What even is No More Heroes 2?

Introduction

Much like the game itself, I’m gonna keep this brief.  No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is ostensibly a video game under the oversight of godking and psychopath Goichi Suda, or Suda51.  It is a sequel to the greatest open world action game on the Wii, No More Heroes, and picks up three years later with Travis returning to Santa Destroy and re-entering the rankings.  There’s seven pages ahead of us here, so there’s no time to waste.  Let’s start this game.

Also, for reader’s sake, this post is rated M for Mature and contains full spoilers for No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, as well as some spoilers for No More Heroes. You have been warned.

Part 1: Skelter Helter to Kimmy Howell, The “Crownless King”

The opening of the game actually makes an attempt to lay out the meaning of this installment early on, and does a surprisingly good (albeit unsubtle) job of doing so.  The opening fight against Skelter Helter is a direct result of Travis’ assassination of Helter Skelter in the opening to the first game, which itself treated H.S. as an afterthought.  The self-reflective nature of the narrative is apparent in Helter’s drive to kill Travis in revenge for that seemingly irrelevant death, and it pulls double duty in showing the legacy Travis left behind after the first game.  Rising to the top in the (retconned to be real) U.A.A. left Travis a champion and a king, the “Crownless King”.  Of course, the counterpart to all of this is the inciting incident that just so happens to coincide with the assassination of Bishop, Travis’ “closest friend” by the henchmen of the current #1 assassin, thus leaving Travis to climb up the ranks once more motivated by the returning promise of sexy times and his newfound need for vengeance.

And then, for a few bosses, we see the legacy Travis left behind in action.  Nathan Copeland joined the U.A.A. for the explicit purpose of challenging Travis in combat, and Charlie MacDonald (and maybe his “groupies”? They don’t say much) look up to Travis, to the point where Charlie is incredibly friendly to and generally respectful of Travis.  Kimmy Howell has to take the cake though, despite being the only optional boss in the game – she’s a yandere school girl obsessed with Travis, desiring to kill him and take his head as a trophy so he can only be hers.  She even wrote him a damn love letter, one we get to hear in full with a recorder accompaniment.  Through all of this, and later the way Shinobu treats Travis with reverence (we’ll get back to that later), the game does a very successful job of establishing the theme not just as “revenge bad”, but “every action has a wide ripple effect.”

Just, you know, for the record.

Part 2: No More Heroes 2 is a bizarre and inconsistent ride

I obviously can’t speak for what the development of No More Heroes 2 was like or how the budget was allocated, but starting with Matt Helms there was a… change in focus.  The spooky cliffs and graveyard were a dramatic shift in location and tone, bringing to mind Resident Evil 4 more than anything else.  Matt Helms himself and the “Akashic Points” leading to a handful of boss fights are a huge leap ahead of prior “otherworldly” elements, unless you want to consider the actual insanity that was the Santa Death Parade fight, which itself bordered on being outside of even Suda’s lax take on reality.  The following stealth-based prison stage and fight against poison person Cloe Walsh are similarly disconnected from the loose consistency found in the rules of NMH’s world.  I mean, when I look at NMH1, I don’t see anything that would generally violate the rules of a decidedly unhinged action flick; Bad Girl surviving a beam katana through the torso, ghost Thunder Ryu, and Henry’s notable disregard for the laws of physics contrast the mundanities of Santa Destroy, things like filling gas in cars, mowing lawns, and even going to the bathroom to save.  NMH2 actively discards some of these elements, and as such the weird stuff – weirder stuff than before – really stands out and detracts from the pre-established uncanny reality.

I mean… just look at it. It could totally be a village in Europe.

Then, things get decidedly self-referential.  After the fight with Cloe Walsh, Travis is invited to a battle royale, one which becomes a 1v1 by the time Travis enters the ring due to the returning(ish) Dr. Letz Shake, using the earthquake machine from before to wipe out the competition.  His (it’s?) motivation for returning to the rankings?  Revenge against Henry and eventually Travis in return for the result of the Rank 5 fight in the first game, which fits the theme and offers fanservice in the form of a familiar character(ish) finally becoming a boss.  Like, sure, it’s kind of awesome to have characters come back for another fight, but something about it feels a little… hollow.  Doesn’t help that he’s the easiest boss so far.

