Monday, October 1, 2012

Looking back at Lollipop Chainsaw

I was skeptical about Lollipop Chainsaw. Suda 51 is one of my all-time favorite game designers; his avant-garde 2005 opus Killer7 is what made me realize video games could be art. But his past few games have been progressively more disappointing, perhaps as his studio Grasshopper Manufacture has become more successful. FromNo More Heroes to its sequel to last year’s Shadows of the Damned, Suda has become slightly more… mainstream.

While Grasshopper’s schtick has always been irreverent silliness, a punk-rock attitude, and over-the-top action, the gameplay has become more generic. Killer7 was silly, but it also had a very dark tone. Its “kinda-sorta on-rails shooter but not really” gameplay was hard to grasp, but once you got the hang of it, the strange controls only added to the experimental experience. He hasn’t quite recaptured that essence since.

When I saw the first trailer for Lollipop Chainsaw mere months after Shadows of the Damned was released, my eyes rolled. Zombies? Really? I’ve had enough of zombies. I once called myself a zombie enthusiast, even attending my local Washington, D.C. zombie lurch. But the last five years or so, we’ve seen more zombie movies, video games, and books to last me a lifetime. The undead are played out at this point. Let’s move on to something else!
So I was not excited for what looked like Suda 51 playing it safe–a hack-and-slash game featuring a high-school cheerleader hunting zombies with a chainsaw while wearing the dismembered still-alive head of her boyfriend as a keychain. It looked like the goofiness of No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned without the mature undertones of Killer7. Much like its eponymous sugary treat, Lollipop Chainsaw looked like empty calories. Was my prediction correct?
Mostly. The game’s plotline is just as zany as one would expect from Grasshopper Manufacture. The gameplay consists of six linear levels (plus a prologue level) where protagonist Juliet Starling must essentially “kill all the zombies and get to the next stage.” It’s a short game, but I’ve always been an advocate for short games–I’d rather play seven hours of great gameplay than twenty hours of just-okay gameplay, and sometimes a concept only lends itself to short-form game design. Lollipop Chainsaw is one of those concepts, and that’s fine with me.
While the combat at first seems like shallow button-mashing, learning combos makes for a fairly deep game mechanic. Players earn coins by defeating enemies, and can use them to upgrade Juliet’s abilities as well as unlock goodies like alternate costumes and concept art. The game does fall victim to the Quick Time Event Craze, but in the context of this hack-and-slash game, it’s excusable. Each level ends in a boss fight, and anyone who’s played a Grasshopper game before knows this is one of their strengths–crazy, inventive boss battle design. Without committing the mortal sin of spoilers, I can say each boss in Lollipop Chainsaw is inspired by a genre of music. And they all live up to Suda 51′s standard–it’s definitely worth getting through even the most tedious level to see the ingenious boss at the end.
Where Lollipop Chainsaw shines is the presentation. It’s utterly fantastic. Cutscenes are beautiful, and the comic book-inspired interface makes navigating menus a joy. The dialogue was written by Hollywood director James Gunn, and it shows through constantly stupid-but-well-written quips, especially from Juliet’s beheaded boyfriend Nick.
The standout, though, is the jaw-droppingly epic soundtrack. Grasshopper’s games always have great music, and composer Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame) returns after penning the music for Shadows of the Damned. Collaborating with Mindless Self Indulgence singer Jimmy Urine, the game’s soundtrack spans everything from death metal to ’80s teen pop to… dubstep (ugh). And for the first time in a Grasshopper game there’s an extensive list of brilliant licensed music, as well. Never before did I think I’d play a video game featuring both the stupid early ’80s hit song Pac-Man Fever” AND Finnish power metal band Children of Bodom. The most iconic song for Lollipop Chainsaw, of course, is the classic “Lollipop” by ’50s a cappella group the Chordettes.
Which brings me to the game’s level design. Huh? From the soundtrack to level design? See, Suda 51 always manages to fit one super drug-induced level into each game he makes. In Lollipop Chainsaw, Juliet is casually perusing a farm in one level when she accidentally does ‘shrooms… which leads to a trip-fueled level of killing giant chickens and running over zombies with a tractor while listening to “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”by ’80s new wave group Dead or Alive (you know, the song from that website… cough cough). This pairing of gameplay and music may be the greatest in the history of this video games.
Like many Japanese games, though, there are a few cultural issues. First and foremost, Juliet herself. As an adult with dignity and a significant other, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward with the fetishized “sexy schoolgirl” look of the game’s protagonist. Juliet brings up the same dichotomy first seen in Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft: on one hand, it’s this very objectified vision of what a woman looks like, but on the other hand, it’s an empowered female character kicking ass. The importance of this can’t be understated in a gaming industry where male protagonists are still the norm.
But still, it’s a bit creepy when one realizes most of these beautiful virtual women in games are likely created by male programmers. Lollipop Chainsaw makes a point of letting us know that the game’s story all takes place on Juliet’s 18th birthday–as if to tell us “she’s a sexy high school cheerleader, but she just turned 18 so you don’t have to feel like a pedophile!”
Then there’s one of the game’s bosses, Josey. Video games have traditionally been created by white and Asian development teams, and as a result, our industry has an embarrassing track record with black characters. Japanese developers in particular seem to be a bit more out of touch than Western studios. Lollipop Chainsaw features Josey, a boss meant to be some sort of auto-tuned funk mash-up of George Clinton, Rick James, and T-Pain.
Of course he plays ambiguous funk/hip-hop music, and rides around on a UFO with two white women in bikinis. But it doesn’t end there. On top of the flamboyant gear you’d expect from this type of character, he wears voodoo skull make-up and a necklace of shrunken heads. This is a special sort of cultural ignorance all too common in Japanese video games.
But I digress. Lollipop Chainsaw is a fairly standard hack-and-slash action game with fantastic presentation. It’s another step down for Suda 51 and Grasshopper Manufacture, but the mushroom trip level keeps my hope alive that they still have the spark to create truly experimental games in the future. I recommend Lollipop Chainsaw to fans of Grasshopper, zombie aficionados, and anyone who loves heavy metal and/or punk rock. The soundtrack alone is worth buying the game for.

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