No More Heroes originally came out in 2007 and 2008 to positive reception. Since Nintendo’s Wii wasn’t being taken seriously as a contender due to its substantially weaker hardware than the competition and general family appeal, this strange title by Goichi Suda (also known as Suda51) managed to capture quite the audience—overseas that is. It ended up becoming his most successful IP from a financial perspective and that led to the four-game series we have today (technically five, but the other game is unplayable. While I was aware of No More Heroes since it was first released, I only partially played through the divisive PS3 port while I was a teenager and didn’t exactly care for it as I was interested in other games. But as the series is now 15 years old, discussion of the first game never seemed to die down and analysis of the characters and themes got deeper. Now as an adult, the themes of No More Heroes started to interest me and made me wonder why this series stood the test of time.
A rather interesting tale, No More Heroes stars Travis Touchdown. He’s rude, brash, arrogant, very foul-mouthed—and our protagonist. But “protagonist” does not always mean a hero, hence the title of the game. He’s arguably a villain and holds a slew of undesirable traits. He’s also an otaku obsessed with the in-universe anime series Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly, in which he collects a ton of merchandise. After winning a beam katana through an online auction, he finds himself drunk in a bar talking to a woman called Sylvia Christel. After a drunken rant, Sylvia manages to get him roped up in a bloodsport called the United Assassins Association where killers face off against each other to reach the number one spot for fame and fortune. Travis ends up agreeing to it all because he ran out of money to buy video games and merchandise for his favorite anime. As one can see how easily Travis was wrapped up in killing others, he’s not a very well-adjusted member of society.
After Travis manages to kill a few members and enter the top 10 ranks, other assassins are now coming for his head. As he starts to show disinterest and attempts to remove himself from the association, Sylvia uses her sex appeal to rope in Travis even further “promising” to sleep with him if he reaches the number one spot.
What is most interesting about No More Heroes is its cast of characters. Travis himself is very interesting as a protagonist as he is unlike many. Travis has as many moments where he looks cool as he does looking like a bumbling idiot as the narrative doesn’t want you to forget that Travis is kind of a loser. He lives in a motel room cluttered with physical goods. He only has one friend in his social circle. He doesn’t even seem to have a stable job. And while you look at his prospects in life, it’s not all that surprising that he would jump at the chance of “paradise” even if it means cutting down hundreds to thousands of people. Getting into the ranked assassins, even though each assassin has less than 10 minutes of screen time each, they all leave such a lasting impression with how little time they exist. Not only do they have memorable personalities, they also act as reflections of Travis while being a deconstruction of the glorification of bloodsports. The assassins represent what Travis is or what he can become; the disillusioned assassin who “made it.” The one assassin who treats it all as a form of entertainment. The assassin that lost their friends and family due to diving too deep. Every assassin challenges Travis’ viewpoint and makes him question what he is really doing this all for. Travis ends up having a character arc. Although, whether he becomes “a better man” at the end of it is left to interpretation.
Playing as Travis consists of levels where he’ll go through linear 3D levels fighting against dozens of enemies to reach the assassin at the end in a one-on-one fight. As No More Heroes was made with the Wii’s controls in mind, the Switch version feels like the most natural port as it retains the motion controls. When you’re using the Joy-Cons, keeping the right Joy-Con positioned up or down will have Travis attack high or low. Positioning is pretty important as some enemies will block in certain positions. After depleting an enemy's health bar, a quick-time event motioning the Joy-Con in a specific direction will kill the enemy in a ludicrous display of blood and coins. If other enemies are close by, they may also take heavy damage from these executions if not outright die from them. Travis can also utilize close-quarters punches and kicks to perform wrestling moves on stunned enemies. No More Heroes does have the option to use the standard controller, and while motion controls are more engaging, the controller works perfectly fine.
Level design is simplistic as it mostly consists of going through corridors and fighting enemies. I do feel the later level design is weaker than the earlier ones due to reliance on gimmicks and a couple of levels being literal corridors. The enemy variety is also severely lacking as outside of the bosses, there are only a handful of enemy types and you’ll see all of them within the first three levels. While the overall combat system is pretty simple and easy to grasp, and in spite of the enemy variety, it never felt tiring. Combat is active utilizing motion controls (and still good with standard controls) to slice through enemies, and solid sound direction with each hit and wrestling move feeling impactful. It all shines with the numerous boss fights as you use all your skills to beat them down. They even mix it up with the "dark side mode" that is activated when lining up three slots after a death blow. Some of these can put Travis in certain modes such as "Super Saiyan" mode where his hair glows yellow and he quickly strikes down his foes or a mode where the entire setting goes black and white and Travis gruesomely kills his enemies with the correct button prompt. It goes to show that fast-paced action doesn’t have to be exactly like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry to have enjoyment.
