Saturday, January 31, 2015

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part seven: Tenacious Beats

This is the seventh entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Tenacious Beats

In the last post, I discussed two of Santa Destroy’s veteran fighters who warn Travis of the trouble he’s getting himself into by aiming for the top of the stack. One of the earliest characters Travis encounters in the sequel game, Desperate Struggle, is an assassin by the name of Nathan Copeland. After Travis kills Skelter Helter, younger brother of the assassin Travis faced in the intro sequence of the first No More Heroes title and the ranking fight that set him on his path to glory, word quickly spreads across Santa Destroy that the so-called ‘crownless king’, Travis Touchdown himself has returned.

Nathan: “This must be karma… Travis Touchdown.”
Travis: “Spare me the mystic crap. I came here to fight.”

Nathan Copeland’s high-rise apartment is large, and decorated with gold and marble interior, similar to Death Metal’s mansion in the first game. However, unlike Death Metal, Nathan Copeland displays excitement at the prospect of facing off against Travis, and given the fashionable clothing and bling he’s decorated himself with, as well as the two scantily-clad groupies to either side of him, he appears to be drinking in his role as fiftieth-ranked assassin to the fullest. Nathan does not appear to hold much of a meaningful connection to his female companions, as he almost immediately throws them toward Travis as human shields that get caught between their flurry. They quickly die, with Nathan not displaying the slightest hint of remorse for their bodies being shredded to pieces.

Nathan: “Magnificent! Travis, the crownless king! I see the rumors were true.”
Travis: “I don’t know who’s talking about me, but that nickname’s alright!”
Nathan: “Listen to me, your highness, these rankings mean nothing to me! Neither does my sect, or the mob. My only true calling was to clash swords with you. That’s why I joined this contest – I was starving for a worthy foe.”
Travis: “Then you’re in luck, ‘cause I’m as worthy as it gets. And I’ve got a shit-ton of anger to work out!”
Nathan: “That’s what I like to hear! This is it! This is what I’ve been praying for! I’m weary of this gilded world – all glitter, no soul. Save me from sorrow, crownless king. Thy sword and thy wrath will deliver me.”
Travis: “Uh… you should go easy on that crazy punch. How about I just cut you a new one?”
Nathan: “We’ll both do as divinity commands!”
Travis: “Halle-fuckin’-lujah!”

This buildup to their fight an interesting parallel to when Travis first set out on his journey to become ‘number one’. This time, it is Nathan who fits the role of overconfident young assassin, and Travis who is the veteran. Travis was guided by delusions of grandeur, not fully understanding the ramifications of what would come with his drive toward greatness, while Nathan’s desire is to face a worthy opponent, namely the most legendary of all UAA assassins, Travis Touchdown. Nathan also appears to believe that some divine intervention will be decide who is best, rather than the respective skill sets he and Travis bring to the table, all of which is a tad ironic, considering his rank in the UAA. Number fifty of fifty-one is, frankly, nothing to really brag about, and given Sylvia’s warning to Travis in the first No More Heroes about how there could be someone just around the corner waiting to kill him, means that Nathan’s life expectancy is among the shortest of any of the UAA ranked assassins.

Nathan shouts out one exuberant line of “Deliverance!” before having his torso sliced in half. Thereafter, Travis and Sylvia talk about the road that lies ahead, before Travis can square off with his ultimate foe, Jasper Batt Jr., avenge the death of his pal Bishop, and dismantle the entire UAA. Sylvia praises Travis, saying that he was, “spectacular!” But whereas Travis is shown to be breathing quite heavily following his fight with Ryuji, feeling a great deal of pain from the electrocution and laser blasts dealt out by Destroyman, and even getting psyched as Letz Shake starts off the countdown for his disaster blaster, he does not appear to have even broken a sweat in his fight against Nathan Copeland.

Sylvia: “Look at you, Travis – violence is the only way you can express yourself, no?”
Travis: “Oh I’m in the zone, baby. Nothing’s gonna hold me back.”
Sylvia: “Good. I’ve arranged the next fight. It’s going to blow your mind!”
Travis: “Can’t fuckin’ wait.”

Even if Nathan Copeland effectively proved little more than child’s play, Travis does seem to get a sort of high off the acknowledgement of his returning to his assassin’s ways. I talked at length in a previous part of this series about the progression of Travis and Sylvia’s relationship, but over the course of Desperate Struggle, we see some rises and dips in the way they are building toward that passionate climax in Travis’ motel room. Sylvia guns down Ryuji with extreme prejudice when Travis refuses to finish him off, claiming that whatever honor he might have, he could come back and attempt to strike Travis down, and is, in a twisted way, showing that she cares for his well-being, which is quite a stark contrast to the first game, when nearly every boss fight would be preceded with a confirmation of her faith that Travis would die against his latest opponent. However, preceding Travis’ arena rematch with the now brain-in-a-jar Dr. Letz Shake, Sylvia displays some colder feelings toward him that would indicate her old ways are resurfacing.

Sylvia: “Travis, It’s me. Your next fight is arranged. You know what to do, yes? I’ve updated your map. Handle the rest yourself.”
Travis: “Woah there, ice queen! What’s with the harsh treatment?”
Sylvia: “I do not have time to waste on twenty-fifth-ranked scrubs like you! Take a hint, you impotent dipshit!”
Travis: “…I like her better when she’s horny.”

