Photo: Georges Seguin/CC BY-SA 3.0
"The Switch is a punk console," says game director Goichi Suda, aka Suda 51. "I was shocked by it. I thought, whoever made this must have something wrong with them. In a positive way. This guy must be messed up in the head to think of something like this."
"It's kind of like a challenge from Nintendo," he says: "'This is what we've got now -- what are you gonna do with it?'"
What Suda is doing with Nintendo's new hybrid console is bringing back the motion-controlled action game series No More Heroes with a new entry titled Travis Strikes Again.
It will be the first time he's directed a game in a decade. Of late, he's been taking on a more supervisory role with a wider swath of games from his studio Grasshopper Manufacture, but the weirdness of the Switch seems to have inspired him to get more hands-on again.
Suda appeared on stage at the Switch's big coming-out party in February, but he had nothing to show. At PAX West, he announced the game, but he didn't have anything to show beyond a teaser trailer. So at PAX West we spent our time, Suda speaking through a translator, talking about why he was so into the Switch.
"It started when they took it out of the box," he said. Years prior, Suda told me, he had attended a meeting with Nintendo where they first showed him what was then called the NX. "They were pulling out the parts one at a time, and showing me, ok, this clicks onto here, you take it off like this."
With each new part that the Nintendo rep lifted out of the box, Suda's interest grew. "Oh-ho-hoooooo," he vocalized in our interview, re-enacting the moment, his eyes widening, his face contorting into an expression of fanboy glee.
"I thought, ok, this really punk console needs a really punk game." Hence the return of the action series No More Heroes, last seen on Nintendo's last punk console, the Wii.
The story of a stylishly-dressed otaku assassin named Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes, a game in which you took a shit to save your progress and recharged your energy sword by making a frenzied jerk-off motion with the Wiimote, gleefully upended the family-friendly image that Nintendo had cultivated for Wii.
We don't know much of substance yet about Travis Strikes Again. It's slated for late 2018 and will incorporate characters and gameplay themes from a variety of popular indie games, the disturbingly violent Hotline Miami and the retro-styled Shovel Knight among them.
Suda, who pens an indie games column in the Japanese magazine Dengeki, is a big fan of the trend. "I have been playing a lot more overseas indie games," he said. He finished both installments of Hotline Miami and is still trying to get all the achievements in each.
Shovel Knight, he said, was "shocking in a good way -- when I played it, I was like, this is an old-school Famicom Japanese action game. To think that were were some young dudes overseas putting this game together, this game that really felt like a true old-school Japanese action game… that was really shocking to me."
"I really appreciate the way indie creators create their stuff," he said. "They make the games they want to make because they want to make them." Even though the original No More Heroes was picked up by major publishers, Suda points out that it was a fairly scrappy project, made by less than 20 people and following Suda's artistic vision.
"You can pretty much say that I gave no consideration to what other games were doing or what other companies were doing… I just got really lucky and was able to make the game I wanted to make," he said. "These days, that's not really a viable thing to do for a lot of companies."
While it's really a stretch to call anything Suda creates these days truly "indie," considering that Grasshopper has been owned by massive game publisher GungHo since 2013, it's clear that for the director, indie is more of a state of mind. He keeps bringing up the singular importance of him being able to do precisely what he wants at all times.
This isn't to say that Suda 51 hasn't made conscious decisions to go where the market is. Around the year 2000, soon after the founding of Grasshopper, Suda and a few employees headed over to the E3 trade show in Los Angeles for the first time. They had little money, so they slept three to a hotel room.
What they found on the trade show floor left Suda dumbfounded. "Up until then, I had assumed that Japan was the center of the universe for video games. But that wasn't the case at all. It was here," he said. "None of my games are here. People here don't know who I am. Do I even have the right to be here?"
"At that point, I decided… I want to make stuff that's really going to stand out. I want to make stuff that's not just for Japan, but stuff that goes worldwide. That's when the direction I wanted to take with Grasshopper Manufacture solidified."
Soon after this epiphany, Suda got a call from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, who wanted him to make a game for Capcom, which turned out to be his cult classic Killer 7.
Suda's new project is coming at a time when Japanese games seem to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity worldwide. His take on this is that Japanese creators have become more comfortable with their games having a unique flavour, and that players are responding to that.
"There are a lot of games that try to bite off the Western style of games, and those tend to not work out really well," he said.
"But games like Persona, Final Fantasy, The Last Guardian… those games really have their own personality. They take on new challenges but they also retain their own sense of self."
"I feel that, more than 'Japan has come back,' I feel that maybe gamers have come back to remember that."