Friday 9 December 2016

Mega Drive Review - Strider (Game 122)

'Strider' on the Mega Drive is frequently called one of the system's greatest games. But this conversion of an arcade platform game was intended to be a starting point for greatness rather than a title that's often thought of as standalone. 

Developed by Capcom / Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Today we hardly notice that a game is released with an accompanying animated or live action series. We barely acknowledge spin-offs or simplified versions of AAA titles released on mobiles or playable online.  If a new game has a toy range, a novelisation, a clothing range or even fast food tie-in gamers aren't surprised; it's expected with big games franchises today.  

In the early nineties though the collaboration between Capcom and Moto Kikaku (a group of famous Japanese manga artists) was big news. While this wasn't the first time that a game was developed for release on multiple formats at once, it was one of the first times when a company deliberately made a franchise with a view to it expanding from the time of conception. The goal wasn't to create one game that could be released on many formats; the mission was to create a brand, an intellectual property that would reach a huge audience immediately. The idea of a simultaneous cross media release was the brainchild of new head of development Akio Sakai. This was a man who clearly new the merits of cross-media properties given that he later went on to produce the 'Final Fantasy' cinematic ventures for Square. "Sakai had the idea of making a project that combined an arcade game, a home computer game and a manga series" lead designer Kouichi Yotsui revealed to Edge magazine.  Masahiko Kurokawa oversaw the creation of an 8bit Famicom game; Tatsumi Wada and Hiroshi Motomiya were chosen to lead a manga series.  Yotsui had the greatest responsibility though; he became head planner on the flagship arcade game. At the time Capcom were known as an arcade manufacture first and foremost. "In those days arcades were Capcom’s main business" Yotsui once told Edge. He was a perfect lead designer having already proven his mastery of the complicated CPS-1 arcade hardware with 'Ghouls ‘N Ghosts'. 'Strider' was to be the third game made using the hardware and Yotsui was adamant that the game needed to push the hardware further than previous games had. "Naturally, I wanted to make sure the arcade game better than the home version and the Manga". 

Narrative was important to Yotsui, hardly surprising given his background in film. "Kurokawa (director of the 8bit game) and I both went to the same university and we both made films, so both of us were into plots and stories" Yotsui explained to Edge magazine.  “I remember Capcom’s president Kenzo Tsujimoto booking us into the Shinjuku Hilton Hotel and keeping us in there for a week so we could create the framework for the character, story and world view,” Yotsui reiterated to Retro Gamer magazine. "We came up with lots and lots of ideas for settings and we created all sorts of details that were never used in the games" he added in Edge. 

The manga and games are all set in a dystopian future in the year 2048, where a mysterious dictator known as the "Grandmaster" rules over the world. The plots all follows the exploits of Hiryu, the youngest ever member of an organization of high-tech ninja agents known as the "Striders". Alone he must assassinate the Grandmaster's returning peace to the world. 

Despite the great effort spent coming up with a complex world and unifying a grand narrative across the Manga and both games, very little story is actually shown in the coin-op version. “even though I participated in creating the story and world this wasn't [appropriate for] an arcade game" Yotsui told Geijin Punch.  
"You can tell a complex story in a manga, or even in a consumer game which is not income-intensive, but this is impossible for an arcade game which is played on a per-coin basis. If you tell too much story, you destroy the gameplay. There was no problem with the basic premise of the Striders. There was no problem with the near-future world view. The problem was too much story detail". Instead the arcade version of 'Strider' attempted to make use of its impressive hardware to give a sense of the world through imagery. "I just used parts [of the plot] that would contain the atmosphere, I wanted players to feel and left the rest to imagination" he later admitted to Edge magazine. 

Primarily this is achieved through the use of stylish cut-scenes that typically consist of nothing more than a few short frames. Yet, despite their brevity the level intermissions really emphasise just how polished and beautiful the arcade version of 'Strider' is. According to Critic Darran Jones, "everything about Strider was epic. Its backgrounds were brilliantly designed and featured an array of exotic locations, while its sprite design was superb". 

While many claim the game is little more than a hack and slash platformer, 'Strider' is better described as an acrobatic platformer given the titular Ninja's physical abilities. The game was even sold as a "Stunt Game" in early promotional materials, as the playable character (then called "Falcon") can "jump, cut, scramble and slide. All actions never before possible in video games!" In the final game protagonist Hiryu can perform these different acrobatic feats depending on the button combination used. Pressing the jump button while Hiryu is standing still will cause him to do a regular vertical jump, while pressing the jump button while pushing the joystick left or right will enable him to do a cartwheel jump. 'Strider's ninja can also slide under or through certain obstacles and cartwheel down slopes. Gravity seems to have little consequence in the game as our protagonist can latch onto certain platforms and climb across walls and ceilings using a metallic hook.
According to Retro Gamer, Kouichi Yotsui actually got the idea for this "wall-cling" mechanic from a time when he was trapped on a freezing office roof. "I began to climb down in order to reach the emergency stairs, desperately afraid that I would die from the fall. Even then, though, I was thinking about the game and came to the conclusion that anybody that wanted to do that kind of thing must be crazy.”

