A month before the game was to be released in January 2008, Nintendo Power asked cult-favorite director Goichi Suda (a.k.a. Suda51) why his next work was titled No More Heroes. Suda, who heads the Japanese studio Grasshopper Manufacture and aspires to “create games reflecting the spirit of punk music,” said he got the phrase from a hit song of the same name by The Stranglers, but that the meaning of it has everything to do with the game’s story. In it, a down-on-his-luck, anime-obsessed loudmouth named Travis Touchdown wins a “beam katana” (read: lightsaber) on eBay and finds himself caught up in the hyper-violent world of competitive assassinations after he’s contracted to off the 11th-best hitman on Earth. Lured by the promise of wealth, fame, and sex, he decides to kill every other assassin standing between him and the top spot. “The primary meaning is that assassins are like heroes to Travis,” Suda said. “If he defeats his heroes by himself, he is able to exceed them, which means that he doesn’t need heroes anymore.”
As a hint toward what Suda might have been trying to accomplish with this game’s feverish, offensive blitz of parody and nasty male wish fulfillment, the director is selling the title short. It’s more akin to a call to arms against stereotypical, squeaky-clean heroes themselves and the rote stories that spit them out. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that among all the game’s many filmic inspirations, the movie Suda borrows from most blatantly is the one many of us associate with bringing the monomyth concept to the forefront of pop cultural conversation: Star Wars. Travis is on his own traditional hero’s journey arc, and along the way he fights with a laser sword, sees his teacher killed in front of him, is constantly being told by a disembodied voice to “trust his force,” has multiple secret family members revealed to him, and, at the apparent end of his quest, is confronted by a masked man who tells him he’s his father. Hell, one version of the game’s credits is a direct rip-off of Star Wars’ blue-text-on-a-starry-background credit rolls, including a John Williams-esque song titled “Staff Wars Episode I.” No one has ever accused Suda51 of being subtle.
But here’s the thing: Travis Touchdown is not a hero. Travis Touchdown is an asshole. He drools over nearly every woman that wanders into his line of sight, bluntly asking them to kiss or “do” him when he isn’t busy calling them bitches and making misogynistic comments. He has a dimwitted, cocksure, and usually profane quip for every situation. His quest isn’t driven by duty or the promise of self-discovery, but a selfish urge for domination even he can barely explain. (Also, Sylvia, the woman who manages the assassin fights, said she might have sex with him if he makes it to No. 1, so there’s that keeping him going.) He revels in the bloodshed and murder he’s wreaking, and he never returns his damn porno rentals on time. Travis is id made manifest, a testosterone-fueled monster allowed to run rampant on the arc of a righteous hero ascending to his destiny and being handed everything he wants. If you weren’t playing as the guy—the invisible hand pushing him to the top of the mountain with your own inexplicable desire for death and the vague satisfaction of beating a video game—it’d be impossible to root for him.
Beyond that simple subversion, which allows Suda to take plenty of jabs at us bloodthirsty game-playing losers Travis represents, No More Heroes’ attack on the stock narratives of adventure fiction, especially video games, is way more malicious. When Travis’ hero’s journey comes to its preordained conclusion, a fight against the world’s No. 1 killer who claims to also have been his father the whole time, a mysterious woman shows up and kills him before Travis can. With his promised path broken, the whole story goes off the rails. This finale is a purposefully self-destructive narrative disaster that mocks last-minute revelations and deus ex machinas.
Travis’ motivations are overwritten multiple times over in a matter of minutes after the scantily clad (they’re always scantily clad) woman reveals she’s his secret half sister, Jeane, and that she killed Travis’ actual father ages ago. Why’d she do it? Well, the game has a long-winded, sickening explanation that involves Jeane’s mother committing suicide, her father molesting her, and Jeane turning to prostitution so she can pay for assassin training to kill the bastard, but unless you head to the internet to read all that, you’ll miss most of it because the game literally fast-forwards through her speech. It’s the punchline at the end of a cascade of twists, each more knowingly ridiculous than the last. And when that VCR-style fast-forwarding kicks in, that’s the game getting in your face and saying, “I can’t believe you actually wanted to figure out what’s going on. Don’t you see, dummy? None of this matters. It never matters. It’s all just the same old contrived, pointless crap repeated over and over again. And why should it matter? You’re just in it for the same reasons you always are: the adventure, the violence, the thrill of cutting dudes in half and watching fountains of blood and money spray out of their bisected bodies. The story? That just exists to keep all this titillation going. Now do you want the hollow satisfaction of beating this video game or not, asshole?”
