Catching up with Touchdown: A No More Heroes series recap

From zero to no more hero

“If you identify with this loser, you have problems.”

That’s what Game Informer said about Travis Touchdown, the star of the No More Heroes series, in a list of “Top Ten Dorks of 2008.” Not the highest of praise, but in a way, they had a point. As it turns out, a lot of people who love games also happen to suffer from social anxiety, identity confusion, a history of trauma, and other problems. Like anyone, they want to see themselves represented in the media they enjoy, and when it comes to mass-market gaming, it can be tough to find honest representation. That’s still true now, and it was even more true 13 years ago.

In an industry striving for AAA, 10/10 perfection, Travis busted in screaming “I’m a big, broken idiot!”, and we loved him for it. Seeing him ridiculed by the establishment could be frustrating, but in the end, it only added to his time-tested, underdog charm. With three sequels, a Mii costume in Smash Bros., and even a jazz album (!) under his belt, Travis has proven that losers like him can win. Not bad for an old dork from 2008.

With its third, and maybe final numbered game on the horizon, No More Heroes curiosity is at an all-time high, and what better way to both satisfy that curiosity and, er, “stoke” it than with a video game blog! If you’ve always wanted to know more about the franchise, or if you’re just looking to refresh your memory on Travis’ history, here’s a spoiler-free, sometimes cryptic, recap of the No More Heroes story so far.

No More Heroes

Travis kicks off his first story with a hyper-active monologue about how he bought a beam katana online and plans to use it to become a great assassin. From the start, the game rides the line between parody and tribute. Is it making fun of “cool nerds and the games they love,” or is it glorifying them? Can it do both at the same time? The tension in that question buzzes below the surface for the entirety of No More Heroes‘ run-time.

Travis is a powerful warrior who takes on hordes of blood-thirsty rivals all at once. He’s the textbook definition of a “cool, badass action hero.” The way he’s forced to do the “jerk off” motion with his sword in front of everyone in order to recharge it, leaving him vulnerable to both physical and emotional attacks at the same time? That’s less “badass” and more “jackass,” and that split down the middle between stud and dud doesn’t end there. He gets two kinds of phone calls every day: invitations to an underground society of assassins, and voicemails from the local video store listing all the pornos he owes late fees on. He splits his time between menial work and murdering murderers.

For a lot of us, Travis is how we look in a funhouse mirror — ridiculously exaggerated, volatile, but still a reflection of reality. He’s a guy we can both laugh at and laugh with, look down on him with one eye, look up to with the other.

Isolation is the unifying factor in Travis’ fractured life. He has a cat, who he silently pets, and a minor acquaintance named Bishop, but other than that, he’s going it alone. Over the course of the game, we come to find that there are reasons for that. Travis didn’t enter the world of competitive killing just for shits and giggles. As his battles against the bosses become increasingly strange, it becomes clearer that No More Heroes isn’t just another dumb action-comedy. It’s about Travis’ love/hate relationship with violence, and with himself. He’s trapped by it, struggling to find the exit, and in the end, it seems never-ending. There’s joy and pain in that, and more than anything, there’s truth.

For many, No More Heroes was their gateway into this deeper world of symbolism-heavy “auteur gaming.” It sold itself with novelty and brutality, but that was just to get you in the door. Once it gets its hooks in you, it takes you to places you may not have otherwise chosen to go. A cutscene near the end of the game tells a story so shocking, disturbing, and sad that parts of it actually play in fast motion so you don’t have to hear it. That’s how suppressing trauma works. You gloss over it, try to speed through your recollection of it so you don’t have to fully re-experience it. But of course, players were curious and slowed down this part of the “tape” to hear what really happened.

After they did, they could never look at Travis the same way again. His story, and the story of his family, was a true tragedy. All this time, he’d been fighting to try to make peace with his shared familial trauma, to somehow make it right.

But you can’t go back in time and kill the past. All you can do is move forward. That’s something Travis finally starts to do in his next game.

