This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.

A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer's library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.

This week, I’ll be talking about Grasshopper Manufacture.

Throughout the gaming industry, there are companies that are almost completely synonymous with particular individuals: Maxis has Will Wright, Firaxis has Sid Meier, Valve has Gabe Newell, and, most pertinent to this list, Grasshopper Manufacture has Goichi Suda, more commonly known by his sudanym – er, pseudonym – Suda51. Suda51 has a reputation for developing unusual, original, imaginative, bizarre, and creepy titles. Those that look deeper into his works, though, also find some heavy undertones of social commentary and parody; some of his games are parodies of games themselves and the broader gaming industry. If Suda51 were an artist, he'd be that eccentric avant-garde maestro whose artwork a large portion of the critical world fails to even recognize. The casual observer might consider him to be simply crazy and disturbed, but his games all have a much more significant underlying theme for those that seek it. As a company, Grasshopper Manufacture was founded by Suda51 in 1998, following the closure of his former studio, Human Entertainment, known for games like the Clock Tower series after a handful of little-known titles. The company hit it big with the disturbing yet original Killer7, originally for the Nintendo GameCube. Killer7 set the reputation and expectation for Grasshopper Manufacture, and its position on the usually family-friendly GameCube set the company up for a long history of unique appeal.

After Killer7 gave the world a good look at Grasshopper Manufacture, the industry quickly became aware of just how quirky and unusual Suda51 and his company's developments would be. One great example of this strange twist on development came in 2006's PlayStation 2 release Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked. The game was originally licensed by Bandai to Grasshopper Manufacture as a game tie-in to the anime company's popular Samurai Champloo series, and although Bandai is credited as a co-developer, the majority of development came from Grasshopper Manufacture. That might not be true at a code level, but in terms of the finished product, the game is unmistakably Suda51, an unsurprising observation considering Goichi Suda was actually the writer for the game.

Samurai Champloo, if you're unfamiliar, is the brainchild of Shinichiro Watanabe, most famous for directing Cowboy Bepop. Samurai Champloo ran in a similarly anachronistic setting, mixing Japanese historical context with heavy undertones of hip-hop culture. The series was localized to the United States, and Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked followed it. The unique setting and tone of the game mixed perfectly with Suda51's unique approach to writing and game development, giving him a source material that lent itself very nicely to some heavy liberties. The genre of the game was arguably the largest hindrance to Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked receiving significant attention; as a beat 'em up, the audience for the genre on the PlayStation 2 in 2006 was rather lacking.

Michigan, known in some places by its fuller name Michigan: Report From Hell, is a 2004 release that came before Grasshopper Manufacture had hit it big. The most interesting thing about the game, in my opinion, is that it was released in Japan, Europe, and Australia… but not in the United States, where the game itself takes place. Michigan is a survival horror game more in the spirit of traditional survival horror. There is no killing, but instead you play a character in a horrifying situation, and the gameplay encourages you to just experience the setting and challenges. Specifically, you take control of a reporter on a news team, and your goal is to film the setting – there's not a much simpler way of forcing you to simply get involved in the setting than assigning you to the role of a character whose literal job description is to capture the events occurring around him. In addition, you the player get to directly affect whether other characters live or die. That's intense.

The ideas behind Michigan are incredibly engrossing, but the game fell short in the eyes of many critics mostly because of the execution. The game featured a distracting system for categorizing points, rewarding upskirt shots and other juvenile camerawork. While the ideas behind the gameplay are strong and solid, they aren't always carried out adequately, and as such the tone and mood of the game suffer. Perhaps that is the reason Suda51 somewhat recently expressed interest in remaking it, leveraging the increased maturity of the company.

The follow-up to the well-regarded (though not widely acclaimed) No More Heroes for the Nintendo Wii (and later released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, published by Marvelous), No More Heroes 2 was a bit polarizing among fans. For many, the game was regarded as perfecting the formula introduced by its predecessor, polishing it a bit and tightening up the gameplay while retaining the same type of appeal and charm as both the original and other Suda51 games. For others, myself included, the sequel fixed the problems with the original while also losing much of what made the original entertaining in the first place.

The game preserved the quirky tone and off-beat sense of humor as the previous one, and supplied plenty of smut, pop culture references, and sexual innuendo to keep the fanbase from the original happy. The game also solved several of the original No More Heroes' problems, including supplying a stronger cast and overarching narrative, a more cohesive and modern style, and more believably mature content, eschewing the shock-and-awe violence and juvenile sexual innuendo more characteristic of the original game. Unfortunately, the game accomplished this while simultaneously losing some of the best features about the original game, including its pacing, size, and varied gameplay. It also pushes past Suda51's usually quirky and bizarre sense of humor and enters into a completely unbelievable and agitating setting, a stretch that the original game never made. Still, the gameplay is significantly more solid this time around.

