The work of Japanese game director, writer, and producer, Suda51 is littered with interesting and strange releases. Stuff that may not have been the most polished or refined when it came to actual mechanics, but stuff that was almost always unlike anything else available at the time.
From the minimal exercise in style that was Killer7 for the Nintendo GameCube, the gleeful excess of Lollipop Chainsaw for the Xbox 360, to perhaps his most famous creation, the No More Heroes series for the Wii. A comic dive into juvenile teenage fantasy full of referential set pieces, crass humour, fourth-wall breaking, and absurdist twists and turns. In an action-packed journey that was about series protagonist Travis Touchdown becoming the best assassin that ever lived.
With the most recent title in the series, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle
, released all the way back in 2010 – you could say that we weren’t exactly expecting the series to continue. Announced alongside the debut of the Nintendo Switch, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes brings both the series and the main protagonist back in a new game exclusive to the platform. But, not as a direct sequel. Travis Strikes Again isn’t No More Heroes 3 with a different name. Instead, this is Suda51 and development studio Grasshopper Manufacture presenting a smaller-scale, indie-like version of the series and world. An experience that perhaps might pave the way for a more expansive entry, or sequel proper, sometime in the future.
The premise and setup, on paper at least, is sound. Travis and Badman find themselves getting sucked into a mysterious and powerful console called the Death Drive Mk II. A console that instead of cartridges or optical discs takes Death Balls, thus paving the way for mini-games playable in single or two-player co-op, drawing on a rich history of videogames ranging from classic arcade releases using vector-graphics, action titles from the 16-bit era, and even multimedia-powered survival horror from the 1990s.
In that sense one might call it a love letter to several classic styles and eras. Alongside quite a few nods to modern indie hits with Travis being able to put on, say, a Ruiner or Hyper Light Drifter t-shirt. The problem is that outside of a handful of minor mini-games or sequences, Travis Strikes Again fails to live up to its premise. Or, even as a competent retro-inspired indie game. No matter the Death Ball or supposed genre or style of game, outside of some visual differences, what you get is a simplistic, linear brawler that outstays its welcome almost immediately. As bland and monotonous as the gameplay is, it’s hard to warrant any sort of outrage or negativity. The reason for that, boredom.
For as in-spirit with the No More Heroes series and entertaining as some of the non-player-controlled moments can be, Travis Strikes Again is boring. Even when played co-op. Each Death Ball is padded to the point of madness, as you move forward only having to clear yet another group of enemies to lower yet another barrier. With level design that that would look bland next to an image of a straight line. Okay, so technically there is some variety to be found. You can level up and equip different skills that can perform different special attacks or defensive manoeuvres – like say stunning enemies or sending them flying with a projectile attack – but the flow itself barely changes.
Each new game or Death Ball, when fired up, features an elaborate introduction sequence made-up of 16-bit sprites, low-poly characters ripped from the ‘90s, or even FMV sequences. ‘Press Start’ to begin and you’re then left with the same low-grade, simplistic 3D environments from the first Death Ball, with the same shoddy animation and repetitive combat that would only be tolerable as a short mini-game. Say, a side-activity or diversion in something like No More Heroes 2. Not as the, you know, entire game. And game within the game.
Hidden within Travis Strikes Again there are a few fun, unexpected, and outlandish moments. Some of the dialogue in the text adventure story sequences can be amusing, as are reading the fake classic game reviews you can collect. But even these are limited to only a handful of moments when you’re not in direct control of either Travis or Badman, and even they quickly begin to exhibit the same dual-traits of boring and over-played. In a game where you use toilets to save, fight with a lightsaber-like weapon, assassinate strange and odd characters in a world chock-full of pop culture references and absurdism – that’s strike three and four.