When Mario met Bowser’s kids in Super Mario Bros. 3, he encountered and bested enemies named after musicians like Iggy Pop and Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics. Goichi Suda, better known as Suda 51, stretches the conceit of rock stars as video game bosses as far as it will go in the sexy, strange new action game Lollipop Chainsaw. Here, a mopey goth modeled after Marilyn Manson takes over his high school, starts a zombie plague, and unleashes musically inclined demons like a black-metal viking and a psychedelic, sitar-playing hippie to hasten the world’s destruction. The only thing between this jerk and his dark aims is a cheerleader with a gas-powered gardening tool.
It’s easy to dismiss Lollipop Chainsaw as sexist, knuckle-dragging exploitation. But to do so would be to miss out on one of the strangest games to hit consoles since the last time a Suda 51 joint graced a GameStop. Suda 51 makes games heavily steeped in pop culture. Last years’ Shadows Of The Damned was an homage to The Evil Dead II as filtered through Resident Evil 4. Lollipop Chainsaw casts “Oops!…I Did It Again” Britney Spears in a hack-and-slash knockoff of the 1992 Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie.
The game’s lead, Juliet Starling, is a leggy drink of Diet Coke who wields pom-poms and chainsaw like Bayonetta with a learner’s permit. Pushing Juliet’s buttons sends the zombie killer into a dance routine that melds acrobatic cheers, deadly swordplay, and pro-wrestling brutality into a gonzo martial art. Turns out that Juliet comes from a family of zombie killers—her sister Cordelia (voiced by Freaks And Geeks star Linda Cardellini) is a sneering badass with a sniper rifle. And her father (Hung’s Gregg Henry) is a square-jawed All-American who looks like an Elvis man.
Juliet is poised to reveal her family secret to her sweetheart, Nick, when the undead shit hits the fan. The dude catches a zombie bite and is doomed, but Juliet manages to save his life with magic and some amateur surgery, decapitating the guy and hanging his noggin from her skirt like a key-chain fob. The pair embark on an increasingly bizarre quest to eradicate the shambling brain-eaters and the pop music bosses who control them. The pairing is clever—playing to the emasculation seen in Russ Meyer pictures. It makes sense that much of the game’s writing was done by James Gunn—a graduate of the cult indie studio Troma who regularly mixes profanity and gore.
Lollipop Chainsaw doesn’t beat the player over the head with notions of strong female leads. Those thoughts probably don’t even congeal in this game’s addled consciousness. The game is more concerned with irreverently mashing up its trash cinema, hip music, and geek gaming references into something you’ve never seen before. It succeeds thanks to style and sheer audacity.
Juliet’s already off-the-wall fighting style is juiced by cartoon flourishes. The arcs of her chainsaw leave behind rainbow trails. Dismembered enemies spew sparkles from their wounds and leave behind coins, stars, and heart-shaped explosions rather than gouts of blood. Suda 51, serving as “creative director” rather than lead designer on this effort, imbues Lollipop Chainsaw’s combat with the visual and audio racket of a Las Vegas casino. The effect is mesmerizing and somewhat numbing but wholly original.
Lollipop Chainsaw never settles into a rut. Rather, Suda 51 staves off boredom with left turns and one-off mini games that change the way you play and then take a bow just as the novelty wears off. One of these switch-ups occurs when scaling the tower of a keyboard-wielding funk master. Every floor of his video game arcade puts Juliet in a recreation of an old-school game like Pac-Man or Pong. Among the dozens of referential moments like this in the game, some are there to accentuate the drama. Others, like the bit where Juliet drives a combine to harvest the zombies in a wheat field—as Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” plays in the background—are there simply to put a smile on your face.
This isn’t what you’d call a brainy game. But Suda 51 and James Gunn have given their noisy celebration of music, titillation, and gore a heart. During their quest, Juliet and her mook of a boyfriend, Nick, have their ups and downs. The lovers face more than a few jerks who would tear down everything these crazy kids want to build. But when all the chips are on the table, and it comes time for the pair to declare their affection for each other, it’s believable. Don’t mistake over-the-top bluster and childish profanity for insincerity. Whether its an affection for pop culture or the hormonal feelings of two crazy kids, Lollipop Chainsaw is really all about love.