The hero of No More Heroes III is Travis Touchdown. He is an assassin by trade, and he wields what looks like a strip of fluorescent tubing but what is, in fact, a laser sword. We find him wearing a Joy Division T-shirt, yellow-tinted shades, a jacket of crimson leather, and a hairstyle of shining verticality. Between missions, he discusses the work of the Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike with a friend. “He’s pouring his passion into the improvement of systematized techniques,” says Travis, in one such interlude. The writer and co-director is Goichi Suda, better known—or, at any rate, known—as Suda 51, which sounds like a brand of sun cream, to be slathered onto the sort of pale souls for whom a TV screen is a more than ample substitute for the light of day. Wherever Suda’s passion may lie, I think it’s safe to presume that he is pouring himself into Travis.
The good news is that this makes Travis an intriguing creation. He is a manifestation of those people who wear their opinions like clothes—either as tight-fitting expressions of identity or as attempts at covering the naked truth of a lack of one. But he is also fun. Suda would rather tell us what Travis likes than show us what he is like; his movements are empty gestures of style, and yet they stick helplessly in your head. Watch him descend the stairs outside the motel in which he lives: a flurry of legs as the arms hang limp, torso swaying from side to side. In battle, too, he strikes pose after pose that tells of little else than the flair with which brutality can be conducted—and the flair is the point. “How far do you think that kind of posing will get you?” someone asks Travis, and the answer, as far as fans of the series will be concerned, is: All the way.
It is difficult to gauge the degree to which No More Heroes III is aimed at the devoted. Its story starts in flashback. A kid befriends an alien fluffball, who plummets to Earth, with a spurt of purple flame, and speaks in a voice that sounds just like Philip Seymour Hoffman doing Truman Capote. The two part ways, as government agents close in. Twenty years later, the fluffball returns, now an obnoxious princeling with marshmallow tresses and green lips. His name is Jess-Baptiste VI, but he goes by FU. He finds the kid, who has grown up—and up, and up—into corporate success, forcefully recruits him, and, in cold blood, murders a boardroom full of people. His plan is planet-wide conquest, so he looks to a successful model: “Apparently superheroes are popular in this country,” says FU. “So we’re gonna jump on that.”
Those who played the first two games in the series will be familiar with the structure: FU establishes the “Galactic Superhero Rankings,” a list of nine aliens for Travis to best. But they will also be well aware of the quote marks in whose grasp the world is held—the irony that wraps the production, as both a source of humour and a shield against charges of crumminess. Take the open world sections, for example, through which Travis screeches on his bike between showdowns. If you were wondering why the hand-brake causes such a jerky ninety-degree whip, as if on a greased hinge, it is to replicate the shot, in Akira, wherein just such a bike—low and lethal, as red as lipstick—burns across the tarmac in the perpendicular, leaving a kiss of rubbery smoke.
Likewise, if you think the minigames that govern Travis’s civic duties (“This town’s problems are my problems,” he says) are boring, then that’s the point, don’t you know. Mowing grass and plunging clogged-up toilets? Why, it’s a satire of open-world design, which tends toward the overgrown and the blocked. Then again, if, like me, you actually find them quite fun, you’re free to praise the technical chops of those at Grasshopper Manufacture. And, speaking of chops, what about the frame rate, which slurs whenever you hit the nitrous and renders the streets as a jittery dream? Well, there is only one kind of performance that matters to the Suda-crazed, and everything else is a drag.
It’s a clever strategy, which Suda has adopted since the original, on the Nintendo Wii, back in 2007; most games then were in HD, but he made one that was very difficult to define. With scraps of anime, silent green-on-black text conversations, and 16-bit beat-em-up sequences, the new game is no easier to pin down; but the reason it doesn’t shrink into pretentious irritation—the reason I haven’t been able to put it down—is, as it ever was, the combat. While those familiar with the previous games will appreciate the improvement of systematised techniques that has gone into the clashes of No More Heroes III, their appeal, at once cluttered and clean-cut, is easy to grasp. As Travis fights his extraterrestrial opponents, he fells them with decisive blows—shearing off their heads and showering in fountains of opalescent blood. If you sidestep an attack at the last second, time dilates, giving you a window of trippy opportunity. Meanwhile, Travis occasionally sheathes himself in a mech suit and blasts into space—taking on bosses that resemble, in their polygonal oddity, the string of abstract shapes ranged against Star Fox and his allies.
Grasshopper jumbles together the conventions of the hack and slash with a slew of other ideas, and, if it all hangs together, it’s precisely because of the Hang: the relaxed air of logorrhea and pop cultural reference that wafts through it. We might call it a slack and hash. “If it’s serious shit, more reason to say screw it,” says Travis, and whether you find the lack of gravitas—or, for that matter, of emotional texture—a problem, No More Heroes III should be played, if for no other reason than it could have been made by nobody else. If you are undecided on the matter, take the leap. It’s hardly serious shit, but I urge you to say screw it.
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: August 27, 2021
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