Lollipop Chainsaw’s lead character, Juliet Starling, dual-wields lollipops and a chainsaw in a case of say-what-you-see literalism. And in a case of a say-what-it-is analogy, lollipops and chainsaws perfectly represent the hyper-violent schlocky popculture fizz that serves as the beating heart to Grasshopper Manufacture’s new game.
Grasshopper CEO Suda 51 won’t be drawn on its precise relationship to No More Heroes, saying it’s a totally different game: “It does have the Grasshopper DNA instilled in it – if you find any link, it’s the same creator.” And yet Lollipop Chainsaw feels like a carefully pumped-up successor to Travis Touchdown’s tale, substituting an otaku loser for an alpha cheerleader. It features much of No More Heroes’ delight in the non sequitur and flashes of 8bit history. What’s more, its thirdperson action is mostly melee-based, but faster and more flowing thanks to a leapfrog move that lends Starling more agility than Touchdown ever had, and gives her the chance to get behind the game’s fast-striking enemies.
Different zombie types afford some strategy – some heft boomboxes that use music to hugely power up their rank-and-file brethren, meaning you’ll have to take them out first in a brawl. Louche pompadoured guitar-wielding zombies in black leather boast a powerful swing to their axes, meanwhile, so you’ll need to treat them with due care. In Starling’s favour, and complementing her chainsaw attacks, she has an arsenal of cheerleading moves – the game’s equivalent of light attacks – in which she uses pompoms and acrobatics. The more light attacks you use, the greater the points reward if you use a finishing move on your target.
Under the sheen, what we’ve played is familiar stuff; Lollipop Chainsaw may put the fun in functional, but seems unlikely to carry too many surprises with it. Instead, like so many Grasshopper games, much of its punch is down to the game’s stylings and poise. Its macabre punk lunacy relates in some ways to last year’s Shadows Of The Damned, which the studio made with Shinji Mikami. It also has a limited-ammo gun attack, useful for blowing up helicopters and flying-saucer-riding bosses, and Starling carries the conscious severed head of her boyfriend, Nick, around her waist. In case you’re wondering, his condition is the result of Starling’s heavyhanded cure when he contracted the zombie disease: decapitation followed by a magical incantation. Lollipop Chainsaw is always keen to smear a bubblegum sheen over the gore, though. Rainbows and gold stars shower about as you carve up zombies, while wisecracks come thick and fast.
The game has been penned by James Gunn, the writer/director of Slither and Super, who has also had involvement in various Troma productions. He describes it as “Dawn Of The Dead meets the Powerpuff Girls,” but that doesn’t quite encompass its up-skirt shots and pixel graphic flourishes. Gunn came on to the project with the basic story setup and Starling’s character more or less in place. “It was just a matter of me filling in the spaces,” he says, which he did from the US while the game was developed in Japan.
“Even though she’s a pop idol, she also kills zombies, so she has a dark side – I wanted to have a light and dark side in one character,” Suda elaborates.
“Juliet’s voice is my voice; the way she moves is Suda,” Gunn explains.
Gunn’s involvement has given Starling and her situation a dash of life around the breezy exploitation – he describes her as an eternal optimist, an “innocent girl to the point of ridiculousness. She was raised as a killer of the undead – it’s become a part of her life, as washing dishes would be to a Denny’s dishwasher.” And of her relationship with Nick, he explains, “She’s such a weirdo and freak and overly positive that she sort of likes that he’s a head. He’s like a cool accessory to her. Of course, he doesn’t have a penis, he’s very upset and he does nothing but complain throughout the game – he’s kind of a little bitch about it.”
The game possesses another Suda 51 stalwart, the game-within-a-game, and very literally so. Starling is often sucked into arcade cabinets, whereupon the cartoon visuals turn to Tron neons. The sections we play involve a direct take on Elevator Action in which Starling must progress up 2D floors to a goal. There’s a light puzzle element in working out how to cross a broken floor to access the next elevator – you must follow a series of almost rhythmic button prompts to acrobatically jump across the heads of a line of enemies on the floor below to reach the other side. And when you get to the goal, a giant cute dog’s head appears and swallows Starling, so you must chainsaw it open from the inside before you return to the real world.
Such self-consciously surreal diversions are exactly what Suda 51’s fans will expect from him, but they seem somehow more contained than the erratically whimsical flights of many of his previous games. It’s probably because this game is tuned to appeal more broadly than anything he’s made before.
There’s a reason why the otaku has become the cheerleader – a quest for popularity, and the media reach and ken of Warner Bros will surely prove a big help in achieving it. It’s all encoded in its unambiguous title: there’s no room left for referencing Stranglers albums, because Grasshopper’s trying to cut a path to the mainstream with Lollipop Chainsaw.