Version tested: Wii
No More Heroes is a game about slicing people up with a laser sword until you're the best assassin in town. Sounds straightforward; 2007 tapped a rich vein for single-minded murder-'em-ups with Crackdown and Assassin's Creed among the better examples, and 2008 is welcome to carry on splashing the same blood on our faces. Except No More Heroes does what those games do back to front: where the journey was once the worthier part, gently parting crowds in beautiful, sun-baked Jerusalem with a knife at the ready or kicking people off rooftops in Pacific City's skyscraper playground, No More Heroes' Santa Destroy is a dull, dusty strip of under-populated inactivity where the showdowns are the actual pay-off.
There seem to be two ways to interpret what it's doing. On the one hand, there's a fascinating purposefulness to the dull rituals you perform to amass cash to buy in to each Rank Battle (the skulls to the scalps that propel you up the leaderboard). There's the three-minute mowing, or litter picking, or filling up cars, or picking up coconuts. It's not fun, but that seems to be deliberate; it's making a point about working to live, and in the case of Travis Touchdown - our arrogant, spiky-haired protagonist - living is killing, boning and looking good. A potential contradiction is that if he does enough menial nonsense, he's offered small-time assassination gigs, except these are also quite dull and repetitive. Hrm. Ah - but of course these money-spinning side-missions don't matter either, because what use is killing, boning and looking good if no one notices? It's certainly a bold way to ask for our thirty quid.
The other way to look at it is that it's, er, quite dull and repetitive in-between the good bits. Navigating Santa Destroy on-foot or on your motorbike (I can't better Oli's description of it as "an unfortunate collision between half a Transformer and a Sinclair C5", or rather I can't be bothered to) is unnecessarily clunky and ugly, full of corners upon which to snag yourself and collisions to inadequately detect.
Available tasks are highlighted on your mini-map, bluesy '50s music that you can sing the Spider-Man theme to jangles away, and the day-to-day of filling your wallet by wiping away graffiti or killing the same pizza company CEO in the same car park half a dozen times can be as metaphorical as it wants; it's still dull. If we celebrate it, aren't we just doing that to feel a bit smug? Because, you know, we understand it? Not that we've never done that (in fact, I've done it rather a lot - I look forward to the prosecution case in the comments), but No More Heroes comes dangerously close to forcing us to face up to it.
The good news for people who fall into either camp is that we can all peacefully co-exist, because the rest of the game is charming, witty, colourful and inventive whether you dress and think like Vivienne Westwood or think pints are for mens and wine is for womens.
Take the combat. You target with Z on the Nunchuk and mash with A, but finishing moves are performed as directional Wiimote slashes prompted by the game, while block-breaking B-button wrestling moves are two-handed motions of escalating complexity, like moving the Nunchuk swiftly right at the same time as flicking the Wiimote up. You can also adjust your beam katana attacks for height depending on the angle of the Wiimote - high or low. There's significant repetition across the game's many, many fights, but the mixture of mashing and physical movement is novel enough and subsequently flexible enough to keep you happy.
Exciting combat is rewarded by the slot machine spinning at the bottom of the screen, and the prizes are bigger attacks; button-matching black-and-white dark side finishers and projectile sword blasts among them. For further variation, there are scene-specific forays into other gameplay ideas, seemingly for the hell of it, like a baseball sequence in Destroy Stadium where you kill pitchers by smacking balls back at them.
It always looks fine, but while Grasshopper's stylised, Killer7-style rendering and versatile character modelling is easy on the eyes, the Wii's overall output generally isn't. There's slowdown throughout Santa Destroy, the edges are so jagged you could cut glass with them and everyone who's walked past my screen this week has ignored the lovely shadows, and Grasshopper's ability to get a lot out of a little in artistic terms, preferring instead to focus on "the Dreamcast visuals". The absence of blood from Rising Star's PAL release also means that your enemies explode in showers of black pixels rather than an Eli Roth ketchup fantasy, but the fact they shower you with coins rather makes up for it.
Where you do the most fighting is in the run-up to boss encounters, which turn out to be very enjoyable. There's no doubt that each of your adversaries is a well-rounded, fascinating bundle of complexes and philosophies, scripted with care and concern, but there's also Suda 51's telltale caricature and absurdity, like a grenade-loving amputee with a rocket launcher for a leg who attacks you by detonating landmines with a spade. Each encounter is preceded by a long stream of henchmen fights (kill these guys, a path opens, kill these guys, a path opens), and rarely is there much more than a thematic allusion to what lies beyond the final door, but the game's knowing construction assists their impact; after half a dozen virtually identical build-ups, a flight along a tunnel with the boss ever-present and just out of reach is interesting, the subsequent encounter in a wind farm is handled with assurance, and a train ride further on is a great white success.
That said, we're not really talking about Metal Gear Solid 3's The Sorrow, or MGS' Psycho Mantis levels of invention. There are times when it comes close - Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii's Lionel Richie moment springs to mind - but while there's crossover in the voice acting pool, most fights ultimately come down to circling your prey, observing their attack patterns and making sure there's enough juice in your beam katana to withstand the most direct attacks and enough space to evade and then swing into action when you've done your homework. It's the theatricality, rather than the mechanics, of each encounter that delivers it into infamy.
Meanwhile, the manner with which you're delivered into each encounter speaks to the game's wonderful absurdity and gimmicky love of its Nintendo home. Sylvia Christel, the French-sounding blonde who queues up your opposition, is a ruthless tease, and Travis's whole ascent seems to be predicated on the belief that she'll "do" him if he makes it to number one. When she calls you up to announce that you're nearly at the fight, you have to hold the Wiimote up to your ear like a mobile phone to hear her. Which is neat, even if she does talk gibberish.
Thinking back on the rest of the game is a blur of smiles: recharging the beam katana by holding the A button and shaking it vigorously as Travis does his part on-screen; the third-rate-job provider's belief structure; the superhero boss with the hand-zapper; the glorious pixellated icons and deliberately useless 8-bit throwback mini-map; saving your game on the toilet; playing with your cat; every screen-wipe, fade and cut, and the shutter effect on view-correction; the video shop phone messages. The music's brilliant, too. As long as you're in one of a few key places - a fight, a shop, a cut-scene or a conversation - you won't be bored. The game's point, to return to where we came in, is that if you're not, then of course you won't be.
The reviewer's point is that in a fight between games as metaphor and games as entertainment, we need to feel like the winners. There are times in No More Heroes when we don't, but there are enough occasions when we do, and by the time you're the best assassin in town you'll either be glad that the destination was always worth it or arguing that it deserves another mark. Either way, you do at least win.
8 / 10