Goichi “SUDA51” Suda is part of a rare breed of game directors. He’s a bit like Hideo Kojima, in that you roughly know what sort of experience you’re going to have when you fire up his next game. Well, sort of.
With Kojima, you can place a sound bet that his games will include long cutscenes and certain signature design choices, but with Suda’s output all you can bank on is that you won’t know what to expect at all. His ability to shock, delight and surprise without restraint is rare for a director at Suda’s level, and it’s something worth celebrating in an age of safe blockbuster franchises and cookie-cutter art direction.
Hailing from Nagano, Japan, Suda is the founder and CEO of Tokyo’s Grasshopper Manufacture, a studio that has produced one of the most diverse and divisive game line-ups in history. The studio’s games include the psychedelic assassin freak-out, Killer7, the George Romero-inspired high school zombie brawler, Lollipop Chainsaw and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch exclusive, No More Heroes III.
To truly understand the mind that produced such a wild and abstract roster of games, I had to speak with him directly. I was lucky enough to get some time with Suda during his press tour of No More Heroes III to find out what makes him tick.
We started at the very beginning, back when Suda joined Tokyo’s Human Entertainment, the studio behind Japan’s Fire Pro Wrestling series. He told me that while he was just a salaryman at the company, his time there helped mould him into the free-thinking director he is today.
“They were viewed as sort of a lone wolf in the Japanese game industry,” Suda explained. “They never really fit in with a lot of the other major companies and they sort of had a reputation for just doing what they wanted and making the kind of games they wanted to make.”
Suda’s first real brush with notoriety came in 1994, when he was working as director of Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special for the Super Famicom. The game has a famously dark storyline that sees your up-and-coming wrestler haunted by repeated tragedy, such as your coach getting murdered and you accidentally killing an opponent in the ring. After winning the wrestling championship, your character realises they’ve endured enough pain and, filled with sorrow, they shoot themselves in the head.
The ending is legendary today for just how brazen it was at a time when games were mostly colourful, cutesy and wholesome affairs (not counting the likes of Mortal Kombat, naturally). Suda’s willingness to defy convention and play by his own rules is what led to many dubbing him the ‘Tarantino’ of games. “If that’s referring to my style of taking on all different sorts of genres and themes, then I feel like that’s quite a nice little catchphrase,” Suda said of the comparison.
After a four-year run at Human Entertainment, working on more Fire Pro Wrestling games and entries in the Twilight Syndrome series, Suda decided to go it alone and form his own studio.
Suda founded Grasshopper Manufacture in Chiyoda, Tokyo in 1998. The company sometimes used the slogan ‘Punk’s Not Dead,’ which sums up the vibe that comes with each of the studio’s games. It’s the feeling that they were made by a small, nimble and talented team, a creative collective that didn’t care about what the establishment of video games felt was popular at the time.
I asked Suda if it felt liberating to go it alone and make the kind of games he wanted without any intervention, and his reply was surprisingly sobering. “On one hand yeah, I was president of the company and I could make the games I wanted, but none of that protection I had at Human [Entertainment] was there any more.”
He explained that the future was going to be a tricky balancing act. While it was time to let rip with creativity, Suda also had sole responsibility for bringing money into the studio, making games that would sell well enough to cover employee wages, all while courting investors and keeping the lights on. In short, he told me the pressure was on to avoid “everything going to hell.”
It didn’t go to hell, thankfully, but it did take some time for Grasshopper to make its mark globally. The studio’s first two projects were initially Japan exclusives, starting with the 1999 PlayStation visual novel adventure game, The Silver Case, which was followed in 2001 by Flower, Sun and Rain, its loosely connected successor for PlayStation 2.
Both games received average reviews and started a long-standing tradition of Suda’s projects splitting critical opinion right down the middle. Time and re-releases have been kind to both games, as they’ve since become cult favourites among gamers looking for something a bit different.
About a year after Flower, Sun and Rain dropped, Capcom announced a new initiative called ‘The Capcom Five,’ a series of new, wildly different games that were meant to boost its profile and help Nintendo shift Gamecube consoles.
One of those games was Killer7, and it would become Suda and Grasshopper’s big breakthrough.
In the West around 2004, rumours started coming out in game magazines about an insane new action-shooter game from Japan called Killer7. It starred an elderly assassin called Harman Smith who could physically transform into any of his seven split personalities at will, each with their own weapons and freaky supernatural abilities. Together, the Smith Syndicate are caught in the middle of a bubbling cold war between Japan and America, dealing with deranged serial killers, bizarre henshin squads, vengeful spirits and explosive zombies.
On paper, that’s one hell of an elevator pitch, but there was a mystique around what Killer7 was exactly and who was behind such a crazy premise. You had to be there at the time to appreciate the almost underground buzz this game had. Getting a copy and talking about it with friends was like scoring a bootleg of a banned horror movie. It was something artsy, difficult to define, outrageously violent and unlike anything else on the market at the time. It felt punk to its core.
Of course, the boring reality is that Killer7 wasn’t an easy project for Suda and his team to complete. It was overseen by the legendary Shinji Mikami, director of Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and the turbo-charged shooter, Vanquish. Suda saw that working with Capcom and Mikami was his doorway to breaking through, and that meant a ton of pressure to get the job done right.
