Killer 7 (Gamecube) – “At the very least you will appreciate the game’s style”. That’s what I told people way back in 2004 when they asked about Killer 7. A collaboration between Capcom heavyweights Shinji Mikami and Hirokyuki Kobayashi, and the enigmatic Goichi Suda (Suda 51) Killer 7 promised a hyper-violent and hyper-stylised video game experience. And it delivered for the most part. It looked good, it was cool, it had interesting ideas and it seriously brought to contention the video games as art debate. But taken simply as a game it certainly wasn’t the pièce de résistance of either the Gamecube or Playstation 2 back catalogues. Critics responded to game accordingly with mixed reviews.
Killer 7 spins a fantastic, if at times nonsensical, yarn. Essentially a tale of political intrigue, terrorism and international relations, you take control of seven assassins working ‘for’ a mysterious wheelchair-ridden man, Harmon Smith, contracted to take out a series of targets in pursuit of maintaining global peace. Of course all is not as it seems and you are taken on a roller-coaster ride of twists and turns as the storyline becomes more complicated, more confusing and more interesting. It is a game that doesn’t pull any punches in conveying an adult story in an adult tone, and in doing so was a breath of fresh air when it was released in 2004. I can remember first playing the game and being blown away at how cerebral it all seemed – it was like watching a David Lynch film that doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out for the viewer. It was an experience unlike anything else I had ever played and one that from that moment on changed my expectations of what videogames as a medium could deliver narratively and thematically.
The game itself is simplistic in its mechanics. Playing somewhere between a rail shooter and a first person shooter Killer 7’s gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. In some ways the lack of any complex mechanics highlights just how visceral and stylised the game’s violence is, allowing you to take in the full effect of whats happening on screen without worrying too much about navigating combat sequences. And I think the simplicity of playing the game comes in part from how easy and intuitive it is. Navigating the game’s environments is, albeit with some slight deviations in path, completely on-rails with you controlling your character from a third person perspective in almost the same way you would a slot car, if it had differing paths. Combat is handled from the first person perspective but firmly plants your character’s feet in place with shooting them becoming something like a shooting gallery. It isn’t complex and it certainly isn’t deep but it was fun, engaging and addictive. It was a serviceable and simple way to tell the story and show the choreography and sheer insanity that the developers had crafted.
But on some level, the simplicity of the core game play showed a naïvety in what designers Suda-san and Mikami-san – both veterans of the industry – thought players wanted from video games. An ‘experience’ built on art and feel may go a long way now, but a decade ago it was all about the gun in your characters hand or the bounce in their step. And while there may have been some degree of appetite from some consumers out there, merely putting a gun in your characters hand in the game gave the market significant expectations of what the game would be. Early trailers for the game looking more like a dynamic third person action-first person shooter hybrid with stylistic gunplay, rather than the rather on-rails game it actually was. It looked cool, edgy and more importantly to the market it look violent. Perhaps not intentionally, but Capcom and Grasshopper Manufacture set the expectations for this game as something they couldn’t, but more importantly, were never aiming to meet.
Like the best films or books isolating one part of a whole piece of work doesn’t do it justice. It would be like taking the sugar out of a bottle of Coke and telling someone to review what was left. This is kind of how I feel about Killer 7 in that it is simply is better than the sum of its parts. Where the gameplay either bores or lacks depth, the other elements come in and pull the player through to the next crazy moment. The game marked, for all intents and purposes, the entry of Suda 51 into the western consciousness. The ideas don’t necessarily all come together all the time but you can see the glimpses of greatness even within some of the clumsiest aspects of the game. A divisive title, Killer 7 was held back by its own lofty ambition and attempts to differentiate itself from every other game on the market.
Me? I love Killer 7. And I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the greatest video games ever made.