Over the past few years, Grasshopper Manufacture’s creative genius Goichi Suda (or Suda 51) and some of his games have been called “insane”, “crazy” and “weird” (among other things) by journalists who cover his work (and who very much need new thesauruses). But to me, they’ve all been wildly incorrect in their assessments. In fact (and from first impression), Suda is one of the nicest game creators you’ll ever meet as well as a really fun guy to chat with. But don’t let him know I said that – he’s got a reputation to uphold amongst some fans out there who still consider him an unpredictably mad genius flying around Japan in a wrestling mask or something.
That said, Lollipop Chainsaw, a collaborative effort between Suda, James Gunn (Super, one of the best indie films of 2010) and the team at Grasshopper (working the Unreal engine again to excellent effect) is a game that’s going to be called insane, crazy, weird and more by gamers and critics alike. And they’d be absolutely right – particularly those who quickly clue in on how great the game is by accepting all the offbeat content it doles out at a nonstop pace…
I first interviewed Suda by email some years back for the new defunct BonusStage.com back when Killer 7 was about to drop into stores, so getting the chance to meet the man in person has been a wish of mine for years. I finally got the opportunity last week when WBIE dropped into NYC with the game, the man himself and a few other folks from Grasshopper along for the ride.
Initially, I’d written down a bunch of questions about the game and what went into producing it, but after sitting through the great demo, all those questions were rendered moot because this is the type of game you don’t ask too many deep questions about. It NEEDS to be played, period. I tossed out everything I’d written down, jotted a few quick notes and decided to wing it during my face time with Suda. I managed to find out a few things about the man that made me respect him even more (we have the almost the same taste in music, for example) while making me want to grab anyone I know who’s completely WRONG about judging the game based on screenshots and a few gameplay videos and shake some sense into them.
It was pretty clear from the demo that not only is LC going to rattle the brains of those expecting one thing and getting another, it’s also one of the most “western” looking and feeling Japanese titles I’ve seen to date that WORKS while keeping its Japanese roots intact. The comic book look to the options screen coupled with Joan Jett blasting from the speakers had me hooked in from the beginning of the demo and fans of 80’s tunes (and MTV’s golden age) will be nodding and smiling at the 30 tracks used throughout the game. Lead character Juliet Starling is a squeaky clean all-American cheerleader toting around her boyfriend Nick’s severed (but talkative and rather amusing) head as they take on packs of zombies in a game that plays like a classic beat ‘em up with combos galore, a killer 80’s soundtrack, QTE “dance” mini-games, wild boss battles and a visual style that looks MUCH better that the screenshots you see here and elsewhere online or in print.
The game is so sure of itself that during the two stages and boss battle I saw, it never missed a beat when it came to outrageous humor and sheer exuberance about its subject matter. When I was asking about the tone of the game Suda mentioned, “Happy”, “Pop” and “Cute” which indeed, the game all conveys as it blasts hearts and rainbows at you while Juliet does her thing. From what I saw, most of that Mature rating the game is getting will come from the hilarious amount of cursing coming from Juliet’s sister. Juliet only swears twice in the entire game during two moments where she lets her “go for it!” attitude drop. The more comical violence committed against the undead is pretty funny, especially with the golden coins dropping, hearts and rainbow effects battling the onscreen blood for your attention. Yes, a sitar-playing boss gets cut in half in close up a few times during a great psychedelic battle sequence, but it’s surprisingly not a gory as you’d expect. Particularly when the two halves end up transforming into two separate (and more deadly) versions of the same boss.
All of the other zombie kills are played for laughs, with Juliet chopping off heads and other parts using cool combos to deal damage as body parts go flying about. This clearly isn’t something in the Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead or even Onechanbara vein of super gory undead death-dealing, but the combat seems satisfying nonetheless. This also isn’t a Bayonetta, Devil May Cry or whatever other zippy antihero clone you might be thinking of. The game can be played on the easiest setting as a simpler hack and shoot-festival, but mastering combos and lining up multiple zombies to chain attacks on will blow up your scores (and rewards) even further. At one point, Juliet even gets to drive a combine harvester in a timed mini-game in order to decimate a field full of undead farmers.
Her main squeeze, Nick may be reduced to a talking waist-bag, but he actually gets in on the action as well in some very funny mini-games where Juliet uses Nick to inhabit the decapitated undead body of a mid level boss. In these brief sections, a QTE-style dancing routine needs to be completed as flawlessly as possible. Succeed, and Nick’s temporary body will break open hidden areas, boost Juliet to a new part of a level or a few other things you’ll have to play the game to discover. I noted to Suda that both this game and Grashopper’s previous big console title, Shadows of the Damned featured main characters who both go to extremes for love, and asked if he was secretly a romantic guy at heart. He laughed and said “yes” while also nothing that Lollipop is also about two people who go from being a common high school boyfriend/girlfriend pair to an actual couple who want to take care of each other.
For those who don;t know yet, Nick starts out as just Juliet’s arm candy boy-hunk, but they get closer after she cuts off his head to save him from becoming a full-on zombie. Although, being a severed head on your girl’s hip is a wee bit too close in my book, I gathered that by the end of the game, things would be back to some sort of “normal” for the pair, On the other hand, this IS a Suda 51/Grasshopper game, So my expectations are out the window as to how it all ends. One thing’s for sure, this is the developer’s most accessible game to date and it’s going to pay off big for the team (and WBIE) should all of you reading this take the plunge and buy it. Of course, telling anyone who loves gaming (and can buy M-rated games) about it and getting them to give the game a shot as well. will help the game be even more of a success.
Despite her skimpy outfit which (will draw in lovestruck fanboys and sew-happy cosplayers alike), I see Juliet as a supremely likable strong female character (don’t let her outfit and overly cheery demeanor fool you) and Nick is the perfect foil for her. I noted to Suda that I could actually see this coming to life as a movie (live action or animated) or even limited run TV show if the game takes off and sells well in the US and that made him laugh as he nodded and said he hoped so. Which means that this game needs to be the best (and perhaps fastest) selling Grasshopper Manufacture product to hit US retail for that dream to happen. June 12, 2012 isn’t all that far away, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the stars align and Juliet Starling’s charms (and kicks and chainsaw and shotgun) can hook in even the most jaded of gamer, showing them that games can be funny as well as fun. All that and the fact that going “western” isn’t a bad thing for a Japanese developer that knows how to do things right.