Image: Nintendo video game
Ubisoft
When Travis gets to swinging his beam katana in "No More Heroes," heads will roll and money will flow.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/31/2008 6:45:41 PM ET 2008-01-31T23:45:41

Whatever you do, don’t get the deliciously twisted, ultra-violent “No More Heroes” mixed up with Grandma’s Wii games. She may never recover.

The punk ethos is alive and kicking in “No More Heroes,” an open-world adventure and combat game, available now for Wii. The visual style is raw and unpolished by next-gen standards and the lean and mean, blood-soaked gameplay stands in stark contrast to the slick corporate games that jam the shelves.

In other words, this is the game adult Wii gamers have been waiting for.

As much as I appreciate what the Wii has done to broaden gaming's appeal, Nintendo's wunderkind just doesn't get much play in my house. My tastes in games are more “Call of Duty 4” than “Cooking Mama.” I'm perfectly happy sitting on the couch with a regular controller in my mitts, thank you. It took “No More Heroes” to educate me in the joys of the Wii.

Picture “Grand Theft Auto” as perceived through the lens of Japanese street culture. Travis Touchdown, the game's lead character, sports a beam katana (a la “Star Wars”) he won in an online auction. When he’s not playing with his kitty Jeane back at the titular No More Heroes motel, Travis roams the streets of the idyllic seaside town of Santa Destroy on his super-bike.

After a gruesome run-in with a nasty character and his nastier sword, Travis meets the seductive Frenchwoman Sylvia Christel. It seems that Travis has defeated the number-10 ranked member of the United Assassin's Association, of which Mlle. Christel is an agent. She recruits Travis and all he can think of is how to get her into the sack.

“No More Heroes” is the latest product of Japanese rogue developer Grasshopper Manufacture, Inc., led by the enigmatic character known as Suda 51. The company's splash screen before the start of the game proclaims that they are a video game band and informs us that “punk's not dead.” The punk music metaphor couldn't be more apt.

What punk rock did for popular music, Grasshopper and Mr. 51 are attempting to do for games. It's fitting that they developed the decidedly independent “No More Heroes” for the Wii, the most commercially successful, mainstream system on the market..

Grasshopper's previous game, “Killer 7” for GameCube and PlayStation 2, struck a rather avant-garde chord. Populated by downright nightmarish characters and bizarre dialogue, the game was praised by critics and largely passed on by consumers. While “Killer 7” seemed willfully obscure, “No More Heroes” achieves its game-as-art status within a much more traditional, playable context.

As Travis works his way up the ranks of the Assassin's Association he faces off with wave after wave of thugs before each ranked boss. The controls for movement and blocking are handled by the Nunchuk while fighting moves are controlled by the Wii-mote. While there are motion-based scenes and mini-games, beam katana attacks are dealt with the A button and wrestling moves with the B button.

The combat is simple and surprisingly deep. Katana combos and progressively more powerful wrestling moves unlocked throughout the game are never more complicated than a few button presses or controller movements. Finishing blows are particularly satisfying. When you cleave an enemy in two with the beam katana, the resulting eruption of blood is straight out of a Monty Python skit.

The anime visual style has a hard, gritty edge that reminded me of classics such as “Ninja Scroll” and “Vampire Hunter D.” While the streets and buildings of Santa Destroy are rather bland, Travis, Sylvia and the cast of ranked assassins are richly detailed and flamboyantly designed. While the Wii is no graphical powerhouse, the “No More Heroes” look is perfectly suited to its anime roots.

The exaggerated, extreme violence could get numbing if not for the goofy side jobs Travis must undertake to cover his entrance fees for title fights. Gathering coconuts and mowing lawns are a welcome diversion. I found myself looking forward to Travis' T-shirt shopping trips and gym training between blood baths.

Humor also lightens the mood. The gym manager asks Travis to get naked in his office, Sylvia knees Travis in the face when he tries to get a peek up her skirt and a slot machine read-out triggers super attacks with names like Blueberry Cheese Brownie and Strawberry on the Shortcake. The sight of Travis jerking his katana up and down to charge it (while you do the same with the Wii-mote) is priceless.

The striking visual style, simple control scheme, clever humor and relentless action add up to a compulsively enjoyable game experience. With the preponderance of cookie-cutter shooters and bland, uninspired fantasy games on the market these days, “No More Heroes” stands boldly apart, and above, the pack. Hallelujah — punk's not dead.

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