When it comes to giving a game a vibe, "awesome" is an easy mark to hit. Explosions, hot chicks, macho one-liners, and salivating mutants are all awesome. And it's just about impossible to overdo the awesome: More explosions, more hot chicks, more machismo, and more mutants are only more awesome.
"Cool," on the other hand, is a place developers go at their own peril. Hip irreverence is tough to define, and when it's forced, it comes off as fake as Monopoly money. When Sega scored a stylish, edgy hit with Sonic the Hedgehog, gamers were forced to suffer a terminally lame parade of "animal mascots with attitude" that ran from Aero the Acro-Bat to Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, each a bigger embarrassment than the last.
Turns out there's no formula for cool, but there is a foolproof formula for faux cool: Do what last year's cool game did. So, noses bloodied, creatively bankrupt developers crawled back to the safe, nuance-free arms of "awesome" and the predictable yields earned by explosions and tits.
This is why Grasshopper Manufacture, the developer behind No More Heroes, deserves special praise. Not only did it brave the choppy sea of cool; it did it with a style all its own — one you might properly call "geek chic."
The game's ambassador of geek chic is its protagonist, Travis Touchdown. Somewhere between a punk and an otaku, Travis shops at the gaming equivalent of Hot Topic and decorates his barely furnished apartment with Mexican wrestler masks and one-sixth scale models of half-naked anime vixens. Beyond those interests, the bulk of Travis' meager income seems to go to alcohol, online auctions, and a bottomless appetite for D-level porn.
Having recently won a "beam katana" (essentially a lightsaber) online, our hero has decided to become the No. 1-ranked assassin in the world, mostly to improve his chances of getting into a cute blonde's pants. And so he begins hacking his way through the 10 assassins ranked above him, some of the most imaginative and memorable bosses outside of Metal Gear Solid.
A taste? How about a fearsome bag lady whose shopping cart transforms into a howitzer-size laser cannon?
It couldn't be more preposterous, but No More Heroes chases the concept with absurdist gusto: Travis must pony up to get a shot at each assassin, so he's forced to raise cash by taking on whatever stupid odd job he can find, from coconut collecting to hunting for lost kittens.
To top it off, No More Heroes almost constantly bumps up against (and breaks through) the so-called "fourth wall," reminding you that you're playing a game, whether it's the 1982-era scoreboard and tinny Casio keyboard fanfare that trumpet a climb in rank, or one boss' refusal to elaborate on her personal grudge with you, because doing so "would jack up the age rating for this game even further!"
It's not perfect, of course. The city itself is ugly and bare, the pacing feels uneven, and for all its visual panache, the whole thing has a low-budget feel to it. And yet those issues almost play to the game's aesthetic. Like Travis' luchador movies, No More Heroes has a spunky, underground feel that might make you look past its rough edges with pleasure.