Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Plot Thickens #4 - No More Heroes

WARNING: This one’s got more spoilers than a Ferrari convention!
WARNING: Some of the language and content of this article reflects the objectionable content of the game it analyzes. You’ve been warned, f*ckhead.

Here at The Plot Thickens, our crack staff (me) likes to take a look at the narrative elements in games that often go unnoticed or under-appreciated. Usually, we (still just me) try to accomplish this without the use of spoilers. After all, what’s the sense in showing how awesome the thing you just spoiled is?

But, this month, things are going to be a little different. This time around, I’m tackling No More Heroes, a game released way back in 2008 for Nintendo’s family friendly like white box of snuggles. I’ll be using massive spoilers, because, more than simply appreciating the game’s plot, I’ll try to actually make sense of the senselessness that resulted from Suda51 pressing his insanity onto a Wii optical disc. Plus, c'mon, you've had years to play it. Let’s do this!




Hey, watch the hands, kids!


When you first enter the world of No More Heroes, you are greeted with a synopsis of the backstory that moves so quickly it makes folks with ADHD yell “slow down!” But, in this whirlwind of narrative genesis we learn that this cool yet geeky, strong yet scrawny, clean yet pervy, protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is on a mission to become the number one assassin in Santa Destroy. Why? Because some hot little number named Silvia Christel met him in a bar and told him it would be a good way to make much-needed cash. Silvia’s name, by the way, is an allusion to European actress Sylvia Kristel. Travis’ name is largely a reference to general Americana, even though his Japanese name (Torabisu) roughly translates to "tiger" – which explains a lot of the tiger-themed motifs around Travis.



Suda51 said he based Travis on Johnny Knoxville.
How did I never notice this before!?


No More Heroes also wastes no time breaking the fourth wall and does so before this intro montage is even over. “Whaddya say, bro?” asks Travis to the player, “you there holding the Wii remote, just press the A button and … let the bloodshed begin!”

Travis begins his adventure by exploding onto the property of the tenth ranked assassin, dicing up a few of his henchmen and yelling “fuckhead!” I’ll be honest, it was at this early point in the game when I originally thought “I wonder how much I’ll get when I trade this in?” You see, I am not a gamer who is impressed by shock value. I’m well beyond the phase of needing Reptile’s fatalities to prove to myself that I’m a big kid now. So, when I first thought No More Heroes was going to be an 8 to 12-hour soak in the hot tub of adolescent fantasy, I was ready to dismiss the game as such.

However, I gave the game a chance and I’m glad I did. You see, I don’t doubt that Suda51 is a borderline psychotic that holds dick jokes in the highest esteem. However, with No More Heroes, he has his cake and eats it too. He uses the ridiculousness of his characters and premise to make a small, yet poignant, comment on the gaming industry. Essentially he is saying, “this is what we like. … THIS… is what we like??”

I believe this is why the very first spoken piece of dialogue in the whole game is a comment on gamers’ and their patience. I also believe this is why so much of the game’s design is built with a retro, 8-bit aesthetic – it serves as a deliberate reminder that this is a certain distilled essence of gaming.

So, Travis takes down the tenth ranked assassin, Death Metal. Silvia and her UAA (United Assassins Association (sure… why not?)) crew come to clean things up and she informs Travis that he will now likely want to continue fighting since others will be out to kill him. Aside from Silvia’s obvious status as a card-carrying member of the femme fatale archetype, this is the audience’s first clue that maybe Silvia doesn’t have Travis’ best interests in mind. More on that later. Regardless, Travis is reasonably content to keep going if he can “do it” with Silvia “just once” should he reach top rank. Again, I think this speaks to the kind of adolescent approach some gamers might take to sexuality in the medium. But, in this title, it is, at worst, a guilty pleasure for the user to enjoy.

