Saturday, October 23, 2010


Know what's charming? Communism. Or specifically, the rampant belief throughout the mid-late twentieth century that Soviet Russia would be a thorn in the free world's side indefinitely. And that's why in 1989, just two years before the USSR would dissolve completely, you get a game like Strider appearing in the arcades.

Landmine leap.The story goes that in the year 2048 some Soviet Grandmaster is acting dictator over the oppressed world. The Striders, a secret group of ninja armed with advanced robotics, want to assassinate this guy and send Strider Hiryu to do the dirty work. Which is heartening, because it means even in 2048 in a communist world, ninja haven't lost sight of their favorite pastime: efficiently murdering people more important than themselves. And while the times and technology have changed, the ninja are no less effective at succeeding in their missions. It's at the point where the dude had to basically booby trap all of Siberia just in case you happened to approach from that angle. I'd call it unnecessary, but judging from the fact that I actually did cross a bunch of minefields on the way, I guess I have to yield. Good planning, Future Stalin.

In the future I guess ninja stars have fallen out of fashion, along with shivs and heck, even masks. Instead you get some sort of plasma sword that you hold like a police tonfa. But that's not all! Hiryu's also got hooks he can use to scale walls and hang from ceilings. Think like more advanced versions of suction cups, except in a style that would make pirates jealous. It's their design, after all. And Hiryu is about as acrobatic as you might expect, though in some ways that's a problem within the game. The jumping can get pretty awkward since you're always flipping and cartwheeling all over the place. If you're standing against a wall, you can't jump forward over it; you've got to back up because Hiryu needs room to flail. I could do without that.

Stridellite.One of the things Strider does that's really nifty though is play with gravity. There are several areas of the game featuring total gravity reversals in which the ceiling becomes the floor and vice versa. It's a little startling the first time you leap into the air and fall upwards, but after a while you sort of get used to it (though it's always more comfortable to move through the levels right-side up). When it gets really awesome is when there are gravity bosses like the one pictured. They'll zoom around a large room trying to kill you in various fashions, but by jumping toward them you can actually put yourself into orbit around them and attack them while doing so. It's pretty fantastic.

The other thing pictured there floating around is the Ouroboros, which in reality is a snake eating its own tail. For whatever reason they decided that concept applied to a little mushroom with robotic feet, so that's cool. But it shoots out rings at stuff as you swing your sword, so it's at least helpful. There are a number of other little robot buddies too, like mecha-tigers and mecha-hawks. These are all acquired by breaking power-up containers that appear in the various stages at planned intervals. I don't honestly know where I stand on the whole "should a ninja have robotic tigers" debate, but I'm certainly paying attention to arguments on both sides.

See no evil.Other power-ups in the game are more traditional, I suppose. You've got health items, which include ones that increase your maximum life as well as ones that simply heal you. There's the mandatory invincibility here and there, which also has the lovely effect of creating little shadow Striders behind you that will mimic you and kill things on their own as well. But sometimes the best things in life are the simplest, like the sword power-up that doubles your attack range, letting you hang from ceilings and kill cybernetic silverbacks. Wait, what? It's so baffling on so many levels. First off, what??? Secondly, why are the Soviets of the future building giant mechanical animals? What could this possibly accomplish? Why deposit them in the middle of frigid Siberia? Is it so they won't overheat? Why an ape, of all the animals you could choose? Even Hiryu goes with hawks, which at least can fly around and scout and crap. And tigers, which are fast and have sharp parts to erm, cut stuff. He could probably even ride them if he wanted. And don't act like the ape has some sort of special ability that I'm overlooking. It takes two steps forward and limply raises an arm. That's it. No wonder Reagan beat you guys.

