No More Heroes (2008)
Impression published on Monday, 2010-01-04 | Videogame | 4 stars
Though the consensus among the professional press seems to be that Suda 51's No More Heroes is something of a coming-of-age story--the director's trademark avant garde, post-everything, smash-and-grab, punk-pop rococo finally meets and is paired with a very playable game and the results are not entirely unpleasant to behold--I think The Onion (of all places) comes closer to getting it right by arriving at a different (but not opposing) conclusion. To wit: "Santa Destroy could easily be in the same Thomas Guide as Tarantino's Los Angeles, a place where the mundane and the grindhouse mingle. In Kill Bill, you only get to observe the wacko world. No More Heroes lets you live there."
And while it doesn't take a genius to come to the all-but-unavoidable conclusion that Suda 51 and Tarantino are kindred spirits and to then start in on the inevitable Kill Bill comparisons*, I think the implicit sentiment in the Onion review, which reviews NMH more like a movie (than a videogame), is more important than what actually gets said. I think it's not really worth making the observation that Suda 51's directorial influence results in a world where "the mundane and the grindhouse mingle"; I do, however, think it is very much worth making the observation (either implicitly or explicitly) that NMH is a game that's fast enough, engaging enough, stylish enough and smart enough to compete with the movies, not just for our dollars, but for our interest and our understanding.
I think this because I think that that is the game that Suda 51 was trying to make (i.e. not just a game that marries his inimitable style with addictive game play).
Now, to be fair to the professional press, the game does have some flaws--and most of them are black marks in the design column, e.g. the thing where you have to "reset" assassination mini-games by driving back to K Entertainment or the decision in the first place to even include the Santa Destroy "sandbox" element in the finished product--and the most remarkable element of its presentation, from a pure "videogames" stand point, is, in fact, how much fun the game's 11 boss fights are and how satisfying it feels to perform Lucha Libre suplexes on your enemies. But reviewing NMH as if it were just another videogame among videogames misunderstands a pretty fundamental element of its director's ambition and his goals, if you ask me. Much like 2005's Killer 7, Suda 51's NMH isn't him trying to become a darling of videogame critics by being a really good videogame designer or even him trying to make some kind of meta-critical commentary on videogames as a medium. Rather, what you've got (in both cases, I believe) is him trying to assert that he can compete for that dirty dollar and that cultural cachet on equal footing and with the same cultural legitimacy as any movie.
Basically, Suda 51 doesn't seem to me like he's looking for someone to say, "here is a game that is as good as any movie; it's pretty good for a videogame". Rather, it seems like he wants someone to start talking about games--his games, preferably--in the same sentence as movies, without skipping a beat or explaining why it's OK to talk about them in the same sentence.
Videogame directors who wish they were movie directors are a dime a dozen and it's a well established fact that videogames are a bigger industry than movies, at least in terms of black ink. The thing worth commenting on with this game isn't that Suda 51 aspires to direct movies, it's that he clearly believes that videogames can compete on equal footing with movies, i.e. that they can be just as smart, just as goofy, just as ironic and that they can lay equal claim to things like Star Wars, Mexian wrestling, Wim Wenders movies and the Tarantino-style, no-punches-pulled picaresque noir (if I might coin a genre).
Or whatever it is that they're about.
But, like most of the greats (it should be obvious by now, based on the fact that I chose not to spend the above 1000 words shitting all over him and his career, that I think he's pretty great), Suda 51 is the guy who everyone wants to be cool with.
An obscuritanist tongue-in-cheek reference here, a vague but probable allusion there and voila: the net effect is that it seems like Suda 51 is winking right at you, as if he were saying, "you, my friend: you are truly in on the joke". Second rate niche journalists like the professional videogame reviewers see the him winking and they think he's winking at them; first rate niche journalists like the hipper-than-thou Onion AV Club think he's winking at them; guys with an axe to grind against all journalists like me think that he's winking at us.
And while it's impossible to say exactly who Suda 51 thinks is actually in on the joke, I think it's a productive but ultimately symptomatic move to limit the conversation to what the game actually accomplishes, as witnessed by its aesthetic successes and design failures. The real conversation is about what exactly it is that this dude thinks he's doing. Even if that conversation doesn't have a conclusion just yet.
That's the real deal: that's what I want to talk about.
* Which are suspiciously absent from the videogame press: don't these people watch movies? Actually, now that I think about it, it's possible that they don't: this would neatly explain the total lack of irony, self-consciousness and style with which professional videogame reviews are written. A profession-wide epidemic of movie non-watching would also explain why most professional videogame writers feel that their professional and social mandate is to publicly justify their inner conviction that "videogames are art" (or some such rubbish) rather than to be shrill, hawking voice of penetrating honesty--the voice that spends most of the day calling "bullshit" and keeps the bubbly and obsequious camaraderie off of the page--that the "art form" so desperately needs.