Dragami Games announced this month that its Lollipop Chainsaw remake release was getting delayed to 2024. Never having played hack-and-slash Lollipop before, but eagerly awaiting the remake, I decided to cope rationally: I spent $40 on a game made 11 years ago, and hauled my friends’ grimy Xbox 360 to my apartment.
I had known the horror stories about upskirt achievements and rampant objectification, but after playing Lollipop, I think its unicorn vomit-covered action is neither truly offensive, nor topped with the lascivious whipped cream desperate men swear it’s smeared in. Like schoolkids and fairies, the game is misunderstood. And after rummaging through its dental floss bikinis and love letter-wide cheer uniforms, I find that Lollipop is one of the more charming games for girls out there.
Hack-and-slash my heart
Yes, it’s for girls. It’s especially for girls in 2023, a year that—as both Willa Rowe for Inverse and Stacey Henley in TheGamer correctly note—fully welcomes bimbos, sluts, and any kind of whore to the pot of gold at the end of feminism. The game, a collaboration between cult-favorite designer Suda51 and The Suicide Squad (2021) director James Gunn, guiltlessly features bimbo-slut-whore captain Juliet Starling as its chainsaw-swinging protagonist. She’s a cheerleader at the fictional San Romero high school, she subsists on lollipops (“I know what you’re thinking,” she says while her silhouette flexes a lean stomach in the game’s intro, “I’m getting sooo fat!”), and she’s been taking some pole dancing classes. Today is her 18th birthday. Quelle surprise!
Juliet presents as a caricature, but the more I carve the zombie rot overtaking her high school with her rhinestone-struck weapon, the more I feel like I am her. Since the game’s approximately six-hour-long playthrough is confined to button-mashing (there are, technically additional combos you can buy with Gold Medals that spill out of destroyed zombie guts, but I always find stabbing X and Y repeatedly with my thumb to be more satisfying) and quick-time events, it’s easy to put myself on autopilot while chopping up enemy hordes in the its short levels.
I button-mash so well that I become an expert in a tumbling somersault that splashes hot pink and cuts a path to Juliet’s Sparkle Hunting, a combat mechanic made of candy hearts and glitter, which indicates I’ve simultaneously killed three (or more) zombies and won more Gold, and some rarer Platinum, Medals.
Simple combat means I float through the Lollipop Chainsaw’s Normal setting constantly amused, like a cat in a couch cushion, and get to buy a rain of power-ups like health-expanding Rodent Chow Mein or Power Dumbbells to boost my strength, making it so I never feel overwhelmed when I’m low on Chainsaw Blaster bullets, or being confronted by special zombies. Some of those can fly, for some reason.
I rarely reach for the strawberry lollipops I find shimmering around the map to recover my health. I chill, instead, and pursue the “Threads” section at Lollipop’s Geocities-style Chop2Shop.zom store, until I realize I’ve had to spend about 100 Platinum Medals to get a Juliet skin that covers her shoulders.
Female protagonists (concept)
Right—about that. I notice immediately that the survival horror-comedy game is conflicted about how its player should see Juliet. She’s got, as she describes it, a “ginormous, fat butt” and is barely legal, so, using video game logic from Dead or Alive, Metal Gear Solid V, or Bayonetta, she should moan her way through bloodshot glamor shots, slipping and falling into victory.
Lollipop tries that approach, on occasion. After her letterman jacket of a boyfriend Nick gets bitten, Juliet uses magic—a prerequisite of any member of her ghoul-slayer family—to stop zombie venom from mushing his brain, and he ends up as a decapitated, talking head.
“Is that a new purse? Wait, it’s your boyfriend!” Juliet’s sister Rosalind says the first time she sees him dangling at Juliet’s side.
Juliet wears Nick like a set of car keys on her waistband, giving the game’s camera a hall pass for peeking up her skirt every time it’s looking at Nick’s face. Lollipop also makes a limp joke out of Juliet’s sensei faceplanting into her chest a couple times, and it allows both enemies and allies to toss nasty catcalls at Juliet without protest.
“I never thought I’d be saved by someone with such great tits,” a classmate I protect from spoiled, dynamite-strapped zombies tells me, swiftly making me regret it. Later, during one full-throttle boss battle, all of which represent a rock subgenre, a zombie asshole with a mohawk uses words—“STUPID COOZE! COCKSUCKER! FUCKING BITCH!”—as attacks that emerge from his mouth and need to be dodged or sawed in half.