As mentioned last week, the Shining series was Sega's attempt to have an RPG franchise to compete with Final Fantasy and the various other RPG series popping up on Nintendo's and Sony's consoles. Following Sega's exit from the console industry, however, the rights to the franchise were licensed out. In 2005, that meant Neverland developing Shining Force Neo, a PlayStation 2 release for the series; but the release that started that movement was 2002's Shining Soul, developed by Grasshopper Manufacture. This reboot completely changed the continuity and canon for the series, paving the way for Neverland's 2005 and 2007 Shining Force releases.

The original Shining Soul wasn't anything special. It received average-at-best reviews, and the Atlus-released American version failed to make waves. Its sequel, however, debuted to much higher praise. The game preserved its predecessor's hack-and-slash dungeon crawler style, but broadened its scope substantially with more classes, more weapons, and more items. Whereas the previous game could be something of a grindfest, Shining Soul II required a good bit more finesse and skill. The story also took on a more significant focus in Shining Soul II, providing some twists and turns and intrigue that the original Shining Soul lacked. In an odd way, the biggest knock against Shining Soul II (and Shining Soul) is that it isn't a very Suda51-style game. It's good, but fairly standard in the action adventure dungeon crawler hack-and-slash game genre. That might be in part because of the game's codeveloper, Nextech, and the limitations the partnership placed on Grasshopper Manufacture's freedom.

As mentioned previously, Suda51 has somewhat recently expressed a desire to remake Michigan using some of the improved development expertise Grasshopper Manufacture has garnered over the years. Those comments were made in 2009, and it's not unreasonable to suggest they were prompted in part by this 2008 release, Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen. Released only in Japan, the game is the fourth in the Fatal Frame series, with the previous ones developed by Tecmo. Tecmo played a supporting role in developing Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen, but unlike with Shining Soul II, Grasshopper Manufacture was undeniably the lead dog in this instance.

Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen is a survival horror video game, and that genre connection is what prompts me to suggest that it may have been this game that sparked Suda51's interest in remaking his other notable survival horror game, Michigan. The game is not dissimilar to Michigan in that it also demands that the player direct a camera toward interesting events in the environment. In the case of Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen, though, this is used to actually ward off and defeat these spirits rather than simply capture them for posterity, perhaps a concession to the expectations of the modern video game audience. The setting and plot for the game, though, capture the horror setting much more effectively than many modern "horror" games, putting the player in the position of the survivors of a mysterious kidnapping ten years earlier. Although the gameplay is somewhat combat-driven, the setting and nature of that gameplay still resonates with the more traditional view of survival horror games.

Grasshopper Manufacture's most recent release (excepting Black Knight Sword, an Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network game codeveloped with Digital Reality), is the now-famous (or infamous) Lollipop Chainsaw. Lollipop Chainsaw is a relatively famous game if only because of the ludicrousness of the game's concept. The game stars Juliet, a chainsaw-wielding zombie-fighting cheerleader in a short skirt and uniform sports bra, in her quest to save her school from a zombie invasion. Her sidekick is her boyfriend, whose disembodied head is now strapped to her belt. If there is a more bizarre concept for a game, I'm not familiar with it – not even Katamari Damacy or Kingdom Hearts quite measure up for me to Lollipop Chainsaw in terms of ridiculous and insane concepts.

The ridiculous concept may have gotten the game its attention, but it certainly isn't all there is. Underneath that bizarre framing is an average game with a surprisingly deep reflection on culture and gender roles. No, seriously. Lollipop Chainsaw has actually had a decent amount of press praising it for the way it inverts gaming's traditional gender roles. While the game appears to be your prototypical objectification-of-women fare with a hot protagonist with giant breasts in a skimpy outfit, it quickly turns toward a more enlightened view. From the very beginning, the leading male is the one emasculated, forced to ride around on a sidekick on his girlfriend's hip while she beats the tar out of a cast of male bosses. The game could even be described as downright feminist… well, if you thought about it hard enough, anyway.

Rather than survival horror, the 2011 release Shadows of the Damned often receives the label Psychological Horror. Rather than playing a character simply trying to survive some trying circumstances, the game instead stars a demon hunter trying to rescue his girlfriend. Throughout the game, the focus of the plot is on rather horrifying themes and motifs, thus lending the game the psychological horror label; for example, the threat against the main character's girlfriend is not simply that she will be killed, but rather that she will be killed over and over again. Not only is that threatened, but the player actually witnesses it: the protagonist's love interest dies over and over again in increasingly horrifying ways. Another character is dismembered, but continues to fight even after being mercilessly tortured for ages on end.

The game is the result of a rather unique collaboration between Suda51 and Shinji Kikami, the brain behind Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish. Although it is not all that present in many of his previous works, Mikami had a fondness for the psychological horror genre. The genre naturally appealed to Suda51, but he added to the project by bringing his own unique brand of culture and style, heavily influenced by hip-hop, punk rock, and modern Japanese culture. The combined strengths of the two led to a wildly unique game. Sadly, the game never received widespread appreciation in large part because of just how gruesome and horrifying the plot and story can be at times.

