Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Punk is Dead - Suda51 - The rise and fall of an iconoclast.

In 1994 Goichi Suda announced his arrival in the world of videogames with a bang;
The unmistakable sound of a self inflicted gunshot to the head.

Super Fire Pro Wresting Special was a Japanese-only entry in this long running franchise.
The game sees your unknown protagonist ascend the ranks of sports-entertainment in the kind of story mode you just won't find in this kind of game anymore.

In fact, you didn't find stories like this at the time either - or before for that matter.

During the course of the campaign you are dogged by failure; your manager is mysteriously murdered, you accidentally kill one of your closest friends in the ring, your girlfriend leaves you just before the climactic battle - the build up for which see's your final opponent kill your tag team partner in the ring before announcing that it was he who murdered your coach too.

Bra-and-panties at Summer Slam this is not.

Ultimately, our hero is victorious, however, consumed by the emptiness of glory with no-one to share it with, he shoots himself 3 days after winning the crown.

This story was only Goichi Suda's second credit on a video game, but its tone and refusal to conform to expectations were a precursor to the values he would eventually bring to a worldwide audience.

For the ten years after his work on Fire Pro, Suda remained in the employ of Human Entertainment and directed three games in the Japan-only Syndrome series. He then struck out on his own with the creation of Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio to which he acts as CEO to this day.

At Grasshopper, Suda concentrated initially on the Japanese market with two idiosyncratic Playstation games; The Silver Case, and Flower, Sun, and Rain. The company then lent its services to the more mainstream appeal of two games in the Shining Souls series on the Game Boy Advance. Then came the first Grasshopper game to be released outside of Japan.

Michigan: Report from Hell was directed by Goichi Suda's contemporary at Grasshopper, Akira Ueda - and, despite an interesting premise, it was (and remains) a terrible game. As such it disappeared without a trace upon launch in Australia and Europe, and failed to secure a publisher in the United States.

A year after that, and 11 years after Fire Pro made his name in Japan, Goichi Suda directed his first international video game.

Killer 7 - conceived for Nintendo's Gamecube as part of the ill-fated 'Capcom Five' - was a game that divided opinion with the press and with consumers. Bewitching as many people as it confused, it had been branded with the (very nineties) 'cult classic' misnomer even before it was released.

Some believed it to be esoteric in the extreme, others complained of over simplicity.
Killer 7 was a game about culture, national identity, and east-west relations - as told via the analogy of undead suicide bombers, wheelchair bound assassins, multiple personality disorders, and chess playing deities.

To its fans it was mesmeric; a convoluted jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces hanging together from a barely visible tread.  To others it was a nonsensical mess.

Killer 7 is clearly the work of an artistic mind - conceived and realised with complete creative control over every tiny detail. The result is a final product in which even the flaws seem meticulously planned. The gameplay and story are woven effortlessly through each other - rather than existing as separate, juxtaposed entities, as is the case with the vast majority of videogames.
Its mechanics represent a distillation of gameplay that verges on abstract. Everything unnecessary is stripped away to leave only your actions and their impact.

It was during the marketing phase of Killer 7 that Goichi Suda first expressed the motto of Grasshopper Manufacture: "Punk's not dead".

It was the perfect sound bite to accompany a game with such a fearless, anti-establishment identity from a creator who insisted on conducting interviews wearing a luchador mask. This was undeniably a gimmick, but one that nevertheless made a statement about the relationship between creativity and publicity.

‘Punk's not dead’ was a rebellious rallying call to those consumers who had tired of the relentlessly iterative nature of more mainstream videogames - particularly pertinent considering that, at the time, Killer 7 was still slated as an exclusive to a Nintendo console that was home to the 11th entry in the Super Mario series.

In the wake of mixed reviews and a limited marketing budget, Killer 7 was only a moderate sales success. Capcom had projected worldwide sales of £330k and, while sales in Japan were particularly weak, they were offset by better numbers in Europe and America.
There were a number of contributory factors to this, not least the collapse of the exclusivity arrangement with Nintendo, just a month after it was announced, that ensured the game released simultaneously on Sony's sales behemoth; the Playstation 2.

Extra sales were doubtless garnered through a degree of notoriety. When IGN's Dan Cassamina spuriously asserted in his review that the game featured "full-blown sex" it caught the attention of the videogames industries pantomime villain of the time - activist Jack Thompson. Thompson immediately demanded that, due to the sexual nature of the game, the rating in America should be increased to Adults-Only. Typically, he had not played the game or even seen it running, and I doubt he has to this day.
Nevertheless, the old cliche that 'there's no such thing as bad publicity' is more relevant in this medium than any other, and Mr Thompson's tirade played no small part in ensuring that Killer 7 eventually made its money back.