No More Heroes 1.5

But before we get to the next chapter in Travis’ life, let’s talk a little about this largely unknown side story. The Japanese special edition of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle included a short animatic film called No More Heroes 1.5. It’s unessential but interesting; a bit of optional fun that sets the stage for the next major chapter in Travis’ life.

For the most part, he’s still the same guy, alone in a dead-end town. The main difference is, he’s become a famous assassin, and lower-level killers are gunning for his title. It’s a bit of symbolism that some may say is a smidge too on the nose: he even battles a guy who looks exactly like him. His first game had become a cult hit, and it got there by being like nothing else gaming had ever seen. With this sequel, No More Heroes would have to continue to compete against all the other games on the market, and also start fighting with itself. Comparisons between the new game and the old were inevitable.

Travis’ appeal hinged on his punk rock persona, his willingness to do what no other gaming mascot would. How could he preserve that unpredictable edge while also giving his fans the same fun they’d come to expect from him?

A hero is largely defined by their villains, and to move his story forward, Travis would need a new foe to juxtapose against. No More Heroes 1.5 offers some foreshadowing on this new threat — a pizza mogul who’s looking to transform Travis’ town into a sterile, corporate wasteland. If Travis is Johnny Knoxville, a homegrown, do-it-yourself anti-celebrity, then his opposite would be a privileged, brand-obsessed brat, living his life in an ivory tower. Travis’ next full story would focus on the climb to topple this monster, and how the heights he’d reach to get there would give him plenty of room for a fall.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle

The No More Heroes games can be pretty blunt, so it feels right to just come out and say that No More Heroes 2 failed as a product. I love the game, even more than the first — but the game just didn’t bring in the new fans that most game sequels are designed to attract. In fact, it may have actually lost some people.

Suda51 wrote and directed the first game, but by the second, he was juggling multiple projects. He wasn’t as involved with this one, and you can sense it. Everything here feels a little more self-conscious and catering. For fans who loved how the first game seemed too drunk to be tactful, too unhinged to be anything but fully authentic, No More Heroes 2 seemed like a step towards conventionality by comparison.

Some critics picked on the first game for its large, and largely empty, open-world. The second one cut that entirely. The sometimes tedious menial jobs were also ditched, except for the scorpion one, because Suda seems to love the idea of Travis catching scorpions. All the others were replaced with breezy and delightful retro-style mini-games.

The story was also less toothy. Nothing in No More Heroes 2 is so disturbing that it needs to be fast-forwarded over in order to keep it from getting an AO rating. Overall, it feels more like a crowd-pleaser; like a sophomore album by a hardcore band that’s going ever-so-slightly pop.

But pop can also be deep. The story of No More Heroes 2 is no less substantive than the first. It’s just told in a less overtly weird way. Things start with Travis being given a reason to seek revenge, and it’s flimsy as hell. At first blush, it may seem like just another ham-fisted MacGuffin, but it’s really a way to reframe Travis’ real defining trait: his loneliness. If your best friend is someone who you barely know or care about, you must not have many friends at all. That’s Travis at the start of No More Heroes 2 — a more genuinely confident killer, but still a clown who doesn’t know how to connect.

Unlike the first game, which was mostly about unpeeling the layers of Travis’ psyche, the second No More Heroes is about how he changes. Through the game, he becomes a different person. His hot pursuit for revenge begins to burn a hole in him. It hurts, and not much makes it feel better. The body count piles up, and he begins to hate it, and himself. This pain motivates him to try something new: giving a shit about other people, and letting them into his life.

In the first game, the only person to ever enter Travis’ motel room is Travis. By the end of the second major chapter in his franchise, not one, not two, but three other people are invited in. Two of them are even playable characters! Travis, and the player, are learning to empathize, to see others outside themselves as just as real as them.

This increased capacity for intimacy comes to a head (literally) in the final fight. Though Travis seems a little too dumb to see it, the man who he came to hate so much is a lot like him. He’s alone, motivated by the urge to make others suffer as he has suffered, and he desires to amass power for power’s sake. But where do you have to go when you reach the top, when you finally cut off the head of a giant? The only place to go is down. Luckily for Travis, there’s someone there to catch him. The bonds he formed with friends and family turn out to be stronger than he thought. Strong enough to save him.