Released in 2006, Contact is quite unlike almost any other game Grasshopper Manufacture has developed over the years. An RPG (that genre along sets it apart from most of the company's endeavors) for the Nintendo DS (a console they had not previously developed for), the game was well-enough received in Japan to earn ports to the United States, Australia, and Europe by Marvelous, Atlus, and Rising Star, respectively.

The first thing to notice about Contact is the graphical style: the game favors a clean, simple appearance that is quite unlike most DS RPGs and most Grasshopper Manufacture games as well. But the more important takeaway of the game is the general characters and setting; they are in a modern world with modern characters rather than in a fantasy or sci-fi environment that one would expect to find in an RPG. The game's greatest feature, though, is the quality attention it pays to using the Nintendo DS's hardware effectively. Many games for the portable console endeavor to use the touchscreen simply because it's there; they use it for things that don't necessarily need touchscreen controls, but the developers seem to think a DS game inherently needs to be in some way controlled by the touchscreen (the same, incidentally, can be said for motion controls). With Contact, however, active attention was paid to developing the touchscreen controls in a way that actually complemented the game. This only scratches the surface of what positive things could be said about the game; Contact is one of the great underappreciated DS games available today.

Arguably Grasshopper Manufacture's most well-known game, No More Heroes was almost specifically created to give the Wii an entry into the more adult-oriented gaming realm. Toward that end, 'adult' is almost the only accurate way to describe it. No More Heroes is absolutely overflowing with blood, gore, and sexual innuendo. It's set in a world where killing is not just permitted, but encouraged. Fighters fight their way up ranked ladders by killing the person on top of them, trying to get to the coveted number one spot. These battles are often gruesome and take place only after slicing numerous grunt fighters in half, watching their blood and guys spew all over the place.

No More Heroes is more than just a violent, bloody game for an otherwise kid-friendly console, though. At a deeper level, it reflects something deeper about culture as a whole, parodying its obsession with despicable entertainment that, while not quite on the level of actually killing people for sport, isn't totally fundamentally different, either. The game also presents plenty of sexual innuendo, and while at times it can veer into more immature prepubescent potty humor, it is often rather more subtle and implied as well. For those that can pick up on the satire in the game, it's a very satisfying genre, compounded by excellent pacing, an interesting cast of characters and bosses, and decent – if repetitive – gameplay. Plus, the main character's name is "Travis Touchdown". What isn't awesome about that?

The game that put Grasshopper Manufacture, and Suda51 by extension, on the map was the 2005 release Killer7 for GameCube. Like No More Heroes after it, Killer7 attempted to bring a more adult, violent, gritty, bloody game to the otherwise family-oriented Nintendo family of consoles. It succeeds at that at least: the game is so violent and bloody that that became almost the only thing anyone remembered about the game in retrospect. That might have served to distract from the game's underlying quality, but by that same token, it served to increase the game's visibility and provoke a debate in the industry as a whole as to the responsibilities of game designers in creating games such as this.

Killer7 is certainly not the most well-praised game Grasshopper Manufacture has produced; its average rating is a bit lower than many other games on this list, but that comes in part because of the high standard deviation on those review scores. The game is so divisive that its scores range from a 3 given to it by GamePro to a 9 given by Famitsu (both scores out of 10). That has always been the nature of games that push the envelope; there are those that want to keep the envelope where it is, there are those that like where the envelope is being pushed, and there are those that just enjoy the envelope being pushed in general, regardless of where it goes. Killer7 might not be remembered for all the right reasons, but it is remembered, and that's more than we can say for a lot of games.

Honorable Mentions: The Silver Case, Flower, Sun, and Rain, Shining Soul.

As a relatively small game developer, the potential for Grasshopper Manufacture to experience significant growth will always be limited. That is not, however, to say that the company suffers at all for it. Few companies have developed such a solid and extensive reputation as Grasshopper Manufacture has developed, and few companies are headed by such a recognizable and auteur primary developer. Grasshopper Manufacture is in many ways the kind of company that the video game industry as a whole needs to avoid becoming overly homogenous; they are never going to dominate the sales charts, they won't put out slightly rehashed versions of the same game every year, and they likely will never win a Game of the Year award. But what companies like Grasshopper Manufacture do accomplish is they provide an alternative. They push the envelope. They pave the way for other companies to follow them. Some of the "ultra-violent" content from Killer7 is now commonplace in modern first-person shooters because one developer had the courage to go that direction. Big developers can't take those risks; too much money is at stake. Grasshopper Manufacture, though, embodies that independent spirit (even if it isn't by any means an indie developer) that forces the industry to adapt to it rather than adapting to the industry.

If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!

List by DDJGames (11/13/2012)

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