Suda 51 Shares The Secrets Of The Silver Case And His Legendary Career
Suda 51 is the man behind such varied video games as Killer7, Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and the recently-released free-to-play PS4 dungeon crawler, Let it Die. His studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, doesn't play by the traditional rules of video game creation; they strive to create unique experiences which are simply unlike those seen in games from any other developer.
The team's first game, 1999's The Silver Case, didn't come to the West during its original heyday, but it's finally making the jump to Europe and America. The PC version launched on Steam last fall, and April 18 the title releases on PlayStation 4 – nearly 20 years after the title originally launched as a PlayStation 1 exclusive.
I spoke with Suda 51 about The Silver Case and its long road to Western shores, which of his other games he would like to see get the HD Remaster treatment, and, of course, the question on everybody's mind – what's the deal with his consistently recurring character, Sumio?
Why is it important to you that Western audiences finally be able to experience The Silver Case?
One thing is that, of course, it was Grasshopper Manufacture’s debut title, but it is also the starting point for all of the action and action adventure games that we made afterwards. I want people to know that the roots of Grasshopper are here. It’s more than just an old-school visual novel, and it was a challenge for the 30-year-old me. This is something that I want gamers around the world as well as young gamers to know.
The Silver Case came out 18 years ago. In going back to it for the remaster, what are you most proud of?
Well, one thing is that complex scenario that Masahi Ooka-san and myself managed to create. Another is the art that Takashi Miyamoto-san created. The entire staff came together and created the Film Window Engine and took a swing at that. It might sound a bit prideful to say I'm proud of everything, but from the very moment you start the game until the very end, I had my hand in every frame. I guess I am most proud of that.
Did your time as an undertaker influence your work on The Silver Case, a murder mystery with lots of dead bodies?
[Laughs] Not specifically because of my undertaker work, but because the theme of the game is crime. And of course, the main characters and player character are police detectives. Since they must perform investigations, there’s definitely going to be dead bodies. There was also a game I worked on at my previous company, Human Entertainment, called Moonlight Syndrome. Around the time, there was a very famous case in Japan called the Sakakibara Incident that had a large effect on how things could be portrayed, in terms of regulations. In Japan, this caused many rules to be imposed on games. Because of this, I realized what a large effect this put on the games we were making – how they could be damaged or distorted by crime. When I decided to make a new game, I thought about Moonlight Syndrome and The Silver Case was kind of a reaction to that. "What is crime? Who is a criminal? What causes crime? Who are bad people?" I decided to make a game using these themes. In this way, Moonlight Syndrome ended up being a much larger influence than my past work as an undertaker.
The Silver Case plays out in an episodic format. Overall there are 4 different stories. This was my first original game, but there were four different games that I wanted to make. So, The Silver Case has everything I wanted to express and create. There are various inspirations in there, but I want people to see The Silver Case as the coalescence of everything I wanted to do at the time, and my passion.
This is the first time The Silver Case has been released in English. Being such a text-based game, what were some of the challenges of localizing the game for an English-speaking audience?
Definitely the amount of text is one. Another is the structure of the scenarios, Transmitter and Placebo, and how well they could be accurately translated. There are many special points to each side and they are interrelated. That was a big potential problem area. In fact, this is why the game couldn't be released abroad originally.
However, three years ago, a company called Active Gaming Media came to us and told us they wanted to localize and program the PC version. This offer came through Playsim. At that time, I was very happy, but we told them how difficult to translate it was. They told us they were adept at translation and there were three foreign staff in their company who had beaten the game, and one of them was actually the president of the company, Ibai Ameztoy! They told us they could do multiple layers of accuracy checks on the localization and that translator James Mountain would be handling the translation. That gave us confidence – well, confidence enough to take a chance on them!
The Silver Case was, at one point, on its way to the Nintendo DS before being cancelled. Why didn't that work out?
One reason was the issue of an English localization. We wondered if a game with this much text could be localized correctly to be able to bring it to the West.
Another reason was the quality of the port. We actually had a full, working version, but we just couldn't figure out a way to make use of the DS’s main feature, the dual screens. Since we were working on several other games on the time we just didn't have the energy to figure it out. We actually thought about just handing the DS version out at Tokyo Game Show for free, but even that would have cost a lot of money, so we couldn't even do that either! Unfortunately, we then had to cancel to the project.