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes

There was a nine-year span between No More Heroes 2 and this spin-off, and that decade is reflected in the narrative. Travis has aged in real-time, and when we catch up with him, he looks more isolated than ever. How did he lose everything he gained in his last story? How did he end up in a trailer in the woods, alone with his cat, fending off attacks from drunken middle-aged baseball players?

At first, it seems like video games are to blame, but like most things with Travis, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Travis Strikes Again is actually split into three different stories: the one told through cutscenes and gameplay, the one told through text-based faxes that Travis receives through his home-office fax machine, and the one told in a supplemental visual novel called Travis Strikes Back. All of these stories feel autobiographical. Suda51 was back in the director’s chair for this one, with at least nine years of pent-up ideas ready to go, and only a small “indie-style” side story with which to tell them.

At times it can all seem like too much, trying to follow the seemingly disconnected narrative threads, but they’re all connected. Travis Strikes Again is about Travis moving to the next big conflict in his life: the psycho-social stage of emotional development called Generativity vs. Stagnation. He may look to be alone at first, but before long, he’s fighting alongside one of the victims of his past crimes, trying to make it right. His pet is no longer just a silent companion, there to help him pass the time. They’re now a partnership, and one of many. Travis also doesn’t kill anymore, at least, not in the way he used to. Most of the enemies in the games are computer bugs, flaws in the system that Travis is working to fix. The bosses, like in past No More Heroes games, are an opportunity for Travis to reflect on himself, for better and for worse. Like Doppelganger, the last boss of the second level, is he nothing but a psychopathic killer who sees people as ants to be squashed? Or, like Eight-Hearts, a refugee of the damned, is he a gameplay tool that has evolved into a man; a full human being who is willing to die so something larger than himself can live?

Or would he rather just play video games and smoke drugs all day on another planet?

There are some yes or no answers to these questions, but it’s never that cut and dried. The fact that Travis is even asking them shows that he exists in the shades of grey between them. He wants to be a good person, but only because he knows that parts of him are genuinely bad. He loves video games, but he also knows that in a way, they can be life killers. In the end, it’s revealed that his real motivation is to take care of his family, even if that means never seeing them again. Is he making the right choices? It’s never clear. But that’s how he knows he’s alive, that he’s really challenging himself. That’s what grownup Travis is all about. He’s still media-obsessed, but he’s not anti-social anymore, despite his new life of self-imposed isolation.

This kind of self-contradiction, and the tension it creates, is classic Suda. Some were disappointed that Travis Strikes Again wasn’t a return to the classic No More Heroes gameplay, but diehard Suda fans saw it as a return to form for Grasshopper Manufacture, who had been growing more conventional over the years. This new, weird little game was Suda and Travis doing the things that only they would do, reflecting where Suda is as an artist at this point in his career, and inviting you to either come along or not.

Like every game in the series, it feels like it was made with no expectations of there ever being more. But there will be more very soon, and it’s hard not to talk about.

Looking ahead to No More Heroes 3

As of this writing, I’ve played through No More Heroes 3 in a pre-release build, and then spent another eight hours just wandering around its open world, relaxing and looking for Easter eggs. I can’t say a lot due to the embargo, though I will tell you that Travis has struck again…. again. Will the game be Suda’s biggest hit yet? Will it be in the right place at the right time, just like it was in its 2008 debut? If not, it won’t be for a lack of consistency. They could have called it Super No More Heroes, or maybe… No More Super Heroes? Like the classic “Super” games of the SNES era, like Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV, it can be fully enjoyed without knowing the whole backstory, and without analyzing every story beat and word choice for some deeper meaning.

But if you like digging deeper, knowing who Travis is — and was — will make all the difference. I really, really can’t wait to see how the No More Heroes fan community reacts to this one. I think they just might lose it.

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes