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The Art of Japanese Video Game Design With Suda51

by Todd Ciolek,
Goichi “Suda51” Suda has a special place in the game industry. Several places, in fact. Some know him as the author of twisted, investigative games like The Silver Case and Flower, Sun, and Rain. Some revere him as the creator of the deliciously strange Killer7. Others like him for the more playful tones of No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Killer is Dead. As the founder and CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture, Suda made all sorts of inventive games, and he discussed many of them at a San Diego Comic Con panel entitled “The Art of Japanese Video Game Design.”

The panel came not long after PIE International's release of The Art of Grasshopper Manufacture, a collection of production art from various Grasshopper titles. Hosted by ANN's Todd Ciolek, the panel looked at Suda's extensive history of game creation and how it's presented in Grasshopper's new artbook.

Suda worked as an undertaker before making video games, but he had his eye on game design prior to his mortician career.

“Before I became an undertaker, I worked as a graphic designer and I actually worked with Sega on their company brochures,” Suda said. “Within the brochure was Virtua Racing, and I worked on the advertisements as well. Yu Suzuki, who also did Shenmue, was involved in Virtua Racing, and he wanted the graphic designer to play the game. So that's how I got to play the game first-hand.

"And at the time I thought all the people who created video games were like professors wearing white lab coats, but when I got into the company and saw the people at Sega, they were all close to my age…very casual, wearing headphones and listening to music, and creating games. I thought 'OK, well, maybe I can do this myself.'”

Suda broke into video games at Human Entertainment, where he worked as scenario writer for Super Fire Pro Wrestling III. On his second title, Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, he threw players a curve ball in the story mode. After making his way to the top of pro-wrestling world, the game's protagonist finds only despair, and he commits suicide.

“I started with pro-wrestling games, and I didn't have any experience as a game designer,” Suda said. I didn't know how to program. I didn't write, I didn't draw. But I knew about pro wrestling. For the first game I worked on, I did a good job, I got a good reputation, and I was praised in the company. So, for that, I could do anything I wanted in the second game, Special. So I thought about what I should do, and I created the story mode for the first time for a Fire Pro game. When I thought about the life of the main character, I had two endings: a happy one and a bad ending. But when we got close to the master submission, I thought 'Wait a minute. He should not have two options. He only has one choice.' And for the person who got to the top like that, the only option he had was to die. He was so close to where God is, the only option was to die.”

Suda moved on to visual-novel titles at Human, contributing to Twilight Syndrome: Search and Twilight Syndrome: Investigations. He then took a greater role in the follow-up, Moonlight Syndrome.

“Twilight Syndrome is a horror game, and you have ghosts appearing,” Suda explained. “The original director of Twilight Syndrome had to step down in the middle of the project, so I joined as a producer-slash-director to support the project and finish. So for Twilight Syndrome I couldn't really do much as far as the creative input was concerned, but for Moonlight Syndrome I wanted to put a lot of color into the game. So I decided 'What's scarier than ghosts? Well, that's humans.' So we used a psychological aspect in the game. But of course I'm also very scared of ghosts!”

Moonlight Syndrome also introduced some bizarre imagery, including an ending that finds one character trapped in a TV and another holding a paper bag that apparently contains a human head.

“Moonlight Syndrome wasn't completely my original idea," Suda said. "But it's very close to a game where I could work freely. So I got a lot of my ideas in the game. That's why you see the head in the paper bag, and you'll see a lot of those ideas in later games.”

Moonlight Syndrome would be Suda's last game at Human, as he soon left to form his own studio, Grasshopper Manufacture.

“I left Human because the bonus wasn't so good,” Suda said, drawing laughs from the audience. “Well, that's half-kidding but half-true. After Human Entertainment, a company called ASCII approached me to make games together. So that's how I ended up making Grasshopper Manufacture. Why the name? When I was working on Fire Pro 3 as my debut title, I worked really, really hard. I'd start at eight in the morning, and even though the work day ends at six, there was no way I could finish at six. So I'd take a break for about an hour at six, and I'd make sure I slept while I listened to music, and what I listened to most was [the album] Grasshopper by Ride. And that was how I powered through the project. I worked until the last train home, which was about eleven or twelve at night. So I worked really, really hard for this project, and I wanted to remind myself of how I was the first time I worked on a game.

