Discussion Review: Strider

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

Strider

Matt: It doesn’t seem to be remembered alongside many of the other classics of the 80s and 90s, but in my early development as a gamer Strider was just as important as the Zeldas, Marios, Metroids, Metal Gears and Sonics of the world. Apparently Capcom forgot about the series for a while as well considering the last installment came out way back in 2000. Playable appearances in games like Marvel vs. Capcom and Namco × Capcom aside, Strider Hiryu hasn’t had his own game in nearly 15 years. But finally he is back. Better than ever? I would say so, yes.

Much like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Capcom has turned to a Western developer for this retro reboot, tasking Double Helix Games with resurrecting the legendary ninja assassin for the modern age of PCs, PS3s, PS4s, Xbox 360s and Xbox Ones. The results are once again pretty damn awesome. Strider still feels like Strider from many years ago, only with some modern touches and a shiny new coat of polygonal paint to make the experience current.

True to its arcade roots, story is the last thing you should be playing Strider for. I had to look in the “How to Play” section of the options menu just to find some semblance of a backstory. From the little blurb of text provided, I can tell you that Strider Hiryu has been sent to Kazakh City on a mission to take down the tyrannical Grand Master Meio. And, well, that’s pretty much all you need to know. The game doesn’t even go so far as to show some form of introductory sequence, the mission simply begins with a cutscene of Strider hang-gliding into the city. The lack of storytelling isn’t anything to harp on, but the game sure could use a personality implant. From what little dialog there is, all of the characters come across as dull and lifeless, Mr. Hiryu most of all sadly enough.

Fortunately, you won’t give two shits about Strider’s lame characterization because the game is just so damn fun to play. True to his name, Strider runs, jumps, slides, flips, climbs, slashes and dashes in 2D side-scrolling fashion through an interconnected “Metroidvania” world with such steady pacing, fluid animation, and ease of control. In fact, moving Strider from map to map is so effortless that sprinting by enemies and avoiding battle altogether is almost too easy an option at times. Combat happens to be a lot of fun, though, so passing over the chance to slice through a squad of grunts or swat a flying combat droid out of the air isn’t something you’re likely to do unless you’re working on a speed run.

Like any Metroidvania-style game, the steady progression of ability unlocks provides a satisfying reward loop which holds your interest through the final boss. Initially, Strider’s move set is as basic as a video game hero can have: he can jump, and he can attack with his plasma blade known as the Cypher. Before long he becomes gifted with new acrobatic abilities such as the age-old double-jump, a ground slide, and a dash move. His combat skills expand to include ranged Kunai and special “Option” powers that allow him to summon a flaming eagle or icy jaguar for devastating special attacks. Different plasma types introduce an additional layer of reflex- and recognition-based combat strategy. Over the course of the game the Cypher becomes modified with various elemental properties. With precise timing, the default plasma allows Strider to swat projectiles back at enemies with his Cypher. Additionally, the ice plasma freezes enemies, the fire plasma lights enemies ablaze, and the magnetic plasma shoots out projectile blades like boomerangs. The effects of the Kunai change with each plasma so that they ricochet off walls or can be used as explosive sticky bombs or magnetic homing missiles. Eventually enemies will also begin to carry shields that can only be destroyed by the corresponding color-coded plasma type, forcing you into tricky situations of having to switch back and forth between elemental affinities in the heat of battle.

The plasma types also influence exploration as certain doors and obstacles throughout the sprawling world can only be unlocked by a specific power, which means you will constantly be passing by areas you initially can’t reach but will return to later on. Backtracking does play a small role, but really only if you go out of your way to find all of the optional collectibles. The main objective progression does an excellent job of keeping you on a focused path through the game without forcing you to retrace your steps, stumped trying to remember where that ice door you passed by an hour ago is. The pacing is so fast that, should you follow the objective marker explicitly, the game can easily be beaten within three or four hours. However, the world has enough secret areas and optional collectibles (health/energy bar extenders, concept art, alternate costumes, etc.) that achieving 100% should double the play time for most players. For me, finding all collectibles and getting 100% achievements required two playthroughs and close to 12 hours. Wave survival and beacon run side modes are provided for extra value and arcade high score appeal, though I haven’t cared to play them much.

So, what did you make of Strider‘s return, Stephen?

