1.26.2008

Grasshopper

Thanks to the gracious editors of Gamasutra.com for republishing this essay in slightly altered form, and again on their blog GameSetWatch.

At this moment I am experiencing the post-game rush. The one that comes immediately after you complete a really great game and you're vibrating with excitement over it. I just finished my playthrough of No More Heroes, and I'm feeling a serious love buzz for Grasshopper Manufacture: for the game itself, the ethic that brought it about, and everything it does that is unique and joyful and uninhibited.

Above all, No More Heroes is gleefully absurd and self-referential. It lampoons the standard pretenses of video games as well as its own audience. It revels in all the ridiculous elements of standard 'bad-ass, gritty' action games. It refuses to take anything about itself seriously, while being fully aware of the culture and conventions it's playing off of. It speaks to an audience familiar with action video games as well as the ephemera that surround them, and can take pleasure in all of No More Heroes' knowing jabs and perversions.

No More Heroes throws the player into the role of Travis Touchdown, a broke, idiotic otaku living in a cheap motel room filled with his anime posters and poseable figurines. Uncharacteristically, Travis is a good-looking, well built dude who shares fashion sense with Tyler Durden.

One day, Travis wins a lightsaber "beam sword" off of eBay an "internet auction site" and somehow ends up killing the United Assassins Association's (UAA) number 11 ranked member. A mysterious woman approaches him and suggests he climb the UAA ladder by eliminating each of the top ten ranked assassins one by one. So, the player leaves his anime pad to go on massive killing sprees with his lightsaber, driving to his assignments on his enormously tricked-out motor scooter and then suplexing and hacking up tons of goons like a cross between a Mexican luchador and the Star Wars Kid on meth.

The premise essentially takes a rabid anime nerd's ultimate fantasy life and turns it into a video game, showing how completely ridiculous and laughable it is in the process. Beside the premise and the protagonist, the gameplay itself pushes every element of action games over the top into the absurd. The combat is outrageously gory to the point of being a cartoon, and the bosses are so contrived and implausible as to put Metal Gear Solid villains to shame.

As the game boots up, The Grasshopper Manufacture crest is emblazoned with the credo "Punk's Not Dead," and declares GhM a "Video Game Band."
Just seeing that logo as a splash screen is incredibly heartening, and the implied ethic really does show through in the product. No More Heroes takes the standards of the genre and throws them back in its face. It's loud, abrasive, concerned as much with image as substance, and completely exhilarating. Maybe it really is punk.

There's been some writing lately about the schism between the hardcore reviewership and the casual game market. Some bloggers dismissively condescend toward players engaged with the lineage of games that require high investment in and dedication to the act of play. The anti-hardcore "like being treated gently" while playing a video game-- they "don’t want to be knocked unconscious" by their entertainment; they "just want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything."

No More Heroes is not the game for them. No More Heroes grabs your collar and screams in your face. It revels in the sensory overload normally provided by a game like God of War or Devil May Cry and amps it up to an unprecedented, speaker-popping assault. It's just what Grasshopper set out for it to be: it's the Sex Pistols or The Stooges freaking out and pissing off your parents. At its best, a good fight in No More Heroes is as unrelenting and destructive as a track off of Raw Power. And those leveling criticism are right, Pitchfork shouldn't be reviewing Enya. People who just want to relax in front of the televison, doing not much of anything while they play a video game need not apply.


There's just too much to love about this game.

I love that it's a Japanese title that blatantly draws inspiration from Grand Theft Auto.

I love that it has character customization, including over 100 different shirts to collect and try on. I love that the majority of these shirts seem to have been designed by Suda 51 himself (under the transparent pseudonym "Mask de Uh," pointing to his ongoing infatuation with luchadors.)

I love that it's a hardcore, gamer-focused, direct character inhabitation game that relies on the lo-fi graphics and technology of the Wii. It's pragmatic, and uses superfluous design sense to make up for technical shortcomings. It eschews HD. I love it for that.

I love that, in a strangely affecting twist, the game takes moments to acknowledge the aftermath of violence much more directly than its contemporaries: the mangled corpse of each boss character that you kill remains on the scene as you walk around collecting your reward, forcing you to face the evidence after the act is done. It's somewhat grotesque, and refreshingly so when death is otherwise so meaningless in the vast majority of action games.

I love that the game is legitimately challenging, and requires the player to pay great attention to the bosses' behaviors and precisely time his inputs. And I love that when you do die to a boss, an extremely player-friendly retry option lets you immediately jump back in and give it another shot. I love that it's not easy; I love that it expects more out of me.

I love how much actual gameplay lies outside the core mechanics in the form of side jobs and miniature distractions. You don't just run, jump, fight and kill. You exterminate poisonous scorpions, defuse land mines, gather up trash off the street, collect coconuts, whitewash graffiti, mow lawns, and rescue stray cats. It appeals to me for the same reason that Raw Danger!'s variety of non-standard interactions did: it's something new, a range of experience I'm not used to receiving through a video game.

