You kind of just know when you’re playing a Suda51 game.
Like Goichi Suda, better known as “Suda51,” I have an obsession with American and Japanese cinema, pro wrestling, tokusatsu superheroes, and potty humor. That’s why I gravitated hard towards No More Heroes. It was one of the few M-rated games on the family-friendly Wii back in 2007. I was 15 — the perfect age.
Now at 29, I come to No More Heroes 3 (also stylized as No More Heroes III) on the Switch. I’m still fond of the abundant pop-culture references, and I still find its mechanics of lightsaber hack-and-slash and motion control-enabled wrestling throws unbelievably satisfying. I still laugh at dirty jokes.
But like a high school friend who never left their hometown, I wonder if No More Heroes could have evolved any further in 2021.
No New Friends
No More Heroes 3 continues the story of Travis Touchdown, a nerdy, pervy schlub living like a teenager in a seedy SoCal motel. As Travis, players are challenged to fight FU (get it?), an alien prince carrying out his invasion of Earth through the manipulation of his former best friend Damon, a wealthy CEO who befriended FU when he was a boy.
Inexplicably, Travis’ wife Sylvia becomes FU’s secretary and brokers an open challenge for anyone to defeat FU and his entourage of nine powerful beings who pose as galactic superheroes. Travis, the former number-one assassin in the world (long story) steps up to the challenge, armed with his beam katana (this series’ non-copyright infringing version of a lightsaber) and his Death Glove, which temporarily covers Travis in Gundam-like armor.
Most video game sequels take pains to work as standalone experiences for newcomers, but No More Heroes 3 isn’t one of them. Turns out, the 2019 interstitial title Travis Strikes Again for the Switch is tremendously important to the plot No More Heroes 3. As someone who knows the first two games well but skipped Strikes Again, I was lost at the start of my journey in No More Heroes 3. It was the first time I felt the sting of Suda51’s humor as if he were shaming me for daring to skip one of his works.
No More Heroes 3 recycles the structure of the first two games, mostly. In order to qualify for ranked battles against FU’s henchmen, Travis must take on odd jobs and assassination gigs to raise cash to pay qualification fees. From there, a boss battle takes place, plus lots and lots of cutscenes. An elaborate opening prologue sets up the game’s antagonists, but don’t bother studying them. Half the time there’s a contrived plot twist that pits Travis against someone else, usually a returning villain from No More Heroes of yesteryear.
Despite the outlandish villain designs and novel settings, ranging from a pop concert to the actual rock quarries seen in Power Rangers, Travis’ winning strategies are the same for every battle: Study the patterns, dodge, and rush in to attack. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s repetitive and tedious. So it’s a relief that No More Heroes 3 is actually so much fun to play.
No More Heroes 3 is an evolved form of the control scheme of the first two games on the Wii, with some adjustments that feel like improvements. Whacking enemies with the lightsaber — I’m sorry, beam katana — is achieved through furious tapping of the Y and X buttons for a mix of light and heavy attacks. Knock an enemy dizzy and you can grab them (L and R) for a pro wrestling slam, achieved through onscreen prompts to swing the Joy-Cons. There’s also a slew of new, beefy specials that aid Travis in clearing the field if the odds get overwhelming.
This was good stuff on the Wii, and it’s still fun as hell on the Switch. It’s possible to play the game docked or with the Pro Controller. In those cases, twirling the joysticks replace the motion controls. But No More Heroes 3 is best with two separate Joy-Cons. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.
The old grind
Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing.
In the original two No More Heroes, Travis earned money by doing odd jobs, like picking up coconuts and mowing lawns, before earning more money through combat-based side missions.
That is still kind of what happens in No More Heroes 3. Such side jobs include cleaning up swamp garbage (where you wrestle alligators lest they kill you), fixing toilets, and middlingly entertaining speed chases in which Suda51 crams homages to Burnout and the 1988 film Akira in one fell swoop.
But the brunt of Travis’ income is through battles where Travis fights varying breeds of lower-tier aliens. This is good because it means you can play more of the game’s satisfying action. This is also bad because these missions pay the most and you’ll be repeating them a lot to accrue money. And at a certain point, the grind gets old.
Adding to the experience of fatigue is how much bigger the town of Santa Destroy has grown. In 2007, the barren world of No More Heroes came off like a knowing jab at the industry’s numerous Grand Theft Auto wannabes. In 2021, the open-world genre has been nearly perfected, with masterpieces like The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Breath of the Wild. Suda51 expands Santa Destroy with new districts, each with its own theme, but his entire world is still barren and devoid of interest. Suda51 knows games have changed, but he’s insistent on telling the same joke.
What’s more, Travis seems to walk around as though his legs are stuck in the sand. The inclusion of a new jump button is virtually pointless, as Travis is unable to jump over most things, like, at all. Suda51 has thrown in a few bones, including a marginally better motorbike (a reference to Akira that’s even more obvious this time) for easier fast travel. But with such an empty world to begin with, what’s the rush to see anything?
With a focus on assassins, the first two No More Heroes games felt like a fever dream of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino movies filtered through an oddball Japanese obsessive. For No More Heroes 3, Suda51 observes the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which gets a direct shout-out in the game) and has thrown Travis into a world of galactic superhero warfare. The word “assassin” is still used, awkwardly, but Travis is now a superhero fighting supervillains.
Suda51’s personal love for both Marvel and tokusatsu, the uniquely Japanese genre encompassing works like Ultraman, Godzilla, Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai (the basis for Power Rangers) are rampant throughout. Every new boss fight is structured like an episode of a tokusatsu series, with an Ultraman-inspired opening playing each time (and anime end credits when the boss is defeated). There’s a lot of creativity born out of cultural pastiche, which allows No More Heroes 3 some semblance of a personality. And as a tokusatsu fan myself, my smile is a mile wide whenever I hear “Kamen Rider” said out loud.
But it does beg the question: Where does Suda51’s voice begin and end? As one of the few auteurs in the medium, Suda51 is one of the few video game directors to turn his art into his own personal mirror, with No More Heroes arguably the most reflective of himself. Suda51 is less a game director and more a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee, all known to imbue their obsessions, hang-ups, traumas, and fetishes into their works.
But for a guy who is willing to wax poetic on what makes Takashi Miike a great filmmaker through the mouths of his own characters — I question if Suda51 knows what makes himself a great game designer. After three games, No More Heroes is no longer the refreshingly original hack-and-slasher that pays homage to cool pop culture. It is now clearer to me that the games, the third especially, are relentlessly derivative, using the guise of tribute and pop culture fetishizing to make up for a lack of something to say on their own.
No More Heroes 3 exhibits Suda51 at his best and worst. It’s a game where satisfying gameplay is philosophically at odds with the awkward design that ultimately blurs the lines between features and bugs. More damning is the unshakeable feeling that Suda51 prefers his games to stay in the past than observe the present. No More Heroes 3 is a good game. But what affords the game personality is perhaps the same thing that keeps it from becoming something better than just good.
No More Heroes 3 is out now for Nintendo Switch, which Inverse played for the purposes of this review.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its world and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)