Things swing further toward fanservice, giving us a playable Shinobu with a new personality devoted to her “master” Travis and two entire boss fights and stages.  Two middling to obnoxious boss fights and two platforming heavy and lengthy stages.  I’m… not a fan, if only because it’s no fun to play and the bosses, even the entertainingly sick New Destroymen, are such slogs to get through – the New Destroymen in particular probably took me longer than any other single boss, and only with one attempt too.  Shinobu is fun to play as, don’t get me wrong, but she isn’t quite as fluid as Travis and the gameplay surrounding her is disappointing.  

Henry, on the other hand, is almost purposefully overpowered and just gets dropped into a coma dream boss fight for the sake of being cool.  He has a ranged charge attack like Shinobu, his acrobatic combos from the first game, and a completely busted dash that moves quicker than anything else in the game and (I think) grants invincibility.  The only downside is that it’s No More Heroes 2, and bosses will just not stagger from hits you’d expect would leave them in a combo.  Overall, pure fanservice for all of a single, halfway decent boss fight… which is all I can really say about this lengthy midsection.  Compared to the opening, which felt like it had a direction and meaning, this third of the game’s overall content felt like it existed for the sake of existing, as opposed to exploring or developing much of anything about the characters or world.  Contrast that with the boss fights of the original, which, despite being bizarre, random, and cryptic in meaning, all genuinely served to either develop Travis, the plot, or the nature of the game as satire.  To reference an album (Suda style, baybee) – it’s all filler, no killer.

Part 3: Travis Touchdown, The No More Hero

I fudged things a bit there – technically the rank 7 fight happens before the Henry section, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be flipped, and thematically the Ryuji fight sits much more nicely next to the final fights in the game.  At this point in the game, Travis has brutalized fans, cheerleaders, old rivals, and actual cryptids without much of a care – but Ryuji winds up being different.  In an alternate universe, I could see Ryuji being the star of No More Heroes; his flowing coat/cape, motorcycle, and beam nagimaki (I think, TVTropes told me it isn’t a naginata like I thought) mirror Travis.  His dragon motif even matches Travis’ tiger aesthetic, and the writers knew it.  Ryuji is a tough foe, even with the new Rose Nasty (thanks Takashi Miike), and the cutscene after you win shows that both fighters are winded, despite Travis being the official victor.  In fact, Travis is the victor so much that Sylvia shows up and turns Ryuji into swiss cheese for you, despite Travis’ intentions to spare him as a worthy foe.  Because of this, something new seems to spark in Travis, something set up with Holly Summers and the general bleak attitude toward death matches in the first game.  Travis concludes that assassins aren’t just tools, and have lives beyond destroying each other, and to that end the rest of the game is dedicated toward him burning down the UAA.

The next two fights, the memorable Margaret Moonlight and the captivating Captain Vladimir serve to reinforce the new theme of assassins as people.  Margaret’s sublime theme Philistine – which is required listening for all reading this btw – has lyrics specifically knocking down Travis a few pegs for being so gung-ho about assassination and revenge, and bonus points going to her final words asking and learning that Travis memorized the song.  He did, for the record.  Vladimir, on the other hand, is a more directly sympathetic character.  He was a Soviet cosmonaut trapped in space, who somehow managed to develop incredible powers and still calls on his space station to fire a goddamn space laser like in AKIRA.  He doesn’t even seem to know what’s going on, only fighting Travis due to the fact that he’s a direct threat, and when he dies, he’s the first opponent since… Holly? that Travis gives a full send-off and eulogy to, requesting that Sylvia give him the chance to see Earth one last time before he passes on.  Glory to the Soviet Union.

