GameCentral talks to punk developer Suda51 about his new game, the state of indie gaming in Japan, and a killer7 directors cut.
Goichi Suda51 Suda is one of Japans most unlikely development heroes. By his own admission his games are rarely hits in his home country and yet his mix of surrealist imagery and storytelling, combined with pop art violence and arcade action, means you can spot a Suda51 game almost the instant you see it.
In recent years though hes taken more of a producer role at his studio Grasshopper Manufacture and this is his first game as a director for over a decade. (Although his games have a very indie aesthetic Grasshopper is actually owned by Puzzle & Dragons developer GungHo Online Entertainment.)
We only had time for a brief go on the new game, when we met with him recently in London, but Travis Strikes Again is more spin-off than sequel. It features the father of Bad Girl, from the previous No More Heroes games, seeking revenge against anti-hero Travis – an act which ends up with both him and Travis being sucked into a possessed video game console.
What results does keep some of the core gameplay from No More Heroes, most obviously the use of a not-a-lightsabre weapon. The Switchs motion controls are used to a degree, for things like charging up the lightsabres power (which makes you look like youre doing something unseemly with the Joy-Con), but Sudas main interest in the Switch seems to be its capacity for local co-op play.
The video game theme, with Travis working through various fictional games to remove their bugs, is also an ode to the modern indie scene, with references to many famous Western titles – whose creators Suda is a great admirer of.
Its obvious from speaking to him that Suda feels indie games have been a very positive force in the last few years, but we also got him talking about other subjects such as his own past projects and whether or not Travis is a douchebag…
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Grasshopper Manufacture
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: 18th January 2019
GC: Its great to meet you, Im a big fan of your work.
GS: [laughs] Thank you!
GC: As I understand it youve taken a more managerial role in the last few years and this is the first time youve been a full-on director since… the mid-2000s?
GS: [laughs] Im not sure about the exact year, but the last game I served as director on was No More Heroes 1. [That was 2007 – GC]
GC: So why have you chosen this game in particular to make a comeback with?
GS: There are multiple reasons why I decided to become a director for this game. Up until now, for about 10 years, I severed in multiple other positions, such as creative director, executive, director… some positions I wasnt even sure what exactly to call myself.
GS: I was doing mostly product management on large scale development, with teams of 50 or more people. In those position I could never work directly on the game myself. There was a very organised pipeline… and that went on for about 10 years until I started meeting all these other indie creators with very small teams and becoming friends with them.
And they really influenced me and made me want to return to my roots, working with a small staff on a small-scale game. I felt in some way I had to or else eventually I wouldnt be able to go on making games just using the same system I had for the past 10 years.
GC: I thought it was maybe something like that, because Id read about your interest in indie games before this. But Im never clear how prevalent the indie industry is in Japan, although I can imagine the freedom appeals very much to you.
GS: I think the biggest thing is that when I watch them and talk to them they help me remember myself in my youth, and how I was in my twenties. Its like a mirror to my younger self. How theyre focusing on just what they want to make, with all the noise and the rough edges and the passion. Not bending their vision like maybe a bigger game would have to do, to make the numbers work and all that.
What theyre doing is very pure and every member of their small teams really believes in the game and is really focused on getting that out to as many people as possible.
GC: A lot of Western indie developers are students but theres also a lot that used to work at major companies but left to get away from it all. As far as Im aware though that doesnt tend to happen much with Japanese studios. Is that not a common aspiration of Japanese developers?
GS: [laughs] I feel like theyre rising in numbers, compared to before. Ive even had a few of my own staff members quit, to go and found their own studios. And Ive supported them and cheered them along. But I still feel that there havent been any Japanese indie creators that have had really huge success, like the kind of success you see in the West. Some have had some moderate success but it hasnt reached a level of the big dream, like it is over here.
The other aspect about Japan is that smartphone games are still the big thing there. And the majority of companies right now are making smartphone games because they make big profits. These companies make disgusting amounts of money and that draws a lot more people than lofty dreams and ideals, unfortunately.
All hope is not lost, however! [laughs] There is one great thing thats been happening recently in Japan, where they just did a huge poll across middle schools and, surprisingly, the second highest profession that the children wanted to be when they grow up was game creator. Part of this is due to Minecraft, which is super popular with children. Theres also this Japanese game, which wasnt released overseas, its called Ao Oni – which translates to Blue Demon.
A high-schooler – I think it might have even been a girl – made it all by themselves and that really showed children that theyre free to make things on their own, they dont need a lot of people to do it. So its great this new positive air, about creating things and being creative among the upcoming generation. So if you just wait a few more years, maybe youll see a huge explosion of indie games come out from Japan!
GC: Now I want to know what the number one profession was. Please tell me it was ninja.
GS: [laughs] YouTuber was fourth… [gets his colleague to look up the poll] Ah, pro sports player! Looking at the latest results, which I havent seen before, game creator has now dropped to fourth.
GC: Im sure itll go back up once your new game is out.
GC: Why are you so keen to emphasise that this is not a sequel, what difference does that make?
