No More Heroes has been troubled by some severe message-board turbulence lately, after news broke that Rising Star, publishing the game in Europe, would be sticking with the clean, bloodless Japanese version over the gore-fountain that Ubisoft is releasing in the US. Teeth were gnashed and wailing was typed over fears that the Manhunt 2 controversy and the relentless barrage of gutter-press opprobrium were driving gaming into the arms of the censor.
We may never know which version is true to the original vision of notorious director Suda 51, although going by his extravagantly violent Killer7, it does seem likely to be the bloody one. But either version can look like a clumsy marketing ploy, depending which side of the line you're standing; gore is a big seller in the teen-heavy, hardcore US market, and Ubisoft will be well aware of that. More importantly, the fact is that having spent some time with a near-finished version of the game, we're not remotely upset to be missing out on the guts.
No More Heroes has a pronounced retro arcade-game aesthetic - all fruit machines, power-ups, bleeps, tinkles and gratuitous primary-coloured pixellation. In that context, having bad guys explode in showers of coins makes just as much sense as having them dismembered in showers of blood. More, in fact. We feel that a river of body parts would have uncomfortably skewed the pitch-perfect tone of what is already looking like the funniest and most deranged game of next year.
The closest comparison might be the lunatic God Hand, by Grasshopper's kindred spirits at Capcom's sadly defunct Clover Studio. No More Heroes is a gratuitously dumb button-mashing action game with sharp style, an irresistible swagger, and a surreal, self-referential bent. It's a game whose hero shouts the names of ice creams when he enters powered-up killing frenzy. ("Cranberry Chocolate Sundae!") It's a game in which you'll hear the phrase "he only looks hard because his mother is an ugly bitch" emitted by the Wii remote speaker in a terrible French accent. It's a game where you save by taking a dump. It's a game that admits it "could totally suck" in the intro movie. It doesn't.
As the garbled intro doesn't really explain very well, you are Travis Touchdown, anime-obsessed otaku, Mexican wrestling fan, cat lover, resident of the sunny city of Santa Destroy and light-sabre-wielding - sorry, beam-katana-wielding - wannabe hitman. You want to be the number one assassin in town, but you're only ranked 11, so you have ten bosses to take down, each one naturally possessed of a lair and a bottomless well of cloned henchmen to hack and quip your way through. This seems to be some kind of sponsored sport, since you'll need to cough up steep fees to the organising body - an assassins' league fronted by Silvia Kristel, the silver-haired love interest with the terrible French accent and very nice bra.
Earning the cash to participate in these hackandslash marathons is where Suda 51's declared attempt to bring the open-world structural teachings of Grand Theft Auto to Japanese gaming comes in. Travis tos and fros around Santa Destroy at will on his ridiculous motorcycle - an unfortunate collision between half a Transformer and a Sinclair C5 - executing side missions, either silly odd jobs (picking up coconuts for a raving stall-holder who claims they are God) or small-scare assassinations of heavily armed pizza restaurant chain CEOs.
In all honesty, this free-roaming odd-jobbing feels very much like padding, and it doesn't half look like it, either. Even assuming the poor framerate is a PAL conversion issue that will be fixed before release, Santa Destroy is a laughably basic cardboard town filled with laughably basic cars which you crash into with laughably basic physics due to the laughably basic handling on your way to a laughably basic minigame chore. Technically it's at least a generation and a half behind the times, but far from unpleasant to play, and the game's great sense of humour and the quick-fire, throwaway style will carry you through. That, and the promise of more of No More Heroes' superb, moreish, satisfyingly crunchy combat at the end of the road.
At it's most basic it's just a question of mashing A to hit bad guys, and even that is great fun, thanks to spot-on timing and a real sense of impact to each blow. But there are multiple layers of sophistication and motion-sensing gratification on top of that. Arrows prompt slashing finishing moves, executed with flicks of the remote. In a lovely touch, pointing the remote up or down dictates high or low attacks to get around enemies' blocks. Melee attacks on B can stun enemies, at which point you can grab them for pile-driving wrestling throws, performed by gesturing with both Wiimote and Nunchuk. You can use powerful charged attacks as well, but these eat up your beam katana's battery, which is restored either by pick-ups or by a remote-waggling interlude.
Weapon clashes occur, where you need to spin the remote quickly to push the enemy off balance and move in for the kill. Fruit-machine slots spin after every kill; hit the jackpot and you'll enter one of several ice-cream-themed, instant-kill 'darkside' modes, whether it's firing fireballs from your katana or cycling through over-the-top one-button kills. It's heady stuff, gloriously tactile, expertly paced and smothered in spectacular effects that go some way to explaining why the environments and henchmen look so plain.
The presentation is magnificent throughout, loaded with innumerable joyous little touches, from the assassins' leaderboard presented like the high-score table on an 80s arcade machine, to scattergun, punky wipes that cover the screen in toilet paper or stickers. There are plenty of meaningless but attractive trinkets for completists to obsess over too: T-shirts, trading cards and J-pop videos, all of which can be examined in Travis' motel suite. You can feed and pet his cat too.
Although the lead characters are etched on the screen with razor-sharp cool, No More Heroes isn't as visually striking as the demented Killer7 was, and it's a good deal more conventional and accessible too. To avoid getting samey, it will need some variation built into later skirmishes and boss fights, but we trust the inventive Grasshopper Manufacture to come up with the goods on that score. It's shaping up to be a basic game that does half of what it does very well, and the other half badly but with such enthusiasm and infectious sense of mischief, you won't care; and it's a dead-cert for left-field, cult-classic status.