Feature by Matt S.
Goichi Suda is a bit of a hero to many on the DDNet team. His unwavering commitment to games that are transgressive and creative, even to the detriment of their critical rating, is noble, and the fact he’s managed to build up a major Japanese development studio almost entirely around him shows that he’s both a visionary and a leader.
Over the next few weeks, through Tokyo Game Show and beyond, we’re going to do an extended series of feature articles, where we look back on various games that Suda-san has been involved in, and detail what makes them significant and unique to Suda’s vision. Further, we’re also going to feature interviews with various other creators that have worked with Suda over the years… and that’s all leading up to my third meeting with the man himself at Tokyo Game Show this year. I hope.
These articles are premium articles, but courtesy of the good people at Playism (who are handling the long-overdue port of one of Suda’s first games, The Silver Case), we are able to give all readers full access to each of the articles.
If Lollipop Chainsaw was Goichi Suda’s subversive take on those cheerleader exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, Shadows of the DAMNED is, in equal parts, his homage and deconstruction of grindhouse films. And it is absolutely glorious. Gratuitous violence, gorgeous women, and frat boy humour come together in a game that feels grainy to its very core. It’s not – it’s as clear and detailed as any other PlayStation 3 game ever was, but from start to finish you’re going to be looking at this game and feeling nostalgic for the era where you’d hire a straight-to-video tape from your local video shop and then not be able to watch it, as the degraded tape featured more snow and distortion than visible footage.
The grindhouse genre was, of course, a very specific product of a very specific period in film history. It emerged towards the end of the glory years of cinema and the introduction of the VHS, when both platforms allowed filmmakers to, for the first time, create films for very low cost, and really churn them out with impunity. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in doing so, of course, and special effects were significantly more expensive then than they are now, so as a result a distinctive aesthetic emerged – that of very amateur performances, scripts and production values, and plenty of fake gore (which was cheap) and boobs (which were effectively nothing if you could find an aspiring actress willing to strip down),
These shabby, exploitative, and low-fi films had a couple of other things going for them, though. Most critically, everyone involved in them knew that they were making trash, and had fun with it. Secondarily, they also tended to be young, and filled with youthful energy. So, as a result, there was a kind of charm in how completely over the top the films were, and they actually inspired a great many filmmaker greats. From Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez through Peter Jackson, Sam Raini and Eli Roth, the grindhouse genre was accessible and inspiring – a real proof that film making was an attainable skill. We may have had none of their films if not for a lot of unnecessarily naked women and buckets of blood.
It is to this tradition that Shadows of the DAMNED exists. To what part in that Suda played, I am not sure. I suspect that the other main creative on it – Shinji Mikami, the Resident Evil creator, was the one with the greater appreciation for bad horror. That being said, Suda’s background, as a hardcore fan of professional wrestling, put him in alignment with the kind of crass, over-the-top entertainment that the grindhouse genre peddled. And as a result the game itself clicked on so many levels; Mikami’s understanding on horror mechanics and gameplay designed coupled beautifully with Suda’s naturally subversive rhythms, with devilishly funny dialogue and scenario design adding nuance and humour to the narrative, and elevating that side of the experience beyond the typically laboured efforts of Mikami in those areas.
Shadows of the DAMNED stars Gracia Hotspur, a traditional grindhouse “hero” if ever there was one. He hunts demons with the assistance of Johnson, a wisecracking skull that can magically shift between torch, gun and motorbike. And, yes, his name is phallic humour, which the narrative plays up over and over again.
Hotspur finds himself on a roadtrip through hell after Fleming, lord of the demons, consumes Paula, Hotspur’s girlfriend, and drags her into hell with him (as retribution for Hotspur’s demon hunting). Paula has no role in the game, other than as the damsel in distress; a Princess Peach, if Peach was stripped down to her underwear and then implied to be raped over and over again by Bowser (Fleming). And yes, I am aware that there is fan fiction for that out there, but I’m talking about stuff that happens within the game itself. Paula’s lingerie is white and designed to vaguely resemble what a woman might wear on her wedding night. That is of course a juxtaposition, as Suda has mastered over the years. Played for humour in its ridiculous, the game is well aware that it’s working with the innocent and pure damsel in distress trope, and an extreme version of it at that.
It’s a recognition and homage to the objectification that happens through grindhouse narratives. And, while this game, moreso than any other in Suda’s catalogue, doesn’t nearly do enough to properly deconstruct the trope, it’s also by no means a genuine attempt at titillation. To boil the narrative right down, it’s a…. Johnson… measuring contest between Hotspur and Fleming, and you could argue that there’s an exploration of impact that extreme masculinity has on women caught in the crossfire.
But then Shadows of the DAMNED is trash grindhouse, and it’s incredible at it. Suda’s vision of hell could have been pulled straight from those films, looking for the most part more like a cheap film set then the more fantastic visions of hell that we saw in games like Dante’s Inferno. I love the game for that aesthetic, and every time I play I can imagine Suda and Mikami watching Tarantino’s From Dusk To Dawn – itself both homage and deconstruction of grindhouse, over and over again when working on the art direction that the game world take.
This is a world where alcohol restores health and strawberries act as keys, because random surreal moments are so common to this genre. The pace of the game is absolutely relentless, too. If an area is unlit a viriluent darkness takes over and saps Hotspur’s health. Light sources are scattered around, but they die out soon enough so you’ll need to keep pushing forward at the game’s pace, rather than your own.
It wouldn’t be a Suda game is the boss battles were not the highlight, and this is certainly the case with Shadows of the DAMNED. Creative in design, and multi-layered, these bosses are more challenging than I generally find in Suda’s games, though that might well be as much to do with my discomfort with shooter mechanics than the game. I preservered through anyway which is testament to the quality of them – with so many other games I give up after a couple of attempts if I can’t figure the boss out by then.
Shadows of the DAMNED was let down by the way it was promoted, I suspect. EA saw it as a horror/ action game and wanted it to be the next Resident Evil. But it’s not really horror. Grindhouse was never actually scary. It was bombastic, silly, exploitative and crass, and Shadows of the DAMNED was that. People who went in expecting it to meet EA’s vision were going to be disappointed, and sadly the game was probably not the commercial success it deserved to be because the marketing and reality didn’t meet up. The good news is that Suda seems to be returning to the genre, after a fashion. Let It Die looks to be the picture of the modern grindhouse, in the vein of goreporn films like Hostel and Saw. Throw in some Fight Club and there’s every chance that this game will be something amazing in its own right, to make up for the fact that we’ll likely never see a return of Gracia Hotspur.
– Matt S.
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