In the eleven years since the launch of the stylish and highly experimental Killer7, Goichi Suda - better known, perhaps, as Suda51 - has developed both a cult following and a remarkable image as an auteur. With his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, Suda has continued to develop a brand of creativity in his original games that's often highly divisive - pairing stylised artwork with complex, sometimes knowingly incoherent storylines. From Killer7 itself through titles like No More Heroes, Shadow of the Damned (which he worked on with Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami), Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer is Dead, the commercial success of Suda's games has been mixed, but he has built a fan following just as devoted, if not as numerous, as that of other Japanese game design auteurs like Hideo Kojima or Hidetaka Miyazaki.
One curious aspect of Suda's career - something he has publicly lamented regularly in the past - is that western gamers only see a truncated version of it. The games which made Suda51's name and established his style long before Killer7 appeared in 2005 have remained Japan-only releases. The most notable of them, perhaps, is The Silver Case, a 1999 PlayStation release which was Grasshopper Manufacture's first game, and thus Suda's first title as an independent developer. The game, a convoluted, dialogue-heavy adventure title that mixes police procedural with psychological thriller, has never previously been available outside Japan - but Suda is finally working with a studio, Osaka-based Active Gaming Media, to launch it worldwide as a Steam title.
It's the culmination of a long journey for Suda, who is simultaneously working on Grasshopper Manufacture's first PS4 title - and perhaps its most ambitious AAA title yet - Let It Die. "The Silver Case was our first game; it was really Grasshopper's starting point," he tells me, echoing sentiments he's expressed in many interviews over the past decade. "People overseas never got a chance to play it, and I've always really wanted them to be able to - I've thought about releasing it overseas ever since it came out."
"I think the me of today, the 18 years older me, shouldn't damage the game my younger self made"
The biggest stumbling block, it seems, was the translation. "The game's scenario was very unique, and I knew that a straightforward translation wouldn't express the scenario or give a proper sense of the world. The translator would have to really understand the game; that was a big obstacle. So, when Playism [the publishing subsidiary of Active Gaming Media] came to us and said they'd like to port the game, we discussed it and I told them I really wanted to release it internationally, but a port would be difficult because of the translation. It turned out that at Active Gaming Media there were some staff members who were fans of the game, who had played and finished it, and they could be the core staff who could make a perfect translation, one that would convey the game's world really well."
Updating and re-releasing The Silver Case at the same time as preparing Let It Die for launch is challenging, but Suda and the remake's director at AGM, Douglas Watt, have established a working relationship that allows Suda to retain creative control over the game. "I meet with Douglas every week; he's based in Tokyo, but he travels to Osaka and then comes back and meets with me. We go over all the work that's been done; we actually take it one scene at a time, looking in detail at every part of the design and checking every aspect."
Suda's main concern is capturing the flavour of the original game as perfectly as possible, despite the 18-year leap in technology and design. Watt tells me that the development team got lucky in some senses, managing to discover both the high-resolution Photoshop files for the original 2D artwork (which can now be seen at a far higher level of quality than on the PlayStation) and the original source code for the game. CG movies and 3D assets have been completely remade using Unity, while trying to remain as true as possible to the 1999 game; environments and models look crisper and use clearer textures, but the temptation to add extra polygons and more detail has been avoided. The game looks, for all the world, like an upscaled PlayStation game - an impression heightened by the use of original, quite low resolution video for some live-action segments. The team contemplated reshooting the video, Watt says, but the game is still set in an alternate version of Tokyo in 1999; video shot on modern equipment or at high resolution would actually be out of place. Suda confirms that little has changed; "we've remixed some music, and tuned a lot of small things - the speed of text or the movement speed, some small aspects of puzzles - but I didn't want to change anything big."
For Suda, the desire to recapture the spirit and the atmosphere of the PlayStation game as perfectly as possible stems, in part, from a desire not to second-guess design decisions he made so long ago. "This was my first original game, and I put so much into it. Every part of the game is something I looked over personally; I controlled the creation of everything in it. It's a game I put my whole heart into, back then, and I don't think that the person I am today can precisely recapture that feeling or way of thinking... I don't entirely overlap with the person I was then, and I think the me of today, the 18 years older me, shouldn't damage the game my younger self made. It's a strange feeling, but I want to reach back to my past self and say, 'you really did your best!'".
"Ten to twenty people, that's probably the perfect size for a team. Up to twenty people, everyone knows what they're doing and what everyone else is doing, and they can see exactly what kind of game is being made"
Like many game creators, Suda looks back on that era of development with a heady sense of nostalgia - enhanced not only by the resurrection of The Silver Case, but by looking around at BitSummit, the Japanese indie game festival where Playism is showing off the remake. "We started working on The Silver Case with three people, then two more came on board... Seeing people making games with that kind of small team, yes, I do miss that a lot. Many game designers say that, that they'd like to go back and try making something with a small team like that, just one more time."
"I think especially when you're working on a really big project, making a small game again is so appealing. Ten to twenty people, that's probably the perfect size for a team. Up to twenty people, everyone knows what they're doing and what everyone else is doing, and they can see exactly what kind of game is being made. Ideas get communicated quickly and you don't need to have many meetings. Once you get past twenty people, the game creation process just fills up with meetings... That's the line where you stop having the sense of being an indie game and start being a major game."
Suda's other project is, by any standards, a major game. Let It Die is Grasshopper's first title since the studio was acquired by GungHo - most famous as the creators of mobile smash hit Puzzle & Dragons - and the two companies are working closely together on the game, which is set to feature ambitious gameplay features that cross over between PS4 and smartphones. "It's really a case of working together on the game," Suda says. "Their staff are helping out on the game, and they have a lot of input, but in the end it's a publisher and developer relationship - even though we're part of the same group, that distinction is very clear. Grasshopper has freedom in some areas, but precisely because GungHo is our publisher, their ideas for the game are important. It's such a big game, there's no way you'd have total creative freedom."
With both Let It Die and The Silver Case appearing later this year, players will finally have a chance to see both ends of Suda's career side by side - from his beginnings as an independent auteur to his position at the helm of a major AAA title. "I'm really looking forward to seeing people's different reactions - I don't know what players today will make of The Silver Case, what they'll think of this weird game, and I can't wait to see that and then see how they feel about Let It Die as well."
"The reason I have Grasshopper Manufacture today, the reason I'm the person I am today, is because we became independent and made our games in a very tough environment"
Given Suda's nostalgia for the some aspects of his indie background, I wonder how he feels about the modern indie boom - from events like BitSummit and PAX through to Steam distribution or Kickstarter funding, indie developers have more opportunities than ever to build games and find an audience for them. Does Suda wish that had existed when he started out? "Oh, I'm really jealous of the indie boom we're having right now," he says earnestly. "Shows and awards, and so many people paying attention - we had nothing like that when we started."
He pauses for a moment. "Maybe I can't say that I wish I'd had this kind of environment, actually. The reason I have Grasshopper Manufacture today, the reason I'm the person I am today, is because we became independent and made our games in a very tough environment. When I was a young creator I just saw it as hardship, but hardship is an important asset too. Through hardship you get to see a lot of things, and experience things that hadn't been part of your life before. Of course, if events like BitSummit had existed back then... The me of 18 years ago longed for this kind of environment, but the me of today thinks, well, it's best I didn't have it. I'm glad I could experience some hardship."