As we later learn, Sylvia separated from Henry at some point between the two games, and it is possible that Sylvia’s sudden shift to anger is actually derived from that. It would also make sense, given that she calls Travis ‘impotent’, despite the fact that they have not been physically intimate with each other at this point in the game. I previously discussed how Travis and Sylvia’s relationship is built upon confusion and sometimes contradiction, with the two of them not fully understanding what it is that brings them together in the end. It’s very possible then, that given the far more complex presentation of her as a character in the sequel, that this could be Travis catching Sylvia in a moment of wrestling with her own side of this conundrum.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part six: Steel Python/Pleather for Breakfast

This is the sixth entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Steel Python

While much of this series has been focused on the female characters in the No More Heroes games, I’d like to focus these next portions on some of the male characters. I previously covered Letz Shake and Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarskii as examples of nontraditional, possibly androgynous or bisexual characters respectively. In these particular segments, I will be shifting the focus to the complete opposite – male characters who display masculine traits and how this reflects upon other characters as well as the multi-layered themes of No More Heroes in the narrative of the game world, as well as two games’ purposes as commentary on the video game industry circa the late 2000s.

The first assassin Travis squares off against actually occurs in the intro sequence, the eleventh-ranked Helter Skelter, who is referred to as ‘the drifter’ as something of a sly means of getting Travis wrapped up in the business of the UAA. As Sylvia explains some time into the first No More Heroes adventure, Travis essentially has to continue fighting onwards and upwards, lest some new challenger attempt to usurp him from his current ranking in the UAA. It’s a deadly game, and once someone takes that first step on the road to glory, they are essentially locked in until either they make it to the top, or someone cuts them down.

The first fight that is properly playable, however, sees Travis square off with the gruff, tattoo and piercing-decorated Death Metal, whose mansion effectively serves as the game's tutorial segment. The mansion itself is extravagant and quite sizeable, as Travis circles around a number of hallways, winding his way up and down staircases as new doors open and more goons pour forth to challenge this young pompadour-sporting punk. Marble pillars stretch toward a high-rise ceiling, and one particularly large room boasts paintings of Death Metal with beautiful blonde women clinging to his legs.

This lavish lifestyle is everything Travis hopes to find when he reaches the number one rank, and yet, despite his oceanfront property complete with pool and gazebo, Death Metal informs Travis that what he sees before him is “no paradise” – that everything in this mansion is effectively a façade, that championing the cause of becoming a skilled assassin comes at a higher price than most would be willing to consider. Death Metal has become disillusion with the UAA ranking fights, and responds to Travis’ being so impressed with his estate with the following: “I am free of desire. So long as I have this scenery to look upon, I need nothing more. Please leave me be.” Later in the game, Travis witnesses this firsthand through the death of Holly Summers, and it strikes a particular chord with him, serving as one of the first major moments that leads him to change and mature as a character. Here, however, Travis is naïve and cocky, and does not heed Death Metal’s warnings, instead telling him to make way for the new generation. Death Metal and Travis’ exchange continues thus:

Travis: “You’re the one leaving – in a body bag!”
Death Metal: “I’ll only say this once more: leave here, now!”
Travis: “Heh, me leave? You obviously don’t know me!”
Death Metal: “You don’t get it, do you?”
Travis: “Hey, you know what paradise is, right?”
Death Metal: “Paradise?”
Travis: “This is paradise; the place where dreams are fulfilled. Well you’ve had your dream, old man – time to wake up!”
Death Metal: “This is no paradise.”
Travis: “Alright, then what is it?”
Death Metal: “A place to die.”
Travis: “Heh. I’m glad you and I are on the same page, here.”
Death Metal: “So naïve. You have no idea, do you? What a pity. You make an old man cry. Arrogant crude little shits like you come around from time to time. Listen well, young one: the wall is high, higher than you will ever know.”

This theme of Travis being the arrogant youth challenging are far more seasoned and disillusioned competitor carries over to the ninth ranking fight with Dr. Peace, who Sylvia describes as, “a dirty and unscrupulous detective with plenty of dark secrets about him – illegal investigations, illicit sales, black marketing. He is your one-stop shop for marketing illegal goods. And, on top of that, he is a trained assassin. He’s been doing some work for the mafia, and before you know it, he’s up there, ranked ‘ninth’ on the list.” The fight with Dr. Peace takes place in Santa Destroy’s baseball stadium, and is preceded with a musical number by the good doctor, as he was allowed to request whatever he wanted from the UAA, courtesy of Travis’ hefty entry fees.

The conversation between the two sees Travis irked about his hard-earned money being used to cater to his next foe, while Dr. Peace’s more genuine responses to Travis’ inquiries reveal some interesting details about his character and his life outside of the killing scene.

Dr. Peace: “My ex-wife called me the other day, and I met my daughter for the first time in ten years. We dined at a fancy restaurant – one of those that are impossible to get a reservation for. And then afterwards, karaoke!”
Travis: “Who got you the reservation?”
Dr. Peace: “The association took care of it, of course.”
Travis: “Fuck. My entry fee.”
Dr. Peace: “What’s important is not the fact that reservations are hard to get. In fact, no one ‘gets’ reservations. The words ‘reservations only’ apply only to those outside of the circle. It’s getting into that circle that matters.”
Travis: “And the food – good?!?”
Dr. Peace: “Unfortunately, the atmosphere was a façade. Not once did my own daughter look me in the eye. ...Oh the food? Tasted like blood.”
Travis: “You’re a junkie for blood, old man!”
Dr. Peace: “Sadly, I can’t disagree. There’s only one way to live. People like us, we’re sharks attracted to blood. You smelled blood too, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Travis: “You got it old man! And for some reason, I feel this sense of… euphoria!”
Dr. Peace: “Don’t die on me too quickly. I want to gorge myself on this sense of fulfillment ‘till I vomit!”
Travis: “Man, this is what I live for! Fighting your own kind – nothing’s more gratifying!”
Dr. Peace: “See you on the other side.”

