This column has discussed Japanese video game developer Suda51 in the past, but let’s start with a quick recap. He is known for creating incredibly strange (or “quirky” if you’re feeling generous) video games that tend to be incredibly divisive. None of his games have been particularly commercially successful (in the US, at least) but they almost always find a sizable and dedicated cult following. I bring this up because now, almost twenty years after its original release in Japan, The Silver Case the first project of his studio Grasshopper Manufacturing is finally available worldwide. So join me as I take a glimpse into the past of one of game development’s most eccentric figures.
The Silver Case is a story about a serial killer. The game divides neatly into halves with one side focusing on the police investigation of the hunt for an escaped serial killer while the other half deals with media coverage of the situation. For the most part the atmosphere is absolutely wonderful. It’s heavy and brooding, recalling films such as “Silence Of The Lambs” and “I Saw The Devil.” However, this is Suda51, so there are definite moments of tonal whiplash where, for example, there is a sudden switch from talk of a brutal murder to a bunch of dick jokes and then right back to the serious stuff. It also doesn’t help that the game’s translation is rather clunky. A lot of the dialogue just does not flow in that very distinct way that a lot of poorly translated Japanese does not flow well. If you’ve ever watched a Godzilla movie then you know what I mean. Ultimately I don’t think that either of the flaws listed here is enough of a problem to overshadow the creepy atmosphere which is central to the game, but your opinion may vary.
While a lot of the art assets of The Silver Case have been redone for this new international release, they are still generally in keeping with the style of the original. Which is to say that they are incredibly blocky just like any other game from the original PlayStation era. As long as you know what you’re in for, that really shouldn’t be much of a problem since this is essentially just an HD re-release of a PS1 game anyhow. The game however is presented through a series of windows on screen at the same time and sometimes this can get incredibly busy and hard to follow. While I understand the stylistic choices being made here, I did occasionally find it distracting, especially since the background and space between the windows is often full of brightly colored moving shapes that serve to distract further from the main action.
Music is one of this game’s strong suits. I don’t know what the original PlayStation version’s music sounded like, but for the modern version it has been remixed by “Silent Hill” composer Akira Yamaoka. It certainly has a lot in common with Yamaoka’s other works, which is great since he is a master at creating a heavy, brooding, and creepy atmosphere. There is also quite a variance in the soundtrack between locations. For instance daytime visits to the police station sound very different from stalking the serial killer through the sewers. This may sound like a given, but for a game with as many restrictions as The Silver Case that is a very important and often overlooked element of audio design.
The gameplay is the worst part of The Silver Case, unfortunately (what little of it there is). Much of the game consists of just watching text appear on the screen with accompanying visuals. When the player takes control and is actually able to move around, it gets even worse. The controls would have been incredibly clunky by the standards of 1999 when the game was first released and are just plain unacceptable in this day and age. The player actually has to go through a menu to select that they want to move. Just let that one soak in for a moment. You have to rotate a wheel and select the move option and then use the D-pad to select direction to move and then move, with the R1 and R2 buttons being used to look up and down. Actually playing the game kind of feels like a chore in between creepy serial killer investigation scenes.
Is The Silver Case good? By today’s standards, absolutely not. It has a lot going for it, but the sheer tedium of actually playing it kind of outweighs that. By the standards of its original release date it fares a little better. It’s an incredibly awkward game no matter how you slice it, but for fans of Suda51 then this is probably a must-have if only to see where the madness all started.