Suda 51 is the Quentin Tarantino of game design. Like the hyperactive filmmaker, Suda 51 makes intentionally rough-looking works that celebrate forgotten film genres and are characterized by over-the-top graphic violence and rapid-fire pop-culture references. The major difference between the two is that Tarantino has been successful, making millions of dollars, winning awards, and guest-judging on American Idol, whereas Suda has to make licensed anime games (unconventionally, still) in order to gather the budget for original work.

To carry the metaphor further, No More Heroes feels very much like it could be Suda's Pulp Fiction: the game in which Suda finally gets to bring his unique game design to an accepting mainstream audience. It could easily be the crossover hit that he never tried to make. And in true punk style, No More Heroes redefines the AAA game, rejecting most of the considerations that usually denote a game's quality in favor of what he cares about.
No More Heroes follows cocky otaku Travis Touchdown on a quest to kill the top ten assassins in an officially sanctioned assassins' organization. Why? Two reasons: first, he has a "beam katana" and wants to use it, and second, his liaison to the organization is the very blonde, very French, and very sexy (to Travis) Sylvia Christel. That's right, he kills ten people (plus countless thugs) -- and pays entry fees in a bid for a potential hookup. It becomes clear almost immediately that Travis has no issues with killing, and takes to the job of assassin readily. When not battling it out with an assassin, Travis is earning money for the next bout by doing part-time jobs, small-time hits, and free-fighting missions.

I know this is going to sound insufferably pretentious, but No More Heroes is a game of levels. I mean that in that the game can be enjoyed as completely disparate works. As a pure action game, it's nowhere near as complicated as something like a God Hand or a Devil May Cry, but it is still fast-paced and viscerally enjoyable, augmented as it is by accents of motion control. While the combat is inherently simplistic, there is complexity within the system -- timing-based attack modifiers and dodge techniques that must be learned through experimentation. It's possible to go through much of the game just mashing buttons and have a wonderful time, or you can learn the system and make your fighting more fluid. As a narrative, again, No More Heroes has a few different levels. It is at once an over-the-top, funny collection of old movie, TV, and comic references, a schlocky action "movie," and maybe even a symbolic story about adolescence. Bear with me on the last one -- I'm not much for symbolism, but even I couldn't avoid the statement. Travis acquires an overtly phallic weapon (very overtly, considering the battery-charging maneuver) and immediately begins to grow up, both in that he is forced to seek employment and, more metaphorically, to kill archetypal childhood heroes one by one in pursuit of sex.

The structure of the game is deceptively focused on levels, as well. The real game is the ten ranked battles and their associated action setpieces, which are discrete events. While No More Heroes' Santa Destroy does look an awful lot like the free-roaming location of a Grand Theft Auto game, but it is severely less free. There's not as much to do; basically, you do a couple of odd jobs, buy some stuff, go look for powerup items and then head to the next mission. It's supposed to be brief. The hub world is just a palate cleanser for the ranked battles that make Travis's non-assassin life seem more mundane. It hardly seems like a coincidence that the jobs Travis does to earn money for battles (cleaning graffiti, carrying coconuts at great difficulty) are as demeaning as possible, making his fantastical life as a super-assassin seem that much more colorful. Anyway, it's not as if you're bored between missions. The jobs are brief and fun, and once you learn how to operate the motorcycle properly, you'll be shooting across Santa Destroy at super-speed, stopping only to pick up Lovikov Balls (which allow you to learn secret techniques via beatings from a drunk) and t-shirts out of dumpsters (again with the demeaning).

The ranked battles and the stages that accompany them are ridiculously creative. Despite the seeming monotony of the "level full of identical guys leads to boss battle" structure, each stage is almost completely different. Suda 51 delights in surprising us in each level. It's hard to even illustrate without spoiling the game terribly, but I'll just say that even though you're generally always fighting crowds of dudes on the way to each boss, there is no monotony to be found.

And the bosses. If the stages are ridiculously creative, the bosses are complete originals. Suda takes after his contemporary Hideo Kojima in designing over-the-top personalities whose arsenals seem to overmatch the player's at all times, requiring ingenious use of timing and environmental advantages. And like a Metal Gear game, each ranked assassin has a storyline that is divulged in conversations before, after, and even during the fight. Unlike Kojima, however, Suda 51 remains unpredictable, willing to break even the game's own rules for ranked battles on separate occasions.

When I said that No More Heroes "redefines the AAA game," that wasn't just an empty bit of praise. Things that usually matter in a high-profile game -- technical concerns like framerate and pop-in, for example -- just don't enter into consideration of this game's quality. The framerate is bad in the overworld. The Masafumi Takada soundtrack is wonderful, but there's not enough of it. The game tends toward the short side and may feel simplistic. None of this matters at all. After the initial shock of the limited city and a short adjustment period to the Schpel Tiger motorcycle controls, the game just clicks. The assassin battles are diabolically clever, hilarious, and engaging, and the outside tasks are quick and fun -- even the minigames. Forget the "mature Wii games" or "third-party originals" nonsense. This is a unique and fun action game that benefits from the strong vision of a creative trickster. I'm glad I happen to have the system it came out on.

Final score: 9/10

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

A history: Video games to board games