No More Heroes treats you like a gamer. Straight up. It makes two big assumptions about you from the moment you insert the disc: 1) You love video games with every ounce of your being; 2) You're getting a little sick of video games.
No More Heroes is a game full of game. All the little things--the menus, the load screens, the maps, the save system--everything works, looks and sounds like a skewed, junked out, lo-fi version of a game you've played before. It's a compendium of game references, in loving homage and deconstructed parody. When Travis Touchdown looks you in the eye and says "It's game time!" it is both an invitation and a declaration of principles.
No More Heroes goes full tilt and fully expects you will keep up. Aside from a short combat tutorial, the game doesn't waste time explaining itself. Toilet means save, the D-pad controls the camera, and Blueberry Cheese Brownies...well, you'll figure it all out by yourself - because it turns out that this game makes one final assumption about you.
It assumes you have a fully operational brain in your head. The left side gets the pop culture in-jokes; the GTA riffs; the jaggy 8-bit / Tarantino / Otaku aesthetic; the Mexican wrestling and French soft-core porn allusions. The right side gets the visceral gore-fest, the furious input-timed two-handed combat; the hyper-stylized final kills; the pounding music; the brilliant flashes of color and light.
Who knew we were so smart?
No More Heroes is full of cocky exuberance, just like its lanky homicidal protagonist. Travis is a modern pop Otaku descendent of the lean and sociopathic "Man With No Name" from Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars trilogy. Sexy-mean and lonely and cynical and deadly...and ever so slightly feminine. Some of director Goichi Suda's (Suda 51) shot angles and editing style (especially in the Dr. Peace battle scene) appear lifted right out of a Clint Eastwood showdown (though Dr. Peace's gun looks to be straight out of Dirty Harry).
Of course, No More Heroes contains many such cultural references--both intended and otherwise--and the game invites the curious player to create a sort of virtual bibliography of resources. Suda's acknowledged cinematic inspiration is El Topo (1970), a Mexican film (clearly influenced by Leone) in which a gunfighter is urged by a woman to defeat a list of professional gunmen to become the best gunfighter in the land.
No More Heroes proves this story can still pack a punch, but there is more to it than that. El Topo used the framework of a western to explore bigger issues (like every great western). More than anything, El Topo is about a man's search for Enlightenment. And so is No More Heroes. I'll leave it to you to decide if you agree.
By the way, Suda's twisted, inventive, and thematically ambitious Killer 7 is also about a search for Enlightenment. Apparently this guy must think he's some kind of auteur. The audacity.
You might be annoyed by the wonky motorcycle control. You might wish the desolate town felt desolate on purpose, rather than neglected by the designers, and you might wish the citizens were more than unintended roadkill from your unsteady bike. You might even wish the whole experience felt a little less formulaic, linear, and predetermined.
You might wish for all these things, but get over it. No More Heroes is what it is, and defiantly so. For that, I love it even more.
I have more to say about this game, and I look forward to saying it soon. In the meantime, for an insightful look at No More Heroes from a designer's perspective, I highly recommend Steve Gaynor's excellent essay on his blog Fullbright.