In order to keep participating in the UAA matches, Travis has to pay entry fees. These entry fees are astronomically expensive. Especially when you consider the fact that the overhead on two fighters trying to kill each other with their own gear isn’t all that pricey! A further clue to the truth behind Silvia’s motives is that when she contacts Travis it is often in the midst of some lavish spree of spending on her self. She calls from an expensive clothing store, a remote party locale, a fancy massage parlor, etc. Regardless, Travis needs cash to keep fighting and stay on track to “do it” (wink wink nudge nudge) with Silvia. Thus, the reason behind the game’s many humorous and fun side-jobs is justified.

By this point, the game has entered its lather/rinse/repeat cycle that will carry the gamer through to the end. Do odd jobs, get money, pay the entry fee, fight the next boss. Does this mean the game gets dull? Oh, no. No More Heroes provides plenty of gameplay and narrative reasons why you’ll only need the edge of your seat. The gameplay stuff is not my job to cover - go read a review, ya fuckhead! … only kidding, I’ve been listening to Travis Touchdown too much. Anyway, on the narrative side, there are literally dozens and dozens of pop culture references, but let’s keep looking over the highlights …



Draw!


The ninth ranked assassin, Dr. Peace, bares a strong resemblance to American actor Charles Bronson. Bronson had notable movie roles as a police detective, gunfighter and hitman. Dr. Peace is described by Silvia as a “dirty and unscrupulous detective,” an assassin for the mafia (hitman) and he is quite obviously a gunslinger. It’s also worth noting that his name likely refers to the fact that a “piece” is a common slang term for a gun and that his revolver is similar to the Colt 1873 "Peacemaker" pistol.

Each character in No More Heroes has some kind of backstory. Some are deeper than others. When Dr. Peace tells the tale of a recent meal with his estranged daughter he says the food tasted “like blood.” The game leaves the meaning of this ambiguous and you might be tempted to merely write it off as another example of a game trying to crowbar gory imagery in at every possible opportunity. However, after some thinking, I believe Dr. Peace’s assessment of the meal gives a deeper glimpse at the tragedy of his character. Not only has his life of crime kept him from the daughter he loves, but even when trying to use the advantages that life brings (dinner at an exclusive restaurant), he can’t enjoy it because he is racked with guilt and remorse – the food only tastes like the blood of his victims.

Between fights, the game peppers in moments of comic relief via recordings on Travis’ answering/fax machine (a fax machine?! Really!?). Many of these come in the form of some juvenile messages left by a female clerk from his favorite video store. She usually delivers some deadpan description of a porno Travis has yet to return or some perverted act that somehow got back to the employees of the store. This further lets the audience know that Travis is not the typical macho, infallible, dude’s dude that usually obliterates enemies in violent games. No, he is insecure and sexually inexperienced - often renting videos from the series “How to Please a Woman in Bed 101.”

The eighth ranked assassin is a key player, Shinobu Jacobs. Her actions and words relay the fact that she is also a “sick” killer but, like Travis, has come to terms with it. Again, I would normally be absolutely turned off by a game with characters like that, but there is something about how Suda51 manages to drape these psychopaths in a stylish veil of, dare I say, “fun,” that keeps me interested. I even have an eye on that Lollipop Chainsaw game, believe it or not. But, that’s a tangent in and of itself.

Shinobu is a good place to start looking at the many, many, MANY references No More Heroes makes to the Star Wars franchise. Shinobu wants to kill Travis for revenge, insisting that he killed her father, just as Luke Skywalker believed Darth Vader killed his. In fact, she is most likely getting Travis confused with his twin brother, Henry. Regardless, instead of killing Shinobu, Travis cuts her right arm off below the elbow. Her arm is later replaced by a cybernic appendage. This is identical to what happens to Luke Skywalker after his battle with Vader.

Speaking of Vader, the “final” boss of the game, Dark Star (whose name is kind of a mix between Darth Vader and the Death Star), wears a big black cape, a big shiny helmet, has overly audible breathing and claims to be Travis’ father right near the end. Had enough Star Wars yet? Too bad.

