Overrate (verb) : to have a higher opinion of (something or someone) than is deserved.
I realise that the very title of this topic may appear sacrilegious to many but it was something that came up when chatting to a friend about games in general and I thought it was worth exploring. This friend (who has been gaming since the SNES days so has an opinion I put some stock in) had recently completed Flower, Sun and Rain for the DS and described it as “horrendous”; one of the worst games he’d ever played. He had then also tried to play through Shadows of the Damned on the Xbox 360 but gave up part-way through on account of the game just not striking him as interesting enough to continue. I’d not played Flower, Sun and Rain myself so I wasn’t able to share (or not share) his scathing criticism of that particular game but I DID have a copy of Shadows of the Damned for PS3 in my (embarassing) stack of unplayed games. Naturally, I decided that it had to be moved up the pile. I had after all purchased it on the back of it a) being a Suda51/Grasshopper-developed game and b) the positive comments that the game seemed to get on forums from those who had played it.
I may not have bothered with this discussion on whether Suda51 is overrated as a developer at all but I did play Shadows of the Damned and I had to agree with my friend. The game was a painfully standard, linear third-person shooter with irritating mechanics, dull/miserable environments and “edgy humour” which amounted to your speaking gun constantly spewing out phallus jokes. I have to stress that the game wasn’t bad: it worked and was perfectly playable but it also did nothing to interest me or keep me playing beyond the first 4-5 levels so I binned it off because I’m not the person who likes to persevere with average games if I have other things to be playing.
This was a genuine disappointment because I’ve always been a big fan of anything that Suda51 and his Grasshopper Manufacture team put out. In a gaming landscape dominated by FPS’s, sports games and seemingly endless sequels to cash-cow franchises, I admired the way in which he pushed forward with risky and incredibly niche concepts that went against what the marketing men wanted. Games like the bizarre Killer 7 or joyfully weird No More Heroes were welcome treats in release schedules that often did little to turn me on. Shadows of the Damned does indeed have some noticeable splashes of Suda51 weirdness but the overriding sense was that I was playing a fairly standard shooter that had had gore, tits, swearing and penis jokes thrown at it. Now these aren’t always bad things in themselves but such additions can come off as lazy attempts to sell a game to an adult audience. I’m not saying that this was the intention but it’s just how Shadows of the Damned rubbed me up personally. Ultimately, it just didn’t sparkle and keep me intrigued as many of Suda51’s previous efforts had done in the past.
This was how I ended up giving a second thought to what my friend had said about beginning to believe that Suda51 is overrated. Had he simply been lucky with his first few “big” releases for us Western gamers? Has he ran out of ideas in recent years? Or were his games actually not all that good when considered as standalone products and not antidotes to what the industry was trying to get us to buy? Before we go any further, I’ve pulled up a list of all the games that Suda51 has been involved in so that there is some sort of reference before I attempt any further analysis. Titles that I have put in bold are the ones that I have personally played.
- Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3 Final Bout (Super Famicom, Director)*
- Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special (Super Famicom, Director)*
- Twilight Syndrome: Search (Playstation, Director)*
- Twilight Syndrome: Investigation (Playstation, Director/Writer)*
- Moonlight Syndrome (Playstation, Director/Writer)*
- The Silver Case (Playstation, Director/Writer)*
- Flower, Sun and Rain (Playstation 2, Director/Writer)*
- Michigan: Report from Hell (Playstation 2, Original Plan/Producer)
- Killer 7 (Gamecube/Playstation 2, Director/Designer/Writer)
- Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked (Playstation 2, Director/Writer)*
- Contact (Nintendo DS, Producer)
- Blood+: One Night Kiss (Playstation 2, Director/Writer)*
- No More Heroes (Nintendo Wii, Director/Designer/Writer)
- Flower, Sun and Rain: Murder and Mystery in Paradise (Nintendo DS, Supervisor/Original Game Staff)
- Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse (Nintendo Wii, Director/Writer)*
- No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Nintendo Wii, Executive Director)
- Shadows of the Damned (Playstation 3/Xbox 360, Executive Producer/Writer/Story)
- Rebuild of Evagelion: Sound Impact (PSP, Creative Producer)*
- Sine Mora (Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PSVita/PC, Producer)
- Diabolical Pitch (Xbox 360, Producer)
- Lollipop Chainsaw (Playstation 3/Xbox 360, Creative Producer)
- Liberation Maiden (Nintendo 3DS/iOS, Original Concept/Creative Director)
- Black Knight Sword (Playstation 3/Xbox 360, Executive Producer/Writer)
- Killer Is Dead (Playstation 3/Xbox 360, Executive Director/Screenwriter/Story)
- Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day (Playstation 3, Original Story/Scenario Writer/Overseeing Director)
- The Silver Case (Remaster) (Playstation 4/PC, Producer)
- Let It Die (Playstation 4, Executive Director)
- The 25th Ward: The Silver Case (Remake) (Playstation 4, Producer)
- Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (Nintendo Switch, Director/Writer)
A few things to note from the above list:
- Games marked with a * were only released in Japan. The bulk of Suda51’s early work didn’t make it to the West save for the few titles that have been remastered/remade in recent years.
