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Old 12-26-2011, 01:40 PM   #1 (permalink)
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"Nobody has Ever Cleared This Stage": The Story of Strider



In the far-flung future -- not the boring future we're plodding toward in real life, but rather the future where the Cold War never ended thanks to Soviet super-science, and the Amazon basin is filled with robotic dinosaurs who maraud the jungles at the command of the savage women who patrol the treetops above them -- the world trembles in fear to hear the sputtering cackle of the dread tyrant Meio, the Grand Master who rules the planet ensconced within the walls of his destructive superweapon, the orbital battle platform Third Moon. The world's only hope for peace exists in the lithe space ninja Hiryu, a Strider whose legendary blade Cypher is never seen as anything but a flashing crescent of plasma capable of slicing through any obstacle, no matter how deadly.

Well, that's the gist of it. Apparently. This is the future as described by Capcom's arcade classic Strider, though using the term 'described' is something of a stretch. A more appropriate turn of phrase might be 'hinted at,' or 'nebulously defined.' Strider is set in a fascinating, detailed vision of the future, but that world is only presented in the most abstract terms imaginable. There's no prelude, no given setup besides the fact that you begin the adventure with a stealth landing in Kazakh S.S.R. in the year 2048, and Soviet regalia is everywhere. From there, Hiryu's adventure is a non-stop sequence of amazing feats and terrifying foes with only the briefest of intermissions to hint at the vagaries of the underlying plot while relocating Hiryu to a new setting. Even the game's attract mode is no help, offering little more than brief snippets of the various levels, followed by the name of the stage being demoed and the ominous portent, 'Nobody has ever cleared this stage.'



The thing about that claim is that even if you do manage to work your way through Strider -- something a friend and I once did in the arcade at considerable personal expense to our meager teenaged allowances -- the attract mode still refuses to acknowledge your feat. After completing all five stages and bringing Meio to justice (in the Navy Seal Team 6 sense of the word), Strider still claims that nobody has ever cleared Siberia or the flying fortress Balrog. It's disappointing to see all that hard work go unrewarded, though praise from a machine is admittedly something of an empty accolade. Maybe the attract mode doesn't properly register some sort of increment counter that was intended to track successful plays. Or maybe the game was never meant to credit its conquerors at all, and 'Nobody has ever cleared this stage,' is hardwired into the ROM as a cheap taunt to encourage prospective players to test their mettle by dropping a few tokens into the machine and playing long enough to work their way through a few stages. The effect is the same either way, though: It simply adds to Strider's mystique.

In this regard, Strider benefits greatly from its nature as a 16-bit coin-op game. Unlike contemporary games, it was designed for the arcade, where time spent in exposition is time wasted—if an arcade game isn't actively trying to defeat the player, it's not generating new coin drops and thus failing to earn its keep. Strider's narrative unfolds primarily through play, with the plot revealing itself through inference rather than any direct statement. The action itself is the story, with the elaborately detailed environments and enemies hinting at a tantalizing future that's never fully revealed. The game's cutscenes do little to explicate the narrative; they're brief, five-second intermissions between levels, maddening in their fever-dream abstraction. Images of different characters flash on-screen, accompanied by scratchy snatches of sampled dialogue in a Babel Tower's melting pot of languages. Meio and his pet bounty hunter Solo taunt Hiryu in English, while defeated Kazakhstani foes sneer in Russian. The acrobatic warrior sisters -- Tong, Sya, and Nam Pu -- curse Hiryu in Mandarin, while the women of the Amazon sound like they're just chanting 'Bugga booga' but manage to convey important information about the Third Moon regardless.

It's very atmospheric, giving a genuine impression of a globe-spanning adventure, but Kouichi's priority was definitely stylishness, not narrative clarity. The rapid-fire snippets of sampled dialogue are subtitled in English, but they're still little more than a jumble of disconnected fragments that only make sense if you already know what the game's about -- and even then only barely.



But it's an arcade game. Telling a detailed story would not simply be missing the point, it's the complete antithesis of the game's entire reason for being. The presence of any plot at all beyond 'save the princess' is a bonus. Kouichi has stated that he aspired to tell stories in print and film, and Strider is the distillation of that ambition into an action-oriented video game. The game never stops to explain itself, preferring to unfurl hints of a tale as the player advances, and the brief intermissions primarily serve as a way to nudge players a bit and make them aware that there's more to the game than a cool sword and robotic animal companions.