Stephen: To me Strider never really left, but he was also never a character I remembered all that well from the games where he had a starring role. A better way to put that may be to say that I have more familiarity with Strider from the crossover games than from the few actual arcade and home releases with “Strider” on the box. He always struck me as Ryu Hayabusa – aka the Ninja Gaiden ninja – with a scarf. Every major Japanese company needs at least one ninja guy, and Capcom had this one, and even a bonus ninja guy named Guy.

At one point a few years ago I had decided to see what this Strider was all about, probably out of a realization I was never going to get any better at Marvel vs. Capcom 2, but I could at least know more about the blue and red ninja in it who is usually paired with Dr. Doom  to execute the famed Strider/Doom combo. To that end I bought a used copy of the original PlayStation game Strider 2 and was done with it in a day, with the inclusion of the unlockable original arcade game. From that I got that Strider is a red and blue ninja who can climb on walls, does jumps where he cartwheels in the air and swings a kind of energy sword in an arc in front of him. It did not make a huge impression. The only reason I could recognize the opening music in this new game as the Strider theme is that that is the music that plays when it is Strider’s turn to move in Namco x Capcom. And as a very brief aside, I do not know if it says something about his popularity as a character relative to all of the other Capcom and Namco characters, but he does not show up in that game until about two dozen hours in. By comparison, Wonder Momo – high kicks and all – shows up in the first few hours. I have read the NES version is very different from the arcade release and given my experience with this 2014 Strider, I think I might go back and check that out.

I should start out by saying that I cannot remember the last game that swang for me as hard from hate to love. After Strider drops into off-brand USSR on a hang glider and the nostalgic intro fanfare plays, this game is dull as cream paint. White paint might be neat, you can mix it with other things to get softer versions of those colors, but this is slightly off and warmly inoffensive, basic white. With no introduction beyond a map that basically says “go here,” there is not much of an incentive to do anything. Proceeding to “go there,” Strider animates well. He can swing his sword in a nice arc and runs with his hand in front of his face in a ninja pose all Strider-like and does cartwheel jumps enough to make one say “Yep, that’s a polygonal Strider.” The first backgrounds are not particularly interesting and the enemies are boring. There are little robot helicopters that can shoot red beams of light and dozens of the same robot soldiers that never seem to move and also fire red beams of light. Maybe it is my fault for expecting something different playing on the hardest setting but he seemed to die quickly in the hail of bullets that groups of three or more enemies would put out. This was not the ninja terror assassin powerhouse I vaguely remember and have heard others wax nostalgic. I had read that the game had unlockables and the first could not have been more of a disappointment: the ability to kick dive through heating vents. I really did not want to play any more of this after the first thirty or forty minutes.

But websites need content so I pressed on, and I am glad I did. It is difficult for me to say at what point it clicked and I got how great a game this is. It was not the collectibles, because there are a bunch of new and old Metriodvania games out there, well over a dozen actual Metroid games and 2D Castlevanias post Symphony of the Night, and finding all of the health upgrades has lost some of its charm over the years. It largely has to do with how well the upgrades improve what Strider can do. One upgrade that I really liked was the Robot Eagle. At first I thought it was merely an item that let Strider transport to another “plane” of the same level, another similar-looking series of rooms and corridors that are parallel to the other 2D plane he can run in (though there is no interaction between the two). What it is actually useful for is to summon the Eagle to do a delayed powerful attack across a slightly parabolic line covering a large part of the screen, possibly damaging multiple enemies (and usually destroying lesser minions). The utility of this comes from the half second delay as it is possible to hit the summon in midair and then fall or do a double jump to dodge or move to attack additional enemies. It effectively allows Strider to be in two places at once. Strider can always do one charge attack or a series of smaller slashes, but with the Dipolar Saucer (aka, Magic Lanterns or Oroboros) he can protect himself from some attacks and shoot smaller ring shaped projectiles whenever his sword is swung. It can be very satisfying to wait for a boss or large enemy to be vulnerable, and then summon these and jam on the attack button, sending forth a hail of slashes and projectiles.

