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.
Related reading: A look back at Lollipop Chainsaw and its subversion of the sexist cheerleader tropes.
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.
I’ve already written on how the gaming community came together in one of those rare moments of solidarity between critic and audience to lynch it over the perception that it must be exploitative trash because it has a female cheerleader in the lead role. I’m not going to tread that ground again, but given that Suda worked with James Gunn on this one, and the latter would go on to direct the nearly universally beloved Guardians of the Galaxy film, I believe that if certain people played Lollipop Chainsaw again today with that knowledge, they might rapidly backtrack on that previous perception.
Looking past the thematic elements, though, Lollipop Chainsaw is, for my mind, the best realisation of the kind of gameplay that Suda likes to build his games around.
For one thing, it’s hyper-kinetic in pacing, action, and energy. Suda likes his games to have short, sharp rhythms, in which players transition between gameplay quirks – or gimmicks – in a steady stream towards the dramatic and more sustained boss battles. Lollipop Chainsaw is in theory a brawler (Juliet Starling, the cheerleader with a chainsaw, against the undead), but it is constantly changing up how you go about the brawling and zombie combat. If you were to imagine the game as a series of enclosed encounters, with only tiny transitions between them, each encounter has a distinctly different set of mechanics to it. One moment you’ll be driving a harvester around to mow down enemies. The next you’ll be on a glowing neon floating platform that is ascending a building as enemies throw pots and other objects at you, as though it were an arcade game from the 80’s. Predicting what will actually come up next is impossible, and that’s just how Suda likes it; surprising from start to finish.
The cohesion between the elements isn’t always there, but then that’s okay in Suda’s mind, because what is consistent is the sheer energy and raw surrealism that he throws at players. Somehow this creates an internal logic within the game. It’s a sense of logic that disappears almost immediately after switching the game off, but while you’re playing, in a very weird sense, it does all make sense and flow together well.
It’s the boss battles that are Suda’s clear pet favourite part of game design. Perhaps it’s because he got his start in developing wrestling games, and the one-on-one clash of over-the-top personalities has remained core to his design philosophy ever since. When I met him to interview him for my book a couple of years ago, I certainly came away with the impression that a fascination with the aesthetics and attitude of wrestling as a youth was deeply influential on Suda.
Lollipop Chainsaw’s boss battles are utterly brilliant. Each boss is a zombie that is also a manifestation of a musical genre; for example, the first is a punk rock monster. My favourite is, later on, when Juliet tackles a Jefferson Airplane-inspired stoner music hippie. Each boss battle is multi-layered, meaning that she will attack them until they’ve lost a certain amount of health, and then they’ll transform into something else (and something nastier), and you’ll need to grapple with some new attack patterns. The result is that these battles tend to be quite protracted affairs, and while Suda isn’t the first to approach boss battles like this, it’s rare that any other developer is able to make the battles so distinctive and memorable.
Each boss fights like a manifestation of his or her music. The punk boss will scream into existence physical letters that spell out “BITCH” and then hurl them at Juliet. The stoner music boss, meanwhile, is all about tripped-out bubbles. The boss battle’s aren’t necessarily difficult for people who are familiar with action games, but they are hugely entertaining and distinctive, and the gameplay strength of Lollipop Chainsaw. Levels are kept relatively short in order to make sure people reach those boss battles at a fair clip, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say Suda saw the (relatively speaking) downtime between boss battles as filler, he was certainly keen to drive you though them as fast as possible.
Speaking of music themes, Lollipop Chainsaw also demonstrates that Suda has a real cinematic understanding of music, and the utterly brilliant soundtrack is another highlight of the game. As standard there’s pacey music to help get the adrenaline up, but in key moments the game breaks out licensed music, which is always spot on for the situation. When in that aforementioned harvester scene, Juliet is able to slice up zombies by the hordes while Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round is rocking in the background. The scene where Juliet is on a floating platform, avoiding enemies throwing pots at her as it ascends a building like an old arcade game has Empire State Human by The Human League as its backing track, and the thudding electric beat of that track so perfectly synchronises with the movement of the platform that it’s visceral.
Of course, the bosses have accompanying music that suits the genre they represent, too. Suda uses music in a masterful way in Lollipop Chainsaw to build both humour and intensity, and, yes, Mickey is on this soundtrack. You can’t have a cheerleader game, film, or anything without that song, and we’re not left disappointed there.
As I’ve discussed in articles past, the characterisation and storytelling of Lollipop Chainsaw is really quite special, and helps the game to stand out as a distinctive and engaging example of the brawler genre, but on a technical level it’s also quite brilliant. Juliet Starling’s voice actor is tone-perfect in supporting the subversive nature of the character. She sounds preppy, overly cheerful, and none-too-bright, but will then say, like, super-smart stuff and do so in such a deadpan manner that it creates that satirical underpin to the subversive nature of the game.
Lollipop Chainsaw is a short game, and that itself was cause for much criticism back when it was a new release. But it needed to be short. If the game were to recycle too much, or allow the pace balance between boss battles and other elements to swing, the game would have lost much of the impact and drive that are its key strengths. What is important is that the game is complete and tells the story that it wants to in a comprehensive manner. The quality of Lollipop Chainsaw, not the length, is what makes it worthwhile, and made it worth full price when it was a new release. I have played this through a good dozen times since purchasing it at full price when it was new. I find it a very replayable game because it’s not too much of a time commitment, and is good enough that I continue to pull it out to play through on a regular basis. There are plenty of far longer games that I will certainly never play again and have all-but forgotten about, and to me those are the ones that are not worth their asking price.
Now, all we need is to convince Suda to pull together a “Lollipop Chainsaw Remaster”, scrub up the graphics, and put the thing on PlayStation 4. No game (that hasn’t already had a “HD” treatment) deserves it more than this one.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld