and fan service shots are in these games, yet they don’t lead to the highest age rating (which is the case with most Suda 51 games). Another example of this comes in the choices of the game’s endings where the regular one cuts to credits that parody the iconic end credits of Star Wars which is in stark contradiction to the cutscenes tone right before the cut. Then there is the true ending within which we fight Travis’ other long lost sibling Henry in a battle akin to many other brotherly rival battles such as Virgil in Devil May Cry, with the main difference being Henry himself saying after the fight is over “I’m just the cool handsome foil that just happens to be your twin brother.” The games are unabashedly aware of their status as parodies and prefer to have fun with that awareness which fuels a lot of the charm the games emit. Beyond this though, No More Heroes as a series takes these initial mocking concepts and tries to make some messages all on its own with them and to see that clearly, we shall look at No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle and Travis Touchdown as a character.
An Unflattering Mirror And A Tale Of Revenge
Travis Touchdown by all usual metrics of personality should be a character the player hates. He is a jobless, anime-obsessed 27-year-old (in the first game) who kills people for the thrill of it, just wanting to be number 1 and due to the promise of getting laid. He covers a good amount of the seven deadly sins in his motivation, if not all of them, and yet he’s a much-beloved protagonist, so why has this come to pass?
Travis serves loosely as a distorted mirror of all of the worst aspects people assume about gamers – lazy, obsessed with video games and anime, unable to talk to women – all stereotypes which some people playing this will be all too aware of. The stereotypes being presented so bluntly and in an over-the-top fashion means we cannot take him way too seriously with the humorous writing really helping to also endear him to the player. He does bad things, and a majority of the time feels little to no remorse, and that blatant honesty in his portrayal is part of the charm, you’re not playing as some noble hero or everyman, as the title of the series says there are ‘no more heroes’ in this world. This basic overview of Travis didn’t last forever, however, as No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle took his character in a slightly more complex direction.
Within the sequel, Travis Touchdown must once again take on a leaderboard of assassins but with a new motivation this time: revenge. The tone while still full of parody has more introspective themes of the nature of death and especially revenge. Travis’ journey leads to him slowly realising the futility of his position as an assassin which is pushed to its limits in the penultimate battle of the game. After the battle saying to the leader of the UAA (the organisation who set up the assassin rankings) “I wanna be a hero by my own standards” which works in stark contrast to his mentality in the first game as the ‘no more hero’. The game could be making a clear distinction of the nature of heroism within this scene as Travis wants to see himself as a hero despite the bad, he has already done and the fact he still goes on to complete his quest for revenge. The implicit contradiction is very clear and yet we root for Travis to become a better person as a sign that as low as Travis is morally there is always a want to improve and that it can always help.
Suda 51 And The Gaming Industry As A Whole
As the previous discussions have made evidently clear, Suda 51 has an appreciation for most of the gaming industry, after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, within the most recent games in his catalogue, we can see this fact laid bare for all to see very blatantly. Both Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (TSA) and No More Heroes 3 pay homage to classic and modern gaming showing Suda’s love and appreciation for the art form. TSA: No More Heroes is much more blatant as its entire concept focuses on Travis fighting his way through multiple in-game video game worlds when he gets stuck in a possessed video game console. Each of these worlds which Travis battles his way through were originally going to be based on other video game worlds according to Suda 51 himself. With some crossover t-shirts still being there from games such as Hollow Knight, Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask and Brawlout as a few examples of Suda’s appreciation for the gaming industry.
No More Heroes 3 establishes itself early on as the more direct sequel than TSA: No More Heroes by having similar gameplay to the previous two games… and yet with increased technology and creative freedom this genre is often subverted for certain battles. To avoid directly spoiling anything several genres are included in small capacities along with the already established action hack and slash the series is known for. Throughout the game there are space battles that operate more like bullet hell mech battles, several bosses have their own unique genre twists or special gimmick, and the final battle is essentially 3 separate genres with some very blatant homages that I definitely appreciated. More than any other game this one feels like Suda directly talking to the player about his favourite games and media in general, especially in scenes that appear throughout where Travis talks of his love for Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike.
Suda 51’s games are far from perfect; they all have their own share of issues and personal hang-ups yet there is such a sense of personality and understanding of the industry that translates so well that the hang-ups fall away from my mind. The obvious pastiche and references to other media make it apparent at most times that you’re playing a video game, yet you feel Suda’s own childlike love and joy for these things he’s referencing. Despite this being such a large part of his games, they have their own stories and strong characters such as Travis Touchdown who have become favourites to a lot of people. The entire No More Heroes series is available on the Nintendo Switch and hopefully, this feature may have convinced some of you to give this unique corner of gaming history a chance.
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