To celebrate the multiplatform release of No More Heroes III, I booted up the original No More Heroes (NSW) remaster. This one hits differently these days. Whereas originally it felt like Suda51 was complaining about the glut of GTA-clones by injecting its skeletal design with some "Japanese zaniness", now it becomes much more clear there was something else going on.
No More Heroes' title alone is actually indicative of this. It literally is a world with no more heroes. A world where the ideal of the Grand Theft Auto genre - a place where crime and chaos pays - is extrapolated to the entirety of society. School girls are part-time assassins, killing a local crime kingpin is just a classified ad away, being an otaku with a bloodthirsty drive can be a professional career.
The zaniness is not so much crazy as it is a uniquely bleak view of what the genre can lead to. Like how The Silver Case et al, poked around in a society influenced and distracted by dangers of mixing the real and the virtual world, No More Heroes asks what would happen if violence was as commonplace as getting a part-time job at McDonald's. The idea that in this world you need to pay your "employer" in order to even be allowed to rise through the ranks by demolishing however is above you, is also cynical enough that it has become pretty much how the reactionary social media/influencer world works these days. "It's kill or be killed."
Through that lens, the game is fascinating beyond its "GTA for Wii-owners" origins. The GTA-skeleton is just that; almost insultingly bare-bones and while you can find multiple jobs, it's telling that killing earns you more money, easier.
Let's see if this view sticks around as I approach the top rank.
Like a scab you're slowly picking at, I've been rummaging through Mystic Quest (Collection of Mana) (NSW) a bit more. There are even more seeds of the Secret of Mana experience in here than I anticipated.
The Gemma Knights in this game would be reduced to one knight called Jema in the sequel. Likewise, the combat charge - a sort of halfway house between Square's ATB and Zelda's direct combat - displays its multiple special moves the more you charge it. For instance, a fully charged bar will cause a sword attack to be a zip around the screen. You have different weapons each with different properties allowing you get rid of obstacles in the scenery or function as a traversal mechanic. All the various enemies can be found here with their signature attacks, albeit chibi-fied due to the Game Boy's screen resolution. You have occasional companions to join you. Even Watts is here!
This doesn't necessarily make the game better, but it does show that the team was kind of held back by the Game Boy's limitations. There are good ideas in there, but these seeds only fully bloomed in Secret of Mana. I always wondered why Secret's sequel Seiken Densetsu 3 (now better known as Trials of Mana) never clicked with me, and I now kind of understand it. Secret refined the ideas of Mystic Quest, whereas Seiken Densetsu 3 was more of a complete reimagining. Which explains the rest of the series. Seiken Densetsu (akin to the SaGa series) has been reimagining itself with every instalment. Coming up with new mechanics and approaches.
Legend of Mana (number 4 in the series) is spectacularly hostile to Secret of Mana fans, introducing mechanics no player of that old title would anticipate and players of Seiken Densetsu 3 could only hint at. Newer titles have scaled back the open canvas aspect of Legend, but Square Enix have been very loathe to return to the core of Mystic Quest and Secret of Mana. And when they do return via remakes, the developers seem to simply not get what made them great.
For clarity: the reasons Secret of Mana hit so hard for me and a lot of friends, can be summed up as:
- JRPGs were nigh non-existent in PAL regions (insanely important to realise),
- statistics became important for the game, implying complexity (numbers everywhere, even when you hit!),
- mashing buttons doesn't work (wait and bide your time due to the charge bar),
- enemies require tactics, instead of a discrete amount of hits at specific weak spots,
- a giant world with multiple regions to travel to,
- co-op play! (With three players total!)
Especially compared to A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana felt much grander and cemented the idea of traversing through a complete world. Zelda didn't do that; it was more inwardly focused with tightly designed dungeons and one village. Not that it was better or worse, but the scope of that game paled in comparison to Secret of Mana. We loved Zelda's Dark World, but Secret of Mana's game world was an actual giant space with nations, cities, cultures! You could have an actual adventure, together with your friends.
In contrast: these were all old design aspects for the audiences in NTSC territories. By that time, the JRPG genre was almost a decade old and Secret of Mana was a quaint little action-RPG in comparison. So remaking it would obviously focus not on the magic of a first-time JRPG experience in the guise of an action-RPG, but instead on improving everything else that wasn't utterly bog standard by that time. Leading developers to introduce 360 degree movement in the Secret of Mana remaster, that still worked via a combat system limited by four directions. No wonder it fell apart.
I've played the remake of Mystic Quest - Sword of Mana - but I cannot for the life of me remember how that game and its original tied together. They feel like completely different games. Whereas it's easy to see how Secret of Mana flowed from its Game Boy originator, it's clear that Sword of Mana held no nostalgia for its previous incarnation; it wanted to be a good game instead. I can't really fault it for that, but at the same time it highlights how Square Enix must view these games: as IP that has bad games attached, instead of a nostalgic brand that for many in Europe was their first foray into the realm of RPGs.
As mentioned last week, I don't think this game is particularly good or anything, but the video game archaeology it enables me to experience keeps me coming back. That's reason enough to keep playing.