In retrospect, not a good game at all
When it came out, many Wii fans were clamoring for more mature titles to offset the deluge of games aimed at family-oriented audiences. The fans were also hoping for a lightsaber game that uses the Wii-mote. What more fun could you have than slicing off heads and limbs with an electric sword by swinging your arm? Finally, the fans were screaming for more hardcore games that have gameplay depth, instead of minigame collections. At first glance, "No More Heroes" sounded like a dream come true, because it looked like a solution to all of these problems. It iss unabashedly adult-oriented and bloody, the main character carries a laser sword, and it has a full-fledged fighting system with some open-ended GTA-style exploration thrown in for good measure. The high review scores that it got seemed to confirm this. However, if you build this game up as the one that you have been waiting for, than you are going to be really disappointed. In retrospect, No More Heroes benfitted tremendously from a major lack of competition. It is simply not a good game. It has a few big problems, and they will spoil your enjoyment for the game. It is solid and functional, but if you play it now for the first time, you will be bewildered by all of the high review scores that it got.
No More Heroes is a hard game to describe; many parts of it don't work very well. At its core, it is a button mashing beat-em-up that takes place in an open-ended city. You play as Travis Touchdown, a gamer who is out to become the world's number one assassin. You accomplish this goal by defeating the assassins ranked ahead of you one-by-one in a series of boss battles. You drive from mission-to-mission on your motorcycle, and you make extra money to gain entry to the big battles by taking missions on the side.
If the premise of the game sounds silly, then that is because it is. No More Heroes never takes itself seriously, and it constantly wears its absurdity on its sleeve. Battles are over-the-top, bloody affairs where you behead enemies and slice them vertically as they emit showers of blood. The battles in this game make the Japanese restaurant scene in "Kill Bill" look tame by comparison. The bosses that you face are all colorful, eccentric characters, like an angry postal worker who transforms into a masked, caped superhero.
The game constantly reminds you that you are playing a game, with numerous visual and audio references to gaming in arcades and the 8-bit era. The writing is pretty good, so much that you will be looking forward to the corny exchanges of dialog in the cut scenes right before a boss battle. The humor is decidedly adult-oriented self-referential to video games. For example, you recharge your sword by waving the Wii-mote, and Travis makes a decidedly jack-offish looking motion on the screen while you do this. A subtle joke about the phallic nature of huge swords in Japanese RPGs, perhaps? You decide. For some reason, the game also makes numerous references to Star Wars. The humorous style of No More Heroes is a major part of why the game is fun. The occasional smiles or laughs that you get out of it help it overcome its rough patches.
These rough patches show up aplenty in the gameplay for No More Heroes. The boss battles are usually wonderful, the true highlight of the game. The segments leading up to those battles, however, are awfully boring and repetitive. In No More Heroes, you will fight one henchman in 11 different skins a thousand times. Beyond the bosses, there is almost no enemy variety whatsoever in this game. By the time you complete the tutorial, you will have experienced most of the enemy tactics that there are to experience. They even all use the same three or four sound bites. You will hear the words "Are you prepared, huh?" and "Oh my spleen!" until your ears are ready to explode. You will also hear the same music track over and over again.
These problems are magnified by the game's boring and unimaginative level design, which has you constantly slogging down empty, copy-and-paste hallways where one exit opens up after you have killed off the last guy. Right before the boss battle, there is a save point and an opportunity to learn a new move. Some of the hunts take place in interesting places, like a baseball stadium or a high school, but these locations are never exploited to their fullest potential. Occasionally, there is a twist, like a baseball minigame where you knock over enemies by batting a ball at them. Unfortunately, these changes of pace are way to rare to have much of an impact. It is a shame that the imagination that was put into the boss battles is so absent in the parts that lead up to them.
A couple of the bosses in the game have some outrageously irritating quirks to them too. Namely, two of them have one shot, insta-kill attacks that they unleash on you out of nowhere when you are winning a battle and have whittled them down to less than half their health. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to spend 10-15 minutes at a time, plugging away at a boss only to be cheaply insta-killed and having to start over again without having done anything wrong. Who would make an idiotic design decision like this? Who sits in a room and says "You know what would make this game more fun? Let's give this boss a one hit kill sneak attack that completely catches the player off guard and forces them to replay the battle! Yeah, that will be fun!" It didn't ruin the game for me by itself, but it's yet another issue that it has.
If you were hoping for some great motion-controlled fighting mechanics, then boy, you are going to be disappointed. You use the "A", "B", and "Z" buttons to perform the usual actions of attacking, blocking, and breaking a block. You can also grapple stunned enemies with the "B" button to perform a special wrestling move. To perform a finishing move or a wrestling move, you move the Wii-mote and/or the nunchuck in accordance with arrows on the screen. The Wii-mote motion controls add a unique flavor, but they feel a bit tacked on. The primary method of defeating most enemies is still to mash the "A" button until it's time to perform a finishing move, which isn't integrated into the game as smoothly as you might wish. Body slamming and pile driving enemies is fun, and so is watching Travis cut a guy in half to produce copious sprays of blood. The disappointment with combat is that motion control isn't integral to it. You don't get to do much with the Wii-mote that comes naturally or is intuitive. The combat in No More Heroes almost feels as if it were designed for a conventional controller, with the Wii-mote just functioning as a different version of a button sequence. No More Heroes ultimately degenerates into a horribly reptitive button masher, with good boss battles.
When you aren't hunting bosses, you can perform side missions to earn extra money. These side missions aren't really optional, since you need money as an entry fee for each boss battle. The side missions are either quick, one-level assassination hits or minigames. They do add a little bit of variety to the game's repetitive combat, even though they are pretty shallow. All of the missions are connected by the game's open-ended, GTA-inspired city, which is another feature that feels tacked on. Driving around and exploring isn't much fun, because there is nothing to do, outside of your mission and one or two points of interest. This feature is kind of a cheap imitation of a Grand Theft Auto, without the details that make the GTA games so much fun.
No More Heroes sports a cel-shaded style that, for the most part, looks at least decent (for a Wii game). The cartoony style accentuates the game's wholly unorthodox approach. Travis and the bosses that he fights look good and are impressively animated. The legions of henchman though, are as repetitive to watch as they are to fight. The frame rate occasionally slows to a crawl after you behead a few guys (the resulting blood showere is apparently too much for the Wii). The GTA-style outdoor areas don't fare very well either. The Wii's lack of graphical prowess really sticks out here. The screen has bad aliasing all over, a problem that shows up a lot worse with the small shapes on screen when you are driving around the city. Additionally, the buildings are mostly blocky and dull looking, and texture pop-in is horrible.
No More Heroes was badly overrated, and it was a big disappointment, although most of us were in denial at the time. If you play it now, you can see how much it epitomizes the Wii's offerings. Meh graphics, a worthless open world, and shallow gameplay with tacked on motion controls. The boss battles are good, and maybe you'll get some rental enjoyment out of this game if you don't mind its flaws. Beyond that, it's probably not worth dusting off your Wii for.