Beyond trying to point out the vapidity of derivative genre stories, Suda seems to want No More Heroes to get players reflecting on the heinous acts they’ve been committing for the several hours leading up to this unstable conclusion. But unlike more serious games with similar messages about how and why we consume violent media, No More Heroes doesn’t want us to feel bad for enjoying wanton indulgence, but for us to acknowledge and embrace it. If the message is that the story doesn’t matter, all we’re left with is carnage and style, and judged solely on those fronts, No More Heroes is a masterpiece. Travis is practically an untouchable god of death, strolling through levels and cutting down dozens of goons without breaking a sweat. And all that bloodshed is presented in the most fantastical, sensory-tickling way possible, with fountains of gore pouring out of your victims, neon lightning arcing from your sword, and pixelated slot machines filling the screen. It does an exceptionally good job of making that violence look and feel cool, of making you not feel bad about committing it when the time comes to consider what the hell just happened.
It’s much harder to roll with the game’s treatment of women, though. Travis is an unapologetic pig, and the game is keen to look at its female characters, all of which are dressed in ridiculous skin-bearing outfits (except for Speed Buster, an obese elderly woman who fights with a weaponized grocery cart and nonetheless gives Travis a playful kiss before he slices her head off), with the same slobbering gaze. If they’re not weak-willed and left humiliated, like Shinobu, they’re presented as manipulative (Sylvia) or man-hating maniacs (Bad Girl). And while it’s a quick way for the game to get its message across, fast-forwarding through Jeane’s backstory is a disgustingly callous move that minimizes all the horror, much of it sexual, that she went through.
Elsewhere, the most interesting, positively characterized woman Travis meets—the bikini-clad one-legged assassin Holly Summers—blows up her own head with a grenade after she’s used to force some introspection on Travis and the player, something our “hero” initially rejects by saying that seeking meaning in everything is a bad habit, especially “among smart little girls these days.” That comment alone tells you exactly what audience Travis is a personification of. He’s what you’d get if you replaced Luke Skywalker with one of the raving meninists who think it’s okay to harass women over the internet or are driven by their rage to edit every hint of female empowerment out of The Last Jedi or, more pertinently, would feel compelled to leave hateful comments on a YouTube video criticizing the sexism of Killer Is Dead, another Grasshopper Manufacture game.
And while it at times seems like the game is willing to point out just how gross and sad Travis is by having some of these women insult him and call out his shit, more than one of them goes from demeaning him to proclaiming their love for his dumb ass in the same conversation. By the end of the game, he’s gotten everything and everyone he’s ever expressed a desire for (having sex with Sylvia had to wait for the sequel, but at least he got to make out with her and hear her say “I love you”). One can’t say that Suda51 is explicitly endorsing this kind of behavior, but the lack of any kind of punishment for Travis means he isn’t condemning or commenting on it either. The only time the wish-fulfillment fantasy comes crashing down is when Travis has to take on menial part-time jobs between assassinations
While Suda deserves credit for saying something about violent media and the stories we find ourselves telling again and again, rather than just penning another one, No More Heroes doesn’t exactly land as smart satire a decade later. It’s the video-game equivalent of a peeing Calvin, sneering and pissing in the eye of the games and movies its satirizing. If the idea really was to make an unapologetic antihero’s journey—to slay that welcoming, overused structure by making its story meaningless and its central figure as repellant as possible—then No More Heroes was a bloody success. But that doesn’t make the discomfiting methods it took to get there any easier to swallow.