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PLATFORM: 360, PS3
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Grasshopper Manufacture
PUBLISHER: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
While I love Suda 51’s games unabashedly as experiences, he is, undoubtedly, a far better idea man than a game director. His ideas have always been strong enough to keep the games afloat, however, even in the face of some less-than-quality design decisions. Guys like Shinji Mikami hitching Suda’s crazy train to their particular wagon has managed to bolster those ideas, and yet maintain a roughness that feels satisfyingly old-school and/or frustrating as hell, depending on the player’s tolerance. In that way, Suda’s kinda the first guy in the medium I’d be that pretentious asshole about and call punk rock.
The same can be and has been said about James Gunn, which is why their collaboration made total sense when Lollipop Chainsaw was announced. James is a writer/director, though, not a game designer. So once again, Suda’s on his own, he’s just being fueled by Western sensibility/insanity this time. And yet, funny enough, these two madmen combined, Lollipop Chainsaw is possibly the most light-hearted, breezy project both men have ever done.
As light-hearted as a game where a zombie gets cut in half, magically sews himself back up, and tells our heroine he just jizzed a little can be anyway.
After a zombie apocalypse breaks out on cheerleader Juliet Starling’s 18th birthday, what should’ve been an awesome day of celebrating with her boyfriend and her loving family turns into an awesome day of slaughtering the undead en masse with a chainsaw, with her newly decapitated talking head boyfriend and her loving family of secret zombie hunters.
The shorthand here would be to say that this is the gameplay the Onechanbara games have been trying to achieve for years, and failed. But since there’s maybe 12 people outside of Japan who played those shitpiles, I’ll elaborate.
On paper, the gameplay is nothing fancy. Attacks are entirely mapped to the face buttons (hand-to-hand pom-pom based melee, high chainsaw, low chainsaw, and a dodge), with a couple of special attacks on the shoulders that you’ll only use in specific situations, save for the trigger to activate your Sparkle Meter, which basically turns you into a one-hit zombie decapitating machine while Toni Basil’s Mickey plays on a loop, and clicking the left stick, which pulls up a slot machine which allows you to choose how best to use Juliet’s boyfriend’s disembodied head to kill things, and sadly, nomming them to death is not one of the options.
That simple scheme, however, manages to stretch a long way, carrying a healthy selection of combos, room-clearing moves, evasions and counters. There’s big, Gears of War-lite chainsaw fatalities and random QTEs you can pull off that’d be horrifyingly brutal if pretty little rainbows and sparkles didn’t come out after. A few of the more complex moves you pick up rely on timing more than anything else, and there’s a spinning chainsaw cartwheel attack you can spam the hell out of and clear most rooms with ease, but it’s all in that wonderful sweet spot between an old-school Konami arcade beat-em-up and the Bayonettas or Ninja Gaidens of the world. There’s moments of stiffness, but it’s mostly satisfyingly fluid for the most part.
Because it’s just a linear beat-em-up at heart, the gameplay doesn’t really get much deeper than that. Because it’s Suda 51, though, the devil’s in the details. When the game’s not throwing you simple, diversionary curveballs–some fun as hell (zombie basketball, any chainsaw dash section, a great Elevator Action parody), some annoying as fuck (zombie baseball, a vertical shooter stage up the side of a skyscraper, and good god damn luck to you trying to get the achievement/trophy attached to that thing)–it’s keeping things fresh by giving Juliet numerous opportunities to kill in style, or just plain making the zombies look, act, or speak more batshit bananas than normal.
You’re still dealing with zombies as enemies, though, which would be repetitive death if not for the fact that the zombies of Lollipop Chainsaw are perfectly balanced between being chainsaw fodder to take out in 2 or three hits, versus what Al Bundy might refer to as “Big’Uns”, fat lumbering bastards with a love of chicken fucking (I wish I was joking here) you’ll need to put overtime in on to bring down. The bosses are relatively easy, but they’re just so ridiculously entertaining and over-the-top, you’ll find yourself replaying stages just for them.
The game isn’t any great shakes graphically, especially when it comes to the way characters talk (UNREAL ENGINE 3, EVERYBODY), and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a comic book aesthetic that doesn’t really jive with the rest of the game’s trippiness. Still, the stages and environments have enough character to work. The music and sound are where the game shines, though. There’s a hefty amount of licensed tracks, ranging from The Chordettes’ Lollipop (of course), the aforementioned Mickey, Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round, and Joan Jett’s Cherry Bomb, to Skrillex, Atari Teenage Riot, Children of Bodom, and Arch Enemy. When you’re not hearing that, you have Akira Yamaoka in full on pop-punk mode, with Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence mixing up hectic, ass-kicking noise for the boss fights. Somehow, NONE of this seems out of place. It’s a weird, eclectic mix, but then, that’s the leitmotif for the whole game–the raucous and obscene right alongside infectiously charming and endearing.
That mix is old hat for James Gunn, but not for Suda, and thank Christ for that, because I can’t imagine what kind of mess the game would have been without two sure hands, able to handle the balancing act between creating such a sweet, unerringly cheerful, confident, and strong female protagonist with such naively simple hopes for her and her boyfriend’s future surrounded by a genuinely loving family, with zombie holocaust, wolf-in-a-cartoon levels of objectification, comic surrealism and randomity, rampant misogyny from the villains, and an achievement based on getting an upskirt shot. The tale being told in Lollipop Chainsaw somehow manages to be less about the zombie apocalypse, and more about Juliet’s boyfriend getting to meet her family for the first time, while a zombie apocalypse and a demon invasion just keeps getting in Juliet’s way. It’s a 1980s date movie in a zombie movie costume having an acid trip. Suda on his own would have gotten the aesthetic right, and brought the left-field elements into play, but it’s Gunn’s dialogue and the great set of character actors he brought to the table to give it a heart, and soul, and crotch. It’s still exploitative and crass and shoots for the moon in pure quirk factor, and yet the warmth is never compromised. Again, this is a game where a blonde cheerleader kills an undead, three-headed chicken in a ‘shroom-fueled fever dream in order to chop a sitar-playing zombie hippie demi-god in half with a chainsaw.
This sentence will never be written again in human history.
The game can be easily conquered in a weekend, but like all old-school games, take a day off from it, you’ll find yourself wanting to go right back in, if not for the achievements/trophies (there’s one on every stage for beating Juliet’s Dad’s score), if not for getting enough credits to snatch up all the costumes, each gloriously sluttier than the last, then just for the sheer joy of decapitating half a dozen zombies at once, and tasting the rainbow. Even as every game tries to add on RPG elements and padded difficulty, sometimes, it comes down to the simple things. Time can only tell how long it’ll last, but the game plays addictively enough to get a decent amount of mileage.
I can officially say I’m a fan of the collaborative portion of Suda 51’s career. He chose wisely in letting James Gunn nurture this little seed of an idea and turn it into something comedically and texturally stronger, while focusing his energies on making his usual back-to-basics gameplay stronger than normal. It may not be his most unique project, but it’s certainly the one I can see myself revisiting time and time again. Come for the addictive zombie slaughtering action, stay for the sweet little blonde haired girl telling the world that zombies suck dick at driving.
out of a possible 5 stars