Out of all the “auteur” game developers that have bounced around over the last few decades, Suda51 (Goichi Suda) felt like he stood out. Sure, his latest work is more focused on titillation than anything else (how else do you explain a repeating minigame dedicated to ogling your character’s companions?), but back when Killer7 and No More Heroes made their debut, his name represented discomfort that was equal parts repulsive and engrossing. Sure, the stories were nonsense, but they were too minimalist to mean anything in the first place: who has time for the exploration of geopolitical strife when there are invisible monsters nipping at your heels?
This logic led me to believe that The Silver Case, a 1999 adventure that was just released in English for the first time, would give me a chance to see the “real” Suda. They say that creativity really shines when given limitations: with a 5-person team, shoestring budget and format that requires a ridiculous amount of writing, Grasshopper Manufacture had their work cut out for them in their debut studio title. This felt like my opportunity to see a visionary in his budding stages, forming the motifs and style that would eventually set my world on fire.
Unfortunately, I got what I asked for. The Silver Case is set in a Tokyo only Suda could imagine: under an ever-present full moon, the Heinous Crimes Unit chases after Kamui, a legendary serial killer whose urges might just be infectious. You’re begrudgingly dragged into the team after surviving a botched military operation, and aside from the thoughtful “Big Dick” nickname provided by a jaded detective, everyone is either indifferent or repulsed by you. There’s the occasional ghost, popping out to shout in capital letters, but they’re the only supernatural element in an otherwise downcast world that seems to have it out for you.
Have you ever been the odd duck out at a party, where you’re included out of obligation but mostly left to sit in silence? That’s how The Silver Case treats anyone who stumbled into its vision. The prologue chapter is bogged down by astoundingly mindless Caesar ciphers, but once it’s over, you’ll never see a puzzle again. It provides a tutorial for shooting your gun, yet seizes control whenever the opportunity presents itself. Cases largely fly past without any intervention on your behalf, and almost everyone would rather bite into a tree trunk than spend any significant time chatting with you. If that weren’t embarrassing enough, an entire, hour-long chapter goes by where it only asks you to look into a pamphlet and ride an elevator while the rest of your team is off elsewhere. You might be inhabiting the space, but Hell will freeze over before this game will let you interfere with its perfect little tale.
Though it’s told through a novel mix of FMV, anime, 3D animation and portraits, the writing on offer is decidedly by-the-numbers. Aside from a teaspoon of off-kilter wrestling gags to lighten the mood, we’ve got a mix of corrupt politicians, abrasive detectives, and secretive puppeteers guiding the city’s every move. This would be somewhat palatable in a 90-minute movie or 6-hour campaign; when it takes 16 hours, 11 of which are backtracking and watching the same animations again and again, it becomes downright unbearable. By the time you’re asked to search through 10 identical, spacious towers for journal entries, you’ve long since given up everything but the finish line.
Alas, Suda is at his most recognizable when he’s writing women. For the first four chapters, there’s only one woman with Heinous Crimes, and she’s frequently referred to as a “bitch” or “broad” for preferring statistical analysis over gut feelings. When she snaps and goes on a short break, she offers to date you as an apology and says she was on her period. (Can you tell that a man wrote this yet?) Worse yet is the motive given to one of the few female suspects, whose pregnancy compels her to go into “survival” mode and murder four other women the same man slept with. The voyeuristic fourth chapter, where yourself and the rest of your unit watch live-action, hidden camera footage of an idol in her bedroom, almost made me drop the game entirely. Given this medium’s history with sexism, I’m sure there are worse examples, but I’m hard-pressed to name a game that actively loathes women with the same gusto displayed here.
While The Silver Case’s characters dismiss the past to forward their ideal future, I couldn’t help but reflect on the time I’ve spent with Suda51. No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned certainly featured objectified women, but unlike this dismal murder mystery, they were harder to hear over the utterly wild design choices that would come to define him. Travis Touchdown goes from a know-nothing nerd to a world-class assassin after buying a lightsaber on eBay, while Garcia Hotspur tours a wacky take on hell with Johnson, an all-in-one gun, motorcycle and dick joke. Though a similar cynicism at the state of the world is found throughout The Silver Case, these later games doubled down on the pop culture and humor, turning anger into nihilism and joy around a madcap world. It’s difficult to say who was responsible for this change of heart, but I suspect collaborating with larger teams and legendary designers like Shinji Mikami helped redirect his focus.
I will always have fond memories of Killer7 and the rest of his mid-to-late 2000s oeuvre, but 16 hours with The Silver Case made me rethink the relationship with their creator. It’s a dark, depressing world, where everyone genuinely hates you and women are only allowed to be foolish, crazy, or tragic victims of fame or murder. Despite my best efforts, I can’t shake the notion that this is the closest approximation of the “real” Goichi Suda’s thoughts, which is more upsetting than any terrible game has a right to be.