Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Strider (Double Helix Games/Capcom, 2014)

Back in middle school, my friends and I used to play a game on the NES called Strider. It was a fairly deep platformer adventure game with some metroidvania elements to it, and dialog that told an interesting sci-fi story of futuristic international espionage. Later, we realized that this was not a port, but a spinoff of an arcade game with a much different play style. A faithful Sega Genesis (or Megadrive if you're outside the US) release of this version gave us an entirely new experience to get lost in. While the arcade title had fewer mazes and backtracking for powerups, it offered a fluid style of acrobatic combat, and a platforming system that let you crawl along any surface, wall, or ceiling to fully explore your environment in a way we'd never seen before. There were a couple of sequels to it, another Genesis release as well as a completely different (and far superior) PS1 game, both simply called Strider 2. After that, the franchise sort of faded into history. Surprisingly, Capcom decided to dust off the series with the help of Double Helix Games to produce an all new adventure, confusingly enough once again called Strider.

With so many earlier games to pull inspiration from, there was some pre-release speculation as to what exactly Strider would be, and how it would feel. Double Helix did a faithful job of drawing inspiration from all of the existing source material, but when it came down to the actual controls it was all about the arcade game. Jumping, climbing, and all around swashbuckling (can you use that term to describe non-pirate related activities?) felt just as smooth and fluid as I remembered from my hours spent with the Genesis port. There's even a nice gravity free area where you really get to fully explore these abilities. The combat also was a faithful reinterpretation with the signature swipe of the Cypher (a futuristic katana) leaving a nice glowing swoosh floating in the air.

The level design on the other hand took a slightly different approach. Most of the games in the Strider series have a more traditional arcade style layout where you simply follow a winding path while killing everything in your way until you get to each stage's boss. The NES game focused more on exploration and backtracking as you collected powerups to get to previously unreachable areas. This game is somewhere in the middle. Each level is fairly large with multiple paths to explore, and upgrades to be found in the deepest reaches. Major powerups are collected as you go allowing you to open previously locked doors or travel in new ways to traverse new areas. There is a bit of backtracking within each area.

The major difference here is that once you've reached the new area, you don't need to return to the previous zone. Instead, the whole process starts up all over again. While playing through Strider, I found myself describing the design as a Metroidvania-lite approach. It makes a good compromise for a game in a series mostly not based on exploration, but needing a bit of modernization to thrive in todays console/PC game market. I'd say fans of the NES release and the arcade ports will both feel satisfied by this approach.

The story of Strider is sort of a reimagining of the original game. Being an arcade cabinet release, the original was pretty light on text and presented the basic premise that in the Russian inspired futuristic dystopia of Kazakh City, a man named Hiryu,a member of an elite organization known as Striders, has to overthrow an oppressive dictator named Grandmaster Melo. The NES port's slower pace managed to fill in the story a bit more, and this new release draws on all of the previous lore and expands upon it.

The characters are as over the top as I remember. This is a futuristic fantasy story more than an attempt at gritty realism. A number of assassins have been sent to stop Hiryu from completing his mission. These provide both entertaining cut scenes and challenging boss battles. Each has a distinctly different form of attack, and sometimes more than one must be faced at a time. Other classic boss encounters also resurface including my personal favorite, the incredible battle against the giant flying mechanical dragon that you both ride and attack at the same time. It was impressive in 2D sprite form decades ago, and it works even better as smoothly animated polygons. But you're not entirely alone in these fights, as in the original, you still collect small helper drones along the way that fight beside you as you go.

One aspect that needs to be mentioned is the overall length of the game. While this is easily the longest game in the Strider series, it's still much shorter than many modern titles. If you're looking forward to digging into a 20 hour adventure, you may be disappointed to reach the end after about five hours. Then again, if you're staring at the bottomless abyss of your sprawling Steam library and looking for something relatively quick to knock out, this might be a perfect choice!

Strider's visual presentation is also a matter of taste. As a longtime fan of the series, I was blown away by the detailed reimagining of the familiar environments. Kazakh City has never looked better! The problem some have with it however is that the entire game takes place in similar futuristic industrial environments, and while they are fairly varied between each other, there's never a really dramatic contrast. Still, it looks and sounds great. The music is just as top notch as ever, and the voice acting brings the characters to life without feeling like a cartoon.

So, what is Strider, and who is it for? That's a difficult question to answer. It's not an arcade brawler or an RPG platformer, it's not a sprawling metroidvania or a speedrunner's playground. Strider really tries to find it's own balance and offer something fresh without trying to invent anything completely new. As far as single sitting games go, I thoroughly enjoyed Strider as it drew inspiration from several genres I'm already a fan of and wrapped it around a nice chunk of nostalgia from my childhood. While your mileage may vary, I'd recommend checking it out if you're a fan of any of these styles of gameplay.

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