Trading blows with Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture’s team of grindhouse action heroes

SUDA51

Grasshopper studio head Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda.

Grasshopper is a developer whose philosophy bleeds through in every one of its games. Its punk spirit oozes from No More Heroes’ layabout-turned-assassin Travis Touchdown, whose room full of memorabilia looks suspiciously similar to studio head Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda’s meeting room in Tokyo. Its B-movie quirk is there in every pom-pom thrust of Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet Starling. And the 40-strong studio is compact and fleet footed, just like action romp Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day.

Now 46, Suda was 30 when he founded Grasshopper in 1998. Fed up with making other people’s games at Human Entertainment, where he worked on the Super Fire Pro Wrestling series, he set out to make his own, signing a deal with ASCII Entertainment that would result in The Silver Case. Naming his new studio after a song by British band Ride – an 11-minute-long instrumental that got him through crunch periods at Human – he assembled a tiny team and set about creating the games that appeared so vividly in his head.

“The guys from Human knew me already, but everyone else was new, and I didn’t have much of a track record yet,” he says. “It took time for them to understand my creative direction. Nowadays they understand how to interpret my ideas, which makes a big difference for me. As the company grows, it becomes harder to keep putting my imprint on the games, because more people are involved. But I want the staff to add their own colour, too. It’s a challenge, but it’s also what makes things interesting.”

The Silver Case cast you as investigator, but the studio soon came to specialise in action games that draw heavily from B-movie subculture. For instance, its biggest seller, 2012’s Lollipop Chainsaw, places a motorised saw in the hands of a cheerleader and lets the blood fly. Modern Grasshopper games flaunt mainstream appeal in favour of humour, sexploitation and violence, making Suda the Roger Corman of gaming.

Lollipop Chainsaw.

“I came up with the character of Juliet while I was in the toilet,” Suda laughs. “I thought a tough male protagonist killing zombies with a chainsaw would be too similar to Ash from Army Of Darkness, and then suddenly the idea of a cheerleader came to me. Cheerleaders can do athletic moves and high kicks, and they have upper-body strength. They’re tough.”

Grasshopper cemented its reputation for off-kilter action long before Juliet Starling started decapitating undead, however. Killer7 (2005)was the first game to bring Suda fame outside of Japan, its bloody tale of split personalities the result of a collaboration with Shinji Mikami.

A shift in engine technology would also bring a change in focus for Grasshopper. “When we started using Unreal 3 Engine, that’s when we started to create games that share common themes of American subculture, rock music, B-movies and action,” Suda says, “and they became something like a series.”

Wii’s No More Heroes (2007) incorporates many of those touchstones, and would bring Grasshopper to even wider western attention. Its comic-book-style action would even spawn a rare Grasshopper sequel, Desperate Struggle, in 2010. But it was followed in 2011 by another collaboration with Mikami for EA Partners (EAP), Shadows Of The Damned, whose troubled development left Suda bruised.

Shadows Of The Damned.

“Shadows Of The Damned was going to be a very different game than the one that came out,” he laments. “That game went through about five different versions, as we got closer to a game that EAP could accept. For example, originally when Garcia [Hotspur] took out his gun and looked through the laser sight, it was ringed with flowers. And then around the circle of flowers were little leaping bunnies. It was very cute, but the EAP team was like, ‘What on Earth is this?’ Those meetings felt like court interrogations.”

Despite the compromises surrounding its production, Shadows Of The Damned was met with broadly positive reviews, even if sales were not so cheery. One good thing came out of it, however: this was the first game to feature Akira Yamaoka, a veteran Konami composer and sound designer who had previously worked on the Silent Hill series. “I wanted to join a company that has a global outlook [and] whose games appeal to players outside of Japan, and so when Suda contacted me I was very happy to join Grasshopper,” says Yamaoka.

Since the ill-fated Shadows Of The Damned, Yamaoka has worked on Liberation Maiden, Killer Is Dead, Short Peace, Black Knight Sword and Lollipop Chainsaw. “Lollipop Chainsaw has a lot of licensed music,” he says. “I came up with a long list of songs I wanted to include in the game, from oldies right up to the present, and passed it to [publisher] Warner Bros for clearance. But when I’m making music for games, I tend to get ideas by doing something other than actually making music. For example, recently I’ve been playing long sessions of Sim City, and after a while I get bored and feel like making music again.”

In January 2013, Grasshopper moved into the ground floor of the Tokyo office building of its new parent company. It’s a small but homely space, with all staff seated in the same room.

