Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Strider Hiryu, the secondmost awesome ninja of the 80s



Japanese arcade games were awesome back in the late 80s. One of the biggest and most prolific manufacturers of such games was Capcom, a company which occasionally would partner up with external creative talent during the design process.

One of these partnerships was with manga artist collective Moto Kikaku, a joint venture which resulted in a six part manga and two games about a ninja organisation called «Strider», focusing on the group's youngest Class-A ranked operative: Strider Hiryu.


Revolutionary platformer


One of these games was merely an average NES action adventure, but the other one was an arcade game of the highest caliber, with very innovative gameplay for its time.

It was the first game where you could traverse the landscape ninja-style, by running, hanging from and climbing on walls, ceilings and even some of the game's many large and well designed enemies.

The game's producer was the relatively inexperienced Kouichi "Isuke" Yotsui, who until then had primarily done graphic design on other Capcom titles like «Bionic Commando» and «Ghouls'n Ghosts».

He was the mastermind behind the game's groundbreaking platform mechanics, and allegedly got the idea after locking himself on the roof of the Capcom building, thus being forced to find creative ways of getting back down.


«Star Wars» and communists


«Strider» takes place in a future where the Eurasian continents are ruled by the sinister Grand Master Meio, an evil overlord who uses the same tailor as Emperor Palpatine from «Star Wars».

There are quite a few nods to «Star Wars» in this game. You will be hunted by a flying bounty hunter who strongly resembles Boba Fett, and Hiryu's sword looks lightsabery when he swings it. Incidentally, Kouichi Yotsui studied film at the university of Tokyo under the tutelage of a professor named Yoda, so there is a chance he may actually be a Jedi.

«Strider» was released during the cold war when communists were politically acceptable bad guys, so you fight many Russian soldiers. But the enemy roster also includes mecha gorillas, dinosaurs and murderous kung-fu ballerinas. As you slice your way through the Eurasian army, collecting the power-ups they leave behind, you are joined by a menagerie of mechanized helpers, including a robot hawk and an awesome mecha panther.


A multitude of conversions


The arcade version of «Strider» was graphically highly polished and well done for its age, and had many varied and impressive set pieces ranging from the golden domes of Khazak City and the cold steppes of Siberia, to the jungles of the Amazon and the game's epic climax on a moon base.

As such it was quite a challenge converting it to the relatively humble console and home computer systems of the era. The most critically acclaimed conversion was the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis version, which was available worldwide and sold very well.

But the version which came closest to the arcade original was for the Sharp X68000, a high end 16-bit computer which was mostly sold in Japan, and which incidentally was also the platform Capcom used for developing games at the time.

The company responsible for most of the western conversions: U.S. Gold, also tried their hand at creating a highly unofficial sequel aimed at western markets, where Strider Hiryu was changed into a pony-tailed spandex commando with a gun. It is not very fondly remembered.


Hammertime!


Kouichi Yotsui left Capcom shortly after the release of «Strider». After a period of experimental game making for Takeru – a company started by other Capcom defectors – he was eventually hired by Mitchell Corporation.

Here he was the producer for «Osman» (known as «Cannon-Dancer» in the East) a game released in 1996, and by many considered to be the true spiritual successor to «Strider».

«Osman» - like «Strider» - is an enjoyable platformer set against the backdrop of a futuristic dystopia. But since Mitchell Corporation didn't own the rights to the «Strider» characters, Strider Hiryu was replaced by a slightly less awesome protagonist in the form of a brawler wearing MC Hammer's baggy-pants.


Official sequel


In 1998 Strider Hiryu resurfaced once again, this time as a character in «Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes», one of many 2D fighting games produced in the wake of the immense success of «Street Fighter II».

«Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes»
The official «Strider 2» was released the year after, coinciding with the ten year anniversary of the original. This time the action takes place two millennia into the future, where Grand Master Meio has risen from the grave and taken control of the entire planet. Luckily Hiryu also returns from beyond to kick more evil overlord ass.

«Strider 2» combined a 3D play-field with traditional 2D sprites, and thus became one of the first 2.5D platformers, which later have become a genre of their own.

It was released in arcades on Sony ZN-2 hardware, which essentially is a PlayStation with ROM-chips instead of an optical drive. As a consequence of the somewhat limited 3D capabilities of early Playstation tech, the sequel was graphically not as crisp and clean as its 2D predecessor, but the extra dimension made it pretty cool nonetheless.

«Strider 2» was converted perfectly to the PS1 the next year, where it was bundled together with the original. It was generally well received, although some critics found it a bit lacking in length.


Going under ground and moon diving


Afterwards, Hiryu crept back into the shadows, which is poetically fitting as he is after all a ninja. With the exception of sporadic guest appearances in other Capcom games like «Marvel vs. Capcom 2» from the Dreamcast era and «Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3» for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the character has mostly kept a low profile through the years.

Swedish developers Grin, were at one point rumoured to be working on a reboot of the franchise, but the project was cancelled when one of their other reboot projects: «Bionic Commando», failed to generate sufficient profit.

In 2011 Square Enix released a game called «Moon Diver», which bears a striking resemblance to «Strider». This likeness is due to the fact that Kouichi Yotsui was once again part of the development team, this time as a hired consultant. Unfortunately - although it has some retro charm, combined with contemporary RPG elements and multiplayer - «Moon Diver» fails to deliver an experience as compelling as its more focused and to-the-point arcade precursors.

As such, when it was announced that another reboot had been green-lit, this time with American developers Double Helix Games at the helm, I must admit to being somewhat skeptical.


Return of the ninja master


Japanese box cover for the new «Strider»
Departing from the formula of its arcade predecessors, which were all about swiftly and violently cutting your way from point A to point B, the new «Strider» is a "Metroidvania".

This means lots of backtracking to previously visited locations and hunting for upgrades to unlock inaccessible areas.

It does however NOT mean that sword swinging or other ninja related shenanigans are out.

As soon as Hiryu leaps from his hang-glider outside Kazakh City, dashes forward and cuts through the first enemy foot-soldiers like a hot knife through melted butter, the feeling of being in the ninja-slippers of a fast, agile and elegant killing machine is immediately apparent.

Hiryu retains all his moves from the first game, and covers ground at the same speed and intensity as in the sequel. It is positively heartwarming how faitfully close to the originals the feel and handling of the character has been kept.

For instance, one of the things which could easily have been lost in translation are Hiryu's lightning fast sword swipes and immediate response to attack-button presses. This enables sword-cutting combinations at a speed only limited by the player's physical ability to maintain a constant barrage of button mashes. And mash buttons you must in order to get through some of the more challenging areas.


Controller-melting action


Being able to spam attacks is not enough however. You must also master maneuverability and precision, as the game has quite a few sections which demand expert timing and knowledge of enemy movement patterns.

This is particularly true for boss-fights. I have no idea how many times I attempted the final showdown vs. Grand Master Meio before beating him, but during this fight my controller got so hot that the glue which held the serial-number sticker on the backside in place dissolved.


Minor nitpicking and legacy


Regrettably the «Strider» reboot is not perfect, as it has some irritating length-padding and a few areas which are somewhat dull and uninspired in their design. Specifically, there is a long section which takes place in a grayish sewer where you mostly fight boring crabs and flip switches.


To put things into perspective: In the original when you came to this point in the game, you would be in a verdant jungle, swinging from vines and fighting dinosaurs. The new «Strider» as a result - despite the fact that it can be completed in less than six hours - is a game which could have been even better if the fat had been trimmed further... And the dinosaur count perhaps increased just a little...

Unfortunately, the current video game industry seems reluctant to publish games which can be completed in a single sitting. Personally I prefer a short and sweet experience rather than something that is overcooked and drawn out.

But «Strider» is by no means the worst offender in this regard. In fact, it is a fine example of how to update a classic to make it feel both nostalgic and freshly invigorating at the same time.

There is also little doubt that «Strider» has made its mark on gaming. Today, practically every platformer allows you to wall-jump and cling to surfaces, and whether it is retro indie games like «Super Meat Boy» or modern AAA-titles like «Assassin’s Creed», most of them have taken a page or two from the book of Strider Hiryu.

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