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Old 12-28-2011, 08:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Imperfect Tense: How Strider 2 was Almost a Masterpiece

The Strider franchise is remarkable for being Capcom's most ambitious disaster ever. This might seem an odd claim at first glance, thanks to the fact that the best-known and most visible elements of the Strider oeuvre are the semi-titular hero (who is, objectively speaking, completely awesome) and the brilliant arcade game in which he starred. And those facets of Strider are indeed excellent and wholly worthy of canonization.

Look further, however, and the tale of Strider is a sad one. The series was conceived as a multimedia franchise, yet that effort never quite panned out. Simultaneously with the arcade game, Capcom produced an NES game plotted as a tie-in with a serialized manga; yet said game and manga were never actually published in the same territory as one another. The manga never made its way outside Japan, and the game -- despite its Japanese origins -- was only published in the U.S. The manga was decent enough shounen action fare, but hardly remarkable. The NES game, though admirable in many ways, was inexplicably amateurish for an internally developed Capcom project of its vintage. Soon after their release, Kouichi 'Isuke' Yotsui abandoned ship and tried creating a follow-up for Mitchell (Osman, aka Cannon Dancer), and the Strider license fell into the hands of U.S. Gold, who proceeded to create the shamefully terrible Strider Returns: Journey From Darkness.

And that was the end of Strider. Or it would have been, had Capcom not dredged up the semi-eponymous space ninja Hiryu for its Vs. series to remind everyone that, oh yes, he was (objectively speaking) completely awesome. Players were so impressed by his quantifiable greatness that Capcom felt compelled to perform a little necromancy and revive his dormant series from its death-slumber. The result was Strider 2, an arcade game running on Capcom's PlayStation-compatible ZN-2 board and therefore, inevitably, a PlayStation release as well.

Unfortunately, Strider 2 ultimately proved to be a continuation of the rotten luck that had plagued the franchise since its beginning. While not a bad game by any means, a number of factors keep it from reaching the stratospheric heights of its direct predecessor.

For starters, the game was hampered by technology. Capcom understandably went with a sprites-on-polygons approach for the game's visuals, well aware that the PS1's boxy polygons could never uphold Hiryu's legacy of graceful movement and fluid animation. But the entire thing feels slightly off, somehow; Hiryu feels a little too big on-screen, the backgrounds a little too claustrophobic. The camera is pulled in too tight and crowds the action, which becomes evident early on when you realize that enemies cease to generate sound once scrolled off the screen—even though that screen's edge looks to be less than 10 meters ahead of Hiryu. Granted, Hiryu himself is nicely animated and exceptionally versatile, capable of climbing or grappling just about every visible surface in the game, but the sprite-based characters feel out of sync with the environments, as though they don't really occupy space but are simply pasted over top of it. The zoomed-in view doesn't help matters, as it causes every sprite to pixellate and wash out. This is less of an issue in the arcade version, but the transition to PlayStation -- which contained significantly less RAM than the ZN-2 board -- crippled the game's visuals.

Still, that's just graphics, right? Just because Strider 2 looked significantly less refined than its predecessor (released a decade prior) doesn't mean it was inherently a worse game. Sadly, though, the limitations of the PlayStation architecture hobbled the game in a more significant fashion as well: Namely, by breaking the action into tiny pieces. Much of the appeal of the original Strider stemmed from the fact that it was as much a ride as a game, a slick and seamless cinematic adventure. A skilled player could navigate its hazards in a seemingly effortless fashion, turning each level into a continuous series of set pieces that created a sense of location and a healthy dose of contextual narrative continuity. Strider 2 makes a brave effort, but the platform and programming techniques of the era just aren't up to the task.

Every area in Strider 2 links to the next, but each sequence is self-contained; not just in the sense that there's no backtracking, but in the way the game cuts and loads after each setpiece is conquered. There's no smooth movement from one event to the next because the PlayStation's RAM was overloaded, and the idea of streaming data to mask loading times was still in its infancy. The need for constant loading is a small and necessary compromise, but a crippling one all the same.

Worse yet is the fact that Strider 2 feels a lot like a Nintendo sequel, and not in a good way. It's the sort of sequel that you see in the Zelda games, wherein the core elements of a previous chapter are scrambled and re-presented in an ostensibly new way. This works reasonably well for the Zelda games thanks to the series' sheer immensity and long-running legacy, but Strider 2 was effectively reworking the content from a single 20-minute game. As such, there's not really much here that wasn't in the original, and most of it looked much prettier back in the '80s.