I love how "gamey" the final product is-- it relies as much on the old-school pixelated tropes of the earliest arcade games as it does on the conventions of titles like GTA3. The UI is decidely 8-bit, with the UAA leaderboard being depicted as a Galaxian-alike arcade game high score board. There are segments of play that include side-scrolling, and even a mini shmup used for one of the lead-up levels. The game isn't trying to be something it's not-- there are cutscenes, but the overall presentation isn't anywhere near "cinematic." That would be too serious, too pedestrian, too commercial. No More Heroes is not of a piece; it's fragmented, eclectic, and in love with being a video game. Maybe that's why I love it so damn much myself.

In the end, I often judge the worth of a game on how much it makes me laugh. I love how much I laughed while playing No More Heroes.

There are disappointments. I wish the bike controls were more intuitive. I wish that all the buyables didn't cost so much, so I didn't have to grind side-missions to buy all the clothes and upgrades I wanted. I wish that the side-missions had that nice instant retry option like the main missions do.

I wish the game had tried to play with its structure more. I love how devoted the developers were to making the lead-up to each boss fight unique: you spend levels doing everything from fighting on a moving bus to driving down a highway to running through a maze to pulling donuts on your motor scooter in the middle of a baseball field. But the overall flow of the game is cyclical and repetitive, down to the very end. Play through level, beat boss, grind for money in town, buy upgrades, then on to the next level. Repeat. A game like Portal shows how effective messing with player assumptions of game flow can be: how excellent was it to be lulled into the idea of playing through 19 chambers, only to have your expectations turned upside down at the game's midpoint? How excellent would it be for Travis to climb halfway up the UAA leader board, only for the game structure to change completely, introducing you to an entirely new view on the experience? No more of the same old routine, suddenly the course you thought you were on changes. But no, in No More Heroes you just keep stepping up one rung at a time til you hit the end you'd seen coming from the very start. It quickly becomes rote. An opportunity for subversion was missed.

I wish the fucking manual included some credits for the developers. Yeah, I know, most gamers don't even open the manual, much less read the credits. But don't the men and women who toiled long and hard to give us this game deserve to have their name on it? Somewhere physical and permanent, not just in the scroll at the end of the game? Is that too much to ask? Is this standard with Japanese games brought over to the States? I noticed that there are no Japanese credits in the Katamari Damacy manual either, though I remember there being credits in the Final Fantasy 7 manual when I flipped through it long ago. It probably depends on the publisher. But it feels like an injustice to print an accompanying pamphlet and omit the names of the product's creators. Maybe nobody else cares, but I do.

No More Heroes is brash, daring, absurd, hilarious, exhilarating, and absolutely one of a kind. It speaks directly to me. It makes me feel happy that such a difficult, impossible thing could make it to market. Congratulations to everyone at Grasshopper for pulling it off. You have my deep respect.

17 comments:

Duncan said...

I know exactly the post-game rush you're talking about and thanks to this post I am also reminded of the pre-game rush. When will I get to play this game, why aren't I playing this game now, think of all the people playing this game who are not me, etc. It's been happening a lot lately.

Jake said...

This game is laden with balls. It has some rough bits, but the rest of the game shines, burning my eyes and possibly brain. The use of that horrible raspy MacinTalk voice that I used to fuck with in Jr High journalism class, to read off the assassin's names makes me bust up every time. (... doctor peace...) Best game.

Coleman said...

The gameplay video I've seen of this game online for the past few months looked interesting, but nothing too impressive. After reading this, though, I'm buying this on the way home. THANK, Steve.

Michael said...

Thanks for this vivid account of the game. I'm only a couple of hours in, but I'm nuts for it. I'm really locked onto the self-reflexive stuff and wondering how this game would scan for someone who isn't a gamer. It feels like Grasshopper made this game just for me for my birthday. Know what I mean?

It's thrilling when a game (or book or movie or whatever) can walk that line between loving its origins and ridiculing them. It sort of connects to "Shawn of the Dead" for me in this regard.

I'm curious to know if you played Killer 7? I admired things about that game, and you can definitely see some stylistic roots there, but it feels like NMH has a much firmer grip on its own "big idea."

Great post.

Darius Kazemi said...

Thank you for writing this. I am definitely going to buy this title and probably write an essay on it, too.

Seriously, your post was the perfect pitch for convincing me to buy it. Well done.

Steve gaynor said...

I did play through Killer 7, and I liked it a lot. It was darker, more surreal and twisted than No More Heroes is, and I loved it for that. It also had a more grand plot, what with the two rivals constantly battling into eternity or whatever the hell was going on.

