We haven’t heard a peep from otaku assassin Travis Touchdown since he last graced our screens in 2010’s No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Brainchild of enigmatic industry figure Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda, Travis cut a stylish swathe through Wii’s catalogue of casual fodder. That same infectious energy is alive and well in Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, the latest game from developer Grasshopper, and it’s great to see Suda51 back in the director’s chair for the first time since the original game.
This is not a straight sequel, though. Positioned more as an indie-spirited accompaniment, this was developed by a small team and picks up the story years after No More Heroes 2. Travis has been living the dream, travelling around the US in a house-sized trailer playing video games. Despite this nomadic existence, Bad Man – vengeful father of No More Heroes’ dearly-departed Bad Girl – has finally tracked him down but both are mysteriously sucked into the world of Electric Thunder Tiger II, Travis’ only game for the legendary Death Drive MK II prototype console he’s got his hands on. They strike up an uneasy alliance and end up having to enter five other games, arriving Terminator-style, before hacking and slashing their way through static-infested enemies known as Bugstreet Boys.
The cell-shaded aesthetic remains from previous entries. Everything is 3D, although with a fixed viewpoint that changes in every section, from top-down to side-on with various angles in between, all without player input. Controls are simple – ‘B’ to jump, with light and heavy strikes split across ‘Y’ and ‘X’ respectively and a rolling dodge on ‘A’. Travis’ badass beam sword depletes with every swing and must be recharged by clicking in the left stick and shaking the right Joy-Con (a familiar action to fans of the previous games). You waggle the right stick instead if playing in portable mode, although you’re encouraged to play Super Mario Odyssey-style with a Joy-Con in each hand.
Holding ‘L’ and hitting a face button unleashes a variety of assignable skills you collect along the way, from lightning bolts to defensive barriers or summon spots that interact with enemies or replenish your health. Presets are saved and loaded from the pause menu. Skills recharge at different rates, and combat relies heavily on them – it’s vital to experiment and find what suits your playstyle.
Although each of the six Death Drive games has a different theme, Travis’ hack-and-slash gameplay is consistent across the board. Specific sections ape other styles or games (and there are some great surprises along the way). The second game intersperses a series of murder houses with a top-down suburban neighbourhood on rotatable tiles bringing some light puzzling. Another Death Ball (DDMKII games don’t come on carts, you see) sees you exploring a spooky mansion in search of damn fine coffee and doughnuts (props to the localisation team for that one).
The gimmicks raise a smile, and while some are stronger than others, the base gameplay is satisfying enough to keep you going through the less-inspired sections. Save points (toilets, of course) are scattered throughout and enemies evolve quickly from lowly drones to shield-wielding variants and beyond. Crowd control becomes important and you’ll need to prioritise baddie-spawning skulls before dealing with the horde. They inevitably get a little repetitive and, although mid-bosses provide some comedy, they’re not particularly interesting fights – hack-and-slash veterans will have little trouble on standard difficulty. Bosses themselves are an entertaining bunch, but they’re still pretty standard – it’s slick, stylish fun but Travis Strikes Again lacks the depth of more complex fighters. Bayonetta certainly won’t be losing any sleep.
We spent the majority of our time as Travis, but the baseball bat-wielding Bad Man is available at almost any time from the pause menu, with individual XP and a couple of bespoke skills. The game boasts drop in, drop out single-screen co-op with a single Joy-Con, too, and the simple controls and mechanics lend themselves well to teaming up with less-experienced players.
Mechanics aside, Travis Strikes Again’s presentation is intoxicating. Every ‘game’ is introduced with crackling CRT static and presented in 4:3 with art and info occupying the borders on the sides of the screen. It’s a meta-collage of pop art, ‘80s neon, Spielberg films on VHS and, of course, video games. On paper, it sounds like reconstituted Ready Player One, but it’s got more bite than that and Grasshopper’s self-awareness prevents it from becoming a ‘spot-the-reference’ box-ticking exercise. An eclectic soundtrack mixes Thomas Bangalter-esque techno with twangy hillbilly guitar and smooth chillout (we particularly liked the track in the mansion).
Jokes about budget restraints, spiralling localisation costs and fighting against system specs will tickle anyone familiar with game development. Characters worry about gamers ‘expecting an action game’ and not wanting ‘a buttload of text’. They ponder the importance of their Metacritic score. Grasshopper explores the dashed hopes and frustrations of game development, coming close to eating its own tail sometimes, but it’s never less than entertaining.
In between games you hang out in your trailer, a hub with a PC to access ramen blogs and a shop where you purchase indie game t-shirts using the coins and collectables you find. We showed our love for Just Shapes & Beats, but there are dozens to choose from; Travis Strikes Again wears its fandom literally on its sleeve. For all its Tarantino-esque reverence, though, we never found it grating or try-hard. This isn’t a game of ‘knowing’ references or thematic nods to Spielberg’s oeuvre; it gets up on the table, demolishes the fourth wall and shouts: “EVERYTHING IS ******* AWESOME!” Its references are in-your-face (with enemy names including Spielbug, Soderbug, and Zuckerbug) and genuine rather than affections that broadcast nerd credentials, shoving Grasshopper’s tastes down our throats. It’s unpretentious and wonderfully inclusive – a Lego Movie-like celebration of video games, if you will.
And thanks to that generous spirit you tend to let its shortcomings slide, sitting back and enjoying the ride rather than dwelling on invisible walls, finicky platforming or repetitive enemy types. Instead, you’re opening up the archives section and reading fantastic era-appropriate reviews for tips, or enjoying the interstitial globe-trotting narrative via a DOS-style text adventure ‘game’ (although it’s really just tapping through dialogue boxes). It’s pitch-perfect, anticipating the player’s thoughts and mood, and it’s willing to poke fun itself and the limitations of the medium. Suda seems content to let his video games be video games, so despite all the intertextual references, you’ll spend your time playing Travis Strikes Again, unlike certain other series helmed by auteur game directors we could mention.
Although we had sixteen hours on the in-game clock when credits rolled, exploring, dawdling and note-taking probably inflated this by 5-6 hours. There are collectables and hidden characters to go back for (how else are you going to procure all those natty t-shirts?) and 'Spicy' difficulty unlocks upon completion. Plenty to keep you busy, then, and we’re eagerly awaiting the DLC.
Billed as a side dish, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes has been prepared with enough love and affection to become a filling meal on its own, packed with the spice and spirit you’d expect from Travis Touchdown. It’s a fun, indie-inflected blast of hack-and-slash which doesn’t change the world mechanically (and don’t go in expecting No More Heroes 3), but its sincerity and energy are charming. It’s an adult game – a gamer’s game – foul-mouthed and dripping with style. If you’re sitting on the fence, we’d recommend diving in, if only to support its infectious, celebratory spirit; Suda51 seems to have a real affection for Nintendo hardware and this makes you feel lucky to have him working on Switch.
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