The entire world knows Pokemon; it’s quite possibly the largest media franchise on the planet, spanning best selling video games, one of the most famous anime of all time, a live action Hollywood film, and the hearts of literal generations – people who grew up playing Red and Blue have kids playing Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, we’ve reached that point. The premise of becoming “the very best, like no one ever was” is etched into the minds of millions, and in the wake of Pokemon GO, that number potentially climbed into the billions. I love Pokemon, you love Pokemon, the world loves Pokemon.
I’m not gonna put words in his mouth, but I think Goichi Suda – Suda51 to most – has some problems with the gaming industry. I’m also not here to claim that his modern classic No More Heroes is a direct criticism of Pokemon, since it’s not; as a whole, No More Heroes is a scathing criticism and piss take of the modern gaming landscape that wastes absolutely nothing and takes no prisoners in mocking nearly everything we hold dear in video games. Suda’s vision is harsh and uncompromised, and to dilute it to just one target would do the entire package an injustice.
With that said, I’m here to break down what No More Heroes does mock about the Pokemon franchise, because I feel like attacking one of the most popular and beloved brands on the planet is perfectly “me”. Wish me luck.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the entirety of No More Heroes, Pokemon Generation 1 (Red/Blue), and Pokemon Generation 7 (Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon), as well as references to the themes of Pokemon Generation 5 (Black/White). You Have Been Warned.
PETA Might Have Been Right, And Some Other Stuff
Hot take, but if you strip away the wholesome “friendship” and “bonding” players do with their Pokemon, it boils down to animal fighting non-lethal bloodsports where two people, typically children, compete to become the #1 Pokemon trainer in their region. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, considering the plot of Generation 5 both deconstructed and reconstructed the bonds between trainers and Pokemon, and the fact that friendship is a mechanic in nearly every game in the series, but the point still stands.
Even in the Pokemon world, the quest to be the League Champion is generally seen as brutal by the average trainer. Generation 7 goes to extra lengths to highlight this, showing us a villainous team made up entirely of dropouts and runaways, led by a failed Trial Captain in Guzma. The Pokemon world, and all of the struggles contained within are only seen as such a bright, cheery adventure because we’re viewing them from the perspective of a prototypical hero, who’s always one step behind a (generally) worthy rival. These strong, abnormally gifted yet inexperienced main characters go on a practical rampage, defeating nearly everyone in their path to being #1.
There Are Literally No More Heroes
No More Heroes is, quite unsubtle-y, about Travis Touchdown, our inexperienced (he got his lightsaber on EBAY) yet abnormally gifted protagonist, as he quite literally cuts his way through the strongest assassins and fighters in Santa Destroy in his perverted quest to become #1. For the record, I mean it quite literally – decapitated, bisected, impaled, vivisected, head blown off with a grenade, as many disturbing ways to die as possible. There’s a reason I was told to wait for this one until I was older. By the end of the game, Travis has left a mountain of fallen hopefuls, assassins in their own right, in his wake. Among them are people trapped in the life of an assassin like Holly Summers, who just wants an escape from the endless fighting at the hands of someone like Travis, or someone like Destroyman who practically revels in the chance to beat challengers in the most underhanded way.
And indeed, Travis cleaves his way through all of them, using his beam katana and combat skills learned from video games and anime to make his way to #1 in the UAA, the ranking system for the United States; not so hot take, but this is bloodsports for entertainment. Travis’ fights are literal bloodsports, and the only person who ever gets a step ahead of him for longer than a moment is his brother and unknown rival, Henry Cooldown. In the boss fight against Letz Shake, Henry even killsteals on Travis and defeats Shake, prompting intervention from the UAA before an unlicensed battle between the two can occur. He uses a beam katana just like Travis, fights in a similar manner, and ultimately the two clash before reconciling in the long term… I think, I’m in the middle of playing Desperate Struggle as I write this. My point is – Travis and Henry beat everyone, from normal mooks to the head honchos, and Travis reaches the top.
Time to draw some parallels.
No More Heroes Is Pokemon
It’s a bold statement, but No More Heroes truly is what Pokemon is through a blood-tinted window. It’s the truest deconstruction of the “To Be A Master” trope that most people were introduced to through the Pokemon games and anime. Random trainers make up your mook assassins, gym leaders are the ranked assassins, and Travis and Henry are Red and Blue. No More Heroes takes the time – painstaking time – to point out how ridiculous and depressing such a world and journey would be, between the needed grinding for money just to get new weapons and reach battles, the dead-end lives led by the ranked assassins and gym leaders, and the number of lives and hopes the heroes step on to get to the top. No More Heroes even includes an overworld devoid of much besides pickups and timewasting sidecontent that serves little purpose beyond boosting you into combat. Go back and look at the most popular Pokemon games – what is there to do besides pickup items, do content to get money/boosts for your mons, and fight? No, seriously, if I’m forgetting something I want to be called out on it.
And, not to read too deeply into Suda’s uninhibited vision, but I think this was part of his point. No More Heroes is widely known as a criticism of gaming’s most popular tropes, including the “get the girl by winning” trope famous in Mario (something I was exposed to by Codex Entry’s essay including the topic), the mirror-match rival made iconic by characters like Vergil and Blue himself (Henry has a SS rank on the Vergil test, Blue has an S), the rampant, unnecessary open worlds found in console and PC games from the mid. 2000s and beyond, and the shocking, bizarre endgame plot twists found… in everything. From there, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that the framing device and structure of No More Heroes could be a criticism and deconstruction of Pokemon’s structure and world. It’s Pokemon, looking in the mirror, and seeing just what it would be under different circumstances.
Conclusion: This is No More Heroes
Maybe I’m overblowing the entire structure of No More Heroes, or making it out to be something it’s not. I know I’m not alone in what I saw in this game, however, and I know for a fact that with the release of Travis Strikes Again that this is really what the series is meant to be. Indeed, with what we’ve seen of No More Heroes 3, it seems like Suda’s doing it again – this time with the genre-busting superhero films that exploded into the pop-cultural zeitgeist immediately after No More Heroes was released. With No More Heroes, Suda got to criticize Pokemon and more, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.