Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
If anyone fits the definition of auteur in the video game world, it would have to be Suda51.
His love for pro wrestling, otaku culture, action movies, and general absurdity has been the driving force behind many of his game projects. It’s his predilection for these interests that lead to the crafting of the No More Heroes franchise, a game series about a hopeless try-hard who buys a laser sword off e-Bay and stumbles his way into a dark underworld of assassins.
The thing about the auteur, however, is that they have an incredible amount of control over any project they undertake, and thus, auteur projects tend to be shaped by the creator’s whims. It’s quite clear what Suda was interested in when creating this title, and that’s indie games like Undertale, Superhot, and Hotline Miami. He decided to greatly scale back the size of his team, and worked with a much smaller budget to develop Travis Strikes Again, a No More Heroes spinoff.
This isn’t No More Heroes 3 like a lot of people thought it would be. According to Suda51, it’s only meant to be a side story that tells us what Travis has been up to between NHM2 and NMH3.
So what has he been up to?
Playing video games in his trailer, it seems. Travis has gotten his hands on a cursed virtual reality game console, the Death Drive Mk II. It’s said that anyone who can gather up the six Death Ball cartridges and beat the games included inside will have a wish granted to them. So Travis teams up with Bad Man (the father of Bad Girl, a boss from a previous NMH title) to find the balls, beat the games, and make a wish.
The majority of the gameplay takes place inside these video game worlds, which just so happen to all play out like a straightforward action games. Travis and Bad Man have access to a light attack, a heavy attack, four special attacks that they can trigger using special skill chips that they find around levels, and a super attack that triggers when a meter fills after killing enough enemies. Their only method of defense is a dodge roll, and their only special form of movement is a jump.
At its most base level, Travis Strikes Again uses the familiar action gameplay loop of enter a locked room→fight a bunch of enemies to release the lock→proceed to the next room→repeat. If you go off the beaten path, you will sometimes find the aforementioned skill chips, some currency, special Azteca or Unreal Engine coins, or your missing cat Jeane (who can talk now for some reason.) Other than the skill chips, these collectibles really don’t get you anything. The most they do is unlock new t-shirts to wear, but the camera is often so pulled out that you can’t even see them.
Every so often the game will play with its genre, changing to a puzzle game or top down action game, or racing game, or even a platformer. The problem is that these small changes in genre are never fleshed out enough to be fun. The racing mini-game, for example, doesn’t even allow you to steer. It’s just a straightforward drag race which you will essentially auto-win if you have the right bike upgrades and auto-lose if you don’t. How do you get bike upgrades? You fight your way through more action stages.
Unfortunately, even the action stages aren’t particularly fun. Your light attack is useless against all but the weakest enemies. This leaves you nothing but your heavy attack’s simple two hit combo to spam over and over again, and it’s so slow that you frequently find yourself getting interrupted by enemies. The input buffer is huge, and the controls are unresponsive which makes it difficult to actually plan to use any sort of special attack. You just kind of mash your way through foes, and if you are at too low a level, you lose. Otherwise, you win.
This probably sounds horrible, and it really is. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Travis Strikes Again than the flawed gameplay.
A bizzare and incredible experience
It’s a bad “game” by almost any metric, but I still binged through it in only a couple days, and am eagerly awaiting the next chapter. Why? Because Suda51 knows how to make mediocre games into amazing experience.
Let me give you an example. The t-shirt store is full of t-shirts with indie game logos on them, everything from Downwell to Wargroove, Minit to Reigns, The Messenger to Hatoful Boyfriend. There are tons of these shirts to find and unlock, and while you can’t see them well on Travis or Badman while you play, there is a tangential experience here that is strangely engrossing
You see, Suda51 has really good taste in indie games, and you’ll likely find one or two that you loved on this list. This makes you naturally curious what the other games that you haven’t heard of play like. You’ll check them out online, maybe download a few that are on sale and play them alongside Travis Strikes Again, like a curated indie game tour. That was an experience that made grinding through the repetitive action levels worth it.
Travis restores his health by visiting Ramen stands strewn about the levels. Each stand sells a different type of ramen, and finding a ramen stand also unlocks an entry in the ramen blog which goes deeper into the history, ingredients, and tradition of making that sort of ramen. You’ll even get a quick crash course on the area of Japan that it comes from. All of this info had me calling up my local ramen place and trying different types of ramen out while playing Travis Strikes Again. I must have had nothing but ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for half a week.
To actually find new Death Balls, you have to play Travis Strikes Back, a text adventure style game that loves to break the fourth wall. Travis loves to drop names like Devolver Digital, Takashi Miike, and Deadpool, and every time he does your eyes will light up like Captain America saying “I got that! I understood that reference!” It even lampoons common issues in game design, from budget cuts to marketing, and it doesn’t go easy on game journalists either.
I loved every second of it.
That’s what kept me playing Travis Strikes Again. I wanted to see what Suda51 was going to do next. I wanted to unlock every fake GamePro article, every fax from a shadowy government informant, every t-shirt with an indie game reference. I wanted to see every hidden cutscene from poorly rendered retro CG to live-action FMV. I wanted to experience every bait and switch when the game would suddenly change genres or when a boss fight would end prematurely only to make fun of me, the slobbering gamer that just wants more carnage.
And the ending, the ending is such a twist they had to program new mechanics for it. It’s a real galaxy brain moment, similar to the ending of Nier: Automata, minus the gravitas.
Who is it for?
All of this delicious content felt laser targeted at me, the try-hard otaku indie-gameophile… in other words, people like Travis Touchdown. It was more than worth slogging through the action sequences to experience it, and I think that was Suda51’s point.
His new infatuation with indie-games came from a desire to engage the player while working within strict design limitations, and at that he absolutely succeeded. He proved that you can have a simple and even repetitive game, but by putting thought into the narrative, environment, and diverse content, you can make a thrilling experience nonetheless.
Perhaps this is what all breakout indie designers do, and perhaps that’s exactly what Suda51 wanted to emulate.