While Travis’ close-quarters beam katana strikes could not be more different from Dr. Peace’s rapid flurry of pistol shots, their duel ultimately ends on a quick-draw standoff torn right out of a spaghetti western film. With one fluid strike to the gut, Dr. Peace is knocked onto his hands and knees, sputtering as he slowly bleeds out. Before he draws his final breath, Dr. Peace relays one final message to his daughter, but with only Travis and an empty stadium to hear him.

Dr. Peace: “Next song I sing, I know my… daughter will love. Won’t you, darlin’? Better practice my rap. Rap with me, Jennifer…”

Pleather for Breakfast

In No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, there is an assassin by the name of Million Gunman who shares a strikingly similar aesthetic to Dr. Peace with his facial hair, older age, and reliance on revolvers. But aside from Million Gunman’s love of money (which he reminds Shinobu of time and time again, due to his seemingly limited pool of overly-active taunt quotes) the sequel game never paints as colorful a picture of him as the first game did with Dr. Peace. What follows below involves some heavy theory and speculation, and admittedly does not have as much direct in-game substance to back it up as my previous theory in connecting Margaret Moonlight and Alice Twilight.

While Dr. Peace is the first assassin Travis faces in Santa Destroy’s baseball stadium, he later returns to challenge Bad Girl in a separate section beneath the stadium. Bad Girl wields a bloody baseball bat, and when Travis first enters her batting-practice-room-turned-bachelorette-pad, she is seen whacking her bat into the heads of men bound in full leather S&M gear as they helplessly ride down a conveyer belt toward her, gleefully snapping the necks of each one. Upon Travis’ arrival, Bad Girl brings her routine to a halt, and says: “Phew! What a day. I need a drink – so fuckin’ thirsty. Hold on a sec.” She ignores the last gagged and bound man on the conveyer belt, walking over to her mini-fridge and shotgunning a beer before tossing the can aside, belching, and exclaiming, “Damn, that’s smooth. I feel alive again. Want a drink?”  Travis’ facial expressions in this particular scene indicate he is, at the very least, mildly perturbed by Bad Girl’s behavior, and he turns down her offer of tossing him a cold brew.

Bad Girl: “Pop quiz: why am I such an angry bitch? Seriously, no matter how many I kill, it’s all the same. They’re all going to pay – yeah, with their fucking lives!”
Travis: “You’re a bad girl.”
Bad Girl: “You have no right to look at me like that. It’s just a job, the daily grind.”
Travis: “You’re no assassin, you’re just a perverted killing maniac.”
Bad Girl: “In essence, they’re the same. Don’t go on thinking you’re better than me. You think you’re hot shit! Who the fuck do you think you are?!? Come on!”

The dialogue with Bad Girl is considerably shorter than with practically any other assassin in the first game – even Letz Shake receives a considerable amount of time to amp up the atmosphere of his battle with Travis before its hilariously tragic anti-climax. The conversation with Bad Girl is also decidedly one-sided, with Bad Girl’s responses being so aggressively defensive. Bad Girl’s disheveled hair and baggy eyes indicate that she has done quite a lot of drinking as of late, and her general behavior in battle is as fetishistic as her hobby of killing leather-bound men. Bad Girl lets her hips sway as she struts toward Travis, her pink and frilly dress a deceptive parallel to her sadistic attacks that involve lighting her bat on fire and dropping to the floor, pouting in an attempt to draw Travis close for an instant kill move wherein she beats him senseless.

Even after she’s been impaled with Travis’ beam katana, Bad Girl refuses defeat, knocking Travis to the floor to smack him as many more times as she can while she showers blood out both the front and back of her torso, shouting, “I won’t lose! I will never lose!” Travis, doing his best to take the brunt of the force from her swings with his hands, tells her, “I give up! You win!”, which prompts Bad Girl to fall on her hands and knees just above Travis. “Yes! I’ve won!” she exclaims, with an innocent, bubbly giggle before she collapses dead on top of Travis.

It would appear that Bad Girl seeks only praise, and that she does not take kindly to anyone who would dare to challenge her, immediately antagonizing them as she did Travis. Meanwhile, all of her victims on the conveyer belt have their legs and arms bound, rendering them completely incapable of escaping her swings, and similarly incapable of challenging her in any way. Essentially, she appears to feed her own ego on the idea that she is unbeatable, unstoppable, and that she is carrying out some greater service by offing these men, all while they have no visible faces – they are presented to her as targets, not human beings. The idea that Bad Girl is fueled by some hatred of men seems a bit more dark and serious in tone than many of the vices exhibited by her fellow assassins. There is, however, a theorized connection that some fans have drawn between Bad Girl and Dr. Peace, linking them as daughter and father.

As Dr. Peace explains in his pre-fight dialogue, he had dinner with his ex-wife and daughter at a restaurant, after not having seen his daughter in a decade. He states that, much as he appreciated the UAA going to such lengths to set things up for him, the dinner did not go over well, that the atmosphere betrayed everyone’s true feelings, and that his daughter did not so much as look him in the eye. Using the shared location of the baseball stadium as the common denominator for these two assassins seems perhaps a bit of a stretch, but if Dr. Peace was indeed Bad Girl’s father, it would help to explain a great deal about her.