The inventiveness of Strider's presentation -- an immersive, in-media-res approach to narrative that would later be canonized by Valve -- is matched beautifully by the creativity of its action. Strider Hiryu was easily the nimblest, most agile protagonist yet seen in a game. His repertoire of skills included not only the standard tools (running, attacking, leaping) but more advanced techniques as well. Though best known for his iconic Cypher blade, Hiryu could also cling to any surface with the hook he carried in his off-hand. He could slide into foes with his steel-toed boot in order to defeat them with casual ease.

And, as with so many other Capcom classics of the late '80s, Strider's environments were built around the hero's capabilities. Flat surfaces weren't the standard; Hiryu dashed along rooftop complexes and high-tech mechanical workings never meant to be navigated by humans, moving along sloped surfaces and grappling across narrow superstructures with ease, or springing across flimsy jungle canopies. Strider even played with the concept of gravity, flinging Hiryu into free orbit around the Balrog's antigravity generator in one of the game's most memorable sequences. From Eurasia to South America and ultimately into space, Hiryu's skills granted players a heady sense of empowerment.



The scale of Hiryu's foes were a perfect canvas for showing off the hero's prowess (and, by extension, the player's). Each and every level has at least one massive cybernetic boss, along with a smattering of specific man-sized foes whose unique nature is easily overlooked amidst the flurry and pacing of the adventure. Everyone remembers the giant robot centipede created, Voltron-like, by members of the Kazakh politburo -- the fact that it's wielding a sickle and a hammer makes it hard to forget -- along with the massive Siberian mecha-gorilla, the dizzying gravity core, and the robotic T. rex in the jungle. But Strider is interesting for the care put into so many smaller one-off foes like the Chinese sisters, the Soviet strongman who bursts into flames upon his defeat, and the flying bounty hunter. These enemies appear only once, and, thanks to the flexibility of Strider's controls and mechanics, can easily be defeated before fully demonstrating the full range of their skills. On the other hand, they can also be quite maddening, depending on the AI's mood. These enemies are the sort of details you only really notice after multiple playthroughs, where they stand apart from the copy-and-paste mooks and tend to provide slightly different encounters every time, and they've entered the greater lore of the series as noteworthy characters despite ultimately being as throwaway as the short, hopping Soviet robots in fur hats who rush to face Hiryu upon his initial arrival into Kazakh.

The narrative abstraction of Strider is doubly interesting in light of Capcom's original plan for the game. The arcade title was meant to be only a single prong of a multimedia franchise that would span multiple game systems, print, and who knows what else. This amounted to a serialized manga that ran over the course of a year, along with the NES game based around its plot. The arcade game, however, was a completely standalone work; despite some common locations to the NES version -- which is to say, they both begin in Kazakh -- its plot (such as it is) appears to exist in complete isolation from the other ventures. It's probably significant, too, that it was the arcade game that Capcom ported to countless other platforms rather than extensions of the more unified works. Granted, Strider on NES was presumably unique because the aging 8-bit system couldn't handle such bleeding-edge work (and as a workaround for Nintendo's NES exclusivity requirements). But there's little question that the arcade game is the superior work.



Today, Strider suffers somewhat from its nature as a 16-bit coin-op title, which is why Capcom hasn't put together a sequel in a decade. Strider is the sort of adventure you can breeze through in half an hour, provided you know the game (or have enough coins to make it past the tough spots with brute force). Its strongest selling points are its brisk pacing and its remarkable lack of repetition or duplication of content: Every one of those 30 minutes of gameplay is different from the last. Today's gamers, who largely play on consoles, would never put up with paying money for such a brief game experience. At the same time, making a lengthier work that retains the original's speed and variety would be prohibitively expensive, burn through enough fresh ideas to fuel several separate games.

Ultimately, the best 'sequel' we can probably hope for is Kouichi's recent Moon Diver, which banks on being an inexpensive downloadable title with the novelty of effectively being a four-player online rendition of Strider. But Moon Diver is also a lot less tightly designed than Strider, feeling more like Strider 2 -- strange, really, given Kouichi's lack of involvement with that sequel -- and feels somewhat padded due to the grind-based leveling mechanics. Coin drops have been replaced with repetition; where in the arcade you could triumph over a boss with enough quarters, here your best hope of breaking through a daunting meat gate is by replaying the same levels over and over and boosting your stats. Personally, I miss the arcade approach. It seemed more honest, I think.





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