Goichi Suda, better known as Suda 51, has long called himself a “punk” game designer. The best example of his design ethos remains No More Heroes, a brilliant pop culture tornado that turned a nihilistic, post-modern eye onto the stereotypes of videogames and the larger world of nerd culture. Its gleeful sendup of this culture’s tropes and conventions was buzzy, vibrant, and created by somebody who clearly knew and loved it well, even as they pointedly mocked it. Even if you didn’t know of Suda’s professed love of punk, you’d still probably be able to tell No More Heroes was effectively a punk rock game. There was really nothing else like it at the time.
That time was 14 years ago.
14 years passed between the release of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks in 1977 and Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991. 14 years between punk’s first major cultural impact outside of its own small community, and its eventual coronation as the primary form of youth culture (however short-lived that might have been). In that time the concept of “punk” had changed so much, splintering out into a myriad of subgenres, and inspiring unique artistic movements in several mediums outside of music. 1977 and 1991 were two different worlds culturally, politically, and socioeconomically, whereas the idea of punk itself had lived and died a dozen times in that gap. So it’s no surprise that those two records sound almost nothing like each other—that it stretches the very notion of genre to say the two share one. But that’s what happens with art and culture; it grows, changes, mutates into new forms, often past the point where any common foundation or shared tradition remain detectable. 14 years separated Never Mind the Bollocks and Nevermind, but it might as well have been 14 light years.
14 years also separate the brand new No More Heroes 3 from Suda 51’s original game. Nintendo is on its third console since that game was released on the Wii back in 2007. Suda himself has been credited on over 20 games in that time. It’s been a while. These two eras are also vastly different in most ways that count—smartphones were barely a blip in 2007, the economy hadn’t yet tanked (twice!), there wasn’t an endless pandemic—but you would never know that by comparing No More Heroes to No More Heroes 3. They are stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, and mechanically aligned, and more similar to each other than games released 14 years apart should be. And although there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia in games, and still so much joy and excitement that can be derived from decades-old genres and styles, this total lack of progress runs counter to the spirit of No More Heroes. No More Heroes 3 speaks of “killing the past” several times, but in reality it’s in thrall to its own past—or at least too sluggish to move past it.
When No More Heroes came out in 2007, it was weird, funny, and thrilling, but also transgressive in a way rarely seen in games. Here was a game that kind of hated games. Its hero, Travis Touchdown, was a proud gamer and “otaku” portrayed as a bit of a loser, sitting around his small dump of an apartment fixating on pop culture without any particular insight or intelligence, and proudly flaunting his arrested development. The game’s large open world, hilariously empty and lifeless, was a clear parody of the fundamental soullessness of GTA and its various ripoffs. The assassins Travis had to kill were written like absurd bit characters from David Lynch movies who somehow stumbled into the wrong medium and were elevated into videogame bosses. No More Heroes was intentionally shoddy and shocking, stranger and smarter than most games, and winkingly pretentious while mocking the pretensions of the industry.
No More Heroes 3 is also all of those things. It’s ripped straight from the same playbook. Instead of innovating around the general ideas introduced in No More Heroes, it’s content to just replicate them. It doesn’t even look appreciably different from the original. No More Heroes is the last game series in the world that should attempt to make full use of its hardware’s graphical capabilities, of course, but when a game is suffering from a general lack of ambition it doesn’t help when it looks like it could’ve been made 14 years ago. That GTA-spoofing open world returns, this time with a handful of different neighborhoods, one of which is a CRT-filtered parody of early Call of Duty’s European ruins and beachfront fortifications. Travis still spends his downtime in his nerd haven apartment, surrounded by collectible toys and his Tarantino-esque collection of obscure Asian martial arts, mecha and crime films, endlessly talking about Miike with his friend Bishop. Dude’s still a huge pro wrestling fan. No More Heroes 3 makes a point of saying Travis is now 39, easily in middle-age, and he’s still exactly the same person he was 14 years ago—just like the game itself.
No More Heroes 3 is like when a band reunites after a decade and a half apart. They’re a little older, a little flabbier. They try to recreate the same sound as before, and maybe they do a solid job of it. They might hit different notes and sing different words, but they’re basically playing the same songs. It’s not the same, though—it can’t be the same. No More Heroes 3 is content to be more of the same, even though the culture it was released in no longer exists. That makes it feel empty, and more than a little out of touch. No More Heroes 3 isn’t Nirvana’s Nevermind. It has more in common with the live album the Sex Pistols recorded during their Filthy Lucre reunion tour in 1996, which was cheekily framed by the band as an intentional sell-out done solely for the money.
That doesn’t mean No More Heroes 3 isn’t fun to play. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny and exciting and exhilarating in its own way, or that it doesn’t still feel fresh and different compared to most games that come out today. But it does mean that it’s just nostalgia at this point. No More Heroes 3 is nostalgic for when we first entered Travis Touchdown’s world 14 years ago, nostalgic for 2007 and the ability to be one of the first notable games to puncture the self-loving bubble of videogame culture. That’s fine, but that means it has no more compelling reason to exist than the videogame series No More Heroes has long made fun of. It might be opposed to what No More Heroes and Suda 51 are supposed to be about, but at least it’s not opposed to having a good time.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.