The other thing that makes this game unique is that Strider from the outset can climb on virtually any surface.  Samus at one point in a few games gets some kind of ball that allows her to roll on walls, but Strider doesn’t have to transform, he just whips out some climbing handaxes and gets it done. This means that the typical limits on mobility in these kinds of side-scrollers is gone. Looking at a big wall is no longer an obstacle, it is an opportunity for exploration as he can climb it and not be resigned to seeking out some other room that will allow him to climb it on the opposite side with a series of jumps. This makes advancement less tedious as the tops of platforms no longer rule the day and also opens up the game world in a way I have not seen before as Strider can stop climbing to jump around or use his attacks in mid-climb. His exploration feels more dynamic as he can attach to and attack from every surface, provided it is not covered in spikes or electricity. Climbing also helps in some boss battles as there are a few instances where a ninja boss gal is slashing the entire bottom of a room. It is possible to jump over some attacks and deflect the rest of the bullets, it’s also possible to just hang on the ceiling while her attack animations play out. I do not think that is how Double Helix wanted me to finish one fight in particular, but it worked.

While it is a slog at first, I cannot recommend enough playing this game initially on the highest difficulty level available. It should be possible on Normal, and certainly on Easy, to flail the sword and just soak up bullets and still make it to the end. Button mashing to win would let much of the charm of this new Strider title evaporate.  Keep it on hard, keep those juices in. Some of the boss fights can be very challenging as they seem to do far more damage than they receive, but any alumnus from the Mega Man Institute of Boss Pattern Recognition should not have a great deal of trouble. Additionally, players at this setting will have to use all of the options and plan their attacks very quickly to avoid taking damage from bosses or just larger groups of regular enemies. There are a few sections which take place in generic, locked rooms and tons of enemies spawn in, which typically feel like padding, but here are actual challenges that felt like milestones to reach. By the end of the game I felt like I knew what all of the powers were and used them regularly, not just to use them, but to survive. That the energy used for these attacks recharges and does not have to be found like Metroid missiles helps in varying up the basic, dull, non-upgraded gameplay. If the ammo did not recharge, how un-fun it is to do Strider’s basic attack five times on every vanilla soldier would become very apparent.

One disappointment that never changed for me was the fact that the lackluster environments never impress and the generic enemies are not spiced up enough. I understand that some of the thrill of being a ninja is to slice up other human beings with a sword–made kid friendly here by making them bloodless robots–so dudes are going to make up most of the enemy roster in a Strider game, I just wish they were visually more distinct. Some soldiers shoot streams of bullets, one big shot, a spread of shots or even heat-seeking rockets, but it is very difficult to tell who will do what until they actually shoot. This can make it difficult to prioritize who needs to die before anyone attacks. Some of the large bosses are great detailed set pieces, like a giant mech complete with destructible body parts or a climbable mecha-centipede, but more than a few seem like pallet swaps of the same ninja lady. The sole consolation to the boring look of the opposing force is that they will only be on screen for a few seconds at most as Strider dashes through the zone, efficiently laying waste to all.

I played this game on the PlayStation 4, but there are lots of ways to get your Strider on. (PlayStation Plus subscribers can even download the game for free starting this month.) The new systems run at 1080p and 60FPS versus the old systems running at 720P and 30FPS, and add in a few graphical bells and whistles. I think it goes without saying that if you have a choice, buy it on the new systems or a PC. I ended up liking this game a lot and I can also say the story did not bother me as much. For one thing, the original Metroid essentially had no story and it was great. But more importantly Strider’s characterization in this 2014 title is spot on with his character in the games where he makes a cameo and in the second main Strider title. Some might call him “a focused, honorable man on a mission,” I prefer the term “aloof douche.” I think the uncaring, Asian-accented ninja guy works in pairing with the over the top Cold War Soviet setting and cartoonish characters. I also did not really care too much for the unlockable challenges. There are a lot of games to play and these extra modes seem like a hassle when they do not affect the main game in some way. However, from the ones I have played I can say that they are very challenging.

Matt: Maybe I got caught up in an initial state of nostalgic bliss for finally having a new Strider game to play for the first time in more than a decade, but contrary to your experience, I thought the pacing of the game was on point from the second it began, even with the complete lack of plot setup to provide some initial motivation. Within the first half-hour I had already learned a couple new moves, killed two or three mini-boss encounters, and battled the first big boss, that giant mech-centipede thing. For the very first boss, it actually turned out to be one of the game’s most exciting as you shimmy Strider up its electrically charged body while it’s swooping and curling in full flight.