To my eyes, The Silver Case HD looks practically identical to the original 1999 release, but with a crisp coat of High Definition polish. Was there ever a desire to remake all the assets before settling on a more traditional remaster?
No, I didn't think to do a complete remake this time. At the time of the DS version, yes, I thought that if we were going to do it, it would need to be a remake. But as I said before, that was difficult. This time our main goal was getting it in HD for Steam, so we thought a remaster would be most appropriate.
As for the PS4 version, we decided to take it one step further and deal with some things that had come to our attention. One was what happens to the idol Sayaka Baian during Chapter 4. We remade the footage of Sayaka and had her art redone. We used a popular gravure idol named Arisa Matsunaga for the live-action sequences. Also, the Grasshopper sound team, comprised of Akira Yamaoka and newcomer Erika Ito, worked on some remixes and new tracks.
For more on The Silver Case, and why Suda thinks Michigan: Report From Hell would make a good VR game, head to page two.
There are two new epilogue chapters in the game, Yami and Whiteout. What inspired this additional content, and what can players expect from the new scenes?
While we were working on the remaster, when I had some free time, I thought about really revitalizing The Silver Case, so I had Ooka-san add a new part for the Placebo side of the story. He created the short scenario called YAMI. I then realized that, if Ooka-san was going to be working on something new, then I should too. This is where the White Out chapter comes from. I thought of it as a way to link this game to Ward 25, the sequel.
I felt the game had been reinstalled into me, as it were. So, rather than just reviving the game, I wanted to make a statement, that I had returned to the visual novel genre. Ooka-san is up to speed, as well, so we could make another game like this.
We know that you want to bring the sequel, Ward 25, to the west. If that happens, would you ever consider continuing the series and making a third Silver Case game?
The Silver Case is set in 1999 in the Kanto region. Then Ward 25 is set in 2009. Now if I were to make a new game, it would be set in 2018-2019 or maybe even 2020 for the Olympics. I would love to see how that world is at that point. The characters would all be older. I want to meet those characters and see how they are now. I’d like to show the fans where they are now through a new game. I’d like The Silver Case to be something where we all age together. Right now, there are a lot of remakes or new works from on old series set today coming out; some of my favorites like Twin Peaks and Trainspotting 2, for example. It feels like bringing those characters into the world of today is in vogue at the moment, so I want to give fans a new take on them. At the time of The Silver Case, Tetsugoro Kusabi is 44 years old. So, if I were to write him 20 years later, he would be 64. I want see what he’s like at this age. If Sumio Kodai is still alive, he would be 46 — a bit younger than I am now. So yes, I’d love to bring those characters to this current time.
Speaking of Sumio, The Silver Case, Flower Sun and Rain, and Killer is Dead all feature that character. Is he just an inside reference, like Cid in Final Fantasy, or is there a greater thematic significance to this?
He functions as an actor for me as in The Silver Case, Flower, Sun, and Rain, and also as Mondo Zappa from Killer7. It’s as though all three parts were played by the same actor. That’s so that’s why their names are the same. Osamu Tezuka had a similar concept called the Star System, and the same characters appear in his various works, but in different roles. I’ll bet that these characters functioned as actors for Tezuka and so he used them like this in various roles. Movie directors are the same, aren’t they? They use actors they like in different roles. It’s the same for me; characters that I like exist within me as people to be used in various roles. Plus, I want to see them from time to time! I create them as characters and so I must use them.
If you could reach through time to send a message to your younger self, what would it be?
"You made an amazing game. You made a game you can be proud of.” I'd like to tell him that and let him know that people all over the world are playing his game.
Your games often come in one of two flavors: hard-boiled surreal drama, like Silver Case, Killer7, etc. or wacky comedy with thematic resonance, like Shadow of the Damned or No More Heroes. As a storyteller, is it easy for you to jump back and forth between those two dissonant moods, or is the tone something that comes about after you decide the story you want to tell?
