Strider 1 & 2 (import)

Format: PlayStation
Published by: Capcom
Based on: Its own innate genius

Genre: 2D Platformer
Media: Double CD-ROM
Date: Feb. 24, 2000 (J)/May 30, 2000 (US)

Dream a dream of the Third Moon

While most of you whelps probably first became acquainted with uber-ninja Strider Hiryu through the manic insanity of Marvel Vs. Capcom, the crustier members of the videogaming audience recall his original eponymous arcade adventure from a decade ago, likely with equal parts fondness and frustration. Strider (aka Strider Hiryu in Japan) was one of those great games designed in Capcom's golden era of freaking-hard pre-Street-Fighter-II arcade sidescrollers, standing proudly alongside such classics as Black Tiger, Magic Sword and Bionic Commando. In fact, Strider was arguably the best of the bunch (arguably, I said - which doesn't mean I necessarily WANT to argue, thanks), with great graphics, inventive gameplay challenges, and huge enemy bosses vaguely reminiscent of Megaman. The story didn't make a whole lot of sense - although it was unique in its use of voice samples, which were low-quality and multi-lingual but pretty impressive in those primitive days of yore.

And now there's a sequel - a real sequel, see sidebar for an ugly touch of history - and it's a right dandy reinterpretation of the ol' classic. While the Grandmaster's sampled threat from the first game ("Strider Hiryu... he will never leave Eurasia alive!") is depressingly true for the arcade incarnation of Strider 2, the happy news is that the Playstation version of the game managed to cross the border into America. And to make gamers' knees even wobblier with delight, it was packed with a (near-)perfect port of the first game as well.

Strider was a short but soul-crushingly hard game. It was designed that way intentionally, because as an arcade title it was supposed to suck as many quarters from your pocket as possible. The result is a game that is set up in little bursts of challenge; each of the game's four levels is divided by frequent checkpoints. Progress is often difficult, and the challenge level is merciless, but you never lose too much advancement in the game when you bite the dust. The result is a curse-inducing but hypnotically addictive game with a variety of enemies and environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, where success is doled out in little chunks of pure stick-and-carrot enticement. The story is advanced between stages in almost nonsensically bizarre blurbs of text, but the real incentive to keep dropping in those precious shiny tokens is seeing what sort of cool experiences lay ahead.

Hiryu starts his mission with an apparent assassination on the Soviet Politburo, which has been replaced with a big mechanical centipede wielding an amusing sickle and hammer (this was the '80s, remember, and Russians were always going to be the bad guys). He then travels on through the Siberian wilderness, into an airship, through the Amazon jungles and finally out into space to defeat the evil Grandmaster, a maniacal fiend who has devised some sort of diabolical scheme to destroy the world which apparently involves laughing at Hiryu a lot and causing pirranhas to materialize out of thin air. Along the way, the hero dukes it out with giant robotic apes, mechanical dragons, dinosaurs, half-naked Amazons, reverse-gravity chambers and Chinese acrobats (who are inexplicably guarding a military transport). It doesn't make a lot of sense, but by crackie it's cool.

It's not perfect, though; the play control is terribly unforgiving as Hiryu jumps a bit like the Belmonts of old - there's no changing your mind about trivialities like "direction" once you're pressed that jump button. Enemies are relentless, though once you figure out all the patterns you can breeze through the game in less than half an hour. But your first time through will be a self-esteem-crippling challenge which will cost you the equivalent of many dollars in Continues. And unfortunately, the PSX port of the game is not quite flawless - my game froze up the first time I made it to Grandmaster, which was very frustrating. In fact, it's the first game-crippling bug I've seen on a console outside of trying to Sketch an Intangir or trying to boot Suikoden II. It may have been just a fluke, but it's still enough to make me crabby.

As for Strider 2, it manages to take everything cool about the first game and kick it up a notch. This does not involve adding excessive spices to the game, but it does involve following the general flow of the original game and making everything about it several times more extravagant. The first and most welcome change is the fact that Hiryu controls smooth as butter now, with a new double-jump, the ability to cling to practically any surface, a super-boost attack, a running dash attack and the ability to change direction in midair. These changes are all for the best, as the action is completely wild here. If Strider was akin to Street Fighter II in its slow, methodical challenge, this is more like a Versus game with dozens of enemies attacking, projectiles flying everywhere, and Hiryu throwing himself about with abandon. This is particularly true in the later stages where gravity-flipping (or zero-G) comes into play.

