Until Suda makes any concrete statements on the matter (which he
won't – Japanese modesty surely prevents it), no-one can say for
certain what ideas were suplexing around in that brain of his during
the creation of the No More Heroes series. Everything from here on
in is speculation, but hopefully speculation informed enough that it
will given you a new perspective on the game and enhance your
enjoyment. I will deal with the themes I see running through the games, so be warned that MAJOR SPOILERS is on patrol and looking for a rumble if you let your guard down.
In order to fully understand Desperate Struggle, there are two key points of reference that must be taken into account. The first is Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas. I believe that Suda has stated this to be an influence on the game, most clearly referenced in the scenes during which the player listens to a peepshow girl waxing lyrical about the game's various bosses (during the film's climax, the protagonist discovers his estranged wife working at a peepshow booth and takes her home after a visit). Or possibly that the protagonist in Wenders' film is named Travis, but that's a reference which could be running all the way back to killer7. Even the storyline bears some resemblance to Desperate Struggle: a wandering man named Travis is found in the desert by his brother (not called Henry, sadly) with no memory of where he has been for the past four years. Over time, Travis pieces his life back together and goes in search of the wife and child he left behind. The film treats the topic of drifters in American culture, who find themselves isolated and unable to settle in the modern world. It deals with the difficulty of making meaningful human connections and being able to come to terms with one's true identity. I'm sure that many of you will be putting together the pieces already of how Desperate Struggle tackles those same ideas, but from a very different angle. In order to get a grip on that perspective, we must look back to the original No More Heroes game.
As with Paris, Texas, Suda made some clear links between No More Heroes and a particular film which inspired it: Alejandro Jodorowsky's surrealist Western, El Topo. Jodorowsky's film concerns the eponymous assassin rescuing a young woman, Mara, from a villain and being challenged to prove himself as the greatest gunman in the land by duelling with the four greatest gun masters. El Topo duels each of them and wins, before a female guide he takes on betrays him, filling him with bullets and riding away with Mara. El Topo is left in a limbo between life and death. If you're still wondering where the similarities begin, you're probably best giving up now. El Topo is a man who has given up his humanity (he abandons his son to monks) and seeks to find meaning in himself by proving himself the greatest killer alive. The film also deals with the role of the killer in the Western legends, how a man is defined by the graves he has dug, as well as the dividing lines in American culture between the gun-toting conservatives and the peace-loving liberals.
No More Heroes takes these themes and adapts them for the videogame form. The cowboy gunman is the quintessential figure of the American West just as Travis Touchdown represents the stereotypical figure of the gamer: emotionally and intellectually stunted, driven by an unfulfilled lust for sex and violence, an outcast from the world outside his front door. When Travis fights to get to Number One, he believes it will prove his worth and make Sylvia like him. This 'battle' goes on in the videogame world all the time: think of how we all start out in a new game as inexperienced players, derided by those with greater experience and playing time. We fight long and hard to take their crown, believing that it will earn us respect and admiration, a climax of joy just as Travis is hoping to receive in sexual ecstasy with Sylvia. The videogaming industry is built on these types of players, constantly striving to prove themselves again and again with every new game that comes out, in the vain hope that one day their lust for fulfillment will be satiated.
So with these ideas in mind, we return to Desperate Struggle. Most writers have suggested that dominant revenge is the theme of the game. This I can state as a clinical fact to be untrue: revenge is the motivation. A theme is a lingering thread running alongside the narrative but never directly influencing it. Its role in the story is suggested, but never made explicit. Desperate Struggle is only about revenge on a narrative level. On a thematic level, it is about addiction.
Let's remember Travis' representation as an obsessive gamer who became the Number One assassin in the previous game. On his EDGE magazine blog, Chris Dahlen suggests that Suda missed the point of who Travis was when bringing him back for the sequel. With respect to Mr. Dahlen, I believe he has overlooked a key factor in his criticism, which is that any good writer will evolve a character over the course of his narrative. When Travis reappears in Desperate Struggle, he is a very different man to the fellow we met at the beginning of No More Heroes. The evolution is there for all to see: at the beginning of the game, Travis had clear moral standards, most notably refusing to kill women. Yet by the end of the game, he was happy to decapitate Speed Buster, impale Bad Girl on his beam katana and slice Jeanne up into pieces. As Travis' relationship with his and our 'game' (the character is known for his frequent breaking of the fourth wall and awareness of his existence inside a videogame) became increasingly obsessive, so too did his behaviour move away from that of a reasonably honourable, if somewhat misguided, human being, to transforming into the same kind of cold-blooded killers he had slaughtered to win the game by getting to the top. It was only when Travis realised after his climactic fight with Henry that he was trapped in a circle of bloodshed, with more and more people always out to get him and his fight ultimately futile, that the only option was to walk away.
This behaviour is not so unusual among gamers: how many of us have scaled the heights of a particular game (prestiging for the second time on Modern Warfare would be mine) and rather than having the expected everlasting joy, instead found that the game had become repetitive and having nowhere else to go but down, decided to take a break from playing? Yet we nearly always go back eventually, just to see if we're still as good as we remember or if some new challenger is ready to battle us for supremacy.
The game addiction theme also explains why Travis no longer travels around town or does ordinary jobs: in the original game, those moments provided a contrast between Travis the gamer and Travis the human being. But Travis is now all gamer, all addict. It's why he (literally) plays videogames instead of going to work. As for the outside world, it's barely there. The only places he's interested in are those which enhance his playing experience – he has already reached his destination, so the journey (on his bike) ceases to be important.