Dr. Peace is said to be a black market dealer, someone who is involved with dirty investigations, and who is very good at what he does in both his work with criminal organizations as well as his role as the ninth-ranked assassin. The No More Heroes Wiki states that Bad Girl is twenty-three years old at the time of her fight with Travis, meaning that the last time she saw her father was when she was thirteen, undergoing puberty and dealing with all the emotional and hormonal changes that come as a result of that. If all that Bad Girl knew about her father was that he was into some sinister and bloody business, and that he had put his illegal work before his role as a father, she might be inclined to resent him and everything he stood for. While we don’t know the sort of home life she grew up in, other factors between these key developmental years and adulthood could have extrapolated upon her negative feelings toward her father to expand into a more extreme generalization that she views men as potential causes for her emotional suffering and/or threats to her well-being, or that she utilizes them as stand-ins to project intense feelings of frustration toward her father onto. Perhaps Bad Girl’s alcoholic tendencies tie into this as well, though it could also be the case that she was downing beer in excess to deal with the recent death of her father, someone who seemingly showed up out of nowhere ten years after skipping out on her to host an ill-fated attempt at reconnecting, only to go ahead and get himself killed the very next day, with nothing reconciled in the end. Again, this last portion of this particular entry is heavily rooted in fan-proposed content, none of which has actually been confirmed since the initial release of No More Heroes, but it could provide some compelling introspection on two of Santa Destroy's most skilled assassins.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part five: Gorgeous Blues

This is the fifth entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

Gorgeous Blues

Of all the assassins Travis Touchdown crosses paths with, there are but a select few he allows to live. The first to be spared is Shinobu Jacobs, who puts up what is arguably one of the most challenging fights in the first No More Heroes. Travis cuts off her hand, realizing that if he does not stop her, she will continue with her obsessive belief that Travis is responsible for her father’s death. But he also believes that she can provide him a greater challenge down the road, once she’s matured. Travis does not write her off as a child, per se, but his sparing of Shinobu is not terribly dissimilar to his sparing of Kimmy Howell in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle.

Whether designed as an intentional parallel or not, Kimmy similarly has obsessive tendencies. In the years since Travis made it to the number one rank of the UAA and then disappeared, he has grown into something larger than life, an urban legend dubbed ‘the crownless king’. Kimmy is nothing shy of absolutely giddy upon meeting Travis face-to-face, handing him a letter which reads:

“To my dearest Travis the Great,

       Hi there, Travis the Great! I am the girl who loves you the most in the entire world. But in order to prove I am your number one fan, I need some kind of evidence, because no matter how much I insist that I am your number one, any other chick or bitch can approach you and say the exact same thing. That is why I have decided that I should become strong. By doing so, I knew that someday I would be able to get closer to you. Putting my title as ‘Travis the Great’s number one fan’ on the line, I embarked on this path and ended up winning the National Student Assassination Championship. I really did my best. But you know, in hindsight, it was a cinch. I guess I’m just blessed. I can master in one day techniques that would take others years to do. Pretty awesome, right? And then, I got greedy - a new urge, a vision that just maybe I could win a fight against Travis the Great. Now my goal is to behead Travis the Great, therefore surpassing my hero. Whoops! Did I actually write that? It’s kind of embarrassing, you know. Well anyways, I’ve made up my mind. I made an oath. I won’t be killed by anyone. I shall defeat Travis the Great in battle – only then will Travis the Great become mine and mine only.

Love, Travis the Great’s number one fan, Kimmy Howell”

While Kimmy Howell’s fight certainly mixes up the routine just enough for players, it doesn’t offer many strikingly different patterns from previously-faced assassins. She shoots a stream of bubbles at Travis that can briefly stun him, and she has a decent range with her Darth Maul-inspired woodwind-instrument-turned-double-edged-beam-katana, but she’s not a particularly challenging foe on the whole. I believe this portion of the game was deliberately designed to give Travis an easier win than with much of the rest of the competition, reflecting Kimmy’s overconfidence and being in over her head with the business of fighting in the big leagues of the UAA. Just like with Shinobu, Travis spares Kimmy, knocking her out with a suplex, and proclaiming: “Screw this! I can’t kill a co-ed! Come see me after you graduate, and I’ll school you again!”

While it’s clear throughout both No More Heroes titles that Travis has no qualms about engaging in this UAA-sponsored death sport, he also has some degree of morals or standards. He is unwilling to kill younger, starry-eyed competitors, and it seems he is similarly not okay with Shinobu’s coming on to him in the sequel, as he informs her he cannot accept her advances on account of it making him feel like “a pervy teacher in a porn.” That said, it is not entirely clear if the age difference is truly what leads him to shoot down Shinobu, or if it is due to their history together and the fact that she has molded her new identity around Travis’ legendary status.

I already covered the respect Travis displays toward Alice Twilight in a previous part of this series, but there is one final assassin Travis expresses a particular fondness towards, and his word choice and body language indicate that he conveys both a respect out of honor toward Holly Summers, as well as some deeper emotional connection. Holly’s entire strategy revolves around setting traps for Travis to keep him at a distance, and yet she constantly throws him teasing phrases and cute looks that indicate she has some degree of interest in him, whether it is emotional attraction or simply that she is entertained by his taking their fight so seriously. Though we as players are informed of Ms. Summers name before the battle begins, as is tradition with each ranking fight in the first NMH title, Travis does not learn her name until after her suicide.

Holly: "A bud that will never blossom, a sad truth. Goodnight my sweet seventh."

Interesting about the relationship between Holly Summers and Travis Touchdown is that, despite his having clearly bested her, Travis seemingly has no intention of finishing her off. He views her as someone special, someone who stands out among all the other assassins he’s faced thus far. And yet, while Holly expresses that she has a thing for “stupid men” like Travis, and that she can see he has “budded” into something more than what she first gauged him to be, there is an order to things, a code that must be followed, and thus she pulls the pin on one final grenade which she places in her mouth. Hugging her now-decapitated body, Travis expresses that he loved Holly’s soul, indicating that even if there was not a mutual romantic energy between the two, there was certainly something valuable Travis gained from this fight. The conclusion of Travis’ fight with Holly Summers is the first major step we witness him take toward maturing as a man and as an assassin.

Holly: "Thank you. The moment you hesitated... I felt your embrace."