In general, though, I thought the bosses were a bit tame and less demanding than you, Stephen. Only a couple required multiple attempts to defeat, but not even the final multi-form boss made me sweat much. I actually had a much tougher time with many of the late-stage battle rooms which would constantly spawn in multiple enemy types, so there’d be pesky droids range attacking from the air, human fodder attacking from both sides, and usually a larger robot or two firing off lasers or lobbing grenades. Then again, I did play on Normal difficulty first and then bumped it up to max difficulty on my second run, so knowing the basic attack patterns from the first time around undoubtedly made hard mode a whole lot easier than it would have been had I started on that difficulty.

I won’t argue that there is a sense of blandness to the character design. Playing on PC at max resolution and graphics settings, the game is certainly attractive and runs at a buttery smooth framerate, but going back to my earlier point about the need for a personality transplant, the game simply lacks a clear and distinctive artistic identity. It’s like the developers wanted to make sure Strider stood out as much as possible, because the game is basically him, a super cool cyber-ninja, fighting a bunch of generic enemies who all kind of look the same and bosses that, save for a few standouts, look and play like they were made following the plain instructions of a “Video Game Boss Battles for Dummies” guide book written in the 80s. However, I really did enjoy the world design. The textures aren’t super detailed or anything, but I actually like that. There is sort of a futuristic pastel style to the colors and backdrops that really grabbed my eye, and in terms of design the world itself is large and neatly layered (both in background objects and map progression), has a tremendous sense of flow, and is packed with a ton of secret areas that are a fun challenge to not only search for, but to attempt to reach using Strider’s elegant array of ninja moves.

Stripping away its title and historical context, purely as a side-scrolling platformer this game is a tight, beautifully paced action experience, and should be an enjoyable time for anyone who likes games that let them run from side to side, climb walls, pull off all manner of stylish acrobatics, and slash through increasingly difficult gangs of enemies. As a franchise reboot, Strider is every bit as successful at reviving a forgotten Capcom franchise as Grin’s Bionic Commando Rearmed from half a decade ago. I know there has been a growing skepticism over how Capcom has been handling some of its cherished franchises, but this is one game that old-school fans need not be concerned about. Double Helix nailed the perfect balance of staying true to the spirit and design philosophy of the original while expanding Strider’s moveset in exciting ways and ratcheting up the pace to appeal to a modern audience that likely only knows the character as “that ninja dude” from cameos in the various Capcom crossover games.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Strider moves and attacks with such graceful ease
+ Beautifully paced level progression and ability unlocks
+ Large, well designed Metroidvania world full of collectibles and secret areas

Cons:
– Flat, lifeless characters
– Dull enemy design and boss encounters

Stephen: He’s at least now bumped up to “that ninja dude with a scarf.” Double Helix has refreshed Strider to the point where I would be interested in another game with his name on it if Capcom decided to make it happen. If they did the issues with bland enemies and an almost nonexistent context for the action would have to be addressed. I ended up having a lot of fun with this title despite what was for me a slow start. I understand that games have to build up if they are going to be a large experience where the main goal is to explore the entire complex, but until the first boss I found this game to be a real drag. I think in large part it is because out of the gate I was expecting more than running to the right, jumping on platforms and killing guys. Maybe that is my fault to have expected more, after all the game does display the word “Strider” at the start screen.

On the other hand, if Capcom decided to put the Strider franchise back in the vault for another decade and the next game was Strider (2028), I would be fine with that too. There is something to be said for nailing the gameplay and being done. I got every semi-nostalgic special move and sound I wanted out of this game and it ended up being a great exploration platformer from a control standpoint. Outside of the main character it lacks a unique style or look like that of most of Capcom’s franchises or even most 2D exploration platformers from independent developers. If the goal was to make a game where the main character was memorable and the place he tears up was not, then that goal was met. I recognize that I may be brushing past the uninspired aspects of the game to gush about the solid mechanics, but the wall climbing, summoning special attacks and utility of the dash really are that sound and give Strider the ninja a feel that is just as iconic as the abilities of Samus or Alucard.  Strider the game – eventually – is a joy to play, and could have been a genuine classic if the world and enemies had any substance.

Stephen-BuyIt

Pros:
+ A great range of attacks
+ Wall climbing opens up exploration and combat possibilities
+ Jumping controls work well with attacking and dashing in midair

Cons:
– Bland enemies
– Dull environments

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4 and Steam, also available for PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Double Helix Games
Release Date: 2/8/2014
Genre: Action Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Steam review code provided by publisher. Additional PS4 copy purchased by reviewer.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!