One of my favorite things about Suda51 as a director is his total fearlessness. For over a decade, time and time again he had the chance to sell out, and instead he doubled down on his idiosyncrasies. As he became more aware of a worldwide audience, he made *some* concessions, but his tenure is one of the most baffling upward trajectories I’ve ever seen.
This fearlessness bleeds into his games, too. As a writer, Suda is laser-focused on themes. A lot of his works have dizzyingly complex plots, but that’s the bait: thematics are the hook. As the plots inevitably descend into incomprehensibility, his games’ finales make the underlying thesis statement clearer, and the ending is almost always a complete piss-take. The theme’s been stated, the characters reached some form of catharsis, what the hell’re you still here for? Answers?
His focus on these themes bleeds into the gameplay, as well: a favorite trick of his is torpedoing parts of his games in order to make a statement, and sometimes I approve of that! And sometimes I have very complex feelings about it!
No More Heroes marks Suda’s last hurrah in the director’s seat for almost a decade and serves as a turning point for his career and mindset. Going from visual novel, walking simulator, survival horror... rail shooter? to an open world beat-em-up action game with light RPG elements - emphasis on open world, by the way! - it feels like a clear concession for marketability, and that shift from director to producer is markedly felt in Grasshopper’s future output.
Suda’s also really hammering into the mechanical gimmicks of its platform, and his childlike love of the Wii’s waggle honestly carries half of the entertainment value of any mechanical interaction in the game, whether it be caricaturing curls or suplexing somebody into the shadow realm. The kinaesthetics are one of the biggest benisons to the game’s brutal bouts - it’s hard to say if the combat is a step up or step down from Suda’s prior games when it’s the first one to have remotely standard action gameplay, and as such there’s actually something else to concretely compare it to.
...It’s alright. There’s a lot worse you could do with; some of the fights and enemies feel more annoying than they do interestingly challenging, but suplexing people doesn’t get old and even if the beam katana clashes fuck up my wrists a lot it’s hard to get too mad at them when they’re so hype.
I’m aware that this intro sounds like I’m saying Suda sold out with No More Heroes, but I don’t see it that way. To me, No More Heroes is him managing to stay true to his punk ethos while sneaking it into as many eyes and ears as he could.
It’s easily Suda’s most comprehensible game on a plot level, deciding to discard the ludicrously complex narratives of his prior outings and instead go for an extremely understandable structure that’s somewhere between Branded To Kill and an arcade game - explaining the dynamics of ELBOW, the Yakumo, and whatever the fuck is happening in Correctness takes a galaxy brain, but anybody can grok killing the guy who has a better number than you.
He also makes the themes much, much more apparent earlier on - Travis’ monologue in the first boss fight is pretty much directly stating the central theme of the game and the mindset Travis struggles with throughout its events, and that serves to throw the game’s plot in much sharper relief.
Despite this, it’s also Suda’s most personal game to that point - only topped by his return to the series some twelve years later. And the central theme of “chasing a potentially-illusory paradise through hard work that potentially won’t pay off in any way but self-actualization and vague catharsis” has a reasonably nuanced thesis statement compared to “kill the past.” Despite being wordy when I describe it, his message is something that I think is something pretty important to be said to his target audience, who might relate to Travis’ shortcomings more than they’d like to admit.
And, most importantly, he didn’t lose his edge. That trick I mentioned earlier about self-sabotage is in full force here, and No More Heroes’ presentation as a straightforward video game’s video game narrative makes his use of it even more ballsy, somehow. You expect weird subversive stuff when the game is constantly mocking you or is... this..., but when the game acts like it’s an arcade game dragged and dropped into a San Andreas knockoff, realizing that it still has a consistent thematic through-line makes it hit like a Full Nelson.
Despite my acting like its themes are a dagger to the back, cloaked in other stuff, it’s still not quite *subtle.* Every single time you get a new job, you’re straight-up told “may you find your true path.” The guy at the job center continuously assures you that, while you’re third-rate as-is, you can become something better through grunt work. Working out is how you keep up to pace damage and health-wise, and physically training yourself is also reinforced in Ryu’s dialogue. The world doesn’t *particularly* care about you, specifically, but everybody’s still rooting for you - even if it’s just so that they can get what they want from you.
The grind gates are the least subtle way that the difficulty of finding your true path is underscored, and the one that critics hammered into the most. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but I also slip into the same mindset I do when I’m at my actual job: just unhook the brain a little bit, focus on what’s funny, and ignore the dead time as best you can.