- As you can see, he has had varying roles on different games. It is hard to consider everything Suda51 has been involved with to be all his own for example.
The important, most prominent titles from his back catalogue for us in the West would arguably have to consist of:
- Killer 7
- No More Heroes
- No More Heroes 2
- Flower, Sun and Rain (DS version)
- Shadows of the Damned
- Lollipop Chainsaw
- Killer is Dead
This focused selection of games are what I would consider to be most crucial to us (and this discussion) because despite Suda51’s large portfolio, these are the titles we know him best for. But how do we recognise a Suda51 game without prior knowledge of his involvement? Typically, the games won’t be technical masterpieces and will often be behind the curve in terms of graphics and modern mechanics BUT sheer style tries (and often succeeds) to compensate. We’re talking crazy plots, bizarre characters and moments that make you think “I can’t believe they got away with including this in the game!”. Blood, heavily sexualised females and all manner of self-indulgent elements (such as Suda51’s love of wrestling and America for example) will also inevitably play a part in these experiences which are arguably style over much substance.
[On a brief side note, it is also important to remember that our impressions of Suda51 titles here in the West are skewed by the fact that we only really received the downright bizarre stuff with bloody violence and daring attitude. Some of his earlier works that remained in Japan focus on crime and mystery. It’s a shame that we didn’t really get a lot of those things over here.]
The big draw for a Suda51 game back in the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation was the fact that we they were simply different and challenged the status quo. True, oddball games have always existed on any gaming platform but the likes of Killer 7 received a lot of press attention pre-release and these sorts of games were hailed as the antidote within a generation of gaming that had become obsessed with sequels, FPS’s and violent crime titles that were striving to be realistic and gritty/urban. Suda51 games were bright and colourful but also extremely dark and bizarre. No More Heroes on the Wii for example was a breath of fresh air on a console drowning in family-friendly software and fitness aids. The updated ‘Heroes’ Paradise‘ edition on the PS3 made very few waves however, an assessment which could also be levelled at the direct sequel to the original on the Wii which – while being the far better game – failed to garner as much interest and intrigue.
And this for me is the crux of the issue when asking the question “Is Suda51 overrated?”. Once the shock value has worn off, once we’ve become partially desensitised to the wackiness and once we no longer need a cel-shaded champion to save us from being overrun by miserable brown WWII shooters, where does that leave a Suda51 game?
Speaking from my own personal experience, I adored a game like No More Heroes despite the fact that it is a heavily flawed game. It was unable to escape the necessity of motion controls (when the game would have been better without) and the barren open world was pretty awful for travelling around in to name two examples but I was able to forgive it because it was deliciously quirky and just the sort of thing that I wanted more of here in the West. It felt good to support the game on the Wii too at a time when newspapers and parent groups were furiously demanding that their little white family box not be made a home for the likes of NMH, House of the Dead Overkill and Madworld. Thing is, gaming has moved on as have expectations. We are no longer so prepared to put up with clunkiness or terrible game design masked over by style alone. Additionally, the last generation of consoles really opened the gates for more weird Japanese software. The PS3, PS4 and PSVita for example are home to lots of JRPG’s, visual novels and racy games such as Senran Kagura and Valkyrie Drive – all the sorts of games that we used to rarely get and would have to go out of our way to import for modified/hacked hardware capable of playing them. Sure, a Suda51 game will have a billion percent more artistic merit than a game like Senran Kagura but the underlying feeling is that we – as gamers – are no longer starved of ‘different’ experiences.
So to come full circle and return to Shadows of the Damned, it’s entirely possible that I would have really enjoyed this game and been prepared to overlook the flaws had it been a PS2-era release. As a PS3 game however, it simply didn’t excite and tried too hard to be hardcore and openly controversial. The following Lollipop Chainsaw was much more likable but then again it was far more akin the likes of Killer 7 and NMH in its colourful but bloody tone. That said, I’m sure that it failed to impress gamers in general who could look past the short skirts and nutty cutscenes. After all, zombies, linearity and a combo-based grading system were hardly revolutionary concepts.
I’ve yet to play Killer Is Dead but it seems that the critics saw through the style based on the general concensus that it isn’t a particularly fantastic game. Personally this doesn’t bother me and I will of course give the game a go (since I seem to be more forgiving than most…) but it’s interesting to note that there was very little fanfare surrounding its release despite the game – on the surface at least – bearing resemblances to past triumphs.
Is Suda51 overrated then? I don’t think so. I think his most lauded games were products of their time, praised in comparison to what was then considered to be stale on the same platforms. Times change as do expectations and what we have access to. His output was – in effect – being rated against what gamers wanted to escape from and therefore I believe that the general perception of what a Suda51 game is has always been a little warped. Personally, I’m a fan but it will be VERY interesting to see how No More Heroes 3 for the Switch fares when it releases. The Switch – in my eyes – is a huge success like the Wii but other than Mario Odyssey (and discounting Wii-U ports) there doesn’t seem to be many must-have “big” games. Could NMH3 tap into that same hunger for something different and exclusive that existed back in the Wii days or has the audience moved on?