It’s all reaction. When I write something hard-boiled and dark, the reaction is that I want to create something lighter. If you look at Killer7 and No More Heroes, you can see the big reaction there. Killer7 is a game that I put a lot of effort into and went deep into. With No More Heroes, I wanted to make something more easygoing. With Killer7, I wanted to make something completely original, completely uninfluenced by anything else and unlike anything anyone had made before. And then with No More Heroes there’s lot of parodies and homages in it. I didn't even really think too deeply about game design; I just made a third-person action game. It’s a game where I let myself relax and tell a silly story. With Killer7 you have seven characters and the allure of the world itself. So, as a reaction to that, Travis is the singular lynchpin, the main focus. Everything within No More Heroes is a reaction to Killer7, even to the setting itself, which is some kind of West Coast, good-times atmosphere. That’s probably where I wanted to be at the time. [laughs]
Many of your games feature high-profile collaborations. You worked with Shinji Mikami on Shadows of the Damned, and James Gunn (director of Guardians of the Galaxy) on Lollipop Chainsaw. You also worked with Hideo Kojima on the Snatcher radio drama. How does sharing duties with top talent compare to when you're taking the lead on a project by yourself?
I don't think Mikami-san feels this way, but to me, he is like my teacher. I’m not a part of Capcom, but the making of Killer7 was a very instructive time. I learned many things from him. He gave me courage and confidence. He told me I was a first-rate creator, even though I didn't have that kind of confidence at the time. Even before Killer7 came out, he really supported me. He taught me about action games through Killer7. For example, the speed of the playable character, the action of shooting guns and the subsequent feedback. All of this formed the basis of Grasshopper’s action games. What I learned with Killer7 I put into practice with Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked. So, Mikami-san is very special to me and, again, like my teacher. I would love to continue to make games with him from time to time. There’s still a lot that I can learn from him. It’s very fun to work with him.
For James Gunn, Warner Bros. brought him out for us and he really improved the game. Kojima-san gave me a lot of freedom to write the story during our collaboration. I wouldn’t really so much say that the process is all that different, but that these collaborations come about as a matter of necessity. When I make games by myself, it's because I feel they are things that can only be done that way, with me by myself.
Do you want to buy any of your other older titles and make them shine on current-gen machines? Twilight Syndrome, Killer7, Michigan: Report From Hell? Would you opt for straight-remasters, or full-on remakes?
As the need arises, I would love to make that happen, though the rights are held by other people. The rights for all three games you mentioned aren’t held by Grasshopper. However, for Twilight Syndrome, I feel that it wouldn’t easily by understood by foreign people even through a remaster or remake. For me, both Moonlight Syndrome and Twilight Syndrome weren’t scenarios originally done by me, so I’m not too interested in revisiting them.
As for Michigan, I'd love to remake it in VR. That game is definitely suited for VR more so than any other game out there. I do have a good relationship with Spike Chunsoft, and I always talk about it with their president, Sakurai-san, so I’m hoping to be able to make it some day.
You've made lots of games, some of which have found more fanfare than others. Which one do you wish more players would have enjoyed in its time and why?
One is Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked. It has a really interesting combat system and I'd like for people to revisit the game. Although it came from an anime, the game's story is entirely original; I didn't use anything, story-wise, from the anime. I would call it a real Grasshopper game, even though it's a game based on another work. Still, it isn’t really well-known. As I mentioned when talking about Killer7 and Mikami-san, I learned a lot from him about action games. Samurai Champloo is the first time we tried to make an action game. After that, we made Blood Plus, then No More Heroes. To reach No More Heroes, those two previous games were very important. With those, the development team really gained the know-how for action games which allowed us to make No More Heroes.
Blood Plus; I personally consider that game to be Moonlight Syndrome 2. Blood Plus is also based on an anime, but has an entirely original story. I didn't use the anime story at all. Whenever I deal with anime-based projects, I don’t like to use the anime story. So when I spoke to Bandai Namco about it, I told them I wanted to make my own story; I was able to do that, and Blood Plus is a very experimental game. It never came out in the West, but you can get the import version for cheap.
These two games are like the appetizer for Grasshopper action before No More Heroes. They were created with a lot of time and effort – it would be a waste for them to be forgotten. I would love for these two to be given some attention and championed by the media.
For more from Suda 51, check out some details about his next game which is planned for Switch. To see us play Michigan: Report From Hell in its entirety, check out our Super Replay of the game.
For other interviews with prolific figures in Japanese game development, check out our chats with Death Stranding director Hideo Kojima and Resident Evil VII producer Masachika Kawata.