GS: Travis Strikes Again is not a numbered instalment for the No More Heroes series for a number of reasons. It doesnt have anything to do with the story necessarily, but its first of all just budget and scheduling. I wanted to make an indie style game and because of that the game had to be mechanically different from one of the main numbered entries.
The first two instalments also fell into a very set composition. Theres a way that they are and a way that players will expect the battle system in the game to go. I didnt want to get stuck in that. I really wanted to try something new this time and just create a whole different IP rather than just creating another sequel.
I also wanted to use it as a chance to really synch myself up with Travis again, before going on to No More Heroes 3 – if that does become a possibility. Because thats gonna be another big game and this is a chance for me to look at Travis through a new lens.
GC: One thing I always wanted to ask you, was when I was reviewing the original games I always took the giant open world with almost nothing in it to be a parody or commentary on the genre. All those boring mini-games were boring on purpose, to make a point. Some reviewers didnt take it that way, but can you talk about what that was supposed to represent?
GS: [laughs] Initially we did want to make a very serious open world but it ended up being so hard to fill in the gaps, and do it the straight and true way, that it ended up becoming a real mixture of parodic elements that were put in there out of sheer frustration. And stuff that was left in there to be a joke on purpose. Im glad that you managed to see it that way though!
GC: When it comes to Travis Im reminded of an interview I did with Devil May Cry 5s Hideaki Itsuno, do you know him?
GS: I probably said hi to him once, but I dont really know him that well.
GC: We were talking about how his characters ride this thin line between badass and douchebag. He used the word chu-ni to describe it – apparently it means the sort of cheesy things that teenage boys tend to think are cool. And it occurs to me that Travis is almost a parody of that, is that how it works from your perspective?
GS: [considerable laughter] The truth is many of my games arent big hits in Japan. And one of the reasons behind that, I think, is because I dont go for the chu-ni style of Dante. I feel like Japanese people who play those kind of games, and the chu-ni people who think Dante really is cool in Japan, would not like Travis because hes kind of different.
So I dont really think about that kind of thing at all. And like the moe style…Travis, the character, is interested in moe but Im not interested in it. I dont like being pigeonholed either…
GC: So youre purposefully pushing back against that style of character?
GS: [laughs] Its too big for me to push back against! They would crush me.
GC: Id never heard the word before. I didnt realise that all these anime heroes were douchebags on purpose, I thought at least some of it was meant to be a joke.
Translator: Yeah, thats the thing theyre taking it 100% un-ironically.
GC: Your use of Punks not Dead as a motto is always the first thing you see when playing one of your games. But punk is all about rebellion, so what are you rebelling against now – especially compared to when you first started?
GS: To me being punk means to be very creative and to rebel means to turn over what exists and dont follow the rules you created last year. Rebel against them and make something completely new. Dont let yourself get stuck in a pattern, always keep pursuing a brand new style for yourself.
Thats always been the initial belief that we started Grasshopper with. And so now, making Travis Strikes Again and going away from the style of No More Heroes 1 and 2 and making a brand new game, a brand new world and IP, to me thats right in line with my punk sensibility.
GC: Is there any particular reason why the game is a Switch exclusive? Is it the connection with the Wii or do you just really like motion controls?
GS: I do have moderate appreciation for motion controls and I feel like theyve always fitted with the No More Heroes world. But the big draw for me with the Switch was the presence of the two Joy-Cons and how easy it would be to work two-player local co-op into that. That was always in the project from the very initial stages.
GC: I must ask, since youre here, is there any chance of a killer7 sequel? I thought I heard whispers of one but nothing ever seems to have happened.
GS: Killer7 is actually one of the few games of mine that I feel really shouldnt have a sequel, like at all. I feel like that world has already been completed and has run its course. I cant really imagine what a sequel would be. But there is one thing. The original script was originally cut down quite a bit, so there is a possibility for doing a complete edition.
GC: Like a directors cut?
GS: Yeah, at some point.
GC: Because Travis Strikes Back is one of your more humorous titles, so I wonder whether you have plans to do something a bit more serious after that? You always list your main influences as wrestling and Kafka… thats quite a mix.
GS: [laughs] So the very next game, if Travis Strikes Again is succesful, will probably be No More Heroes 3. I already have a plot outline written for it, it just depends how TSA does. I also have an idea for an action adventure game with a wrestler as the main character.
No More Heroes takes place in a very extreme world and personally I am very hungry for something thats more serious, more hard-boiled. So theres definitely the possibility of that in the future.
GC: Oh, and what about Lollipop Chainsaw?
GS: I know theres a lot of fans out there, so Id love to do a sequel. But the IP is shared by Warner Bros. so its completely out of my hands.
GC: I just figured James Gunn [the writer of the game] might be a bit more available now, than in recent years.
GC: Do you still keep in contact?
GS: Yeah, every once in a while we email each other. He always replies when I email him, so hes a really nice guy.
GC: Thank you very much, its been great to meet you.
GS: [in English]: Thank you!
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