Holly is the only assassin that Travis provides a proper burial for, and he carries her body to the hole in the sand, a physical parallel to the weight he carries knowing that their time was cut short, that whatever he could have gained in terms of knowledge, emotional growth, or spiritual exploration from Holly Summers is forever lost. Though he refers to her as ‘Number six’ prior to her death, Travis asks Sylvia for her name, but stops Sylvia before she explains Holly’s life in further detail. It’s a sign that, as much as Holly’s death pains Travis, he realizes getting involved with any of these assassins will result in more than just physical pain, and that he needs to remove the human factor from the equation. At the same time, many of the assassins Travis faces from this point onward and even in the sequel are treated to some display of respect from Travis (Letz Shake, Ryuji, Margaret Moonlight, and Alice Twilight, to name a few). It’s a signifier that Travis understands that his role as an assassin is more than just a silly title as her initially believed, but that there is some strange thread of a common fate that connects him and all of the other assassins registered with the UAA.

Monday, January 19, 2015

How does your beam katana swing?: gender identity and sexuality in No More Heroes - part four: The Crownless King

This is the fourth entry in a series of short articles I will be posting that explores the gender roles and sexuality of various characters within the NMH titles. As mentioned in the first mini-article, some of what I will be covering deals with information that is explicitly stated within one game or the other, while other portions are pulled from my own personal speculations and fan theories. Fair warning: as the No More Heroes titles both bear 'M' ratings, there may be adult language and/or content referenced in these articles, as well as spoiler content for anyone who has not yet completed the games.

The Crownless King

Travis Touchdown is many things – a mold-breaker as Santa Destroy's resident goofball anti-hero, an individual with selfish desires like reaching the number one rank in the UAA, and according to Sylvia Christel, one 'otaku dipshit’. Yet, for as much of a bombastic display as Travis puts on during any give one of his ranking battles, it may very well be that fighting is the one thing he is good at. Prior to his championing the cause of climbing the UAA ranks, there is really no indication that Travis has a history of killing, and when swapping out his beam katanas, the game informs players that his default katana, the Blood Berry, was won as part of an online auction.

If Travis did indeed have some bloody backstory prior to the events of No More Heroes, one would think he might find a more reliable means of procuring his weaponry than the NMH universes’ equivalent of eBay. It might instead make sense that he purchased the Blood Berry in the hopes that it would improve the ‘coolness’ of his own image, and that it might provide a confidence boost to the red leather jacket-wearing dude. Of course, this begs the question as to why Travis might need any sort of an ego boost. Over the course of the first game, we discover just how crummy Travis’ family life has been up until this point – he has a twin brother who he never got to know growing up and who now wants to duel with Travis to prove which of them is the best in Santa Destroy, his stepsister Jeane comes after him with the intent to kill him after already taking out Travis’ father, coming full-circle after she explains that Travis’ father was responsible for all of her physical and psychological suffering when she was younger.

Lumped on top of those stressors/traumatic experiences comes the fact that Travis Touchdown is not so smooth with the ladies as he’d like to be. It is true that in the second game, Travis steps up his game, as Shinobu bats her eyes and cozies up to him, and even Sylvia shows some genuine curiosity in him. But in the first game, Travis’ encounters with Ms. Christel are overly-comical failures. Each time he eyes her up, she snaps at him, and one particular instance of too much ogling is met with a prompt high-heeled kick out the door of Sylvia’s limousine. The reason for Travis’ desperate attempts to hook up with Sylvia in the first game is a simple one – his experiences in intimacy are limited, if existent at all.

Between most of the ranking fights, Travis will return to his motel room to find two messages on his answering machine. The calls from the UAA informing Mr. Touchdown of his entry fee for the next fight are, plot-wise, the most important ones. But the calls from Diane at Beef Head Video shed more light on the lonesome protagonist. Each call that Diane makes references a series of overdue rental videos titled ‘How to Please a Woman in Bed’, as well as a couple of other seemingly less educational and more raunchy films. One of her calls even informs Travis of an embarrassing error he made in returning the wrong film to their store, one which apparently features him humping a pillow (and lo and behold, what should lie upon Travis’ bed but a large body pillow with some colorful character printed upon it).

Perhaps even more so interesting, then, is the fact that Travis and Sylvia’s roles are effectively reversed in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. Having spent two years out of the spotlight, Travis informs Sylvia that his reason for returning is to dismantle the UAA. And while he is briefly hooked in by her teasing him with allusions to just how flexible her yoga lessons have made her, he is quick to course-correct his plans. With many of the battles that follow in No More Heroes 2, it is Travis snapping back at Sylvia, instructing her not to intervene in his business, like when she guns down the bloodied Ryuji or her providing him a handicap by hiring Shinobu to cut down some of the competition on Travis’ behalf. She does remind Travis from time to time that the ranking fights in NMH2 are not trifling, childish matters, and that he ought to take them seriously, but her reprimanding him in the sequel appears (more often than not) to be out of concern for his success and general well-being.

When Travis and Sylvia finally do hook up, it is she who calls him from the front door of his motel room. The exchange they share conveys the sense of confusion and as-of-yet-unresolved issues they have with one another, but also the fact that neither of them can seem to deny their physical and possibly romantic attraction to one another.

Travis: “Sylvia, I can’t figure you out.”
Sylvia: “You don’t like me?”
Travis: “I didn’t say that. But there’s a lot of things about you I don’t get. You lie, you’re greedy; you’re a fucking contradiction in heels.”
Sylvia: “You hate me?”
Travis: “Well, your personality kind of sucks.”
Sylvia: “So you do hate me.”
Travis: “I’m crazy about you.”
Sylvia: “What do you mean?”
Travis: “…Fuck if I know.”