“You can’t really look at a scene from the game and not know it’s from Killer7,” Suda said. “The main reason it turned out like that was because I was given the opportunity to work with Mikami-san, and I felt that Mikami wasn’t just a game creator, he’s almost more like an inventor. A lot of the stuff that he does is totally original, he doesn’t just take things that others have done and make them a little bit nicer. He really creates these new things, like new ways of playing games.”
After much hard work and iteration, Killer7 delivered a new way of playing games. It had an unsettling atmosphere and a unique on-rails movement system, where you walk around by holding a button, like accelerating in a racing game. One moment you’d be solving abstract puzzles, then the next you’d snap to a first-person shooting mode, all while taking in strange cut-scenes and drinking in the stark cel-shaded art style.
The game also split opinions at release, but it’s something everyone should experience. There’s still nothing else quite like it out there today. Suda’s time with Mikami on the project brushed off on him positively, taking him down a similar path of invention.
From Killer7 onward, none of Grasshopper’s games felt influenced by the status quo, and that is absolutely a compliment.
Welcome to Santa Destroy
Grasshopper Manufacture’s most popular game is arguably the critically-acclaimed hack ‘n’ slash, No More Heroes, which was released exclusively on the Wii in 2007. The series has since blossomed into a numbered trilogy and a few spin-offs, but as a whole the franchise feels like a love letter to everything ‘Suda.’
The series stars Travis Touchdown, a pop culture-obsessed geek who wins a beam katana in an online auction and uses it to kill a local hitman. He’s then thrust into the Assassins Association rankings, and vows to kill his way to first place, just to score with the league’s mysterious caretaker, Sylvia Christel.
No More Heroes is proof that Mikami’s ‘inventor’ approach to game design rubbed off on Suda during Killer7’s development. On the surface, the entire trilogy is a real trip. It’s a grand mash-up of overt and deep-cut references to the movies, music and games that Suda is personally fond of, all wrapped around a slick-as-hell combat system and the bizarre yet endearing world of Santa Destroy. For example, did you know that the Beef Head video store where Bishop works is a reference to Takahsi Miike’s insane Yakuza movie, Gozu? (the word means ‘cow head’ in Japan).
I asked Suda if, in his mind, the gleeful anarchy of No More Heroes meant anything deeper. “I don’t believe I was especially conscious of social issue-based themes while creating the game,” he admitted. “But thinking back on it I do feel like I did sort of incorporate meanings and ideas into the game’s system, like how to break free from the social structures that prevent secluded young people stuck in their place in life from rising to the top.”
He added, “for some people [that] could be starting an IT business, or becoming successful in sports, or for Travis, finding light in life even within the extreme world of killing and the extension of daily labor. Nothing would make me happier than players being able to find their own light after watching the ending.”
The non-conformity Suda spoke of perfectly sums up why his approach to game design is so unique and celebrated. Like Travis, his approach attempts to break away from the ‘normal society’ of game development by taking a beam katana to the rule book and creating works of art on his own terms. That’s a rare and admirable approach we could all perhaps learn from.
No More Heroes aside, the rest of Suda’s post-Killer7 output has resulted in many varied, divisive and fascinating games that demand closer examination. He’s even brushed with western publishers a few times, most notoriously through his involvement in Shadows of the Damned, a horror-themed shooter in the vein of Mikami’s own Resident Evil 4 (Mikami also had a hand in the game’s creation).
That game had a reportedly volatile production, under the stewardship of publisher Electronic Arts, but it actually started life as Darkness, a PlayStation 3 horror game inspired by Franz Kafka’s incomplete 1926 novel, The Castle. Suda told me it starred a character who tries to get into a castle by day, then by night, they have to survive against a horde of beast-men by using fire to control them. It sounded neat. I hope we see it one day.
Suda’s also worked on Lollipop Chainsaw, which was written by The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. It stars a cheerleader zombie hunter called Juliet who has to slice her way through an undead invasion brought on by a pissed-off goth and a band of underworld henchmen. “James, who was oozing with talent even back then, took the [game’s] scenario and totally amplified the awesomeness,” Suda recalled. “I was able to meet with him in person at the Lollipop Chainsaw event we did at GDC, he was a very pleasant and polite creator. I have nothing but great memories of that collaboration.”
It’s encouraging to look back at Grasshopper Manufacture’s early work and to see how gamers and critics were largely unsure of what to make of Suda’s ideas and his untethered approach to game design. But there’s something comforting in tracing his career as his fan base grew, leading to many wild, wonderful and (positively) weird things over the years.
I closed my interview with Suda by asking if he had a message for all the other creative free-thinkers out there, who have the potential to create something amazing, but who might also be restrained by rules or the so-called ‘right way’ to make their art.
He replied, “I’ve experienced countless moments of heartbreak [and people asking] ‘How much longer are you gonna keep making those games?’ However, the game industry is full of strange people who keep supporting us, for some reason.”
“While they may not just straight-up announce it all the time, there are lots of people out there who are very passionate towards creators. Please believe in yourself, and in this: if you keep making games and giving it your all, then eventually your work is sure to reach these supporters, and gamers in general.”
Suda51’s newest title No More Heroes 3, is out now.