I also think that the game wouldn’t work nearly as well without them - not just on that aforementioned thematic level, but a literal game level; No More Heroes 2’s pacing being level after level after level winds up making the shallowness of its mechanics a lot more grating. No More Heroes isn’t focused on crafting a statement about capitalism per se; its focus on finding yourself would happen even in a socialist utopia, but cash being an omnipresent concern works really well. It gives the game level a constant goal and consideration to work towards that rewards skillful play in the battle segments and justifies the open-world sections, it grounds Travis’ character in the setting very effectively and reinforces that he needs to take these odd jobs to get by, and it also just lets Suda do some wacky bullshit I can’t help but love. Who can really get mad at getting paid to play with cats?
And as you and Travis alike go on these strange sidequests, circling Santa Destroy, that listlessness can even get tamped down as you get lost in the weeds of each task and each goal you set - it’s a lot easier to say, “oh, I hate this job, but I just need to get the next beam katana,” than it is to just sit down and actually think about where this journey is going.
The ending to No More Heroes is true to the soul of the game, and it’s where Suda’s thematic self-sabotage might be its ballsiest. Travis’ character arc throughout the game is understated, slowly suggesting a self-appraisal slightly shedding cynicism, sincerity shining subtly - but his arc is completely derailed at the end, resting on his laurels after reaching No. 1 Assassin and, when Henry arrives, literally summoning the credits because he’s not capable of wrapping things up.
There’s no real other way it could’ve ended while being true to itself. The central question the game ponders is what paradise even *is,* let alone if it exists, let alone if it’s attainable, let alone if any average schmuck can reach it. To give a concrete answer would undercut the relatability of Travis’ quest, mired in the realities of the life of somebody working odd jobs.
The real enemy of No More Heroes, I think, is complacency. Of stopping what you’re doing because you think it’s paradise, of getting trapped in your ways and thinking there’s nothing you can do to change them. Not every fight directly ties into this theme, but such a good amount do that I think it’s absolutely an intentional and recurring theme. Shinobu’s quest for vengeance is so single-minded that she mistakes her father’s killer for somebody who just watched her dad’s moves on VHS. Doctor Peace’s gluttonous feasting on blood feels like a vision of a dark future for Travis, entirely abandoning any pretense of caring about anybody else and slaking his id.
The tutorial fight is the most direct about this, of course - and Travis’ monologue there is what’s paralleled in the ending, because Travis can’t stop living his life. He’s made his choices, and that’ll affect what he can think and what he can do, but in the end? The future’s wide open.
It’s this interplay of optimism and cynicism that really defines No More Heroes, and the protagonist is one of the best ways to illustrate that. Before Suda entered the gaming industry, he spent his life traveling Japan with his wife, doing odd jobs and looking for something to spend a life doing. In an interview published the day after its release in Europe, Suda said this about Travis and himself:
But just one question later, he adds:
Travis doesn’t have a lot going on in his life. He lives in a motel inside of a shithole town, his jobs are grindy chores, and he’s so starved for affection that he immediately falls head over heels for Sylvia despite how obviously she’s taking advantage of him. He has a friend at the video store, but other than that one single guy, Travis seems to mostly spend his life watching porn and assembling gunpla.
With this, the plot’s call to adventure immediately adds a certain air to his quest to become number one. Every step of the way, Travis’ source of satisfaction in life takes time, takes money, and takes genuine hard work. No matter how big a part of his life it is, he has to support it through other means.
It’s hard for me to not find immediate, personal resonance in this. The concept of making money doing something I like feels like a pipe dream. The world I live in is empty, and every step to living a life closer to what I want takes effort that is spent just getting out of bed in the morning and just writing these words.
No More Heroes isn’t my favorite Suda game - hell, it’s not even the Suda game that most emotionally wrecked me, that goes to the 25th Ward, but I think it’s the Suda game that I need most. It’s the Suda game a lot of people need, and I feel like the people who it’s trying to level with are the least likely to recognize the place it’s coming from.
It’s so easy to assume something is coming from a place of pure negativity. And a lot of people, myself included, Suda included, self-insert as Travis to a degree. And I won’t speak for all of them, but having some distance from myself lets me talk about me to others in ways that I can’t, not even in my inner monologue.
A virgin otaku who fails at almost everything they do. A slob who only works shitty jobs because they’re not worth anything more. They live in a shithole. How can people like this stupid asshole? Why do people want good things to happen to this guy? They don’t deserve good things. What’s there to redeem? They’re a scumfuck murderer.
And Travis himself grew as a person, he realized his calling, and he ran from his problems only to face them. As he further escaped me, as he further came into his own, I was only then able to look back and see him instead of myself. And then I was able to like him.
Suda wrote from a very personal place with Travis, and he wrote just as much from Johnny Knoxville and a host of negative stereotypes. Blending the two, he created the ultimate trojan horse, attempting to bring his anarchic vision to a wider world than ever before, secretly talking directly to his target demographic.
I hope they’ll listen.