Sylvia steps into Travis’ motel room, door closes behind her. Cue earthquake rumbling and cartoonish cowboy pistol shot noises. Travis emerges on the balcony, pausing for a moment to gaze upon Sylvia now sleeping under his blankets, and then proceeds to belt out a reference to Sylvia’s prior mention of her yoga techniques, “Downward fucking dog!”, informing anyone (or no one) who might be listening of his overcoming this self-perceived hurdle.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wii U review: Bayonetta

Originally released in 2009 on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, the first game in the Bayonetta saga saw an updated release on the Wii U, one that was bundled with the Nintendo console-exclusive Bayonetta 2. The premise is easy enough to jump into – the witch known as Bayonetta works with two individuals to fight aggressive angels: an arms dealer named Rodin and one business associate named Enzo. Whereas Rodin is cool, tough, and smooth with both words and weapons, Enzo is excessively foul-mouthed, and seems to have a knack for getting himself in way over his head. Bayonetta, meanwhile, has an air of sass and confidence about her, as she knows she is one of the only magic-wielders of her kind, boasting a widely varied skill set and impressive power to boot. And yet, Bayonetta knows very little about her own history, which leads to this first entry in the story to be one of self-discovery, with cutscenes frequently jumping back in time to explain, bit-by-bit, just what happened five-hundred years prior to the game’s present day setting.

Over the course of her adventures across a fictional European vista, Bayonetta visits a number of locales, from old brick-street cities, to an ancient coliseum, to impossible spirals of land that wind up in to the sky only to meet other high-rise bridges of dirt and grass some miles above the Earth. Later chapters will even see Bayonetta enter ethereal realms of mist and golden décor as she take the fight to the angels’ home turf. And while most of the game’s grand reveals are saved for the late chapters, it is apparent from the outset that other players in this larger picture are keeping their eyes on Bayonetta. Though it may not match the astounding visual quality of its sequel, the slight update seen in this Wii U port is certainly cleaner than its Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. Similarly, new features have been added, perhaps the most noteworthy of the bunch being costumes that pay homage to the heroines of Nintendo’s Metroid and Mario properties, as well as Link’s tunic from The Legend of Zelda.

That said, the Gamepad is not emphasized as heavily in this first Bayonetta title as it is in Bayonetta 2. The basic controls for running through environments, chaining combos while slicing and dicing the grotesque angelic hordes, and the menu-based process of mixing ingredients for stat-recovering and stat-boosting lollipops all fell very natural with the traditional button and joystick combo. Boss encounters with the most massive of stone-and-gold goliaths are consistently exceptional, even with the occasional decision to include gimmicky uses the immediate environment. Similarly, the sequential rival battles with mysterious crimson-clad witch Jeanne prove among the most engaging and enjoyable moments of the overall experience, and these are spaced out so as to not grow so quickly tiresome as other interruptions to the familiar routine of the story and gameplay, such as a clunky motorcycle chase with unclear objectives or the minimally-inspired arcade shooting minigame that caps off each chapter.

Combat utilizes a time-slowing mechanic known as Witch Time, whereby a perfect last-minute dodge will result in enemies coming to a near-standstill and Bayonetta being granted a brief window to deal significant damage to foes. If a magic meter is full from delivering a strong chain of attacks, players can employ medieval torture devices to inflict massive damage upon foes. The magic meter, however, can be whittled back down if Bayonetta takes damage, effectively nullifying everything built up from combos. This makes this first title simultaneously more demanding and less forgiving than its successor, which in and of itself is not so much a problem, but rather plays into the game’s two major flaws: poor camera angles, and claustrophobic environments. Bayonetta gradually throws harder enemies at the titular witch, and in greater numbers, which only makes sense as a means for amping up the difficulty factor for players, but the fact that the combat arenas never grow presents a significant problem in trying to see where Bayonetta is versus the location of her enemies. This in turn forces strategy out the window during these particularly troublesome segments, leaving players to guesswork in their dodges and attacks. It’s not an issue that runs for the entire course of any given level, but instead pops up at sporadic intervals, making it all the more frustrating as a significant flaw in an otherwise solidly-designed game.

The lore of the world is delivered largely through Luka, a young man with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps as journalist and historian. Luka holds Bayonetta responsible for the death of his father upon her return to the land of the living many years ago, though a part of him is constantly drawn to her – in part, because of her mysterious nature, and the other part due to his finding her physically attractive. Shallow as he might be, Luka plays the part of comic relief a number of times over the course of the game, as Bayonetta leaves him to clean up after her messes and place him in charge of taking care of tasks she would rather not.

The angel designs are nowhere near as visually captivating as their successors in Bayonetta 2, though boss designs such as a plant-like form with many tentacles and a giant lizard-like beast with a gaping maw offer commanding aesthetics. There is a certain creepy and alien appeal in the bird-human hybrids of the common grunt enemies, while gold-trimmed boats that fire a barrage of missiles and flying snake-like beasts offer more in the way of silly visual appeal than they do for practical combat situations. The soundtrack emphasizes choir vocals for more dire moments, and jazzy numbers for when the game wants to let loose and allow Bayonetta a minute to properly flaunt her unique skill set.

Bayonetta is still an impressive showing for the action genre, and does well to base its combo chaining system around a fair dodge mechanic. Unfortunately, this is far too often nixed by poor choices in the placement of enemies in narrow hallways and compact rooms, or downright awful camera angles. It’s a step up in both more fluid design and more user-friendly design points than previous giants of the genre, yet it falls a fair distance from the sequel’s borderline-perfect design. If nothing else, this version of Bayonetta is easily the best in terms of its visual presentation, and the button layout on both the Wii U Gamepad and Pro Controller are perfect fits for the game’s demanding combat patterns.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Anime review: Resident Evil: Damnation

Set between the events of the Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 6 video games, Resident Evil: Damnation sees Leon S. Kennedy return to the spotlight as he is sent into a small former Soviet nation to investigate the use of B.O.W.s amidst civil unrest. Despite the political reforms that followed the nation’s detachment from the U.S.S.R., rebel groups have risen up arms against the government, and have resorted to the use of Lickers, skinless quadrupeds that are easily identified by their snaking tongues and exposed brain tissue. Given his wealth of knowledge on B.O.W.s, as well as his decorated experience from Raccoon City, Saddler’s cult, and more, Leon is strategic and careful in his actions, but not without the boldness to forge his own path and bend the rules from his superiors a bit (despite Hunnigan’s protests). Even with the tense political struggle going on around him and the serious threats of biological warfare, Leon doesn’t shy away from making the occasional snappy one-liner, most of which are mildly amusing and surprisingly less cheesy than in most RE properties.