The graphics here are simultaneously good and bad, with nicely-constructed polygonal backgrounds adding some cool angles and a touch o' sweeping grandeur to the proceedings (despite the 3D graphics, the gameplay is pure 2D action, which should make you loveable purists giggle girlishly). The character and objects are all sprite-based, however, and thanks to the zany RAM limitations of the Playstation they tend to pixellate like the cast of Xenogears. Luckily, the action here is much - much - faster than in Xenogears (except that hidden scene where Hiryu sits in a chair under a spotlight for half an hour of soliloquy), and there are tons of enemies attacking at once from all sides - even from the distant background at times. So really, there's little time to dwell on those blocky bits. After a while you don't even notice it anymore (except on those 10,000-point blue chips bosses leave behind - ick). And if you're lucky or foolish enough to own a PlayStation 2, the texture smoothing feature does wonders to make the game look incredible; so even though Kengo sucked, your $300 investment wasn't completely wasted.

There are some inter-stage static cinemas as well, which tell the game's basic story with high-resolution manga-style drawings. These add a lot more visual flair than some hack-job CG cinemas would and help the game maintain a swell anime flavor. At times, the gameplay and cinemas are almost reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden.

Or they would be, if not for the fact that this game is nowhere near as hard as Ninja Gaiden. Like Strider, this was intended to be a quarter-sucker, so you'll bite the dust a lot. However, unlike Strider or Ninja Gaiden, there's no real penalty for dying, as you can simply continue and get along with the game from the exact point where you left off. Furthermore, you no longer lose a life when you fall into a pit, just a point of life energy (furthermore, there are no 1-Ups in this game; you get one life per "quarter"). The game difficulty can be boosted to ridiculous proportions, a timer can be added, and your energy meter can be restricted to a lower limit if you want, but ultimately these options only affect your final Strider Rank. Playing a game for points is a bit of a foreign concept to home gamers these days, but don't be frightened. Back in my day we used to do it all the time (yadda yadda yadda...)

However, in my tremendously un-humble opinion, the lack of challenge isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is a brief and extremely enjoyable game, so there's little pain in sitting though multiple plays. Additionally, there are a few secrets to be unlocked based on various criteria - one secret character, and one secret level. Both add a bit of variety to the game (although playing through as the secret character is almost too easy, and there are no cinemas for that character's trip through the game). More I dare not say, or I'll suffer all kinds of angry rants about spoilers and crap.

Including the secret stage, the game has only 6 levels, but each one is broken up into multiple sections with tons of mid-bosses, taking on the feel of a Treasure game, or something like Contra Hard Corps. The constant variety of enemy types (everything from those darned Chinese acrobats, to a fetus in a nuclear reactor, to Mario Van Peebles as Solo - really!) receives my full endorsement as The Good Stuff™. If there's one shortcoming to this it's that the Playstation's RAM limits and slow CD drive cause a jarring loading time between each sub-section of a stage with no real transition, often making the stages feel like a disjointed collection of action sequences. There's an overall flow to events, but the jump from battling a jetpack trooper near a giant satellite dish to duking it out on a line of hovercars can be rather abrupt.

On the plus side, the game is mildly non-linear; you can choose from several stages to begin with, unlocking later levels as you clear the available ones. All in all, this isn't just some crappy cash-in on a retro title with little relation to the first game; likewise, despite the similarities in missions and certain scenes between the two games, it's not just a cheap overhaul of the original title. Capcom catches a lot of flak for their sequel-mania, but if they hold up to this standard, I say bring 'em on. And if you've got a problem with that, all I can say is: "You dare fight me? Wah hah hah hah!"

Super Saiyajin Hiryu has no compunctions about kicking butt and taking names! When Hiryu powers up he bides his time before flying into space and annhilating an entire planet simply by making the veins in his enormous forehead bulge. OK, not really, but at least we know now that Toriyama digs Strider.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hiryu: Once again, Hiryu takes out his frustrations on Chinese acrobats, This time, though, he fights them by leaping across moving airborne vehicles. There is no, repeat no truth to the rumor that this takes place on the road to the Toran Republic 1,000 years in the future.

"Rank E" is Japanese for "you suck": Yes, few people have seen anything like this in nearly a decade, but Strider 2 is a game which you play primarily to acquire a really big score. Based on the fact that I'm incapable of scoring above Rank E, it seems that 10 years of effete objective-based gaming has made me soft and weak.