Travis’ off-screen romance with a girl named Jeane mirrors the hints at romance between Luke and Leia. Jeane turns out to be Travis’ half-sister (ick) while Luke and Leia are eventually revealed to be twins … just as Henry is eventually revealed to be Travis’ twin.

Silvia often tells Travis to “trust his force,” and his special attacks are performed in “Dark Side Mode.” This is all referencing “the force” from Star Wars and its evil “dark side.”

Near the end of the game, masked bikers pilot T.I.E Rider motorcycles and resemble the T.I.E Fighters from Star Wars. It’s at this point that the user may notice just how much Travis’ Schpeltiger motorcycle resembles the X-wing Luke pilots in Star Wars.



Now where does the R2 unit go?


Lastly, beam katana = light saber. ‘nuff said.

OK, got the Star Wars out of our system? Let's continue…

During the seventh ranked fight, Travis battles the unstable John Harnet and his alter ego, Destroyman. A novel technique is used to foreshadow Harnet's character when the seemingly mild mannered and polite postal worker is talking with Travis before the fight. Whenever the camera is close in on Harnet, it shakes violently and you can hear muffled rumbling. I contend this is a clue to the absolutely psychotic evil that bubbles and churns inside of John Harnet and strains to free itself as Destroyman. When he eventually dons his superhero-like Destroyman garb, Travis snidely calls him “Mr. Cosplay.” Ah, classic Travis.

A few events across the seventh and sixth ranked fights show how even in the effed up world of No More Heroes, Travis is a bit of a cartoon character. Up until this point he has endured shots from exploding bullets, electric shocks, particle beam blasts and multiple grenade concussions. Yet, like Wile E. Coyote, he emerges from all of them unharmed.

The fifth ranked fight against Letz Shake begins a common theme in No More Heroes that I believe Suda51 would be proud of me for referring to as “blue balls.” This fight, the confrontation with Dark Star and the eventual clash with Henry all spend a considerable time building to a dramatic climax that … never happens. Travis and Henry cross swords in a freeze frame at the end of the game but, there is no resolution provided. Dark Star is built up as the game’s final boss. He has a huge, dragon-shaped beam katana, and he claims to be Travis’ father. But before you can even fight him, Jeane pops in out of the blue and murders him outright. During the lead up to the battle against Letz Shake, he wears Power Gloves and dons a Virtual Boy visor as his ally, Dr. Shake, begins a lengthy process of gathering power. The tension builds and builds as Dr. Shake revs engines that refer to the PlayStation 3's cell microprocessor and the Xbox 360's Trinity engine. Finally, just at the moment of climax, Henry jumps in and slices both the Dr. and Letz to pieces. No battle. Just unfulfilled sexual tension.

Travis is understandably frustrated but Suda51 reminds us that, even without a weapon, Silvia is the one calling all the shots. Or perhaps “pulling all the strings” is a more apt analogy. Anyway, she puts Travis in his place and tells him to keep on going.

For the fourth ranked battle, Silvia starts to show that she might really care for Travis. His opponent is the famous magician, Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii, whose complex name is a reference to the real name of famous magician Christ Angel, Christopher Nicholas Sarantakos.



Romance, NMH-style.


So, Travis uses his cartoon powers to out-magician Harvey and win the match in a gruesome and sadistic fashion. He is rewarded by a romantic (!?) kiss from Silvia behind the closed curtains. Does she really care for him? Or is she just a very committed and convincing con artist?

The third ranked assassin, Speed Buster, is interesting for several reasons. First, fighting her requires leaving Santa Destroy and heading for Speed City where she lives. This is likely not so much a narrative decision as a gameplay decision, an excuse for the traveling segment. Second, Speed Buster is an open misandrist and hates men. Perhaps the fact that she fights with a huuuuuuge rooster(cock?)-shaped cannon alludes to some kind of penis envy? Third, she knew Travis’ mentor, Thunder Ryu, before the events of the game. Before the battle, she winds up killing Thunder Ryu right in front of Travis. Yup, just like how Obi Wan Kenobi was killed in front of Luke.



