As the credits rolled on Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes I wondered if the time for men like Goichi Suda had passed.
This observation isn’t necessarily just applicable to Suda of course. Over the past decade the much beloved ‘B’ tier games, those that existed between the indie and ‘AAA’ tiers, have all but vanished from the marketplace.
With them so too does the opportunity for a very specific type of experience, one that has the financial backings of a corporate owner but also the starry-eyed optimism of a vision just wild enough to be successful.
While the development market was rapidly shifting so too was there a burgeoning conversation around maturity in gaming. New voices were joining the discourse, raising issues that most art forms had already tackled such as representation and sexism – the latter many of Suda’s games have been rightfully criticised for.
It was the kind of landscape that required adaptation and despite some efforts to do so, Suda’s brand of ridiculous quickly faded from relevance and eventually grace.
With that in mind, in a lot of ways, Travis Strikes Again feels like a hail mary pass by Grasshopper and Suda. A call to action to those who wish for a return to games such as this; smaller scale, tightly focused and frankly, a little ballsier than its contemporaries.
Travis Strikes Again Review
I can’t speak for everyone but personally, I always enjoy when Nintendo gets its freak on.
This penchant for the strange first reared its head back in 2014 when Nintendo stepped out from behind its family-friendly sheen and published the risque Bayonetta 2. Despite critical acclaim, the first Bayonetta game failed to impress Sega and the decision was made to shelve the sequel until Nintendo stepped in with not only a publishing offer for developer Platinum Games but also additional funding to finish the project.
Explicitly courting an adult demographic was a bold move that not only showcased Nintendo’s willingness to support unique games but also allowed them a kind of freedom to pursue similar projects in the future.
Enter Goichi Suda and his irreverent bad boy Travis Touchdown, star of the two Wii games No More Heroes 1 & 2. Much in the same vein as Bayonetta, the two No More Heroes games were generally well received but sales of the second entry were disappointing and interest in the series was considered waned.
For a period of time Suda and Grasshopper moved on to several other titles, of somewhat decreasing quality, but eventually, Nintendo invited the visionaries back. A follow up to No More Heroes 2 was announced at the Nintendo Switch showcase event and now, two years later, Travis Strikes Again is finally here.
Although some fans of the original games’ structure and combat will find the new game lacking, it’s stripped back approach may be just what Suda needs to draw in a new audience.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Travis Touchdown longs for a simple life; to be among the trees or some shit as he so delicately puts it.
Unfortunately, the sins of his previous life as an assassin have left more than a few vengeful ghosts in his wake. When Badman, the father of one of Travis’ hits, catches up to the crude mouthed hitman the two are drawn into a surrealist adventure.
It all takes place inside a video game console that is imbued with black magic and political mysteries (no, really).
The Death Drive Mark II, a console developed by unhinged scientists, is one of the game’s two conceits. Inside it Travis and Badman fight their way through seven different titles that all loosely resemble games of the early 90s.
It is said that whoever beats the seven Death Ball games will be granted one wish, which Badman desperately needs to bring his daughter, Bad Girl, back to the land of the living.
It’s an absurd premise, no doubt, but Suda’s penchant for the ridiculous allows him to lean all the way into the absurdity and the end result is a glorious mess of ideas. The game’s only consistent elements are its aesthetic and arcadey slasher combat, beyond that TSA rarely plays the same record twice as each Death Ball game presents an entirely unique, if a little washed out, game world to sink into.
These Death Drive games are all able to be played through in two-player co-op, with the second player taking control of Badman. There is a rudimentary leveling up system which is nicely spread between both players and despite some slight performance issues during moments of intense combat, the Switch handles the game beautifully both docked and on the go.
Death Drive Mark II Mini
TSA‘s style and combat serve as the game’s two anchors, something that no matter how insane the premise gets it can safely use to ground the experience. Played from an almost exclusively top-down perspective, the hack and slash combat is simple to pick up and exhilarating to master.
Travis’ signature laser sword returns with the standard light and heavy attacks, as well as your average jump and roll moves, all of which respond with perfectly tuned weightiness. The Beam Katana will slowly run out of energy as you hit enemies with it and once depleted requires manual recharging, adding another layer to the combat.
This is mapped somewhat awkwardly to the left trigger press, which even after hours of play I never quite got used to, but I was glad for the extra ball to juggle.
Paired with these moves is the game’s Chip system, a robust list of special power moves which are mapped to the left Joy-Con face buttons for quick access. There is a fantastic variety to these moves; unleash a powered up bolt of electricity, create a duplicate of yourself to distract enemies, plant a zone of healing etc. Paired with the game’s arcadey basics creates a combat system I was all too happy to spend time with.
This combat system shows up in each of the Death Drive games you’ll play through, though each game brings with it it’s own spin on the gameplay. The Death Ball games themselves are all fairly simple experiences, such as a rudimentary racing game or a maze flipping puzzle game.