As awesome as that sword looks in action, and as pleasant as it may be to slice guys up when you first start playing, there are some definite drawbacks. First and perhaps most importantly, there is no way to attack vertically. Strider Hiryu, so far as I can tell, is completely incapable of hitting anything over his head or under his feet. That's terribly embarrassing for an elite future ninja, don't you think? You'll also get sick of hearing the "schwing!" sound every time you press the attack button, and trust me - you're going to be pressing that attack button an awful lot during the game. Virtually every second, if we're being honest. Seriously, my finger was getting tired as I reached the later levels. So the good news is that if you've got a bit of finger pudge, Strider is the perfect way to work it off.

In mother Russia.From the size of that primate earlier, you might think it would be a stage boss, but you'd be sadly mistaken. Actually, the first boss you encounter is what's at the left here. You see, as you crash a little Soviet council meeting in the Kazakh region of the Soviet empire, all the council members are noticeably upset you're there. It's hard to blame them, considering your mission is clearly to wipe out their government. What's unexpected though is that they react not by fleeing, or even by shooting guns (or future lasers) at you. Instead they all fuse together into an enormous Soviet centipede, armed with a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other. That at once makes both the most and the least sense possible. The human mind is literally incapable of deciding how to feel about this. So instead you can just hop on its back and ride it around. It's as rational as any other response.

What I think does make sense, though at this point I honestly can't be sure about anything anymore, is that a lot of crap blows up in this game. With so many robotics and electronics all over the place, explosions seem as natural as anything. The problem is that when things explode, they like to keep exploding. For instance, whenever one of those big gravity orbit machines explodes, it sets fire to the area around it, and that fire starts spreading. You've got to run away from the fire in order to survive, but again you're your own worst enemy; every time you try to jump down a shaft or something to make a quick getaway, you'll just barely touch a wall and latch onto it with your hooks. It's pretty much impossible to ever jump down anything, since you'll always just wall climb by default at the slightest touch. Sometimes I don't want to do cool ninja things, man. Sometimes I just want to run and live and save a quarter. Why can't you fall down?

Brontohorsus.But naturally, when you don't want to fall down, Strider's all over it. Every bit of downhill terrain you descend, no matter how gradual a slant or how slow you go down it, will cause Strider Hiryu to skid forward as he tries desperately to maintain his balance and slow his momentum. This often results in running into enemies or landmines, which gets really annoying really quickly. So let me just remind everyone here of a fact that's easy to lose among the craziness of this game: Strider is an arcade game, and arcade games are designed to drain your bank account one quarter at a time. This is no exception. Yes, I know, you can ride around on dinosaurs for no good reason. Don't be deceived. That has no bearing on how much this game wants to steal your money.

I'll tell you something else they did well though: voice modulation. Unlike other Capcom ventures like, say, the first Street Fighter, Strider manages to make voice modulation not sound like dying walruses. Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to win any awards for outstanding voiceover work or anything, but none of the voices in Strider are painful to listen to, and none really take you out of the atmosphere of the game...whatever that's supposed to be.

Whaaaaaale!The icing on the cake comes appropriately at the end of the game, when you're asked to fight a mecha-Kong simultaneously with a Tyrannosaurus. Should you succeed, you're rewarded by a fight with a humongous golden dinobot that shoots its claws at you. Killing it allows you to fight another Sovietpede, which you can ride all the way to the Grandmaster for the final boss battle. All without a break in between. Sheesh. The Grandmaster himself is some legless creep in desperate need of a manicure, wearing a raggedy red cloak. Oh, and he shoots green lightning at you from his hands. Why not? Then you kill him, jump on a whale, and job well done.

I knew from the premise of the game that there would be some...interesting moments to be found here, but yikes. This game got really out there in a hurry, didn't it? Luckily the game is fast-paced enough that your brain goes too numb to question any of the absurdity until you've actually finished it and had time to reflect. Seriously, the first time you jump on the back of a sauropod I promise you won't think a thing of it other than "Oh hey, that's convenient." So I guess that's a plus - Strider has created the dumbest, most random video game world anywhere short of Moonwalker and still manages to get you to assent to it. There are enough small gripes to prevent it from being a real standout, but it's certainly worth checking out for a bit of a mindblow.

Bottom Line: 13/20

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