Lollipop Chainsaw feels like it came out of the early 90s. Try to imagine that’s a good thing. Everything about it, from the music, to the constant score counter ticking away in the corner, to the way it plays feels like an arcade beat-em-up had a baby with a mixtape-carrying Walkman after they went out to a horror-comedy in the vein of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.
It’s important to go into Lollipop Chainsaw with this in mind, because the combat doesn’t feel contemporary. Despite the fact that the game has three attack buttons (X is speedy pom-pom attacks, Y is regular attacks, and A is low chainsaw attacks for cutting legs off or dealing with zombies crawling along the ground) Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t a stylish action game in the same vein as Bayonetta or Devil May Cry.
Instead, it’s a score-based beat-em-up, more along the lines of Streets of Rage. You enter an area and kill everyone until you’ve maxed your “Kill Zombie” meter and the next area opens up, trying to build up as many points as you can along the way. While the distinction between the two sounds nominal, it’s important not to go into the game expecting combat on par with the likes of Ninja Gaiden. While there are a few tricks you can use to make combat feel more fluid, like utilizing the B button as a dodge that can cancel your attacks and put you directly behind enemy zombies, the combat still feels a bit jerky. This stiffness is remedied somewhat as you buy more combos, there are still points where it feels as though the game is simply ignoring your inputs in order for Juliet to pose after a pom-pom attack or put her chainsaw back into its neutral position if you don’t have an enemy to dodge over.
In the midst of all of your zombie killing, you’re constantly building up your score. An easy way to do so is “Sparkle Hunting,” a sparkling, rainbow filled point and coin bonus engaged by decapitating three or more enemies with a single swing. The easiest way to set one of these up is to stun enemies with cheer attacks (often by drop-kicking them into walls by using X in the air). Stunned enemies can be killed with a single hit from the chainsaw, so lining them up for wide-reaching chainsaw attacks will lead to tons of Sparkle Hunting bonuses. The more Sparkle Hunting bonuses you get, the more quickly you build up both gold and (rare) platinum Zombie Medals. Gold medals let you buy new attacks and upgrades from the ingame shops, and platinums will allow you to buy new costumes, art, and songs.
Mixing things up are the minigames, which can get pretty weird. By the end of the game you’ll have played zombie baseball (by shooting zombies with a chainsaw upgrade as they try to attack Nick as he rounds the bases while attached to a zombie’s body), run over zombies with a combine harvester while “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” plays, and even participate in a tribute to Elevator Action (sadly, no crushing enemies under your elevator). While some of these can get annoying (and lead to cheap deaths, which ultimately lower your score at the end of the stage), they generally serve as fun little changes of pace.
While fun, to me, the gameplay isn’t really the heart of Lollipop Chainsaw. Instead, the game is fueled by its style and charm, due in large part to writer James Gunn. I’m hesitant to extol its virtues, since I’m sure some people would be completely repulsed by it, but I absolutely loved how it managed to be simultaneously profane and lighthearted.
Juliet’s personality does a lot to establish the tone of the game. She’s basically a slightly more ditzy female version of Dante from Devil May Cry. She’s killed tons of supernatural creatures over the years, makes wisecracks while fighting off hoards of zombies, and is constantly positive despite the fact that the world is going to hell around her. She loves her job, and I thought her character was well summed-up by one of her one-liners after slicing up some zombie cheerleaders: “Okay, that was sad killing my friends, but also SO FUN!”
Nick, Juliet’s quickly-decapitated boyfriend, is the perfect straight man to Juliet’s constant positivity. Aside from his constant fear over the things that Juliet just accepts as normal (like flying zombies propelled by blood that sprays from their severed legs), he’s both a supportive boyfriend and cynical about his new status as Juliet’s keychain. It’s curious that in a game with a protagonist that looks like Juliet, Nick’s the one who is literally “objectified,” constantly used as a toy by Juliet’s sisters. However, it’s his rapport with Juliet that makes Nick such a fun character.
The following was one of my favorite exchanges between the two:
“What’s your favorite color, Nick?”
“Blue. No, green!”
“Awesome, I love learning more about you!”
“…I fucked up, it’s yellow.”
Everything bleeds this bizarre attitude. Zombies and people will spout out random (often disconcertingly obscene) nonsense ranging from “I’m fat as fuck!” to “Wash your hands.” Every tutorial is categorized under “How to Cook Zombie”. Each “boss of zombie rock” has to be cut in half MULTIPLE times, and will mock you as you do it, sometimes putting themselves back together, and sometimes changing shape. Between the attitude, the music, and the beat-em-up scoring mechanics, Lollipop Chainsaw just feels like it hearkens back to the days where games didn’t take themselves as seriously. The days where coins spewed out of downed enemies, and people would disappear into thin air after you’ve saved them (think Metal Slug).
This sort of charm extends into gameplay as well. For instance, killing enough zombies will allow you to fill a meter in the lower-left corner of the screen. When it’s full, pressing RT will activate a super mode of sorts where Juliet will start glowing, all zombies can be decapitated with a single swing of the chainsaw, and Toni Basil’s “Mickey” will start playing for no particular reason. When I was cutting through multiple enemies and getting Sparkle Hunting bonuses while terrible 80s pop is played in the background, any gripes I had with the stiff combat or frustrating minigames kind of melted away.
Food for Thought:
1. If you cut the legs off of a cheerleader zombie, she will walk on her hands to attack you.
2. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic, with each stage seeing Akira Yamaoka take on a different genre. My personal favorite soundtrack was the first stage’s due to Yamaoka’s take on punk and the fact that the beginning of the stage uses Sleigh Bells’ “Riot Rhythm.” If you don’t like the level you’re playing’s soundtrack, you can actually hop into the pause menu and change your five-song playlist with a combination of songs you’ve heard and songs you’ve purchased with platinum zombie medals.
3. The dialogue is full of references to horror films and pop culture. It’s a little odd to have the characters referencing Katy Perry and Facebook, but they’re generally funny and are the only ties Lollipop Chainsaw has to reality. At one point, Gunn even has the characters make fun of the idea of running zombies, a subtle nod to his controversial choice in his script for the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
4. While I can’t make it out, the rainbow trail that follows Juliet’s chainsaw has letters in it. It looks like “Hello” to me.