Finally, we’re at the rank 2 match.  The back alleys drenched in orange light set the stage for No More Heroes 2 at potentially it’s finest; a run through streets, buildings, and other urban landscapes cutting down any hapless mook in your way, all the while the melancholic “Tooth Paste” plays in the background (please listen).  I don’t know why it happened here or now, but the developers, the writers, the designers, the artists, the musicians – basically everyone, were in harmony with the vision of the game.  And then, you reach Alice Twilight, the penultimate boss.  In the little time we know her, Alice proves herself to be possibly the most important character and fight in the game.  Mechanically, Alice is almost a mirror of Travis, but in more of a mechanical sense than Ryuji.  Her charged strikes are long range and invincible, she has burst mobility moves, stance changes ala the different weapons, and can even cancel normal attacks with a dodge – just like Travis.  Indeed, out of every encounter in the second game, Alice stands out as a fair and even fight on Mild at least due to her mechanical similarities to Travis.

Turns out, though, that the mechanical similarities are embedded in her story.  Alice began as one of the hopeful ones, just like the early game assassins, inspired by Travis’ legacy to rise through the ranks, only to find what Travis and the player ultimately have: there’s no salvation at the end, no glorious revenge, and for sure no retirement and happy ending.  Her journey to learn the secret of how Travis escaped ends here, and the first thing we see before the fight is Alice burning away photos of her loved ones, her husband, her sister Margaret (blink and you’ll miss it), all to symbolically burn the bridges tying her back to a normal life.  All she has left is to learn how Travis, the Crownless King, the No More Hero, escaped from the bloodshed.  She never gets that chance.  Travis still desired revenge and he had to go through her to get there.  Much like Holly before her, this cracks Travis, and this is where he finally breaks.  Much like an empathetic player would, Travis loses his mind over the killing, screaming to the sky and ranting at Sylvia about how even assassins in a fictional video game are alive.  In this moment, the sociopathic otaku from the first game was gone, and in his place stood a hero, a good guy, but a broken and ruthless one – the No More Hero.

Part 4: “Are you done bitching?”

That line felt like a punch in the stomach.  It was a prelude to what was to come.  In the span of less than ten minutes, No More Heroes 2 collapsed around me and left me with nothing left.  The game, right after the emotional peak and moment of clarity, decides to commit what is, in my opinion, a cardinal sin that goes against the conceit of the series and Suda’s vision oc7f the original game.  For those unaware or missing context, Sylvia in No More Heroes is a pretty unsubtle standin and deconstruction of the “Standard Hero Reward”, in so much as she’s baiting Travis into doing her bidding (killing assassins and giving her money as entry fees) in return for, well, Travis participating in downward fuckin’ dog.  The crux of this is to lob one straight at the player, for not only thinking they knew what was coming from a female lead like Sylvia, but for being gross and misogynistic like Travis into believing that it was all true to begin with.  

The big difference in No More Heroes 2 is that, while he starts the game as before, Travis by this point is no longer driven by lust, at least not to the same degree as before.  Travis has matured out of being that “gamer insert” into being, depending on what happens next, either a character of his own making or the ultimate wish fulfillment.  His rejection of Shinobu (yeah, that happens) comes about as a direct result of his squick at the power dynamic and age difference present in the relationship, indicating the former. 

However, for some reason, this didn’t satisfy the writers, so Travis still winds up head over heels for Sylvia.  I haven’t even acknowledged the sheer negging Sylvia does to Travis in this game, way beyond what I’d picture being normalized when the game was released.  It’s not even in the moments where she leaves him to swim back from the prison island or sends him on goose chases to places no one would believe exists.  It’s, and I’m speaking from my life experiences right now, in the attitude, the choice of words, the tone and the mood of scenes that indicates that Sylvia does not give a shit about Travis, with her only scene letting it fade being when she spares Captain Vladimir.  But, you know, common tropes and fanservice to the player are something that the writers felt was necessary, so not even five minutes after the fight at the end of the Alice match, Sylvia shows up at the motel and…

This crushed me.

My jaw hit the floor and my eyes rolled back into my head.  No More Heroes 2 had forsaken me.  And the worst was yet to come.

Part 5: Fuck you, here’s Jasper Batt Jr.

