(Relatively abstract spoilers for Killer is Dead and the first two No More Heroes games. Honestly, these are hack-and-slash games, so knowing about certain story details does not detract that much from the actual game.)
Killer is Dead was everything I love and hate about what video game director and writer Suda 51 touches. I expected a hack and slash action game. I got it. I expected tons of assassins. I got it. I expected character’s winking at the camera. I got it. I expected catchy rock music. I sort of got it, as Killer is Dead’s soundtrack feels different, but none of the tracks stayed with me. I might be a Killer is Dead stan, but I won’t defend it too hard. One of the earliest missions features government assassin protagonist Mondo Zappa on a job to kill a man living in a mansion on the moon. Nonplussed like a parent reading a magazine in a dentist’s office as their kid gets a routine check-up, Mondo walks along the moon’s surface with a space helmet but no space suit. His target, owner of the moon’s sole mansion named David, ends up being the game’s full-of-himself villain, and also Mondo’s long lost older brother.
Wait a minute, Mondo’s an emotionless automaton affixed in a fancy suit and David is an egotistical smug bastard dressed like a golden bondage king. Did Suda 51 just pull a fast one and simply take Travis Touchdown and his older twin brother Henry Cooldown from No More Heroes and swap their personalities and roles?
First up are the cool brothers. Mondo Zappa is an aloof “executioner” employed by the Bryan Execution Firm as a contract killer for the United States government. He exhibits a casual business relationship with his cyborg boss Bryan Roses, and takes each new job with the same level of excitement. To Mondo, getting paid to cut up space beings and crazed humans is more akin to filling paper work than anything resembling fun or fulfillment. Mondo’s one of those unfortunate characters whose backstory is more interesting on paper than in execution as an actual character, as secretly being space royalty and having a flying unicorn also disinterest him. Even regular facial emotions elude Mondo, as the only time he breaks his cool dude scowl is during rare moments of manly honor or when he loses Killer is Dead’s dating mini games called Gigolo missions. These defeats break Mondo down like a salaryman losing both a promotion and a raise.
Henry Cooldown, while more established in his respective assassin job than Mondo, might as well be Mondo from a parallel Irish universe. Husband and then later divorcee to Silvia Christel, the assassin contractor works as Travis’ extensively manager throughout the first two No More Heroes games. Henry is charming but as socially blunt as a briefcase to the throat. Grey trench coat and vest, with a light saber with hilt blades, years before Kylo Ren tried to steal this level of cool. But business man is all business, even when said business conflicts with family. No More Heroes understands that Henry’s stand-offish disposition could not shoulder an entire game. By comparison, Mondo might as well have been an NPC in another character’s game.
Second up are the man-children brothers. David Zappa (just call him Frank Zappa and steal that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure villain-with-a-musician-name-dressed-like-a-goof shtick) demonstrates some intelligence throughout Killer Is Dead, but he is a man quick to anger and mostly just for show; as if Golbez from Final Fantasy IV made his entire identity around being Lunarian royalty. Even with full control of Killer is Dead’s monsters, the Wires, David is simply playing at being Moon King. None of these three action games are long enough to have RPG amounts of character depth and development, but the sole fact that David does the stereotypical “too into himself” bad guy thing where his moon mansion’s only wall decorations are portraits of himself, speaks volumes.
Travis Touchdown, while the most recognizable figure in this entire article, is nowhere close to as grand as his predecessors. An almost-friendless dork with rather troubling social isolationist tendencies (Travis Strikes Back involves Travis literally hiding away to the woods in a mobile home), Travis’s overall sense of self as a sell-employed assassin is probably the most sporadic of the four. Travis’ blessing and curse is that he constantly toes the line between inconsiderate jack-ass, otaku audience self-insert, and occasionally alright dude. Travis can be into anything Sudo 51 wants him to be, from cute-girl Shoot ’em ups like Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly, Luchador wrestling, to recent western indie games from the years 2011-2016. Lovable loser is a tired, hacky thing to call a character, but I love this fuck-up. To be fair to Travis, unlike David, he at least has moments of genuine (but rare) compassion; for example, the fight against zombie astronaut Captain Vladimir in 2, where Travis puts him out of his undying misery. Somewhere in No More Heroes’ design documents, I bet there is a circle with the word “cool” but with a question mark on Travis’ first page. Tying David and Travis together though is their dumb cocksure grins.
Now that these characters are defined, what really matters is how they fully impact each other. Brotherly interactions and growth are where these four Suda 51 Brothers start to diverge. Henry starts out as a soap-opera secret boss fight placed during the end credits of the first No More Heroes, his mere presence as a long lost twin brother acting as one last plot twist. He extensively shows up to tell Travis, by this point the number one ranked assassin, that his accomplishments mean nothing and that he is just trash acting out someone else’s scheme. Yet over time, Henry learns to at least respect his brother’s accomplishments or skill. Granted, the motivation can be seen as a pragmatic approach against a larger villainous threat, but Henry’s assistance in fighting some of Travis’ ranked matches in 2 shows that he can at least pretend to care about his brother.
David plays it all villain. Parallels to Final Fantasy IV’s Darth Vader of black magic Golbez are not just for flavor, as David literally wants Mondo to join him as moon royalty. Mondo is Cecil Harvey to David’s Golbez. The problem with David, unlike arguably the best part of Golbez, is that David is far too gone for any brotherly redemption. David IS the final villain, whereas Golbez is another in a line of puppets on strings. What makes it sadder is that David is intensely jealous of Mondo. By the end of Killer is Dead, David jumps from Raoh-like space tyrant to Jagi-like cruel doppelgänger (evidenced in how David starts to even dress like Mondo), with Mondo as the sorrow-free Kenshiro. But a cruel doppelgänger of Mondo, a character so uninterested in the joy and wonder of his own space unicorn-filled world, diminishes the rest of Killer is Dead’s emotional impact. As a character study, David’s replication of the otherwise uninterested Mondo would be great, if that did not mean the narrative had to then be stuck with buzz-kill Mondo.
Henry gets to keep his individuality from Travis though, by never allowing himself to fully emulate his brother’s personality. Henry’s sole playable boss fight calls subtly a coward’s game, as he combats Mimmy, a nightmare mech unit of Travis’ beloved Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly game that keeps Henry trapped in a dream. Killer is Dead and No More Heroes both take place in over-the-top, potentially the literal same, worlds. But No More Heroes’ decision to stick the spotlight under Travis, the brother that seems to genuinely appreciate the vibrant world he inhabits, instead of how Killer is Dead tries to play up unfazed coolness in Mondo, fits its world better. In a more traditionally restrained, keyword less interesting, setting, David’s idolization of Mondo’s cool might have worked.