There are ties to the more recent Resident Evil games through the use of the parasitic Las Plagas, and while many of the people fighting in the streets turn into the mindless infected, others use the Plagas in tandem with the Lickers, allowing them to directly control the actions of the terrifying beasts like hounds. However, this master-servant relationship comes at a price, in that once the Plagas are willingly injected into the controlling individual’s body, it is only a matter of time before they join the creeping hordes. Limiting the variety of enemies Leon and the freedom fighters encounter is a smart decision, in that it keeps the story and action sequences focused, as well as maintains an appropriate scale for this particular struggle.

Resident Evil: Damnation adopts a more action-heavy aesthetic than some of the other RE tales, though the horror vibe ala RE4 is not lost entirely. The dimly-lit and narrow tunnels beneath the city offer a gloomy atmosphere as the infected pursue Leon and company, while the grime inside parking structures and along old brick alleyways provides a strong contrast to the pristine Imperial halls of the president’s estate. Aside from Leon, the film focuses on two rebel fighters, who initially take him captive as they believe he is a spy employed by the state, but later allow him to aid them in their push towards the capital. Sasha is more of a dark and brooding individual, and while his reasons for fighting are explained in brief, the film does not dwell long on this, an act which is both a blessing and a curse – on the one hand, the narrative does not find itself bogged down with pushing a dramatic angle for some silly romantic subplot, but at the same time it makes it a bit difficult to feel for him or even properly gauge his emotions in the midst of all this fighting. The narrative implies Sasha has experienced some emotional and moral detachment since joining the fight, however, so perhaps this depiction is not wholly inappropriate. The other rebel fighter, JD, is a more gung-ho individual, but dorkishly obsessed with the image of being cool and views Leon’s American identity as a prime example of what he wants to associate with. He may be a goofball, and his dialogue may be among the weakest in the film, but at the end of the day JD has a heart of gold. Ada Wong acts in a supporting role, serving primarily to interact with the nation’s president, but also offering Leon tidbits of advice now and again.

The level of detail seen in the environments and character models is phenomenal, a significant step up from what the previous CG film, Resident Evil: Degeneration, had to offer. Similarly, the story is an improvement, as it chooses to keep itself ground in both its smaller cast and limited scope for the setting of one particular city within a small nation. Though many of the scenes take place underground or in the city streets at night, the eerie lighting does well to evoke the feel of a proper Resident Evil game. While not a narrative that will significantly change up the way viewers understand the pre-existing RE universe, Damnation does offer a satisfying stand-alone narrative that has sufficient levels of intrigue and thrills to keep both old-school and new-school fans engaged for its concise hour-and-forty-minute runtime.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wii U review: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD

A decade after its original Gamecube release, The Legend of Zelda title that introduced the cel-shaded Toon Link and the Great Sea he sailed across received an HD remake on Nintendo’s Wii U. During the years between the original Wind Waker and this new Wind Waker HD, it was expressed that there were a number of features that the development staff wanted to work into the original release, but were unable to due primarily to technological restrictions they faced in 2003. Wind Waker HD promised to be more than a simple visual upgrade of the original Gamecube adventure, and ultimately incorporated a number of reworked gameplay features, as well as a few new additions.

While many remakes in recent years have seen significant visual jumps in their quality (i.e. – Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Final Fantasy IV DS, etc.), Wind Waker HD’s strongest graphical showings come from its improved lighting effects and more strikingly visible environment textures. Character models and the various locales across the Great Sea appear largely unchanged from the Gamecube original, due in no small part to the fact that cel-shaded graphics were far ahead of their time, and have since aged significantly better than the visuals of nearly every other game in the long-running series. The soundtrack, however, has been cleaned up a bit, and a few subtle variations on classic tunes have been thrown into the mix.

For those who missed out on the Wind Waker during its original 2003 release, the story is set hundreds of years after the events of Ocarina of Time. The intro sequence explains that, even though OoT's Link was able to save Hyrule from Ganondorf’s evil conquest once, after he had returned to his own time there was no one to stop the Gerudo King once he escaped his imprisonment in the Sacred Realm. In a last-ditch effort to save the people of Hyrule, the goddesses washed away the kingdom, sending the people to live on the islands that now marked the Great Sea. As centuries passed, those who knew the legends of Hyrule dwindled in numbers, though on Link’s birthday, he receives a green Tunic from his grandmother, which she cites as being associated with the hero of legend, and a tradition for boys to wear on his home of Outset Island.

Not long after, a giant bird carrying the pirate captain Tetra flies over Outset Island, only to be struck by a cannonball from Tetra’s pursuing crew members. The bird drops Tetra in the forest atop the island, and Link decides to go help at the insistence of his younger sister Aryll. After scaling the island and fighting a few monsters, Link rescues Tetra and the two exit the forest only to witness young Aryll be whisked away by the giant bird from before, who mistook Aryll for Tetra. Determined to save his sister, Link acquires a shield and sword and climbs aboard Tetra’s ship as they head for the Forsaken Fortress.

