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Suda51 on 25 years of making strange masterpieces at Grasshopper Manufacture
Grasshopper Manufacture CEO and game designer Goichi "Suda51" Suda dishes on 25 years of toilet humor, ultraviolence, and his love for Takashi Miike.
November 27, 2023
11 Min Read
Image via Grasshopper Manufacture.
Grasshopper Manufacture, the punk rock video game studio led by CEO and game designer Goichi “Suda51” Suda, turned 25 years old earlier this year. This milestone firmly entrenches Grasshopper as a contemporary of larger and more well-known developers like Valve, Sony Santa Monica, and Retro Studios, which may come as a shock if all you know about the studio is that time Suda revealed a game while sitting on a toilet.
With so much of the game industry suffering from layoffs and closures in recent years, I couldn’t help but be curious how Grasshopper managed to stay afloat for so long. The studio epitomizes the kind of success story you don’t see too often these days—the plucky start-up making instant cult classic video games and, in the process, acquiring a fanbase of ride-or-die devotees—so I went straight to the source for answers on how they pulled it off: Suda51 himself.
My conversation with the mastermind behind Killer7, No More Heroes, and Shadows of the Damned dove headlong into Grasshopper’s “give no fucks” attitude, revealing some of Suda’s long-dormant white whales as well as how the studio’s games have been influenced by filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Takashi Miike.
Grasshopper Manufacture wants to light a fire under players
Suda founded Grasshopper Manufacture in 1998 after a stint at the now-defunct Human Entertainment—you may know it as the company behind the survival horror Clock Towerseries. He first made a name for himself penning the controversial story to 1994’s Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, the conclusion of which sees protagonist Smith Morio die by suicide.
Human Entertainment famously received mountains of hate mail over this shocking ending, but Suda never let the public sentiment affect his work, an ethos that persists at Grasshopper to this day.
“I try as much as possible not to care about [sales and Metacritic scores],” Suda told me through an interpreter. “I’ve been in the industry for a while, and I’ve never really looked at the games that I make that way. It’s a goal of the studio to not try to make games that are going to sell well, not trying to make games that are going to get a high Metacritic score.”
“Good sales and high scores are good things, obviously, but that’s not why we make games. We make the games that we make because we want to make them. We try to make things that are unique and things that we feel are going to be new and original.”
Grasshopper’s games have always had a film-like quality to them, thanks in part to Suda’s fascination with heterodox works like El Topo, Gozu, and Paris, Texas. They have a way of ripping control away from players through story beats and aesthetic flourishes that can be frustrating for newcomers.
Such design choices turn what is typically an interactive medium into a more passive piece of art, forcing players to contend with the developers’ intentions rather than always having a say in influencing the action themselves.
Take the ending to Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, for example: The ostensible goal of the game is to become world champion, and yet when the player manages to achieve this feat, Morio shoots himself anyway after realizing he lost everything in pursuit of stardom.
During development, Sudaintended for the game to have two endings, one where Morio becomes champion and one where he loses, but before release decided the story’s conclusion would make more sense if Morio’s ultimate fate was taken out of the players’ hands entirely. It’s here that the film-like qualities of Suda’s work were seeded before they eventually flowered at Grasshopper.
“When we make a game, we don’t want it to be the kind of game where you play it and you clear it and that’s it,” Suda said. “We want it to be like a lot of movies you see where, when it’s over, you don’t just walk out of the theater and not think about it anymore. It leaves something with you. You think about it later. You connect it to things in your life or things that you’ve been thinking about or feeling.”
“I want to make games where you’re going to feel things and those feelings are going to remain after you’ve finished it. As a studio, what we try to keep in mind when we’re making games isn’t necessarily, ‘okay, let’s make this like a movie,’ but, ‘How do we make this something the player is going to really feel and think about?’”
No More Heroes was the path to mainstream success
After almost a decade of co-developing, adapting licensed anime properties like Samurai Champloo, and releasing their own avant-garde originals, Grasshopper’s first taste of mainstream success came via 2007’s No More Heroes. The bloody action game starring otaku-turned-assassin Travis Touchdown played to the Nintendo Wii’s motion-controlled strengths while also formally introducing the industry to Grasshopper’s unique mixture of over-the-top violence, sophomoric comedy, and pop culture references.
But Suda being Suda, he also used the opportunity in the spotlight tofrequentlypayhomage to El Topo, the arthouse film that inspired the assassin ranking system at the heart of No More Heroes’ off-the-wall story.
“When I saw [El Topo], I felt this sort of weird realism in it,” Suda said. “These people, they’re really trying to kill each other, they’re willing to do whatever they can to make sure that not just the other person dies but to make sure they can survive. And that was a big influence on No More Heroes in general. It’s kind of a weird way to put it, but there was a strange realism that I felt seeing [El Topo] that I wanted to put into the game and to have other people feel the same way that I felt watching that movie.”
Image via Grasshopper Manufacture.
Later in his career, El Topo writer, director, and star Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to translate Frank Herbert’s iconic 1965 science fiction novel Dune for the silver screen, the massive scope and ultimate failure of which is documented in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Due to his connection to and similarities with the filmmaker, I was curious if Suda’s career also included an unsuccessful passion project, and he gave me three he’s yet to get off the ground: adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, anime space opera Space Runaway Ideon, and legendary mecha franchise Mobile Suit Gundam. “One of my goals in life as a developer and something I feel is going to constitute part of my life’s work is a Gundam game,” Suda said, should he finally receive Bandai Namco’s blessing.