Grasshopper's next releases returned them to the Japanese market, with two anime tie-ins released in the year following Killer 7, Blood+ One Night Kiss, and Samurai Champaloo: Sidetracked were both released to mixed reviews but decent sales in Japan.
Following these was Contact, an RPG with a clever ‘forth wall’ breaking narrative device that was an early release for Nintendo's DS hand held system.

Despite a fairly positive reception in the games press, however, Contact was a sales failure. Disastrously released in Japan on the same day as massively anticipated Mother 3, it couldn't recover from this early loss of momentum.
None of these games, however, were directed or designed by Goichi Suda. He was working on a game that would be released early into the life of still another Nintendo platform.

No More Heroes is a video game about videogames. It's about making videogames, playing videogames, loving videogames, and - most importantly of all - hating videogames.

No More Heroes is, in this writer's opinion, the finest videogame that has ever been made.

It is the only example of an 'art' game that also manages to be enjoyable to play.
Its existential realisation of the players mindset within its game-world is seething with irony and introspection. It features representations of the games that players want, the games an artist wants to make, and the compromises they have forced upon them.
In its finale it insulates heavily that games and their creators are locked in an endless battle with no meaning, and that any attempt to add meaning will result in failure for both of them.

It's uniquely subversive; a complex game that bemoans the over simplicity of the audiences needs whilst itself hiding behind a mask of over simplicity.

There is a saddening bitterness to No More Heroes, it plays out like a response to a career where the best games have struggled, and the worst have thrived.

That No More Heroes is still the last game directed by Goichi Suda is of no small consequence. That I believe it might be the last game he will ever direct, is a monument to both the product and the man.

In a twist of painful irony, No More Heroes was a massive success.
As with Killer 7, slow initial sales in Japan were offset by good numbers in the West.
A HD re-release for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 was created and sold well, and then,
finally - most tellingly - a sequel was announced.

There are moments in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, where the pen of Goichi Suda is evident but, sadly, in reality, he had very little to do with this pale shadow of the original. It's still fun to play and there are moments where a little introspection is clearly encouraged, but it is uneven, and unclear of vision.

Since No More Heroes, Grasshopper have revealed 5 games to be released to the full retail market. Desperate Struggle, Lollipop Chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned, Killer is Dead, and Lily Bergamo.

Each and every one of them has been introduced to the games press as the work of Goichi Suda. Each and every one of them, it has later transpired, has been directed by someone else.
These games each have their own merits and their own issues. Taking each in isolation, the quality is wildly varying. Their only consistency is the Grasshopper Logo -
the extravagant filigree butterfly wings, the flame haired face, the moto emblazoned somewhere nearby...

Ever since completion of his masterpiece, Goichi Suda has faded further into the background at Grasshopper, other than making an appearance at TGS or E3 to promote whatever game someone else at the studio is making. He and his partners seem well aware that his face and, more importantly his name, are worth their weight in column inches for any new release.
With the possible exception of Lily Bergamo, all of the above games were claimed to be under the directorship of Goichi until after their release. His name still appears on the credits in some supervisory capacity, and a couple of them do a fine job of mimicking the shallower elements of his approach to game design. But not one one of them carries the narrative genius of Killer 7 or savage satire of No More Heroes. They don't even match up to the power and subversion of Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special.

By the announcement of Lily Bergamo at E3 2013, Goichi Suda was no longer a visionary leader. He had become a trademark, a mascot. A name that once conjured up images of great auteurs from other mediums such as Fran├žois Truffaut or Jean Luc Goddard, now brings to mind powerless figureheads like Paul McCartney, Muhammed Ali; icons robbed of their relevance and dignity, wheeled out for the masses to fawn over, to point at, and to remember when they were once great - all the while desperately trying to ignore the faded echo presented before them.

On January 29th 2014 Grasshopper Manufacture was acquired by Gung Ho Online Entertainment.
Their first action of consequence to the outside world was to take Lily Bergamo - the single player hack-and-slash game that Goichi Suda had announced at E3 2013, rename it Let it Die, and turn it into a free-to-play MOBA title.

Grasshopper Manufacture retained their name in the deal. It appears they also managed to keep all off their staff and the ownership of their existing IPs. This is great news for the employees in what must have been a worrying time. At the time of writing, and as far as I can tell, there is only one casualty of the take-over.

Punk is Dead.