Let's put the bat down... please?


Next up is Bad Girl. Bad Girl is one crazy bitch. Moving on …

Seriously though, Travis does not respect Bad Girl. Even among all the psychos in No More Heroes, Travis feels that Bad Girl’s philosophy for killing is unjustified as she kills largely for fun.

Having achieved rank 2, Travis manages to get in contact with Silvia’s mother. In one of the game’s most important conversations, she informs Travis that Silvia is a professional con artist and that Travis is just the latest in the long line of her suckers. However, the apple must not fall far from the tree because Silvia’s mother tells Travis to see his charade through to its end.

Travis hunts down Dark Star and the confrontation unfolds as described above, with Jeane revealing herself as the true antagonist. As a former lover, Travis wants to know Jeane’s current motives but she insists they are too vile to talk about and that they would “jack up the age rating of this game even further.” Furthermore, she doesn’t want that to risk delaying the game and resulting in “No More Heroes: Forever.” Take that, Duke!



"The Wii is for kiddies."


So, Travis and Jeane agree to “fast forward” the revelation of her backstory to avoid rating issues. However, if you slow down the video, you will learn that Jeane only got romantically close to Travis for revenge. You see, they share the same father. But when that father left Jeane’s mother, Jeane’s mother was so depressed she killed herself. This left Jeane with no choice but to stay with her father, who molested her constantly. Eventually, Jeane prostituted herself to pay for the martial arts training she would use to kill her father and Travis’ mother, right in front of Travis. It is the repressed memory of Travis’ slaughtered parents and Jeane’s maniacally twisted smile that sent him down the drunken path which lead to his encounter with Silvia.

Once the plot has been made clear(?), Travis and Jeane have their fateful battle. Jeane is about to win when Shinobu intervenes and turns the tides in Travis’ favor. This allows Travis to kill Jeane compassionately - hoping her “next dream is a more pleasant one.”

If you meet certain in-game requirements, you will unlock a small epilogue chapter. Travis is now the #1 assassin and will be hunted by all others aspiring to the title. A new assassin named Ermen Palmer busts in on Travis while he’s using the bathroom. But, true to the “blue balls” style, Henry appears to prevent the fight and cuts Palmer in two. Henry then walks outside and waits to finally battle Travis. During the fight, Henry reveals that not only is he Travis’ twin brother, but that Sylvia is his wife! O_o The two continue fighting as Travis acknowledges that there are far too many loose ends to tie up so close to the end of the game. After the freeze frame of Travis and Henry crossing swords, the camera pulls back to reveal the freeze frame is a painting in a museum. Staring at the painting is a young girl. Silvia walks by and acknowledges the girl as her daughter, “Jeane.”

With the audience now thoroughly devoid of closure, Silvia pops on the screen one last time to proclaim, “I know. Too bad there won’t be a sequel. *girly giggle*” But, Suda isn’t done with us just yet. The final two images we see are “Fin.” Followed by “to be continued” in the recognizable Back to the Future style. That Goichi just can’t resist messing with us, can he?

So, there you have it. 2008’s No More Heroes in one easy-to-understand, short, sweet, bite-sized (!?!?!?) article. Feel free to post below with any questions, comments or concerns you may have about what you have just read skimmed.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even do NMH2 in the future?

Fin.

TO BE CONTINUED


1 comment:

christansley said...

Amazing writeup, I only just found the time to read it. It really brought back a lot of memories of the game for me, I may even start playing again. You hit a lot of things right on the head, but the great thing about all of Suda's games is just how much you can read into it, and how many different things you can see.

The message I got from NMH was about chasing a girl for the wrong reasons, Travis wanted to bang Silvia so badly that he left a trail of dead bodies in his wake. The ending highlights the destructive properties of sex as well, after you find out what Travis's dad did, and the result of all this misplaced lust.