Suda's first game at Grasshopper was The Silver Case, a text-driven mystery game where players see an investigation through the eyes of police as well as a journalist. It goes down several twisted paths, and two characters from Moonlight Syndrome appear and meet their ends.

“I needed to come up with a completely new adventure game,” Suda recalls. “I made this company to create very unique games, so I had to come up with something very, very different. I used the theme of crime, and I wanted to talk about what justice, evil, and sin are like in this game.”

Grasshopper created a DS version of The Silver Case many years later, though it was never released in any region.

“Maybe it was during the development of No More Heroes…I gave a speech, and the audience was so kind that I think I was kind of high, and I said that I was going to release the Silver Case in English. And I'm sorry I haven't kept that promise yet. We did port it to the DS, but I really wanted to work on it further, with additional content. But now we're on to the 3DS. But I definitely want to release something in English and European languages. It's unfortunate that Grasshopper's debut title isn't available.”

Flower, Sun, and Rain emerged as Grasshopper's second title. A more elaborate adventure than The Silver Case, it sees an investigator named Sumio Mondo helping the residents of an island find lost items—and, in the process, uncovering a mystery that ties back to The Silver Case. It appeared on the PlayStation in its original form, but a localized DS version of Flower, Sun, and Rain came along in 2008.

“When we created the Silver Case, the team size was not even ten at the most, so we had to come up with a game that we could create with a limited number of staff numbers,” Suda said. “For Flower, Sun, and Rain, we had five or six people more. That's how we could add the action parts and walking parts in the game.”

Grasshopper then made Shining Soul and Shining Soul II, Game Boy Advance action-RPGs in the Shining series, in conjunction with Nextech (now Nex Entertainment) and Sega. Their first PlayStation 2 outing, however, followed Suda's earlier work in theme. Michigan: Report From Hell is a survival-horror title where the player controls a camera operator following a reporter through a zombie apocalypse.

“There was a lot happening with the project,” Suda noted. “At the beginning, I started the concept with the image of mist, and then I worked with Spike. But at the beginning, it wasn't scary enough with just the ideas from the mist. So we had to come up with a completely new idea to make the game scarier, so we have came up with the idea of the cameraman following each crime and the reporter…and then she gets devoured in front of the camera. And that was Michigan!”

Suda's next project would prove to be his breakout hit in North America. Grasshopper partnered with Capcom producer Shinji Mikami for a game aimed at worldwide audiences, and Suda was free to craft a storyline all his own.

“When I look back, Killer7 was a really a special project for me,” Suda said. “When you create video games, of course it's a commercial title, so you have the input and opinions from the publisher and producers and whatnot. But for this project, Mikami gave me complete freedom. He told me 'Just do whatever you'd like, and just give a hundred percent or two hundred percent to this project.' So I got to do everything myself."

Killer7 remains one of Suda's most popular titles. It introduces a band of seven assassins who exist as multiple personalities within a single individual, and they take on the grotesque, cackling terrorists of the Heaven Smile organization. That merely scrapes the surface of Killer7's bizarre, layered vision of international politics, psychological warfare, conspiracy theories, and haunted televisions. Killer7's disturbing imagery and complex plotlines inspire fans (and fan debates) to this day.

“Before the project started, I came to E3 for the first time,” Suda said. “When I saw the show, there were so many great games from around the world, but of course there were no games of mine. I still remember how sad I felt and how overwhelmed I was. I saw all of these great games and I was completely overwhelmed. I thought 'I really want to create some good games that can be presented at E3.' But it was still a distant dream, and I never imagined that I would be able to create something for an international audience. I never imagined that I would be able to talk about it to people in America, like I am today. Mikami-san said to create this game for the worldwide audience, and that really gave me the chance to create something, and I'm forever in debt to Capcom and Mikami.

“I really wanted to create something that no one had ever seen before," he continued. "Mikami-san always comes to mind. He was the one who created Resident Evil. He really blew everyone's mind with the controls and the horror that was never seen before. So in order to work with a producer like that, I really had to come up with something new to pay respect to him. Because I was working with the GameCube, it has a controller with unique features, like Button A being a big bigger than the others. So I had to come up with completely new controls…and also the story. It wasn't just talking about something very apparent or just the action. I wanted to implement something on the flipside of what was obvious. I wanted to come up with something interesting and new for an international audience.”

Grasshopper crafted two anime-based titles for the PlayStation 2: Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked (which was released in North America) and Blood+: One Night Kiss (which wasn't). Their first DS game was Contact, an oddball RPG with its share of defenders, and Grasshopper's most tauntingly unlocalized game may be Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. Released on the Wii in 2008, it remains exclusive to Japan—much to the chagrin of series fans.

Grasshopper's next major title would arrive on the Wii as well. No More Heroes is a delirious, hyperviolent, comedic action game in which aspiring assassin Travis Touchdown makes his way through the ranks of equally eccentric killers. It further established Suda's reputation outside of Japan, and fans seem to have a soft spot for its hero, who combines a dorky affection for “moe” anime with a semi-stylish attire. In devising Travis, Suda started with Johnny Knoxville of Jackass notoriety.

“Of course, Johnny Knoxville, I really like him, so I thought 'What if he was an otaku and liked Star Wars,'” Suda said. “And he lives close to San Diego, since he's close to the border. Our staff members came to San Diego to take some pictures to make [his hometown of] Santa Destroy. This is actually the first time for me to be in San Diego, and I'm happy to be here. I'll have to come back here again.”

Some reports have it that the beam katana wielded by Travis in No More Heroes and its sequel was inspired by the crotch-themed Schwartz laserswords in Spaceballs, but Suda clarified his inspirations.

“I was actually told 'please do not say this was inspired by Star Wars,' so I had to say I was inspired by Spaceballs.”

After No More Heroes 2, Grasshopper continued on to Shadows of the Damned, which chronicles a journey through a demon-filled netherworld, complete with rampant violence and dirty jokes.

“Originally, I had the inspiration from Kafka's The Castle, and I wanted to create something similar,” Suda stated. “That's how I came up with the title Kurayami. In that title, the main character started off wearing nothing, and he doesn't even use a gun. He just talks to the people in town, and only at nighttime would he fight with demons. That's how I started.”

Shadows of the Damned changed significantly, however, as Electronic Arts adapted it for overseas audiences.

“They suggested that 'no, instead you have to have guns,' so that's why he has a gun. The Western style is…guns.”

Grasshopper's other projects included the iOS title Frog Minutes, the Kinect baseball-tosser Diabolical Pitch, the PSP rhythm game Evangelion: 3nd Impact, and the fantastically illustrated shooter Sine Mora. Suda also discussed Lollipop Chainsaw, a goofball action game that drops a cheerleader and her magical hardware into a zombie-plagued town. Suda worked with director James Gunn, who went on to helm Guardians of the Galaxy.

“Warner Bros. wanted someone who was good with zombies, and they suggested James Gunn,” Suda stated. “But he's a Hollywood celebrity, so I thought 'Maybe he's going to be a figurehead only.' But when the project started he got very much involved and rewrote the whole thing from Japanese to English. And he also did the casting for voice actors in English. So he wasn't just a name. He made the project his own, and he was just a really nice guy.”

Grasshopper's more recent games include Liberation Maiden, a DS shooter in which the teenage-girl president of Japan pilots a mecha to defend her country. A visual-novel sequel followed on PlayStation 3, while the multiplatform action game Black Knight Sword grew from the original idea for Shadows of the Damned. Most prominent among Suda's recent projects is Killer is Dead, an action title that throws assassin Mondo Zappa into surreal, futuristic worlds and romantic encounters. Suda also contributed to a segment of the omnibus film Short Peace by scripting the game Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day. It finds a schoolgirl assassin sniping targets with a violin-rifle, and Suda's inspiration for it was simple.

“In Japan, it actually happened,” he joked. “So be careful when you come to Japan.”

The panel closed with Suda discussing his current projects. Let It Die, a gritty action game, grew of out another Grasshopper games, one called Lily Bergamo. The developer scrapped some parts of Lily Bergamo, including protagonist Tae Ioroi, and turned the remains into the free-to-play PlayStation 4 carnage of Let It Die.

“It's hack-and-slash, and I haven't really talked a lot about it,” Suda said of Let It Die. “The main character climbs a tower, but it's not really story-driven. So it's not an RPG, but you do clear levels and you'll collect weapons and equipment, and you can combine equipment and weapons. I don't want to talk too much about the game, but I'm working really, really hard on developing it.”

Suda then introduced Tsukikage no Tokio, a short film that he scripted. Directed by Takanobu Mizuno and animated at Studio Khara, the short finds Tokio, the guardian of the moon, facing invaders from Earth. It is currently streaming with other Animator Expo shorts.

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