[24 March 2014]
Strider in 2014 has one thing in common with Strider in 1990 (specifically the Sega Genesis version): timing.
The Genesis version of Strider—to date, the most famous and celebrated version of the game—is a perfectly solid platformer of its time. As arcade translations go, it was quite impressive, the graphics were impressively flashy, and while the game might not have been all that long, its difficulty was tuned just enough to extend the game’s life without feeling terribly punishing. You could brute force your way through it, but it was the sort of game that was more fun if you could conquer it with style. All of this is to say that it’s a perfectly decent game on its own merits.
Still, Strider on the Sega Genesis really made the splash that it did because of the three words in capital letters emblazoned on the golden medallion on the front of the box: “8 MEGA MEMORY”. As the first eight megabit game, it carried with it an enormous amount of hype and expectation and was geared toward a public who was very ready to have experiences in their homes that could compare closely with the ones that they had in their local arcades. Even a $70+ price tag didn’t matter when you could be the first on your block to have a game with eight giant megabits of memory. By being essentially alone in its weight class, Strider was born a champion.
While the 2014 edition of Strider certainly can’t claim to have more firepower in technological terms than its peers, it does have the benefit of a public starved for games to play on its new machines. Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are suffering from a typical launch-window lack of quality in their current game selection.
Double Helix has already shown that it can revive a classic franchise with a large amount of skill via the extremely playable Killer Instinct, a game whose notoriety as a free-to-play product unfortunately overshadows its tight pinpoint controls and graphics beautifully updated for the current generation. Killer Instinct is a game that manages to look like it’s moving faster than other games while simultaneously having a low barrier to entry, which is no small trick to pull off. Double Helix, in turn, is the perfect developer for something like Strider, a game whose genre has very little place in a modern gaming marketplace.
Strider isn’t just fun. It feels relevant.
What Double Helix manages to do with Strider is to take the game’s early-‘90s mechanics and style and update it with the sorts of touches more commonly found in AAA behind-the-back third-person action games (think Ninja Gaiden or Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance). The swordplay of Strider Hiryu is at the fore, as it should be, and the success of the player will have everything to do with the way the player learns the timing and the strength of the game’s trademark half-oval sword swipe. The sword can be charged with a long button-press; it can also be upgraded to swat bullets back at the enemy. Hiryu will eventually gain kunai (throwing stars that both unlock doors and slice up baddies) and a smattering of special attacks that double as methods of transportation.
None of these are terribly surprising elements of a video game arsenal, but like the best modern action games, what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it. The God of War games can be beaten on all but the hardest modes by simply running through the game and hammering one of the attack buttons (bosses and puzzles excepted, of course). It can quickly turn into an exercise in tedium if that’s your approach. Finding new and creative ways to eviscerate the game’s many enemies while avoiding damage altogether is where the challenge and most of the fun lies.
Rarely do you ever absolutely have to parry a bullet. Apart from a couple of barrier-driven mini-puzzles, you’ll almost always be able to absorb enough damage to run through the bullets and take out whatever’s shooting them. Still, when you start to get so used to the animations of the enemies and mounted guns that you can tell down to the frame when they’re going to fire, it just starts happening, almost as a reflex. You’ll start parrying bullets back at whatever’s shooting them, you’ll start sliding under laser fire, and you’ll start boosting yourself into position to make a difficult jump. One thing a video game can’t effectively simulate without gimmicks like bullet-time is superhuman reflexes—the actions of your avatar are inextricably tied to your own button-pushes, after all. Strider actually makes you feel superhuman—if you put the time into learning its systems. You’re so much more than just a very powerful pillow that can absorb as many bullets as the baddies throw at you.
Strider is also a game in which exploration is not necessary, but it’s greatly encouraged, especially if you want to go into the final battles with the largest health bar possible and a full arsenal of powers. Again, you can get by with the bare minimum, hardly having to look at the game’s map at all, but to do so is to miss some of the game’s most devious and difficult platforming challenges. The cookies you get for conquering those challenges is nice, but the fun is in the challenges themselves.
None of these approaches hide the fact that Strider is very much a game of a bygone era. My first run through the game even revealed a couple of old-school-style glitches (one where I was trapped in the walls and one particularly bothersome one where the game didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I beat the first iteration of the final boss at the exact same time as he beat me). If you’re the type of player who is intensely averse to retro-style experiences, you probably won’t get anything out of it. You should probably also avoid it if sketchy voice acting makes your neck hair stand on end.
Still, there is an excitement to the action in this game that makes it feel like so much more than a mere nostalgia trip. It’s a beautiful, slick little game that just happens to be the perfect way to kill some time while you wait for the next big blockbuster on your brand new system.