Between each of these unique gameplay conceits, Travis will still need to slash through hordes of enemies. This Katana fodder starts out easy enough but by endgame, you’ll be kept on your toes by a staggering variety of tough enemies whose tactics require more of the player than the simple combat premise implies.
Granted, that this combat is used across the entire game it can occasionally feel a little too grindy but these blips of frustration were mercifully short lived.
Life outside of the Death Drive is far simpler as Travis and Badman kick around the trailer, buying wearable T-Shirts online and occasionally searching for more Death Balls. The T-shirts are purely cosmetic items, purchased using coins collected in the games. They’re a fun, if light addition to the game.
Searching for the Death Balls will be the game’s most divisive element and is the second core conceit. It’s a text-based adventure without the choices. The visuals are stripped back, the gameplay entirely removed, as players are subjected to long stretches of text explaining how and where Travis is finding the next Death Ball.
I can’t say that I loved these portions of TSA; giving players a break from the consistent hack ‘n’ slash of the Death Drive isn’t a bad idea but the execution is somewhat lacking. The story it tells is relatively amusing, if a little long in the tooth, but the writing swings wildly between laugh out loud funny and cringe-worthy tediousness.
You can tell a Suda game from a mile away; his brand is his aesthetic and his aesthetic, despite being spread across a variety of titles, is consistent. While his most recent works have started to slightly drift away from these trappings there are pillars of his work that seldom change; crude humour, garish visuals and an unapologetic reverence for action tropes of old.
In TSA, Travis literally waxes philosophical about the loss of real action heroes because of course, Suda isn’t subtle.
He doesn’t need to be though, there is an inherent fascination with proud visionaries in the arts and video games could absolutely stand to have more creators like him. Which makes the steps TSA takes all the more interesting.
It feels like Suda has finally started to adapt his vision to better fit the new landscape. It’s still crude at times but mostly jettisons the juvenile humour of his past work and while the meta-jokes about gaming it replaces it with don’t always land, I applaud Suda for trying something new.
There are even hints at self-awareness found throughout TSA. Brief moments in the dialogue that directly speak to ruminations on violence. Death is ever present and before you face down the boss enemies in each Death Ball game, Travis and the boss stand in an infinite void and exchange barbs about how badly they are going to mess each other up.
Suda takes this ridiculous idea and layers in reflections on death by both Travis and his opponent;
A man lives constantly seeking the moment his petals drop. Travis, when your time comes, be sure to look your killer in the eye.
Much like the humour, these attempts at depth don’t always yield gold; the main throughline of bringing back Badman’s daughter from the grave is a perfect example of this. While it would be, of course, a bit much to expect a Suda game to really go all in on the inherent tragedy of this premise, the earlier beats of the story paired with the game’s reflections on death make for a genuinely complex look at Travis’ past actions.
Where this story goes is undoubtedly extremely Suda but some may find its later beats a little disappointing.
All of these disparate elements — the different types of mini-games, the text-based adventure, the insanity of Suda’s writing — are all united under the game’s glorious commitment to garish, retro-inspired visuals. It is relentless.
There isn’t a single element of TSA’s visual language that doesn’t feel purposefully gaudy. If the game had faltered even once in its attentiveness it wouldn’t work but despite the restrictions of this being a smaller game, Grasshopper has perfectly pulled it off.
This outlandish sheen is spread over some of Grasshopper’s best character design to date. Unsurprisingly the bosses are all extremely extra.
My personal favourite, Electro Triple Star, is a punk rocker with his head in a jar and electricity in his veins. However, the game’s sparse NPC’s are next level. While in the game they are represented by shapeless grey blobs, the dialogue exchanges show off their art on the sides of the screen and every time I was thrilled to see them.
Unsettling grandpas in masks and beastly sheep demons just to name a couple. Later stages feature some truly wild things I won’t spoil here. These freaks accompany Travis on his quest and are always ready to dish out some poetic advice on life and cheese.
This fantastic art direction is paired with a banger of a soundtrack by DJ’s Abo and 1-2. It’s the synth-laden trip back in time you’d expect from looking at the visuals and I would frequently find myself lightly headbanging along as I played through.
Later levels especially, as the intensity of the combat ramped up, lay it on thick with the score which only intensifies the experience.
Suda has openly stated that sales of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes will directly impact his ability to make another full sequel to his Nintendo housed franchise.
Fans of Travis’ previous adventures may be disappointed by this down-scaling but in reducing the size of his vision, Suda has been able to finally begin adapting it for a modern market. In dropping the most extreme elements of his aesthetic he may just allow his games to become more accessible and, hopefully, successful.
Travis Strikes Again was reviewed on Switch using a final retail code provided by Nintendo.
Game Title: Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes