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The Strange History Of Grasshopper Manufacture

by Suriel Vazquez on Nov 22, 2018 at 06:00 PM

Goichi Suda has long been the face of Grasshopper Manufacture, and for good reason. Not only is Suda founder of the studio behind cult favorites like Killer7, No More Heroes, and Shadows of the Damned, but most of those games also bear the kind of idiosyncratic style many attribute to a singular vision. For Grasshopper, that vision usually comes from Suda.

“In Japan, they call my games ‘Suda games.’” Suda says. “People say ‘That’s a Suda game,’ and that means something to a lot of people.” That definition can be flexible, however. Grasshopper has released over two dozen games throughout its 20-year history, and while some clearly bear the mark of one of Japan’s most notable developers, some games are more “Suda” than others.

To find out what it means to be a “Suda game,” how that concept has evolved, and how Suda plans to have “Suda games” outlive him, we delved into the history of Grasshopper, straight from its founder and chief eccentric.

Young Grasshopper

Young Grasshopper

The first real “Suda game,” Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, wasn’t made at Grasshopper Manufacture. Although Suda had already cut his teeth for game development at Human Entertainment with Fire Pro Wrestling 3: Final Bout in 1993, Special, released the following year, is the first game in which you can see his influence seeping through.

Those influences include a sea of rock bands, art cinema, and more. In conversation, aesthetic references come pouring out of Suda: Derek Jarman, who directed a number of music videos for The Smiths; Alejandro Jodorowsky, who directed the surrealist film El Topo; Wim Wenders. Leos Carax. Jean-Jacques Beineix.

In Special, they manifested in various ways. The music was more outlandish. The main character, Morio Smith, was the first of many characters named after his favorite band. The plot features surprise deaths caused by the player character, 
who ultimately commits suicide after winning his championship match. Suda never showed the higher-ups at Human the ending that ultimately shipped – and it almost didn’t. “Originally, I had made two endings; there was a good ending and a bad ending,” he explains. “Right before we delivered the master [copy], I ended up switching the endings and putting in what’s now the actual ending.”

At Human, Suda had a large degree of freedom to mold the series he worked on, but he’d frequently step into projects and series that were already established, limiting his direction. This was especially true for the horror series Twilight Syndrome. “It was about three months before the game was supposed to come out, and the then-director threw his hands up and said 
‘I can’t do this anymore. I give up. I can’t take this anymore.’” he tells me. “And so I was called in to do it.”

He had much more say in Moonlight Syndrome, which pivoted the series away from the horrors of ghosts and toward the horrors of man. The game involved several gruesome murders players eventually learn are been committed by a young boy, and once again ends with the gory death of its protagonist. This coincided with a string of vicious murders that occurred in Japan in the late ’90s, most notably the Kobe child murders, in which a teenage boy brutally murdered two children.

Though Suda was given lease to do what he wanted with established series, he wasn’t able build something from the ground up at Human. It also seem didn’t seem like Human, which had amassed enormous debt, would be around much longer in 1997 (the company went defunct in 2000). Suda began reaching out to some of the people who comprised the Twilight Syndrome team, many of whom Suda had developed close bonds with during his short time working on the game and had already departed the company. “Gradually, as people would finish the projects they were working on at the studios they were at, they would come and join me,” Suda says. “About 10 people, and they became the core of Grasshopper [Manufacture].”

Going Full Punk

Going Full Punk

With the founding of Grasshopper in 1998, Suda could finally let loose his disparate threads and influences into whatever he pleased under the mantra “punk’s not dead,” starting with The Silver Case. “Everything that had been fermenting in my mind, I kind of put into that game,” he says. “I feel like there were five game ideas that I had that found their way in there, so that’s exactly what I wanted to do as a game.”

It remains one of the most intensely “Suda games” to this day. A visual novel with some light interactive elements, The Silver Case experimented heavily with presentation. Character art and scene imagery were interspersed across the screen at various locations throughout the story, giving the simple act of reading text a more active feel. Each chapter also has a different look, with some chapters using FMV, anime, and cyberpunk videos and imagery to highlight their stories.

In many ways, it continued the nihilist violent streak of Moonlight Syndrome; in the wake of Kobe child murders, the government began to crack down on violent media, including video games. The Silver Case is a response to that, challenging the idea of reactionary, overbearing media control. “The Silver Case is an exploration of that, an answer to that, and a big reaction against what I was feeling when I created Moonlight Syndrome,” Suda says.

For Grasshopper’s next title, Flower, Sun, and Rain, Suda shifted gears. As a way to escape the dreariness of his previous work, he opted for a more tropical, light-hearted setting. “When I was a kid, actually, there was a lot of these movies being made in Japan that had a south-eastern island setting for the movie,” he explains. “Umitsubame Jyo No Kiseki was one in particular that kind of stands out in my mind.”

Although Flower, Sun, and Rain had a much more whimsical tone, there’s little doubt it’s still a “Suda game.” As Sumio Mondo, you must get through several Groundhog Day-like loops by solving a string of numbers-based puzzles while you explore a mystical island to try to stop a plane with a bomb on it from taking off. Its quirky tone is frequently punctured by somber and wistful moments, leading up to the reveal that each loop has a more sinister significance than players might have expected.

The shift from The Silver Case to Flower, Sun, and Rain also marked Grasshopper’s first attempt at making a game with a fully-controllable character. “The truth is that we didn’t internally have the know-how to make a game with a playable character, so we knew that we had to approach things step-by-step,” Suda says. Even at this early stage, however, Suda saw Flower, Sun, and Rain as part of a longer learning process to eventually create the kinds of games he’d always wanted to make, ones with less writing and more action.

The action games Suda wanted to make required more manpower than one director could handle. Grasshopper soon developed a second line of production, focusing on small projects not headed by Suda himself. The first of these was the Shining Soul series, spearheaded by a new hire from Squaresoft (now Square Enix) named Akira Ueda, whose clear vision and drive helped fuel more projects at Grasshopper. Although all of Grasshopper’s games had carried Suda’s unique stamp and influence on them, Suda was happy to let other directors at the company branch out on their own. It gave him license to work more intensely on the “Suda games” he was most passionate about.

A Killer Entrance

A Killer Entrance

As Grasshopper continued to grow and release cult titles, Suda’s reputation in the Japanese development scene grew as well, eventually catching the eye of Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami. According to Suda, Mikami first heard about him through a fellow Human alumni Hifumi Kono, director of the Clock Tower series. “Mr. Mikami really respected the work that Human did overall as a company,” Suda says. “They were always making these really new, cutting-edge games, so much so that [Mikami] would tell his development staff, ‘I want you guys to reference what was made by Human when we make games.’”

Mikami was then overseeing the Capcom Five (a group of five planned exclusive games for GameCube), and when Kono spoke well about Suda, Mikami arranged to discuss a new project with him. Among the 20 or so game pitches Suda had prepared for Mikami, one stood out. “It wasn’t Killer7, but it used the same visual style as Killer7,” Suda says. “It was kind of the continuation of Moonlight, almost. The idea at the time was pitched with kind of, in my mind at least, was an action-adventure game, but maybe more on the adventure side... and when I took it to Mikami, he said, ‘That’s the one we should do.’”

Cel-shaded graphics were popular at the time, and not only did this prototype use cel-shading, but took inspiration from comic books, abstract art, and more to create an aesthetic that looked unlike anything else at the time. The control scheme was also unique, using the kind of stop-and-shoot mechanic that would later be seen in Resident Evil 4 (another of the Capcom Five), and forcing players onto rail-guided paths rather than giving them complete control of their characters. “Honestly it really came from the design of the GameCube controller,” Suda says. “Searching with the left trigger and aiming with the right trigger. Just holding that controller, the kind of game it should be all came together.”

It was unlike any other third-person shooter or adventure game at the time, and there was some pushback about the direction. “At one point someone had said, ‘you know if you make movement in this game more of a conventional style, it’d probably sell three times as much,’” Suda says. “Then Mikami-san actually approached me and said, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want it to be how you’ve been making it, with that gameplay style, or do you want it to be this more typical, orthodox way of controlling it?’” Suda decided to stick to his original vision and make the “Suda game” he wanted.

Killer7’s release in 2005 was the first time Western audiences had received a real “Suda game,” and the reception was mixed. While many took to its noir, surrealist, and geopolitical trappings, many criticized the incoherent story and strange controls. Others saw it as a cult masterpiece. “I remember getting repeated contacts from Capcom saying ‘Hey, the game got this award.’ ‘Hey the game got this award, and this award.’” Suda tells me. It turned out the West was more receptive to his games than he thought.

Suda wasn’t really aware of much other reception to Killer7 until he began promoting No More Heroes, the next major original project he helmed. “I did tours and things like that, and fans were like ‘Ah, I can finally meet the guy who made Killer7!’ So that’s when it finally dawned me like, ‘Okay, people kind of know who I am.’”

No More Heroes was a proper action game, building off the experience with the genre the studio had gotten with Blood+: One Night Kiss and Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked, two licensed games Grasshopper agreed to make for Bandai Namco. “In my mind, those three games are kind of like the Grasshopper Action Set, in terms of how they deal with the action gameplay,” Suda says. No More Heroes was seen as the next “Suda game,” and had many of his trademarks: Like Killer7, it showed an appreciation for pro wrestling, and the assassin ranking system was based on El Topo’s. It had a pulpier, more irreverent edge to it that mixed with its appreciation for American west coast architecture, but most fans recognized it clearly is another “Suda game,” though what that meant would soon get murky.

Executive Privilege

Executive Privilege

By the time No More Heroes released in 2008, Grasshopper was larger than it had ever been. The “second line” had spawned multiple others, making it harder for Suda to give every Grasshopper title he worked on his full attention. He took a step back, choosing to oversee multiple projects outside of the director role and let others take the reins. “I still handled the creative side of things as well as overall executive producing,” Suda says. “I wasn’t able to realistically put myself into the team as a director.”

The next group of major titles from the studio include various degrees of involvement from Suda. While he wrote the scenario for No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, for example, Nobutaka Ichiki (assistant director on the first No More Heroes) stepped into the director role. “I probably ended up having maybe direct impact over like half of what came out,” Suda says.

Although he still contributed to major parts of the next few Grasshopper titles, his overall influence is scattershot. He served as a writer on Shadows of the Damned while Massimo Guarini directed, despite the words “A Suda51 Trip” being printed on the Western box art. He co-directed Lollipop Chainsaw with Tomo Ikeda. He created the concept for and helped write Killer is Dead while Hideyuki Shin directed. He also contributed to Let it Die, though his involvement with it was more removed. “[It] was actually interesting, because I participated as like a normal-level worker,” he says. “I wasn’t in a directorial role or anything, and it was a very collaborative project, so it was really cool.”

Despite his different degrees of involvement, he still sees all of these as “Suda games.” “The games that get associated with me are rightfully associated with me,” he says. “I might not have directed them, but Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Killer is Dead are all titles that I specifically came up with the concept for, and so in a way they are my games.”

The change in style was hard to deny, however. Where The Silver Case, Flower, Sun, and Rain, were more methodical and focused on non-standard gameplay, his later games adapt a more cohesive framework which, while making them more accessible, made them seem less in keeping with Suda’s original, more surreal stylings, a fact fans of his earlier works have lamented.

Suda, for his part, doesn’t see himself going back. “I think it’s important that as many people can play these games as possible,” he says, citing the relative lack of interest in visual novels and adventure games. That said, he thinks he can strike a balance between the two styles in the future. “I’m convinced that there’s still a way to make a game that can be narrative-focused, text-heavy, and yet still be more than clicking and reading,” he says.

Back In The Hopper

Back In The Hopper

Grasshopper’s next game, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, is in part pitched as the first game Suda has fully directed in over 10 years. The circumstances that lead to that involve a series of events that converged to let Suda once again sit in the director’s chair.

The first is the release of the popular indie game Hotline Miami. Suda quickly fell in love with its aesthetic and action, and saw it as a game very much in his vein. “When I found out it was by two people, Dennis [Wedin] and Jonathan [Söderström], it just blew my mind,” Suda tells me. “They had jobs they normally worked and then at nights or whenever they had spare time they’d work on making that... In a way it reminded me of when I first started Grasshopper Manufacture.” This work ethic inspired Suda to return to his roots, when he was working directly as the lead of a small team making a small game.

In January of 2013, Grasshopper was acquired by GungHo Online Entertainment, the Japanese developer and publisher responsible for Puzzle & Dragons. This eased some of the executive-level planning and decision-making Suda had to contend with as CEO of Grasshopper. “Because I have these strong people we’re relying on within the GungHo group, the amount of time I need to necessarily devote to this kind of stuff is greatly reduced,” he says. This freed up some time for him to work on more personal projects.

Finally, Grasshopper began revisiting its older games, starting with The Silver Case, which allowed Suda to remember a time when he was far more involved with the creative process. “Literally every frame of that game I touched and looked at,” Suda says. That’s something he hasn’t had time to do in a while, and revisiting The Silver Case and Killer7 (which is also getting remastered this year), Suda realized he missed having that kind of control over a game.

This all led to him returning to direct Travis Strikes Again, which Suda plans to make the first part of his return in the director’s chair at the studio he created.

The Shape Of Suda To Come

The Shape Of Suda To Come

It’s hard to know what, at this point, defines a “Suda game,” aside from an overall feeling that they aren’t quite like anything else. But as that definition continues to evolve, Suda has big plans for the future of Grasshopper. If Travis Strikes Again is successful, it would allow him to make No More Heroes 3, for example. Long-term, however, he’d like to return to something more in keeping with the studio’s knack for creating original games instead of sequels. “I definitely want to create new IP that’s well-received,” he says. “I definitely want to get something that no one’s ever seen before, with characters no one’s ever seen before, out there.”

He’s also interested in further defining the idea of what a “Suda game” is in the first place, and continuing the process of passing that down to the many promising staff members at Grasshopper. “I think my core fans know when they pick up a [Grasshopper] game, probably just how much I participated, whether it be directorially, or some part of the process, they know,” he says. “So I want to make every one of Grasshopper’s games have my stamp on it, as it were, to be a ’Suda game.’ So even if other people have directed it internally, I still think it’s important that if it comes from Grasshopper, that it has this seal of mine on it.”

Suda hopes to continue making games for as long as he lives, but also that the studio outlives him – he wants the company to continue for at least 100 years. “That obviously means kind of raising directors and nurturing them so they can do that and still maintain that Grasshopper stamp,” he says. “It’s important that I kind of transmit that to the staff, so that they can understand what a ‘Suda game’ is, and what makes it that, and give them that DNA so they can learn to do that too.”