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Patrick Hope: Start the New Year with No More Heroes

January is usually considered one of the weakest times for video game releases. The holiday season is done and publishers know games aren’t going to be a very high priority for consumers for a few months.

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This means that we don’t see a lot of high-profile releases at the beginning of the year. Sure, there’s occasionally a Resident Evil 4 or Mass Effect 2 but, by and large, your January releases fall into two categories: bad games no one wants and off-beat niche titles.

The series we’re going to talk about today, No More Heroes and its sequel, No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle, falls firmly into the latter.

No More Heroes was released for the Wii in January 2008, with Desperate Struggle coming out in January 2010 on the same system. There was also an HD version put out on the PlayStation3 in 2011 that added some extra costumes and move-specific minigames. Their creator, Goichi “Suda 51” Suda, is known for producing games with over-the-top violence and convoluted, nonsensical plots, like Killer 7 and Lollipop Chainsaw. The No More Heroes games are no exception.

No More Heroes is the story of Travis Touchdown, who spends his days watching anime and pro wrestling until he decides to buy a beam katana (it’s a lightsaber) online and, realizing that buying said lightsaber drained all of his funds, starts taking on assassination contracts. Travis unwittingly kills the 11th-ranked assassin in the world and finds himself taking his place in the rankings. This sends him on a quest to become the best and constitutes the entire story until the very end, when things get really crazy.

The sequel is a straight-up revenge story about Travis working his way back to the top of the assassin ranks, this time from 51st, after his friend is killed, for reasons never really explained, by the top-ranked assassin.

Both games in the series are stylish action games in the vein of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, with Travis being able to pull off long, flashy combos with his sword with the occasional intervention of various wrestling moves that you’ll learn. On the Wii version, combat is controlled entirely through the Wiimote, which is quite responsive and avoids many of the pitfalls that often befall motion control games. Functionally, No More Heroes is very good. Its downfall is in some really bizarre design choices.

Not content to be a regular action game, No More Heroes added some sandbox elements to the mix. Between assassination missions, Travis gets to ride around the streets of sunny Santa Destroy on his motorcycle and do ... more or less nothing. Aside from random collectibles strewn about the city, because those have to be in every open-world game, the only places Travis can go are the clothing store to get new outfits and to and from side missions.

These side missions are largely pretty tedious and — aside from a couple late in the game — don’t give too much money, which is a problem, as the assassination contracts have to be bought.

There is a storyline reason for this which is explained near the game’s end, but it completely kills the flow as the high-level contracts are really, really expensive and it can take a couple hours to grind enough cash to unlock them. Thankfully, the money requirement (and, by and large, the sandbox stuff as a whole) was eliminated in the sequel and money is only used to upgrade your weapons and stats and to get new outfits. Unfortunately, Desperate Struggle is a definite step down in the area where the first game really excels: its boss battles.

Despite all the weird sandbox stuff, both No More Heroes games are, at their heart, a glorified boss rush. You go through a boss stage, fighting legions of grunts, face down one of an array of outlandish bosses, then rinse and repeat until the game is over. The first game nails the bosses, with each of them standing out and presenting a unique challenge, like superhero/villain/whatever Destroyman and schoolgirl ninja Shinobu.

The awesome soundtrack helps out a ton with the atmosphere of these fights as well, with Rank 9’s Steel Python and Rank 2’s Pleather for Breakfast being real standouts. And despite its bizarre name, Pleather for Breakfast is probably one of the best boss themes in any game ever. The bosses in Desperate Struggle, while being largely pretty good (the Rank 4 fight against goth loli sniper Margaret Moonlight is one of the best in the series, along with its theme, Philistine), just don’t measure up.

Would you rather be fighting bosses named Charlie MacDonald and Chloe Walsh or Speed Buster and Bad Girl? Definitely the latter.

The No More Heroes games complement each other really well, as the strengths of one end up being weaknesses in the other. It’s too bad they couldn’t have been made into one incredible game instead of two very good, but flawed ones.

They’re both dirt cheap as of now and if you don’t mind something that cranks up the violence meter, contains lots of thinly-veiled innuendo, and has an inordinate amount of cursing, pick them up.

The same could probably be said of almost every Suda 51 game, but there you go. It’s probably the best game out there about an otaku with a lightsaber, and that’s an achievement in itself.