In Suda 51’s No More Heroes, I loved the city of Santa Destroy. That’s a controversial position, because Santa Destroy bored almost everyone else to tears — the excision of the city from the sequel, Desperate Struggle, was met with almost unanimous praise. Judged strictly by its impact on the gameplay, the town had few redeeming features, and there’s not much point in disputing that. But Santa Destroy had value to No More Heroes in other ways. In excising it, the sequel lost something.
So, what was wrong with Santa Destroy? Part of the challenge it posed for players was its failure to conform to expectations. Open worlds are typically expansive opportunities for designers to display their graphical prowess, but Santa Destroy was cramped and unimpressive. The Wii’s limited graphics aside, Suda’s characteristic high-contrast cel-shaded style produced a city that had washed-out colors against deep blacks, which did a good job of visually conveying a sensation of heat, but made it difficult to tell one spot from the next. The buildings were nondescript and squat, the weather never changed, and with a few exceptions there wasn’t any real difference from one area to another. Contrast this with Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City, which was beautiful and had clear neighborhoods with their own individual character, and the difference becomes clear. Many reviewers said that Liberty City was a character in the game, and that could never be true in No More Heroes. Santa Destroy was not a character… but at least it had character. Now reduced to nothing more than a map, Santa Destroy has become an un-place.
The place mattered, especially in No More Heroes, because it was a game about gaming. Santa Destroy came across as empty and banal, the sort of place you wanted to leave. This was no mighty city that mattered in the grand scheme of things. It had no skyscrapers, none of the buildings that conventionally project power. It was a small, useless little city, nobody coming or going, and no corporate intrigue beyond a struggle against an out-of-town pizza chain. The player’s character, Travis, was trapped in this dull town, working dead-end jobs to support his porn habit. The comically gory gameplay and outrageous bosses provided a vivid contrast to the banality of the city — Travis was using them to escape from the town.
In the new un-place of Desperate Struggle, there’s nothing to escape. The town basically gets out of Travis’ way, allowing him instant transport to the bosses and the jobs, which have been replaced with charming little minigames in an 8-bit style. This has an impact on Travis’ characterization. It’s worth remembering that Travis is portrayed in the first game as a relatively dumb, aggressive loser. He lusted after women who wanted nothing to do with him, allowed them to swindle him out of money he earned at those degrading, dead-end jobs, and drove around in a world that fundamentally didn’t give a damn what he did. In the sequel, his face is on the flag, he’s a living legend, and he gets the girl in the end. Travis went from a means for Suda to mildly make fun of his audience to a standard power-fantasy avatar, and part of that transformation comes from the fact that the avatar’s tasks are separated. The character who kicks ass in all these fights might be the same as the one collecting coconuts, but the avatar is not. For the player projecting himself as that ass-kicking avatar, that’s a significant difference. Setting the dead-end jobs in Santa Destroy undercut the power fantasy; setting them in 8-bit games allows the fantasy to side-step that dose of reality.
Santa Destroy was also criticized for not having a lot to do. The big secret, though, was that it had at least as great, and perhaps a greater, density of interaction points than Liberty City did. The locations where Travis could dumpster dive or find various kinds of treasure were scattered liberally throughout the town. I won’t argue that these interactions were particularly interesting, but they certainly weren’t any less interesting than finding a baseball bat laying around, or a pigeon. The city also had a number of places you could go to do some missions, although admittedly these tended to offer more combat than material reward. For the side-jobs and most of the missions, though, the city forced you to do some extra driving. You had to go to one place to accept your task, then drive somewhere else to actually perform it. Structurally this is not much different than most other open-world games, and as mentioned you didn’t really have as far to go. The real, unspoken problem with No More Heroes was that it didn’t give you anything pretty to look at as you pointlessly wasted time driving from place to place. In removing the fascination of a GTA‘s completely non-interactive scenery, Suda showed that design up for what it was. Liberty City, for all its good qualities, is mostly painting on flat surfaces, and when that painting is less intriguing the facts of the surfaces become more noticeable.
Santa Destroy as it existed in No More Heroes was not a great experience, and were it divorced from the game it would have zero entertainment value. However, the city serves the purpose of the game. It creates a sea of banality for Travis (and the player) to escape from into the vibrant world of the assassin rankings. The city helps to characterize Travis as a loser. And the city says something interesting about other open-world games. Dull as it was, Santa Destroy was a key part of what made No More Heroes great, and its absence detracts significantly from Desperate Struggle.