It might not be so surprising when a small indie team has oddball sensibilities and tries really off-the-wall things, but there are a number of high-profile, multi-million-dollar publisher-backed developers that have really pushed the envelope of normalcy over the years. Here are some of my favorite avant garde developers.
Kenji Eno – who tragically passed away at only 42 years in old in 2013 – was one of gaming’s true mad geniuses. He worked with several developers during his too-short career, but his most iconic work was done with his team at WARP throughout the 90’s. The developer’s most famous game is D, an unorthodox 1995 horror game that not only featured inter-family cannibalism but had such risk design elements as the inability to save or even pause the game, meaning you had to play the entire thing in a single sitting each and every time. Sequel Enemy Zero put players on a space ship full of enemies that were 100% invisible and had to be detected using only the sounds that they made. Enemy Zero had a special edition that ranks among the rarest and most elaborate of all time – only 20 copies were made, and those that purchased one got it personally delivered to their house by Kenji Eno himself, who claims to have spent a half hour chatting with each fan.
While not nearly as extravagant as having games hand delivered by their creator, WARP would become known for odd freebies and Eno’s personal touch. 3DO minigame collection Short Warp had each of its 10,000 copies personally numbered and stamped by Eno – compare that to small devs now that can’t even find the time to interact with people on Twitter – and also included an actual condom. Yes, a condom. Real Sound: Kaze no Regret for Dreamcast came with a bag of “herb seeds” and also a copy of the instructions in braille (as it was designed to also be playable by blind people). It is disappointing that WARP’s final game, D2, was probably its most normal and accessible (and also not terribly well received), but it doesn’t come anywhere close to tarnishing the wild legacy of the developer or its visionary leader.
The first taste that American gamers got of the insanity that is Grasshopper Manufacture and its auteur leader, “Suda 51,” was the insane GameCube/PlayStation 2 game Killer 7. Taking the role of a hitman with multiple personalities – ranging from a wheelchair-bound old man to a guy in a white suit and Luchador mask – and being controlled by just holding down a button and walking along a pre-scripted path, Killer 7 was unlike anything we’d ever see before. Japan had already been blessed with several equally-strange games prior to that, most notably the weirdly titled Michigan: Report From Hell (which also came to Europe). Quirky developers just love to make horror games, don’t they?
After a few licensed games – which Grasshopper makes to keep the lights on and helps them to offset the financial risk of their weirder titles – the company created their best-selling and most critically-acclaimed game to date, No More Heroes. The (for a time) Wii-exclusive was an open-world action game starring Travis Touchdown, a loser-for-hire armed with a lightsaber-esque weapon that must be, well, jacked off in order to
recharge (with accompanying Wii remote motions). Following a sequel, Grasshopper – with help from former Capcom golden boy Shinji Mikami – released Shadows of the Damned, a game where you have a talking skull sidekick that also serves as a gun, a torch, and a motorcycle. The company also later re-released its second game, the adventure title Flower, Sun, and Rain for the DS in North America, which was a welcomed addition to their U.S. resume but unfortunately felt very much like the 7 year old game that it was at that point.
Grasshopper would lose some of its spark in subsequent years, repeating some of its earlier games to less interesting results (even using similar-sounding titles like Killer is Dead) and focusing too heavily on the more “mature” aspects the company had become known for – blood, violence, sex-crazed characters, foul-mouthed humor – and putting those things into otherwise sub-par games, settling for the badly-designed-but-boob-and-blood-filled action game route popularized by shlocky titles like OneeChambara (cough, Lollipop Chainsaw) rather than truly pushing the medium like they once had. Their downward slide is especially disappointing given that some of their more innovative and original early games – like The Silver Case – have yet to be released outside of Japan.
You always have to be careful when you’re trying to definitively call a game or developer the genuine “first” of something, since video game history can be so spotty and relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and
people’s memories of events rather than actual concrete information to reference. That said, NanaOn-Sha’s Parappa the Rapper is largely considered to be the first modern music/rhythm game, and it’s difficult to dispute that claim (it even beat DDR to market by two full years). Players “rapped” along as Parappa through a unique 2D/3D hybrid world inhabited by strange characters and wonderful songs. The surprise smash hit was followed by UmJammer Lammy, with similar gameplay to Parappa only you played guitar instead of rapping.
Not one to rest on their laurels, NanaOn-Sha’s next release was the unusual Vib Ribbon, a game – released in 1999, mind you – with a visual style consisting entirely of white vector-esque lines on a plain black background. Following the third game in the Parappa series, Parappa the Rapper 2, NanaOn-Sha again decided to reinvent themselves with a game that had you drawing rap lyrics in caligraphy (Mojib-Ribbon) and the follow-up to Vib Ribbon where you could jump around on and distort real life photographs you imported into the game (Vib-Ripple). Like the other developers on this list, NanaOn-Sha began to lose their way in later years, but their contributions to the PlayStation brand – back when that was actually a thing – can’t be denied, as well as giving the video game world one of its rare enduring characters that long outlived – and exceeded the popularity of – the game series it debuted in.
What are some of your favorite quirky mainstream developers, past and present? Share in the comments!