Grasshopper’s office is open plan, with all staff in one room on the ground floor of a building in salaryman den Yurakucho, Tokyo. Although there is one private meeting room at the back and some shared ones on another floor, most discussions are held around a long table at the entrance, creating the air of openness you’d expect from a company with punk in its DNA.

The entrance is adorned by a large black stencil painting on the wall of Touchdown and Hotspur flanking a bright yellow G. This graffiti is the work of Tadayuki Nomaru, the shy 35-year-old artist and character designer who creates many of the monsters and atmospheric backgrounds in Grasshopper’s games.

Nomaru studied painting at Tokyo University Of The Arts and says that he never dreamed of a career in games. “A friend told me that this company was looking for part-timers, so I started out doing some small things on Killer7,” he says, proffering an old issue of Edge that contains some of his designs from that game.

“I give my paintings to the 3D modellers to recreate in the games; I don’t know anything about digital tools,” he says. “The disgusting creatures I draw don’t exist in real life, but I base my designs on animals in the real world.” Indeed, as a lover of wildlife, Nomaru directed – and created the characters for – Grasshopper’s first smartphone game, Frog Minutes, as a way of educating the world about his favourite amphibians. It was released in March 2011 as a fundraiser for the victims of the earthquake that had caused so much damage in Japan.

According to Nomaru, the staff go drinking together at least once a month. In the office, too, are signs of extracurricular activity, with a stash of consoles in one corner that includes an N64 with Mario Tennis. “We’re also playing the new Donkey Kong on Wii U,” Suda says. “There are a lot of Nintendo fans here, including me.”

“There are times when I’ll arrive in the morning and some of my colleagues are asleep after working through the night, but those crunch periods are rare,” says Noboru Matsuzaki, who joined the studio as a part-time programmer early on and recently became Grasshopper’s general manager. “It’s not always fun and games when you’re working hard on a project, but after a tough period, I always look back with fondness, and that’s partly because everyone on the team has such high abilities.”

Matsuzaki is also clear about the challenges presented by the studio’s creative figurehead. “Suda has terrible timing, and he’ll often send us a load of critical changes at five in the morning, just as we’re all exhausted and ready to crash. Then we have to iterate a new version before he gets to the office at 10am, or at lunchtime.”

Grasshopper’s new benefactor should help keep its sprawling, anarchic style of game creation alive in a tough market; the company was acquired by GungHo, the maker of cash cow Puzzle & Dragons, in January 2013. Suda had approached GungHo many times since 2011, but it was only after drinking with CEO Kazuki Morishita and discussing a number of game ideas that the deal went ahead.

GungHo CEO Kazuki Morishita.

“The big change after joining GungHo is that I now get much more time to focus on making games, because GungHo helps with the business side,” Suda says. “They will also take care of publishing for us.”

Suda was attracted to GungHo because it had something he lacked: know-how in the online arena. For Morishita’s part, he was interested in working with a creator who understands action games.

The two are currently collaborating on Lily Bergamo, which will feature online elements and a smartphone app that will be playable even without purchasing the PS4 game. Suda is reluctant to say much more before E3, but he will admit that “the online and smartphone elements will be very different from our previous games, so it’s a project full of new challenges”.

In many ways, the tie-up with GungHo marks the end of one era and the start of another. In addition to full console games, the studio had been experimenting with bite-size titles such as Diabolical Pitch, Liberation Maiden (part of Level-5’s Guild01 3DS omnibus), Frog Minutes for iOS, and Short Peace, a collaboration with Tokyo Jungle creator Yohei Kataoka for PS3. But that spread focus impacted on the quality of the studio’s games. Its most recent full-length game, Killer Is Dead, was undermined by haphazard gameplay and graphical issues that resulted in mixed reviews and poor sales, leaving Suda feeling he had let his team down. From now on, he promises, things will be different.

The team includes composer Akira Yamaoka (halfway back, arms folded), artist Noboru Matsuzaki (bottom right) and general manager Tadayuki Nomaru (green-and-white shirt)

“Now that Grasshopper has become part of GungHo, I want to focus on one game at a time, to give it our full attention and take our time to make it perfect,” he says. “I hope in ten or 20 years’ time we have become a company that people trust and pay attention to, where they are eagerly waiting for the next Grasshopper game.”

“We probably won’t even be making games in ten years,” Yamaoka laughs. “By then they won’t be called videogames anyway, because people won’t get their entertainment in front of a TV. It will be something else entirely, a different kind of interactive media that doesn’t involve pressing buttons to progress through a story.”

Whatever it is Grasshopper ends up making, with Suda at the helm it should continue to be defined by the punk ethos and wilful disregard for convention the studio was founded on.