The Tempestmay not sound like typical source material for the folks behind No More Heroes, but Grasshopper is no stranger to ambitious attempts at turning the written word into video games. Shadows of the Damned, the studio’s demonic third-person shooter from 2011, was originally known as Kurayami and intended as a more cerebral adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle.
And while it’s still unclear exactly what happened behind-the-scenes, past interviews with Suda and producer Shinji Mikami paint the game’s development as fraught and prone to meddling by Electronic Arts.
These days, however, Suda considers the experience a mostly positive one, as it gave him an opportunity to learn about the western market from a major publisher.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories [from that time],” Suda said. “I’ve got some shitty memories as well, but it really wasn’t all bad. One of the positive things about EA is they were really honest, if nothing else. They wouldn’t bullshit us. We’d say, ‘Okay, we want to do this,’ and they would tell us, ‘No, you can’t do that because of this reason,’ or, ‘We don’t like that,’ or, ‘Western gamers aren’t going to be into this, they want something more like this.’”
“They were really upfront about what they wanted, and they never tried to hide anything or go behind our backs. And it’s thanks to those experiences and the things we learned that we’re able to exist how we are now and were able to make the games that we’ve made since then.”
An equal passion for Takashi Miike and James Gunn
A year after Shadows of the Damned, Grasshopper would collaborate with filmmaker James Gunn on Lollipop Chainsaw, which starred a chainsaw-wielding cheerleader named Juliet Starling. Gunn has since been put in charge of all DC Comics movies and television shows as CEO of DC Studios, but at the time of Lollipop Chainsaw’s development, he’d yet to make a name for himself as the director behind comic book movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad.
Still, the experience was so positive that when I asked if he could pick any director to work with on a new project, Suda immediately went back to Gunn, saying one of his ”big dreams” is to join forces with the Hollywood executive on either another original video game or a movie based on an existing Grasshopper property.
And it’s not like Suda doesn’t have his pick of the litter, either. Takashi Miike, a prolific Japanese filmmaker known for working on multiple movies and television shows every year across varied genres, appeared in both No More Heroes 2 and No More Heroes 3.
The latter also features several vignettes of series protagonist Travis Touchdown and his friend Bishop gushing about Miike’s idiosyncratic work, fanboy-ish conversations that Suda said were mostly pulled from his own inner monologues. (He told me “[Miike] can take ingredients from anything and make a satisfying meal out of it.”)
At one point, Grasshopper was even in talks to work with renaissance man “Beat” Takeshi Kitano on a game back in the Xbox 360 days, but the collaboration unfortunately never materialized.
All that said, Suda admitted that Paris, Texas remains the one movie that’s made the biggest impact on his life. A rare leading role for the late Harry Dean Stanton directed by Wim Wenders, the 1984 road film affected Suda so much that he couldn’t quite put it into words during our conversation, saying that “moved” doesn’t do justice to how it made him feel.
No More Heroes 2 includes several references to the one-way mirror conversation that forms the crux of Paris, Texas’s climax, but Suda would like to eventually translate the movie’s overall themes into a game as well.
A one-way mirror scene from Paris, Texas. Image via Criterion.
“I don’t think there have been any other games that we’ve done so far that have been specifically influenced by parts of Paris, Texas, but that’s definitely something I’d like to do in the future,” Suda said. “A game similar to Paris, Texas that’s a lot more chill and a lot more introspective and based on a single person and his life and the way he lives it. Something that’s more of a human drama than the other games we’ve done.”
“I’ve actually got some specific ideas for a game like that that I’m mulling over and kind of cooking in my head right now at the moment. Nothing concrete yet, but that’s a game that I’d like to put out with Grasshopper sometime in the future.”
The next generation of Grasshopper Manufacture developers
When Grasshopper was first established two and a half decades ago, Suda’s goal—apart from making cool and original games, of course—was to build a brand that would last for 100 years. But the one-of-a-kind designer realizes he can’t be around forever, so he looks forward to one day handing over the reins of the company to the young creatives Grasshopper’s senior staff is currently molding into world-class video game developers in their own right.
“My personal goal is to make it for the next 25 years, make it to the halfway point and somehow carry the studio that far,” Suda said. “And then after that, once I die, I’m hoping that the younger staff that we have now will be able to pick up the slack from there and carry it on for the remaining 50 years.”
“Right now, we’ve got a lot of really good, younger staff members that are showing a lot of promise, so I’m hoping they can grow into the kind of veteran developers that will be able to carry on the brand for the back half of that 100 years. They’re doing a pretty good job of getting there.”
Suda51’s work at Grasshopper Manufacture may, on paper, seem absurd for absurdity’s sake, but those willing to pan through the rivers of blood and toilet save points and non-sequitur conversations about the best Takashi Miike films will often find purposeful explorations of the human psyche like flakes of gold.
In the novelization of El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky defines his process creating psychedelic films as not “show[ing] the visions of a person who has taken a pill” but “manufactur[ing] the pill” itself. Rather than simply portraying hallucinatory visuals and scenarios–and believe me, they have those in spades–with one ultimate meaning.
Grasshopper games are developed in such a way that everyone who plays them is bound to walk away with a different, yet no less valid, understanding of the philosophy behind what they just experienced.
And if that’s what they’ve gotten up to over the last 25 years, I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the next 75.
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