Outside of the levels, Travis explores his town of Santa Destroy as a hub. He’ll ride on his motorcycle and drive down to various locations such as obtaining beam katana upgrades in Dr. Naomi’s lab, strength training in Thunder Ryu’s dojo, buying clothes from the Area 51 shop, renting videos from his friend Bishop, or going to the job center to obtain part-time jobs. The UAA has an entry fee for each of their sanctioned fights and Travis does these clean job or dirtier assassination gigs. Back in 2007, these jobs were a common complaint for players as they are pretty mundane and dull—just like the town of Santa Destroy. I personally didn’t mind doing this type of work as it also gave insight into Travis’ situation and character. If he was successful, he wouldn’t have to be doing these jobs in the first place. The problem I have is with how these jobs are structured. Every time you want a gig, you have to drive to the respective facility, take on one job at a time, and then walk/drive to the area to start the job. And when it’s over, if you want to do it again, there is no “do you want to try again?” option. You have to repeat the steps again. That aspect is very tedious, and while it may have been done on purpose to put you into the mindset of Travis—intentional tedium is still tedium and unnecessary padding. You could probably shave off a few hours of total playtime if the feature was more refined.
As No More Heroes was originally for the Wii, the characters are low poly and the style goes for a more cel-shaded look due to hardware limitations. With the resolution increase to as close to 1080p as possible, while maintaining 60FPS, I actually think No More Heroes looks better than No More Heroes 3 and will certainly age better. Santa Destroy also manages to have some good variety in the settings with levels taking place on a bus, a stadium, and in a mansion. The Switch port is well done as I didn’t experience any crashes (unlike the PC version) and the only thing from my knowledge missing from the modern ports is a licensed song that played in Dr. Naomi’s lab in the Wii version. Instead, a variant of the main theme is played.
There are some great voice performances from the characters. Everyone does a fine job and there isn’t one performance that I dislike. I’d even say the English dub is better than the Japanese dub. The soundtrack also has a lot of good themes too, even if it reuses its main theme and various remixes a bit too much (I understand why it does as it represents Travis' egotistical attitude). Although, the one remix of the main theme I like the most is one where it starts off as a homage to “Eye of the Tiger” and then transitions into it. As many themes are frantic with a lot of guitar and piano, there are equally as many somber songs representing the hollow emptiness of the whole setting. The credits theme is also highly enjoyable and probably my favorite out of all the songs.
Hoo boy, now it’s time for the morality section. Strap yourselves in cause there is plenty to go over. Regarding violence, NMH is extremely violent with every character that dies in the game dying in some sort of spectacular fashion. Generic mobs are sliced in half, decapitated, and even impaled with blood spraying everywhere. The ranked assassins also die in similar ways. Every swear in the book is uttered with Travis saying most of it, typically in combat calling people “b*st*rds” and “f**kheads.” Sexual references/innuendo are made throughout such as from Sylvia and Thunder Ryu. The latter is quite peculiar as every time he greets Travis, he demands Travis to take his clothes off for “that" and stick hiss butt out (from the context given, it's mostly a strange form of training). In terms of sexual content, while every woman in the game (except for one) enunciates sexiness with low-cut shirts and skirts, and bikinis, Sylvia is the main recipient of this. In one scene, she can be seen partially naked while trying out clothes. While No More Heroes doesn’t have anything like ghosts and zombies, there are a few death metal bands contained in universe called “Black Satans” and “Route 666” in which Travis can wear shirts representing them.
There is crude humor present with Travis having to recharge the batteries on his beam katana. He has to do a motion that makes him look like he’s masturbating. There’s also a reoccurring gag with the videos Travis rents from the video store with the employee leaving him messages saying he is overdue on titles such as “How to Please a Woman in Bed 101: Parts 2 & 3”, and “69 Techniques to Improve Your Lovemaking.” Getting into Travis’ motivations, although he has many opportunities to quit the assassin’s game, he continues the killing game for greed, lust, and also revenge. None of the reasons Travis does the things he does are for noble causes. Interestingly enough, Travis always plays by the rules, even at the very end while a couple of other assassins play dirty or even cheat in their battles. So while Travis may be a bad guy, he’s not all bad.
In some cases, I’m actually shocked that No More Heroes became a series, as it was meant to be a one-off game especially with how insane the ending is. The combat is fun and the writing of the characters is great that people still talk about them to this day. On the other hand, many parts did get tedious nearly to the point of frustration. But I can understand why people wanted more. No More Heroes is unique. While there are pieces of media that do parts of what No More Heroes does, there is no other that does everything that No More Heroes does in one package. The Switch version is the most accessible modern version and the one I recommend over PC as that version is prone to crashes. Morally, it actually rated better than I at first predicted, but it’s still pretty low due to a combination of everything. Suda51 didn’t just put in all of these questionable aspects into his game for the sake of it—No More Heroes has something to say, and I, like many others, think what it says is enthralling.