Monday, 18 February 2008

Digital Auteurs - Goichi Suda

“It’s always important to remember the truth that games are not always about technology.”

Goichi Suda is currently enjoying one of the high points of his career, having just released No More Heroes for the Wii to critical acclaim from fans and newcomers alike. Suda 51, as he likes to be called, has always stood out as a developer with a difference, a man who approaches game design more in the vain of a film director than a programmer. As such his company, Grasshopper Manufacture (GHM), is home to a collection of titles that, although ranging in quality, are consistent in their visual design and experimental gameplay features.

First starting work on the Super Fire Pro Wrestling series during the SNES era, he first got to show his writing talent in the Twilight Syndrome series on PSOne, before founding GHM and releasing their debut title in 1999, The Silver Case. This game marked the birth of the cel-shaded style that’s still used today by the studio. The semi-sequel, Flower, Sun and Rain, delved into one of Suda’s favored theme of insanity as its lead character finds himself trapped in a ‘Groundhog Day’ style time loop. Suda’s big break arguably came with the later release of Killer7 on the GameCube and PlayStation 2 in 2005. Overseen by the acclaimed Shinji Mikami, Goichi created a visually striking tale of death and DID which marked the Western world’s introduction to GHM, becoming an underground hit.

Grasshopper has always had a tendency to work on outsourced material. “In order to create original titles, we must first earn enough money by creating titles for other companies”, explains Suda, and even so those games rarely get away without being touched by the Grasshopper ideology, as can be seen in games such as Samurai Champloo and BLOOD+: One Night Kiss. Perhaps the leading factor as to why GHM so often needs to work on other licenses is down to its poor track record of sales. Often ignored in Japan, Suda has found a small cult following in the West which he hopes to capitalize on by focusing on hardcore games for the wide Xbox 360 audience, though without loosing his trademark style, “Grasshopper is indeed about a very special visual touch. This originality will always remain, but I also want us to challenge ourselves by working at making realistic visuals as well.”

The future looks busy for Goichi and his 50 strong “band” of developers. Next on the horizon is the fourth title in the Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero) series, with a Kafka inspired PS3 game and two collaborations with both Hideo Kojima and Shinji Mikami rumored to be active in the coming years. He’s also re-releasing several of his early works on the Nintendo DS for new fans to experience. It’s likely we’ll be seeing a No More Heroes sequel too, though not necessarily on the Wii, a target Suda has often been unable to achieve, “I’m always thinking about making sequels actually, but that’s always been difficult in the past because I keep killing off the lead.”

Suda 51 is a rare breed of designer. He may receive criticism on the final quality of his games playability, but that’s not in the least surprising when you consider how differentially his games play to those around him. It’s always refreshing to have a man working in the industry that understands game culture and takes advantage of the history and humour that’s found in its history. Modern trends and console battles are invisible to him. The only thing that matters is whether the game is actually fun to play.

“What's most important is after you finish playing the game, you walk away feeling lucky to have played it.”

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