In Desperate Struggle, Travis returns to Santa Destroy to fight the progeny of his first kill. We see that he is the same amoral killer we left at the end of No More Heroes when he expresses his annoyance that Skelter Helter is still alive despite his decapitation (“Can't you just die already?”). The fact that bosses have more regular names reflects the fact that Travis is seeing them differently: they are no longer amazing figures of god-like powers, standing on a plinth that he aspires to. They are people whose mentality he understands because he has already been where they are going. It is he who is now the legend and they who are challengers, the 'ordinary' people trying to walk the same path that he did during his freshman outing.
Another point of note is how the bosses faced by characters other than Travis all have unusual names (Million Gunman; New Destroymen; Mimmy), similar to the bosses in the original game. I believe the point of these sections, Shinobu's in particular, is to emphasize Travis' gradual change into realising the importance of becoming a functioning, caring member of society again. Shinobu is following in her master's footsteps from the previous game, killing to prove her worth. Her finishing moves on her two bosses are especially gratuitous and unpleasant, demonstrating that she has yet to experience the epiphany that Travis is realising (hence his being repelled by her when she tries to kiss him – she has come to represent something he wishes to forget about himself). Henry's story is rather more difficult to decypher: in the original game, his role was to show how Travis' rise to the top had failed to distinguish him as he'd hoped, but rather just made him part of another group (hence the pair being twins – expert gamers are not special, they are identical amongst themselves). Perhaps in conquering the fantastical Mimmy, Henry mirrors his brother's realisations about the value of 'real' relationships with family and society by returning to the real world to help his brother. But then, why does he leave when Jasper Batt takes on his final form? Maybe he realises that the last battle is something Travis must fight himself. In all honesty, I'm split on this point and would welcome any insight readers have to offer.
Travis' new nickname in Desperate Struggle ('The No More Hero') is also interesting: at first, 'The No More Hero', sounds incomprehensible, yet it ties into the game's theme very easily. In the first game, the bosses were Travis' heroes (as Suda has stated) and Travis fought so that there should be no more of them but him. Yet it is he who begins Desperate Struggle as the hero, but is now fighting to be rid of that title and its connotations. He is both seeking to be a 'hero' (aka assassin, gaming addict) no more, but also, in a human way (which the later assassins recognise and respect), he is a hero for having the strength of will to say 'no more' to the game.
For the record, I don't believe the bosses' personalities to be especially significant this time around, hence them being given so much less development than in the original game. They merely represent other gamers whose addictions to the game are growing. We learn less about them because Travis no longer idolises them and has little interest in their backgrounds. As Travis moves higher up the ranks, his opponents become more melancholic, as they too are coming to terms with the futility of their gameplaying with experience, just as Travis has. At that point, their deaths become meaningful because Travis is seeing them not as bosses blocking his way, but as human beings again.
The final boss, Jasper Batt Jr., is a diminutive nerd who represents what Travis was at the start of the game – the cold blooded obsessive, surrounded by his fantasies (in this case, Batman rather than manga) who doesn't care about his victims in human terms – hence Bishop's murder. But where Batt Jr. can see only revenge and more killing as the solution, Travis has come to realise that the bloodshed must end somewhere, hence his fury towards Sylvia and her manipulations, vowing to bring the UAA (and therefore, the game) to an end, upon the death of assassin Alice. She gives Travis the ultimate reminder of the importance of family and empathy: Travis slaughtered her sister earlier in the game, yet she realises this was a consequence of the decisions they made and does not seek revenge. She fights him only out of obligation and to break free of the cycle of death she is locked into.
To me, Sylvia in both games has represented the developer, whispering promises of great climaxes in the gamer's ear in exchange for his participating in her bloody game. In No More Heroes, she found Travis increasingly attractive as he became more cold-hearted. In Desperate Struggle, as she realises that the game is coming to a close (what will she do when Travis has killed Batt Jr?) and she, also in search of something real, looks to Travis and we finally see (or rather, hear) the two making a physical connection, finally getting Travis his world-shaking climax – achieved courtesy of his increasing empathy rather than his skills at 'the game'.
At the game's close, when Sylvia runs away, for a time she relives her past glories for the seedy satisfaction of others rather than building a genuine new life for herself. When Travis comes to rescue her, she has to ask if what she is hearing is actually real. Her peepshop joint is closing down and it is time to move on. Just as Suda has said that Desperate Struggle is to be the last of Travis Touchdown's stories, could this be his meta-comment on sequels, on developers whoring themselves out on past glories instead of going after something new, a genuine passion? Interesting when thinking about the game this way how Suda is only credited in the opening movie as Executive, rather than fully-fledged, Director.
Should this be Sylvia/Suda and Travis' last outing together, they are certainly going out on a thematic tour-de-force. I've maintained since killer7 that Suda is the most subtle and ingenious writer that the medium has to offer and if the analysis I have made of his No More Heroes series is deemed to have any validity, I believe that this game, simple in plot but deceptively complex in theme, proves my point.
In El Topo, the film does not finish when the assassin is betrayed: rather, it gives him the opportunity to meditate on his life and to fight for justice instead of egotism. At the end of the film, he choses to commit suicide for all his terrible deeds and it is El Topo's children (and his dwarf girlfriend, naturally) who ride off into the sunset in an echo of the opening shot, signalling the character's rebirth. Travis commits 'suicide' at the end of Desperate Struggle by choosing to bring his game to an end. If he is to be reborn in some form, just as his name was after killer7, I look forward to discovering what further treats Suda has in store for him and for us.