But yeah, I really feel like Grasshopper went all out and tried to make a great GAME with No More Heroes, not just a great set of cutscenes. Killer 7's gameplay definitely felt 'safe' and unsure of itself. The puzzles were copy-pasted from Resident Evil 2 and the Hogan's Alley bits were the most bare-bones shooter experience possible. But Grasshopper really pushed themselves with NMH, and hopefully that will allow it to reach at least a few more people than Killer7 did.

If you want to check out the missing link between Killer7 and No More Heroes, pick up the Samurai Champloo game for PS2. It was written and directed by Suda51 (oddly enough, since this fact got zero press,) and Grasshopper clearly picked up the project as an excuse to prototype swordplay for NMH. Seriously, NMH's sword fighting engine is only superficially altered from the one in Samurai Champloo. It's really interesting.

Steve gaynor said...

re: the above, here's a very brief gameplay movie of Samurai Champloo that should give you an idea of the similarities. Notice especially the mechanic wherein the screen goes dark, the player must match the pictured input, and then they get to fire off a super move if they hit it in time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svu5pEp7qTk

I actually think it's worth playing through. Three parallel campaigns, an interesting music-based combo system, and some seriously trippy Kill Bill-inspired playable sequences backed by an extreme house beat. Also the script is suitably insane, as it was written by Suda. They even have a side-scrolling level that is literally the first level of Super Mario Bros. remade with an acid-bathed visual style.

Michael said...

As always, you are a fount of knowledge, Steve...though every time I come back here you make me get out my wallet again. Samurai Champloo flew completely under my radar - saw the TV show and assumed the game would be more of the same. I didn't even realize it was a Suda51 game. Thanks for the YouTube link.

I do miss the epic feel of Killer 7 in No More Heroes, though I think I understand why he's going for something very different here. It's a grungier world in NMH and maybe the whole deconstructed experience works better there.

I've been thinking lately about transgressive artists in other media and how we could use a few more of them making video games. I think there's a post in there somewhere if you would just leave me alone and stop making me play all these games!

Steve gaynor said...

Honestly I never would have known about Samurai Champloo myself if I weren't assigned to it as a tester when I worked at Sony a couple of years ago. I popped it in to test it, watched the intro, and thought "This looks like Killer 7... holy shit, written and directed by Suda 51!"

Ben Andac said...

You should probably give God Hand a try if you haven't already Steve - it shares a number of traits with No More Heroes, which you may enjoy.

Steve gaynor said...

Hell yeah, I played through God Hand when it came out here. It's a complete blast. To anyone else reading this, Ben's absolutely right.

Among other things, God Hand and No More Heroes share some staff-- Chris Remo told me that Grasshopper's Masafumi Takada composed most of the music for both games. And they both have outstanding soundtracks, how about that.

Don Pachi said...

I really, really need to get this and play this. Killer7 totally blew my mind, so I really have no excuse--apart from a lack of funds and not having a Wii where I'm staying--for not having day-one-purchased this game.

Billy King said...

Great article. Makes me wish I had a Wii. I'll make sure I visit my mates house who's been drooling over the game since it was announced. This is great news for GH, and important news in terms of third-party Wii devs. Nintendo aren't the only ones capable of quality on their own console now.

Kurt said...

Not putting the credits in the manual is not a strictly Japanese tradition. I looked through all my new EA games, and found not a single one with credits in the manual. It comes down to money. No credits = less paper = cheaper costs. Those bastards.

Jake said...

In the case of the EA manuals it could also very well be that they don't want to play up the contributions of individuals, eschewing that in favor of just giving credit to "EA" as an entity whose quality has no relation to those individuals who make the games. See also: all Apple software and hardware, the standard industry practice of buying a developer and rebranding it with your name plus a geographical location.

ferricide said...

i think saying that champloo is "kill bill inspired" when kill bill aped japanese movies is a bit of a stretch. then again, i think kill bill sucks so i like to denigrate it at the merest opportunity. thanks for giving me one!

seriously, though, i think there's a lot of discussion about whether non gamers could appreciate games.. i think thematically a lot of people who don't appreciate halo or cakemania might like this one.

Eddie said...

I might be a little late to the party here, but thats how I tend to process my games.

I really admire your verve and devotion to the game, but I can't seem to share it. I do appreciate a lot of the sensibilities you express, but NMH strikes a similar note to Killer 7 in that many of the ways they challenge the player are drawn out of the same pool games that are bad draw features from.

The entire overworld in NMH is an irritation to navigate, an unpleasant playing experience fraught with non-responsive vehicle controls. Is this a critique of the GTA experience? Or is this sloppy and bad? How can I tell? Do I really care because either way its un-fun to play?

So much good here, so much bad. I don't think the bad is necessary. Maybe I'm wrong.