Few have had to deal with the perils of creative success more than Grasshopper Manufacture's Suda51.
While he certainly didn't make his debut with 2005's Killer7, this bizarre, Capcom-published shooter acted as the first game of Suda's to see release in America. So, for a Western audience, this director with more than a decade of experience behind him made one of the biggest, boldest, and brassiest introductions we'd ever seen.
Shortly after Killer7's release, Suda seemed on par with your Kojimas and your Kamiyas: directors whose overwhelming idiosyncrasies somehow manage to permeate a production worked upon by dozens upon dozens of people. But in the passing years, Suda51's most distinctive work has become a sort of curse, or at least the yardstick by which all of his other efforts are measured. And if you have the fortitude to stick it out to the end of Killer7, it's hard to shake the feeling that Suda's following games pale in comparison—at least in terms of sheer audacity.
It's a situation that doesn't feel entirely fair, and one that definitely isn't limited to the medium of video games. Author Joseph Heller unwittingly wrote one of the best English language novels of the 20th century with Catch-22, setting a nearly impossible standard to meet for the remaining 40 years of his career. But at least he had a sense of humor about the situation: Upon being told he'd never written a better novel than Catch-22, he wryly responded, "No one else has, either." That's not to say Killer7 ranks up there with Heller's debut in terms of cultural value—though the author would certainly appreciate the game's fragmented storytelling—but Suda undoubtedly faces the same insurmountable problem of topping himself.
Looking at the gaming landscape of 2005, it's remarkable that something like Killer7 even happened. But maybe things weren't all that different back then: Suda's American debut came about due to Nintendo's desperate need for third-party games on their console—a trend that definitely hasn't changed over the past decade. Thus, the "Capcom 5" was born, and with it came other titles like Hideki Kamiya's Viewtiful Joe, the genre-defining Resident Evil 4, P.N.03, and the cancelled Dead Phoenix. While all but P.N.03 would eventually make it to other consoles, these Capcom-published games gave the GameCube the shot in the arm it needed to compete against the PlayStation 2, which was basically unstoppable thanks to the juggernaut known as Grand Theft Auto. And these sorta-exclusives brought a certain degree of maturity to a brand trying to shake the "kiddie" image it gained in the N64 era: Play as the character Coyote in Killer7, and dispatching most enemies results in him sneering "You're FUCKED." Simpler times, but hearing a Nintendo system spit out these words once felt slightly titillating.
While the Tarantino-style language and violence of Killer7 could be considered a cynical ploy to draw in prospective players, the actual design of the game does a fantastic job of undercutting this argument. Regardless of the content itself, nothing else out there plays like Killer7. Essentially, your playable characters are affixed to invisible tracks; they can turn around whenever they want, but they can't deviate from these defined, branching pathways. And should you run into enemies, a quick tap of the button sends you into first-person mode, where you can dispatch them with your given character's weapon. Oh yeah, and did I mention these enemies are invisible until you scan them, can kill most characters in a few hits, and only make their presence known via deranged laughs? Above all, Killer7 desires to alienate rather than pander.
Even if it takes a while to wrap your mind around how Killer7 plays, the game manages to prod players along with its neverending gauntlet of freakshow attractions—even at its most frustrating, it's easy to keep pushing forward if only to see the Next Weird Thing. And The Next Weird Thing is basically what Killer7 does best. Characters who regularly assist you on your quest include a skittish man in a red gimp suit, the all-too-casual ghost of one of the Killer7's first assassination targets (who regularly wears tank tops emblazoned with phrases like "BAD GIRL"), and Susie, a sociopathic severed head who plays a part in some of Killer7's mostly brain-dead puzzles. Since the game plays out largely via barely related vignettes, Suda51 has a chance to jump from wild idea to wild idea, like shooting the exposed brains of two elderly, reanimated Japanese politicians, and exploring a Texas cult compound led by an enigmatic, afro-clad leader who finds sexual release in dropping bombs on civilians.
Killer7 is most often described as "style over substance," which is a bit of a misnomer since the style contributes so much to the substance. It would have been easy for Suda51 to throw in every "weird for the sake of weird" idea, but Killer7's strangeness meshes well with the game's theme and tone—there's a real sense of intentionality to the oddities on display. In fact, Killer7 works so well because no part of the game was neglected in Suda's attempt to create an altogether alienating experience: The graphics, controls, enemy encounters, music, UI, and sound design all contribute to a uniquely off-putting whole. And it should be pointed out that, given its intentionally low-polygon, flat-shaded characters and environments, Killer7 has aged extremely well—very much like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in this respect. And after playing the Wii U version of Link's cel-shaded adventure, one can only wonder how great it would be if Capcom gave this game the full HD treatment, with a higher resolution and frame rate. Of course, Killer7 doesn't exactly fit with Capcom's current brand, but, then again, it's hard to think of a current major publisher that would welcome its distinct brand of weirdness with open arms.
It's been 10 years since Killer7 released to a mostly confused audience, and, thanks to the indie movement that rose in its wake, its nightmarish, fever dream qualities might have lost a bit of their novelty—popular games like Hotline Miami employ a very Suda 51 sense of alienating anarchy. Still, it remains a completely unique experience, one that hasn't been copied or co-opted—especially by Suda himself. Following the release of Killer7, his games have definitely carried the same brash attitude, but his persona has begun to feel more and more like a weary obligation, leading up to the incredibly unfortunate spiritual sequel, Killer is Dead. But, as we explored earlier, the lessons of Joseph Heller aren't limited to the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Sure, Suda51 hasn't topped Killer7's uniquely strange execution—but really, who has?