Once inside, Link manages to sneak past Moblin patrols and is reunited with his sister, who is being held captive with two other young girls in a prison cell atop the Forsaken Fortress. However, this victory is short-lived, as the giant bird swoops in and tosses Link to the ocean, at the command of its shadowy master. The next morning, Link awakes to find he has been rescued by a talking sailboat which calls itself the King of Red Lions. He informs Link that the master of the Forsaken Fortress and the one who has been spreading monsters across the Great Sea is none other than Ganondorf, and that Link must gather three pearls in order to access a greater power capable of stopping Ganondorf’s schemes.

Mechanically, Wind Waker built directly off its N64 predecessors Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The titular Wind Waker, which is used to control the direction of the wind that steers your sailboat, as well as a few other key interactions, effectively stood in for the previous musical instrument, the Ocarina of Time. Combat followed suit, with carefully timed strikes being coordinated with the trigger-based targeting system. The set of items Link collected from the various dungeons are still implemented with great frequency in later legs of The Wind Waker, often used in tandem with other items or weapons to overcome more challenging and complicated hurdles. While the core of this experience may remain largely the same, it is largely to the game’s benefit, as Wind Waker HD doesn’t need to fix what isn’t broken. That said, the optional gyroscope controls are available for the Telescope and Picto Box, should players feel so inclined to explore these additions, though the classic joystick controls are generally more smooth and precise.

Little changes to some of the items and questlines in Wind Waker HD end up going a long way. When sailing across the Great Sea, the Cannon, Crane, and Wind Waker are automatically set to the D-pad, while the Sail is set to the A button, allowing you to set another three separate items to the X, Y, and R buttons respectively. This cuts down on the amount of time spent swapping from the inventory. On a related note, the Gamepad’s touch controls allow you to drag items to these three buttons on the fly, without needing to pause the game first. Those who recall the Tingle Tuner from the Gamecube version will find it has been replaced with a more practical counterpart in the form of Tingle Bottles, which can carry messages into other player’s games via Miiverse, offering a more community-oriented experience not unlike the hints players can leave for one another in Dark Souls.

For completionists who enjoyed snapping pictographs of friendly faces and Ganondorf’s loyal monsters during their journey to turn into sculpted figurines at the Nintendo Gallery, the number of open slots in the Picto Box has been bumped up to twelve, as has the number of figurines that can be crafted each day. Enemy spoil drops appear to have been improved as well, making sidequests dependent on the number of Skull Necklaces, Butterfly Pendants, or Golden Feathers in your possession much quicker to complete. A speedier sail is available around the game’s midway point, and the process of collecting Triforce pieces during the late hours has been cut in half, thanks to the majority of the chart locations being replaced with the actual Triforce shards themselves. This not only makes collecting the Triforce shards feel like less of a chore than in the original Gamecube version, it circumvents the severe hiccup in the story’s pacing that comes as a result from suddenly needing to divert all of your attention from the buildup toward the late-game challenges and subsequent intense progression of the story.

If you have never experienced this particular Legend of Zelda title before, the HD update is a fantastic option. It’s also perhaps one of the most easily-accessible Zelda titles out there, for those who may have only experienced a scant few games in the series – not to say that The Wind Waker is an overly easy experience, but it does provide more intuitive controls and in-depth tutorials that stack as the game gradually offers up new options for improving combat and puzzle strategies. While the visuals may not be a vast improvement over the Gamecube original, they still hold up strong today, and offer a very distinct style that matches the sense of wonder in this fantasy setting, as well as the coming-of-age direction that the story takes with its younger protagonist.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD journal - entry three

When I first played Wind Waker, I was in middle school and had no qualms about sinking hours into the tedious process of collecting three pictographs at a time, bringing them to the Forest Haven’s Nintendo Gallery, and then fast-forwarding time via the Song of Passing to have them converted into sculpted figures one by one. While Wind Waker lacks as many real meaty sidequests as its home console predecessor Majora’s Mask offered up, the more involved sidequests that Wind Waker does have are just that – very involved, and by association, rather time-consuming. I am incredibly pleased to see that Nintendo has not only quadrupled the number of pictographs Link can store in his Picto Box at any given time, but also upped the ante on the number of figures that can be sculpted per day to a matching twelve. To some, the Nintendo Gallery might seem like a silly distraction, but I always found it to be one of the most entertaining and rewarding sidequests in Wind Waker.

Conversely, my single least favorite leg of the original Wind Waker adventure was the process of collecting all the Triforce charts, having them deciphered for an obscene sum of money, and then having to track down each Triforce shard thereafter. It was such a boring routine that really threw off the game’s pacing, especially after the revelation of Tetra being the heir to Princess Zelda’s bloodline and the search for the two new sages had significantly boosted the excitement and intensity of the narrative. Lo and behold, Nintendo also improved upon this by asking players to seek out a mere three Triforce charts, while many of the remaining Triforce Shards have been allocated to the treasure chests that previously housed their respective charts. Those few Triforce shards that still lie at the bottom of the sea are immediately visible on Tingle’s In-credible chart. This particular fetch quest feels much less a chore, as it requires approximately half the time and effort than in the original Gamecube version.

I would not say that I am quite as blown away by this updated version of Wind Waker as I was by Ocarina of Time 3D – as I previously mentioned, the character models and environments of Wind Waker HD look largely the same as before, save for better lighting and a clearer filter for the game’s presentation. Plus, even though it is two console generations removed, this HD remaster is still on a home console as opposed to a handheld. But it is certainly flying higher than I anticipated during my first journal post. As of a few hours ago, I started my dive into the Wind Temple, and as such, I would expect my review of Wind Waker HD to be posted sometime by the end of next week, as there isn’t a whole lot left ahead of me before I take on Ganondorf and finish this adventure… once again.
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