So, Hiryu runs down a cliff to outrace a chain of explosions, but here it seems arbitrary and unthreatening thanks to the way the explosions are transparent lighting effects that don't seem to affect the icy ledge they're bursting along. Hiryu tries to take down an anti-gravity core while spinning around it, but here it feels slightly awkward thanks to the sticky control scheme. Hiryu battles a sinuous, serpentine mechanical foe by climbing along its length and slashing at its head, but here it's high above a city, which... actually is kind of awesome. But that's the balance of the game: For every moment that amplifies the adrenaline rush of the original Strider, there are two scenarios that come off as inferior retreads of the older game's moments of brilliance.

Above all, Strider 2 feels not only disjointed, but also somewhat boring. The levels make use of the 2.5D visual style to present the backgrounds in slightly impressive ways, yet these minor embellishments paled next to the impressive vistas of Klonoa and Einhänder, which had already done the same thing in a more cinematic fashion. Hiryu himself seems to have been downgraded somewhat, as his arcing Cipher blade does a lot less damage to bad guys than it used to. A few hits were enough to devastate enemies in the original, and tough enemies showed visible signs of damage as they withered under Hiryu's blade barrage. Here, the biggest enemies seem unfazed by his attacks until he chips their life bar down to zero. Compare the cybernetic, resuscitated wooly mammoth in Strider 2's arctic level to the robotic ape in the original's Syberia stage. The latter attacked with powerful but telegraphed blows, and Hiryu's counterattacks had visible impact; the former simply spams the screen with projectiles while stomping about, accompanied by endless swarms of evil hockey players. The ape was a memorable encounter that could be surmounted with deft reactions; the mammoth is a pale, cheap imitation that requires tedious button-mashing, drawn out by the need for constant evasion.

That isn't to say Strider 2 is without its redeeming moments, because it's still generally fun to play and cool to watch. The open-ended level structure keeps replayability respectable, and serious fans have to work hard to earn high level-clear rankings rather than simply lean on the infinite, zero-penalty continue system. But it really encapsulates the difficulties that both classic game formats and the arcade industry as a whole experienced in the second half of the '90s. A 'mere' fast-paced platformer was difficult to justify the for cost of a full retail release even ten years ago, so Capcom shipped the game with a port of the original Strider for a budget price, and it still tanked. And arcade machines, once miles beyond the meagre technology of home consoles, here began to hobble themselves by running on modest console specs; the ZN-2 was part of a larger trend that included Sega's ST-V and Naomi boards, Sammy's Atomiswave, and several other PlayStation-based boards that represented a new pragmatism on the part of the arcade industry. Impressing the rubes with fancy graphics was now nowhere near as important as developing software that could cheaply and easily be ported to consoles, where the money was.

The real problem with Strider 2, I think, is that it simply arrived far too soon for its own good. 16-bit-style play wasn't quite far enough gone in 2000 for most people to properly appreciate its finer points. The technology of the era definitely wasn't up to the task of creating a modern-looking game that played like a classic. And developers themselves weren't really sure which elements to preserve of a game like Strider and which to update. So it's probably best to regard Strider 2 with kindness (or pity, if you prefer); it was a noble effort to pioneer a niche of game design that wouldn't be properly realized for the better part of a decade. And while it doesn't do much to salvage Strider 2, fans can look at least enjoy Yotsui's Moon Diver (formerly Necromachina), which is something of an attempt by Strider's creator to revisit that style of game with the maturity of modern hindsight... not to mention four-player simultaneous action.

Incidentally, as the final proof that the Strider series is cursed: Capcom somehow managed to print the wrong labels on the U.S. PlayStation release's dual CDs, meaning the disc labelled 'Strider' is actually Strider 2 and vice-versa. Yes, sometimes even the coolest heroes just can't catch a break.
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Old 12-29-2011, 12:37 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Imperfect Tense: How Strider 2 was Almost a Masterpiece

I thought Strider 2 was pretty cool.
I also don't think comparing it to Einhander makes any sense. It's like comparing Mario to Gradius.
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