10 Years Ago, Killer7 Introduced America to Suda51

In 2005, Goichi Suda's Lynchian experiment made him one of the most exciting young talents in the gaming industry. But will he ever top this exceedingly off-putting experience?

Analysis by Bob Mackey, .

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?

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Comments 17

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  • Avatar for victorehunter #1 victorehunter 3 years ago
    Killer7 was a formative game for me. I was very much at a point where I consciously rejected games that revolved around violence. I openly scoffed at GTA and any other massive commercial successes on other hardware. Then Nintendo Power of all places really started pushing for Killer7. It had a few previews which culminated in a massive cover story and I was completely sold on the art style.

    It might have been the first graphically violent game that my parents walked in on me playing. Not that I was hiding; my Gamecube was set up in the TV room at the time. But I remember my mom not being particularly phased by it. Which made me realize something relatively profound for the time; that my parents assume I'm playing violent games behind their backs anyway because I'm a duplicitous teenager.

    All of a sudden Killer7 became some kind of badge. I'd purposely play it when my parents were home hoping that they would walk by during the crazy moments or the profound moments or during a bizarre monologue. Maybe I wanted them to see it was more than shooting things in the head. I guess it was my first step into what some would describe as videogame hipsterdom. I was probably insufferable at that age telling all my friends in great detail about the concepts Suda played with and what each of Harmon's personas represented.

    It was the first game I analyzed critically. Because Killer7 begs for it. It throws so much conceptual spaghetti at the wall that something was bound to stick in my 14 year old brain.

    But it opened up so many avenues for me as far as thinking about media goes. It has directly and indirectly influenced my taste in games and music and film and art more so than just about anything.

    Thanks, Bob, for reminding me how important this game was.
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  • Avatar for nilcam #2 nilcam 3 years ago
    Killer7 enthralled me from jump and hasn't let go yet. I still find myself thinking about the oddities throughout the game. The scenes in the hotel rooms with Harman were bizarrely disturbing in that David Lynch fashion and constantly bubble up in my brain. I geeked out over finding clues which are all named after The Smiths songs and tying that into the Killer7 gang all bearing the Smith last name. Such delightful stuff. The puzzles were very simple but figuring out how to execute the solution in the extremely strange manner in which the player interacts with the world made it fascinating.

    While I enjoyed No More Heroes on Wii, I doubt Suda will ever top Killer7.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #3 SuperShinobi 3 years ago
    I'd say Suda51 is among the great "auteurs" in video games. At least conceptually his games are always strong and creative, although the execution is sometimes a bit lacking. Killer 7 is probably his masterpiece, but I really enjoyed No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer is Dead as well. Maybe he's somewhat unfashionable these days, but I think his work will only appreciate in value over time.
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  • Avatar for tenderbrew #4 tenderbrew 3 years ago
    Killer7 is cool. I'm a much bigger fan of No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned. He's put out some really cool games over the years though.
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  • Avatar for tenderbrew #5 tenderbrew 3 years ago
    @retr0gamer he was executive director.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #6 manny_c44 3 years ago
    Yeah nice article, when this game came out it truly stood alone-- the red man's monologues and story in general were totally bizarre but style equally so. Recently got Killer is dead in a steam sale but really I'm too bashful to play it. :/
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #7 Roto13 3 years ago
    @tenderbrew "Executive Director" is not the same as "Director." It means he's the head of the company. He hasn't had much to do with many of the games that have had his name on them since No More Heroes 1.
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  • Avatar for buckupprincess #8 buckupprincess 3 years ago
    This game holds some of my fondest gaming memories. I played through it about two years after it was released on my Wii and not only the game's loving oddities stand out but the fact that I played through it all over the course of a month with about a dozen of my friends. This game not only took our focus from Wii Sports but spurred some incredible chats about its story and subtleties. This is one of a few games (Super Mario RPG and Minerva's Den) that I make a point to play through every few years and as Bob pointed out, the cell shaded style has held up incredibly. Killer7 is definitely an all time favorite of mine and quite a wonderful memory lane.
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  • Avatar for clownbomb #9 clownbomb 3 years ago
    This is one of those games I've never found while scouring used game shops. I imagine it would freak me out pretty badly; Bad Girl from No More Heroes is, like, my most feared boss by a mile. So very wrong, but all the more compelling.
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  • Avatar for clownbomb #10 clownbomb 3 years ago
    P.S. I loved No More Heroes 1 and 2. Should I drop twenty bucks on a used copy of Killer Is Dead, or will I be let down?
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #11 Kadrom 3 years ago
    killer7 to me is a strong argument for videogames as art and I'm sad that there will never be something like it again, at least not with the same budget. Maybe it's hyperbole to call it Lynchian, but it felt that way when I played it, and I played it for the first time only a few years ago. One of the few games where I had to read a plot analysis afterward and came away feeling more impressed and not just irritated that the game was obtuse.

    Also the soundtrack is fantastic. Masafumi Takada is probably in my top 5 composers list now.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #12 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    I started playing this while I was job hunting and then landed a job in another state. I need to finish this. After the initial shock of the gameplay mechanics I really liked it.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #13 Kadrom 3 years ago
    @clownbomb It tried to be killer7 meets No More Heroes but ended up being worse than both, imo. You can get it pretty cheap, might still be worth a playthrough but I thought the gameplay felt unfinished.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #14 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    I tried playing this game a couple of years ago to see what all the fuss was about and I didn't like it. The presentation is interesting as is the concept but there isn't much of a game anywhere in there. You're stuck running around in corridors, fighting invisible enemies for long stretches of time in really confusing layouts. I couldn't find the appeal even though I tried so hard to.

    I'll agree that it's a unique experience as far as games go, but that's all it really is. As someone who is really interested in well-thought mechanics and level design, I can't say I enjoyed my experience.

    To answer the question in the article, the chances of getting something like Killer 7 ever again are low so there's no sense in hoping. I was reading some of the things Suda has said about Grasshopper's games in that recently released art book and it seems he had just about total free reign on Killer 7 thanks to Mikami. His subsequent games like No More Heroes, Lollipop, and Shadows were more controlled and the publishers had a lot more say in the development of those games. Suda mentions how the management at Kadokawa pushed for more prurient content than he personally would have wanted onto Lollipop and Killer is Dead.

    Lollipop is probably my favorite Grasshopper game and their best selling, so the producers know what they're doing. Still, I would like to see another project where Suda is left to his own devices. I don't like Killer 7 but I sure as hell respect it. I need to play No More Heroes. That's the last game Suda personally directed.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #15 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino I think it really clicks around the third chapter. Admittedly, that's a lot of time to force people to wallow through confusion.
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  • Avatar for matthewjohnson31 #16 matthewjohnson31 3 years ago
    @Roto13 I've been curious about this, especially since he seems to be connected to so many things that don't seem like his style at all.

    Anyway, I just got this in the mail so we'll see how it goes!
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  • Avatar for clownbomb #17 clownbomb 3 years ago
    Finally found a copy at a used game store this weekend. Didn't really feel like paying Amazon's $94 asking price, plus it's so much more satisfying to find it in person ... I was like Indiana Jones reaching for that idol.
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