Upon completing Strider and watching the credits roll, I have to confess that the experience nearly brought a tear to my eye. It wasn’t just because I was convinced that I had just played though one of the best arcade classic remakes that I’ve had the opportunity to review in quite a while, but also because this game stands as undeniable evidence that Microsoft has just lost a great asset in the game’s developer, Double Helix, who was also in large part responsible for the successful reboot of Killer Instinct on Xbox One. Recently acquired by Amazon, it’s reported that Double Helix will now be employed in order to develop titles exclusively for the company’s long-rumored tablet-based console, which at the very least means the developer’s short but fruitful relationship with Microsoft and all the potential it once offered gamers is now lost. So while we raise a glass and lament Double Helix’s departure (as well as Microsoft’s puzzling decision not to purchase DH themselves), let us all take comfort that they left us a parting gift in the form of one of Capcom’s best reboots in years.
2014’s Strider is a bold revisiting of the original 1989 coin-op arcade and NES games of the same name, merging the dark, sci-fi tones and ninja-leaping, sword-swinging action of the former and the exploration-heavy, Metroidvania elements of the latter into a fast-paced, modern platformer built to satisfy both itches at once. In the same vein, the game’s protagonist Strider Hiryu looks and plays as the perfect amalgam of all his former videogame lives, not only from the Strider games and related Japanese manga (comic books) but also from his popular appearances in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, retaining all of his trademark agility, weapons, robot sidekicks and signature, flowing red scarf that sets him apart from other, lesser videogame ninjas. But just as his aforementioned scarf is now made of plasma and changes color to indicate which of the four plasma types Hiryu has equipped, this modern remake of the original Strider is at once familiar yet brimming with innovative touches that make it feel brand new.
Just like in the original arcade game, Strider Hiryu is charged with infiltrating the futuristic, Soviet Union-inspired city of Kazakh in order to assassinate Grandmaster Meio, a mysterious dictator with designs to create a ‘perfect’ cyborg society atop the collective corpses of humanity. Stopping him won’t be easy, as Meio has an army of cyborgs, bounty hunters, mutants, religious fanatics and even a sisterhood of martial artists in his employ, but the Striders didn’t select Hiryu on a whim. As the most skilled member of his clan, Hiryu is a master of both the Cypher-sword and Kunai throwing blades, and once he has procured the appropriate upgrades on site, he can bend different plasma types to his will in order to give his weapons new properties, and can even call in brief assistance from a trio of robot familiars, including a mechanized panther and eagle. Naturally, all of these abilities are locked away at the beginning of the game and will need to be uncovered through story progression, surviving challenging boss fights and exploring well off the beaten path, but that’s exactly what makes the platforming in Strider fun and addictive.
As soon as players earn a new skill, more often than not the game’s level design will immediately confront them with an obstacle or enemy that requires the ability to be put into practice, driving home its importance in both exploration and combat. In addition, a world map can be brought up any time via the ‘Back’ button, allowing players to pore over every nook and cranny of Kazakh that they’ve uncovered and plan return trips to earlier areas once they’ve gained the abilities to access hidden areas and items that they missed the first time around. That said, aside from uncovering key abilities needed for progression, players who lean more towards straight action and getting faster completion times than their leaderboard friends can plow through Strider in just a handful of hours if they like, forgoing backtracking at the cost of having less health and slower energy recharges for their weapons and special abilities (a.k.a. ‘Options’). The game becomes harder as a result, but players who pride themselves on speed and skill above all else aren’t likely to mind the added challenge.
This is in part because the combat in Strider nails an almost perfect balance between the high-precision demands of the original games as well as the more chaotic, bullet-hell action of modern games like Bayonetta and Sine Mora. Newcomers as well as classic Strider fans should not expect to instantly slice though enemies like butter as in the games of old, nor should they expect to be untouchable. But as players begin to master each newly-gained ability alongside the game’s tight controls and learn their adversaries’ attack patterns, they’ll naturally become faster and more adept at dispatching foes with rapid and charged Cypher slashes before a counterattack can be unleashed. Fueling the drive for combat excellence and speed even further is Hiryu’s charge meter, which gradually fills with each consecutive, unanswered strike on an enemy and depletes with every hit absorbed. Players who manage to fill the meter are rewarded with a few seconds where time slows down and Hiryu can do extra damage to any and all enemies on screen within reach of his weapons. It’s extremely satisfying when it happens, but still requires a good deal of skill on the part of the player, as not only can the damage bonus be interrupted if the player absorbs too much damage, but the charge meter required to attain the bonus also resets to zero if there is a pause of five seconds or more in-between successful attacks. This gameplay hook results in players zipping about the screen looking for enemies to chain their attacks to while simultaneously using Hiryu’s insane acrobatic abilities to avoid enemy fire, making them feel just like the overpowered ninja-from-the-future that they should be. And should they need to take a breather, they can always dig one of Hiryu’s climbing hooks into wall, ceiling or platform and hang there like Spider-Man, right before they spring forward and cleave their next cybernetic foe in two.
To top it all off, Strider is one of the best audio-visual treats you can get right now on the Xbox Store for $15. The soundtrack, largely composed of thematic remixes from the arcade and NES originals, is note-perfect for this reboot, and much like the 8-bit and 16-bit songs that inspired it, it’s a futuristic soundtrack with music that actually sounds like it’s from the future despite its now 25-year old (!) source material. Film-grain and a CRT-style filter gives a Blade Runner-like feel to the excellent visual design, and although Double Helix is a western developer, under the guidance of Capcom they have crafted a Strider game that fully evokes and embraces its Japanese heritage alongside its western inspired visual trappings. There’s even a semblance of a story and half-decent voice acting, and while some of the accents (including Hiryu’s Japanese and General Mikiel’s Russian) border on comedic stereotypes, they are never exaggerated to the point that they offend.
If anything, this reviewer was only able to find two faults with the game. The first is that whenever the game’s major adversaries address Hiryu mid-gameplay (which is quite often), their dialogue is accompanied by their picture and large caption bar that takes up a large part of the lower area of the screen, covering up much of the on-screen action. The second is that the Xbox 360 version of Strider looks a bit rougher and has a noticeably lower framerate than its Xbox One sibling, a surprising difference given the Xbox 360’s past 60fps performance with far more demanding games (e.g. Bayonetta). While it has no effect whatsoever on the gameplay or quality of the title, if you’re torn on which version to purchase, the Xbox One version is hands-down the better choice to go with.
To sum up, Strider is a brilliant remake of the original games that is all but guaranteed to satisfy old and new fans alike. Much like Capcom learned with the success Bionic Commando: Rearmed and BC: Rearmed 2 years ago, if the original game ain’t broke, don’t fix it, just tweak the living hell out of it and make it fun.
Suggestions: Capcom, don't make us wait another 14 years for a remake of Strider 2!