When people think of ambitious arcade-to-NES conversions, Capcom is usually the first developer to come to mind. Admittedly, they weren’t the only publisher whose NES versions of hot arcade games were less ports than reinventions, but they were certainly the least circumspect about it. Mediocre coin-op titles like Section-Z and Bionic Commando became genuine classics thanks to the company’s diligent efforts to rework them to make better use of the NES’s nature. Capcom tends to get less credit than they really deserve, though, because of a single glaring flaw in their adaptation track record: Strider.
The problem is, Strider wasn’t the arcade conversion most people assume it was. Rather, it was a single prong of Capcom’s first-ever multimedia assault, and the NES game was developed in parallel to the arcade game rather than in its wake. That probably should have been obvious at the time, since both the home and coin-op versions arrived within months of each other. But given Capcom’s standard modus operandi, it was easy to assume that Strider was just another faithless home conversion, and one much worse than its predecessors at that.
Not so. The NES version of Strider was created as a companion to Tetsuo Shiba and Tatsumi Wada’s manga serial Strider Hiryu, which was published throughout 1988. The arcade version had practically nothing to do with the manga; it was directed by Kouichi Yotsui and -- aside from starring a sword-swinging future ninja named Hiryu and beginning in what is now a former Soviet state -- was completely divorced from the original tale. The NES game, on the other hand, was closely tied to the comic, following Hiryu’s adventures as he traveled to Kazakh in search of an abducted comrade, Kain, ultimately pitting the hero against his treacherous boss, Matic.
At its heart, the NES adaptation of Strider is a commendable effort. Its structure is somewhere between that of a traditional platformer and a free-roaming adventure. Hiryu operates from an orbital space station, teleporting across the world in search of clues to Kain’s whereabouts and the plot that subsequently unfolds. Each location is a self-contained level that can be explored freely, and certain doors as well as new global locations are unlocked as Hiryu uncovers keys and clues. The Strider can return to his homebase and travel at will between the game’s different areas, and in fact it’s occasionally necessary to backtrack to cleared levels in search of new abilities and items. There’s a rudimentary plot that unfolds over the course of the game, which keeps things interesting even if it is the exact same “your boss is a traitor” story seen in countless other NES games (Metal Gear, Codename: Viper, etc. etc.).
The raw ingredients for greatness are all present in Strider, so why does the game command such a terrible reputation? The problem is that it’s horribly made. The game feels entirely unfinished, a raw and awkward action platformer well beneath Capcom’s normal standards of excellence. The visuals are subpar, from the primitive backdrops to Hiryu’s lame two-frame run cycle. The music is catchy, but the sound effects are grating and fit the action poorly. Worst of all, the controls are unspeakably terrible. Hiryu jumps sloppily, with little sense of gravity or finesse—an especially grievous failing in light of the fact that many levels require the use of a wall jump to progress. Strider’s finicky controls make Super Metroid’s wall jump feel like the easiest and most intuitive thing in the world.
Strider’s poor programming even comes through in sequences without action; there’s a clumsy delay before most events, similar to disc loading time. Flagged items and characters tend to pop in after a second of inaction, and the game actually pauses momentarily before switching to screens of white text on blank black when important items are collected. Loading time on a cartridge isn’t entirely unheard of, but usually it’s only seen in extremely complex or extremely amateurish games. Strider certainly isn’t the former, which gives it the feel of the latter.
Strider’s shoddy feel makes it appear to be the poor cousin to its arcade counterpart, which was a frankly shallow game that won hearts with its stylish graphics, tight yet varied controls, and gorgeous animation. These two very different takes on Strider seem to have been developed in relative isolation, but one has to wonder by whom? Yotsui’s involvement in the arcade side of things has suddenly come to light over the past few months -- no doubt a calculated move meant to build awareness for his new Strider-esque action game Necromachina -- but the story behind the NES game remains obscure. Unlike Capcom’s questionable early games, it appears to have been developed in-house: The music was composed in part by “Mrs. Tarumi” of Bionic Commando and Mega Man 3, and Masamitsu “Mamicyan” Kobayashi has a credit for programming—or perhaps “bears the blame” would be more fitting, given the poor state of the final product. Kobayashi is also credited on several of Capcom’s less inspiring early NES titles like Commando and Pirate Ship Higemaru, which perhaps accounts for why Strider feels so rough.
Although it’s hardly without merits, Strider felt painfully lacking next to its brilliant arcade counterpart even in its day; the compelling freedom to explore its world wasn’t really enough to offset its rough construction and insipid visuals. Yotsui’s take on the concept was dazzling and exotic, pitting Hiryu against a rapid succession of creative challenges -- robot apes and exploding mountains and machines that reversed gravity -- and was seasoned with tantalizing wisps of story voiced in a number of different languages. By comparison, the NES game felt flat and apathetic.
Perhaps it’s most telling that despite being a tie-in with a Japan-only manga, the NES version of Strider never saw release on Famicom. Despite a few early demos and promotions for a Japanese edition of the game, it remained exclusive to the U.S.; Japanese gamers had to settle for beautiful, faithful arcade adaptations for Mega Drive and PC Engine Duo. Instead, it seems Capcom used that release slot in its Nintendo-mandated annual publishing allowance to publish Sweet Home, the spiritual predecessor to Resident Evil, widely considered an adventure gaming masterpiece. Which is kind of the NES/Famicom relationship in a nutshell: Even when Japan missed out on a game, they still came out ahead.
Based on: A mad scheme to create multimedia synergy between comics, games, and god knows what else -- not based on the arcade game.