Throughout the five levels of the game Hiryu's main weapon is a plasma sword which leaves a distinctive iconic white curved trail as it cuts through the air. It is an imposing weapon and one that can be powered up with pickups.
The blue clad ninja can also summon robotic companions known collectively as "options" that help him fight enemies. According to Yotsui these are inspired by popular shooting games at the time. "I thought Strider should have an option help him out, like something in 'R-Type'" he once confirmed. These companions are as powerful as they are imaginative; consisting of floating 'Star Wars' like droids, a robotic tiger and a metallic hawk. While these can be used to devastating effect on typical level foes, the options are best reserved for the spectacular boss battles that 'Strider' is often remembered for. Indeed Yotsui was so proud of the game's huge boss characters that he put them in unconventional level points just to ensure more players would see them. "While a large boss enemy would usually come at the end of a stage, we put a large robot gorilla at the start of the second stage so you would see it straight right away" the designer told Edge Magazine.  

The huge bosses and their variety is something that has always impressed critic Darren Jones. "One minute you’re watching in awe as a council of Kafazu dignitaries morph into a gigantic sickle-wielding millipede, and the next you’re facing off against an enormous metallic gorilla, flying around a huge drone in a gravity-free containment unit, or battling a golden dragon after hitching a ride on the back of a dinosaur. And let’s not forget the climactic battle against Grandmaster Meio that had Hiryu leaping desperately around the screen while avoiding the boss’s devastating lightning attacks." 

Ports of Strider for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, and ZX Spectrum were published by U.S. Gold and varied greatly in quality.  Some versions excised the final battle with the Grandmaster and most reduced Hiryu’s huge sprite and remove background layers. The conversion to the Mega Drive was developed internally at Sega. Allegedly they were given no support by Capcom which lead to Sega’s teams ripping graphics and reverse engineer arcade units to create the game. The designer of the arcade original was certainly impressed. "It was Sega' Mega drive port, now fondly remember as one of the 16 bit console's best games, that came closest to the original and it's this version that wins Yotsui's approval today" Edge Magazine notes. Other magazines at the time were also amazed by the Mega Drive's ability to authentically replicate the arcade. Mean Machines magazine noted that "this Mega Drive conversion is absolutely stunning in every respect. The main sprite is huge and well detailed, and the backgrounds are simply exquisite. [...] If the arcade game blew you away, expect the same treatment from the Mega Drive version. 

Gaming critic Julian Rignal was equally wowed by the Mega Drive visuals, noting that "it's an absolutely amazing, truly arcade perfect conversion. The graphics are stunning, with large, beautifully animated sprites and fantastic backdrops." Although occasionally flickering, the arcade quality graphics came at a physical cost for Sega though. 'Strider' was the first 1MB (8Mb) ROM cartridge released for the system, making it one of the largest cartridge-based video games available at the time. Many would argue it was a cost worth bearing though, as critics couldn't praise the game enough. Sega Power magazine even gave the game a perfect review score. 

'Strider' was a game released early in the Mega Drive's life. Its release was intended to draw in NES console owners that were eager to enjoy superior visuals on a new machine. Of course NES owners had their own 'Strider' game - part of Capcom's grand collaboration. Sadly, it didn't measure up to Yotsui's arcade version. Capcom lost faith in the project and after some delays; the NES version was cancelled in Japan and only saw a release in America. It received modest reviews but according to a former Capcom employee "[NES] 'Strider' was not a game that sold well [or] brought in good income." However even this was a better reception than the associated 'Strider' manga series received. Despite the effort and expense according to Edge magazine "the manga simply sank without a trace". Ultimately, the NES and Manga parts of the original 'Strider' campaign have become but footnotes in the history of the arcade and Mega Drive versions. Capcom had failed to make an immediately successful and lucrative brand. However, there would still subsequent games to feature the acrobatic gravity defying ninja. 

Since his stunning debut Hiryu has appeared in U.S. Gold's unofficial sequel 'Strider II' and  Capcom's own PlayStation 1 follow-up 'Strider 2' in 1999. He has a cameo in several fighting games including 'Street Fighter Alpha II' and 'Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes''. Most prominently in 2014 the Strider Ninja has even graced modern machines for a HD re-imagining of Yotsui’s arcade game. However, critics still remain loyal to the game that started it all.  "As enjoyable as the recent 'Strider' reboot was, the original will always remain one of our favourite arcade games" fondly admits Retro Gamer magazine. "Inventive, gorgeous looking and boasting fantastically bizarre bosses, it’s a masterpiece in video game design and came along at a time when the arcade arm of Capcom was at the height of its powers."

Where did I get this game from?
Until recently I was a SNES owner, and looked longingly at certain Mega Drive games. Given the failure of the NES version of ‘Strider’ it comes as little surprise that an arcade version of the arcade game was never released on the Super NES. The closest 16bit Nintendo owners had was a game called ‘Run Sabre’ but that is a pale comparison that sells for far too much on eBay. I picked up a great condition copy of ‘Strider’ for £15 from local store Level Up Games in Canterbury.

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