I get filth spat at me constantly while walking down the street in my neighborhood, so nothing men say in Lollipop sounds to me like satire. It sounds real, and I can feel butterflies starting to suicide-bomb my stomach.
But aside from these queasy moments, when it feels like the game is insisting to its presumed male audience that it agrees, hot girls are just as lifeless as the zombies getting gored all over Juliet’s hometown, I don’t think Juliet is treated poorly.
Let’s return to how she turned her sweet boyfriend into a literal, tossable, pliable object.
“[Nick’s] literally turned into an accessory, a commodity, and his humanity is denied,” James Gunn said in a 2012 Destructoid interview, “Nick is not only emasculated, he is super emasculated.”
I’m, again, not happy with how uncritically Lollipop engages with this idea. At one point, fed up with being used as a special attack weapon, or glued onto limp zombie bodies to help Juliet fulfill tasks—including one terrible baseball minigame where I have to shoot enemies while reanimated Nick runs the diamond—Nick lashes out: “You took away my choice, Juliet!”
Read More: Lollipop Chainsaw: The Kotaku Review
That line could have been an opportunity for men to, albeit, in a ridiculous context, better understand themselves as part of global violence against women, and for women to be warned of the dangerous allure of accepting patriarchal positions of power, making them sparkle, but keeping them insidious.
Lollipop, instead, shrugs off the loaded line like it’s as inconsequential as a dropped dollar. I learn to forgive it—this is a six-hour game, after all; there isn’t enough time for annihilating sexism and hundreds of ambling zombies—but it sticks with me as I try to process Juliet as a headstrong, complicated person.
Not only is she nimble with her screaming chainsaw, using her cheerleading expertise to flip over and pom-pom punch bad guys, she’s also bilingual, devoted to her family, and, a miracle for any teenager, seems to have a healthy relationship with her sexuality (“Killing zombies gives me total wood,” she says cheerfully).
Like her (relatively) contemporary heroines in 1997 TV series Buffy, 2009 movie Jennifer’s Body, or Gunn’s 2006 directorial debut Slither, Juliet subverts audiences’ expectations for both femininity and attractive women in horror. She declines Carol J. Clover’s formative definition of the Final Girl, which instructs her to be “a male surrogate in things oedipal, a homoerotic stand-in, the audience incorporate,” and instead moves frantically, determinately, with her tits out, like a subject in one of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s delirious music videos.
What it all means
That’s why I see myself in her. And I can’t get over that.
It’s refreshing to play a game that allows its female protagonist to be annoyingly talkative, sexual and competent, romantic and smart. Juliet likes pigtails, little skirts, and Bazooka bubble gum pink, but she’s not a robot—she’ll stop and cry if she wants to, allow herself to be vulnerable when reality sets in.
There’s blood everywhere. There’s a rainbow. She’s a difficult person. Juliet is not easy to categorize, but that’s what makes playing her feel so natural, and yet so unlike all the “girl games” I’ve played before—Flash games that advertised themselves to me with flashing lights, Barbie make-up games, celebrity dress-up, that kind of thing. There was never any death or anything ugly the way there is in Lollipop Chainsaw, though it was always obvious from the way people stared and how my favorite scary movies worked that those were important parts of girlhood, too.
“You hold me down like a magnet / And this is not the life for me / No, this is not,” riot grrrls Bikini Kill sing.
At this moment in gaming, people are arguing about wanting a million Baldur’s Gate 3s—graphically impressive tomes, or second worlds to run to for as long as Mars isn’t viable.
I played Lollipop Chainsaw on a console from 2005, and I know that all I need from games is simple understanding. This womanhood thing is pretty weird, don’t you think? It’s not 24-hour dress-up, a drama-free boudoir, it’s messy and dangerous like the rest of the world.
Lollipop Chainsaw understands that in its heart, and it serves sour gummy worms—fun froth, a zombie-hunter who’s given enough space and accessories to be a zombie-hunter unquestioned.
“I’ve got the love that’s strong and not weak / I’ve got the love that’s strong and not weak,” proclaims Bikini Kill. Juliet’s legacy, more than a decade out from her 18th birthday, is a high point for women in games. She inspires me, makes me laugh, and teaches me that, God, I love killing shit on my Xbox.