At this point No More Heroes 2 had, in my eyes, abandoned itself and what made itself great, and was just sort of rolling along.  I don’t have much to say about the last stage, other than that it’s long and has some killer music in the form of “Debt Free” and the return of the original “N.M.H.”. It’s a shopping mall/high rent office complex overlooking Santa Destroy, and while I enjoyed it, it got overshadowed by what was to come.

I hate him. I hate him so much.

Jasper fucking Batt Jr., the number 1 ranked assassin and the one who ordered the hit on Bishop after Travis wiped out his family in the side missions of the last game.  On that level, it thematically ties back to the consequences of Travis’ actions, but when he brought out the (fake) heads of Shinobu, Henry, and Sylvia, it all just felt like a wet fish to the face.  There wasn’t any kind of impact like with Alice, he was just pissed off and so was Travis.  The final boss commenced with a fight against Jasper in his flying car, and midway through Henry shows up to assist.  Nothing to say.

Phase two, however, is one of the worst and most unfair bosses I’ve fought in an action game.  I’m not gonna claim to be an action god, although I have a decent amount of experience under my belt.  Jasper Batt’s superpowered form is utterly and completely busted, and there’s no exploits avaolable.  Spamming charged attacks without perfect timing will get you killed for missing your invincibility windows.  Building up the Ecstasy Gauge to supercharge the Peony (don’t worry about it) is nigh impossible due to how easy it is to get hit.  His attacks have next to no telegraphs, and in the last half-ish of the fight, he steps it up by adding ranged wind bursts to his teleport spam punches you can barely react to.  I remember when I thought Final Vergil in DMC3 was tough; he seems fair in comparison to Jasper fucking Batt Jr.  I felt like I had to play damn perfectly to win, and you know, part of me wants to believe that was the developers’ intention.  It wouldn’t be a criticism of revenge-as-motivation if the target wasn’t a pain in the ass to take out, I suppose.  This though?  This was beyond the unfun of the open world, the unfun of all the jobs, and the unfun of all the minigames and distractions.  Jasper Batt Jr. is actually a horrible boss fight.

Aaaaand then he inflates to hot-air balloon size for his third form, Henry bails due to having some level of standards regarding ridiculousness, and all you really have to do is slap Jasper in the nose until he dies and the game ends.  Travis leaps to his death to finish Jasper off, and we’re done.

This person makes it look easy.

Conclusion: No More No

As Sylvia rode around town on the motorcycle with a passed out Travis on the back, I felt like I was supposed to feel something about the whole experience.  The melancholy of watching them drive mixed with the music and the credits rolling didn’t leave me satisfied, or disappointed.  I felt nothing but emptiness, and maybe relief that it was over.  I’d seen No More Heroes, in the span of a couple of months for me, go from maybe one of the most poignant criticisms of… everything to just, a hollow shell trying to imitate its predecessor.  No perfect moments could make up for the bullshit I went through in the final hour.  When Sylvia dumped Travis at the motel, and when he came back for her at the end, I just… didn’t feel anymore.

Part of me hopes that was the point.  Give the players the goal of revenge, and show them how it leaves you with nothingness when you truly succeed.  After playing the game, witnessing the mishandling of themes and characters throughout the midsection and especially the endgame, I can’t buy that.  I see too much in No More Heroes 2 for it all to mean nothing in the end.  Unfortunately, I think the fandom agrees with me, with most Suda fans I know either disregarding the game or outright ignoring it and never picking it up.  I wish I could be in either of those crowds; the failures of the game drive me to be the former and just outright toss the game aside.  

I can’t do it.  The title of this essay is “What is the point of No More Heroes 2” and I can’t say I left without finding one.  It frustrates me to no end to say that I enjoyed it, found profound meaning in it, warts and all.  I don’t think a single game except another Grasshopper one could as perfectly capture the development of someone like Travis and use all of their tools to convey his – and the player’s – growth as individuals.  Even when it falters and fails, No More Heroes 2 has that.  Don’t ignore it, don’t disregard it, and especially don’t de-canonize it.  To grow, you have to play it.  Now start the game.

Published by Casey S-G

I'm a college student who likes movies, TV, videogames, and music. You'll never guess what I post about next.

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