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By Jack . March 1, 2014 . 9:30am
Revivals, reboots, reimaginings, whatever you want to call them, they make me nervous. Just like any medium with a series that gets a new entry long after its prime, a lot of video games tend to miss the point of their source material. I was especially worried when I heard that new Strider game was being handled by Double Helix, who I knew mainly for completely missing the point of Silent Hill some years back.
While I don’t mind the idea of a new team giving their take on something people love, at the very least they should also show enough respect for it to feel like it belongs in the series. In other words, if there’s going to be a new Strider game, it had better feel like one.
And fortunately, that’s exactly what it does.
Strider’s opening wastes no time as the titular ninja hurls himself directly into the outskirts of Kazakh, a city housing Hiryu’s assassination target: the evil Grandaster Meio. Strider Hiryu sprints at brisk pace with some swift sword strokes to match. Combat-wise things are very basic: mash the attack button and do your best to maneuver out of enemy fire.
One of the more unique things about playing as Strider Hiryu is that he’s very limber, being able to climb walls and do aerial flips as needed. The basic gameplay is deceptively simple, as what initially seems to be an arcade sidescroller like Hiryu’s previous games soon reveals itself to be much more.
After cutting through the enemies’ defenses, I discovered an upgrade that allowed Hiryu to plows through enemies and objects with a slide. Unlike most of its predecessors, which were pure side-scrolling action games, Strider dips into more obscure exploration elements like its NES uncle. There’s a huge map to traverse, filled with a plethora of upgrades to find. Grabbing new upgrades quickly became my favorite part of the game. Double jumps, air dashes, and flying energy birds are just a few of the toys you get, and they all add onto the base game in smart ways.
While there is exploration, it’s not quite in the same vein as games like Metroid. Areas often work like a one-way track, meaning that it’s always obvious where to go and the level design is basically pushing you towards the next area. You’re never going to get lost or have to find a hidden wall to proceed. That’s not to say there aren’t hidden items or optional paths, but they lean more towards coming back on your own time once you have the right upgrade. The linear nature initially seems odd for a game with an open map, but it adds an undeniably well done flow to the game.
The simplified exploration compliments the combat perfectly. Once I had established an arsenal of upgrades, I began to develop a myriad of strategies to clear rooms as fast as possible. This is where the game really feels open, more so than finding items on a map. Pasting the classic Strider formula onto a replayable, highly traversable map feels so natural that I can’t believe there aren’t more games like this. It’s a logical evolution of how Strider games have worked up to this point and it feels great to play.
Exploring all your options is especially interesting during the game’s numerous boss battles. Almost all of Hiryu’s rogue’s gallery show up, whether it’s giant flying dragons or the overly persistent bounty hunter Solo. Unlike the bulk of the game where the combat is short and sweet, bosses take a lot of damage. Due to their health, the bosses are both the most challenging part of Strider as well as the most rewarding.
Most fights are a delicate balance of dodging attacks and efficiently dealing damage when you have breathing room. Getting too greedy can get you killed, but being too cautious will draw out the fight excessively. There’s tons of a little tricks you can figure out by testing all of your options out, and perfecting your plan is the real draw to these encounters. The bosses are a close second to the upgrades as my favorite aspect of Strider, as they demonstrate just how well the game’s mechanics work even outside their natural environment of mowing down enemies.
Strider’s only real failings are in its story and presentation, not necessarily due to their quality but in how they affect the gameplay. I don’t think anyone was expecting to be blown away by the story, and the developers have taken full advantage of this by seemingly ripping lines straight from previous games and giving them full voice overs. “You’re going to fail Strider!” says the bad guy. “It is you who is going to fail,” Hiryu boldly proclaims.
The corny lines wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t plastered over the screen via huge text boxes, covering up vital parts of the game while I’m trying to play. Any charm a goofy exchange has quickly dissipates once it starts hiding the boss’s attacks. This isn’t a game about plot or dialogue, so it just baffles me that it would try to sabotage itself by shoving them in your face.
I’m also not a huge fan of the game’s art style. I wouldn’t say that it’s bad, in fact a lot the redesigns are interesting updates to Strider’s universe. My issue is that it just doesn’t look as vibrant as a Strider game should. Maybe it’s the color palette or lighting, but things don’t stand out very well, most importantly Hiryu himself. This only gets worse when the camera starts to zoom out and it gets bizarrely difficult to tell where Strider is, which can be catastrophic in dangerous situations.
While the presentation can occasionally do more harm than good, it’s nothing game breaking. These were problems that I initially had with the game, but the more I played the less of an issue they became. It’s more a testament to the quality of the core game that I can notice things that would normally drive me insane and end up blissfully ignoring them.
It helps that Strider has some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen in a game. Bosses and upgrades are doled out so regularly that progress feels constant and natural. The only time I felt like stopping was near the end, when I purposely went off the main path looking for upgrades. It’s a game that’s at its best when it focuses on action complemented by light exploration, and honestly I think that’s how it should be.
Strider is everything the revival of a classic should be—it carries over all of the series’ best elements while reintroducing them in a polished and logical way. As soon as I finished the game, I was immediately compelled to start again on hard, and I can see myself coming back to it for a long time to come. There are some oversights as far as presentation goes, they’re more as growing pains than fatal flaws. One can now say for certain that Strider Hiryu is back, and I can only hope that, this time, he sticks around a little longer.
Food for Thought:
1. It’s too bad that movement is locked to the analog sticks. After playing 2D games on pads all my life, not having the option just feels foreign.
2. While the actual plot is pretty barren, the world of Strider is surprisingly realized. Some of the collectibles you can grab contain profiles for enemies and background info on the story, and it was pretty fun to learn about stuff like Strider’s ridiculous scarf technology.
3. The most surprising characteristic of Strider Hiryu is that for a stoic ninja, he’s actually quite the trash talker. Sure he doesn’t say much, but when he does it’s always putting his enemies down and denouncing their evil ways.
4. The way mobility in ninja games has evolved is pretty fascinating. Many older games like original Shinobi or Strider games portrayed ninjas as power-walkers out for a morning jog around the neighborhood. While they eventually learned how to run, these days they’re even faster, sporting more ninja-like maneuvers with climbing mechanics that are actually intuitive! Some people point to smart phones or the Internet as evolutions of technology, but I think ninja game mechanics are the real landmark innovation.