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Strider Review: Stridin’ Along
When done right, a truly challenging game will place all of its stakes squarely on your shoulders, using smart design to reward and punish a player according to their failings or successes. If you screw up, it’s all your fault; you did something wrong, and in order to get to the next level, you have to figure out exactly what needs to be fixed. Likewise, if you succeeded, it’s because you obtained a requisite amount of knowledge that helped you recognize patterns, plan efficiently, and execute said plan with bravado.
Strider falls somewhere in the middle here. It’s definitely challenging, harking back to arcade and NES times of old when games were difficult for the sake of being difficult, dropping themselves on you and expecting the player to figure things out using a system of trial and error. However, there’s a certain clumsiness to its design that also recalls the days of quarters and re-tries, giving the game a cheapened feel that doesn’t always rest failures squarely on the shoulders of the player. Instead, any time Hiryu bursts into a pixelated cloud of death, you’ll always be kept wondering how much of it was truly your fault.
At the start of the game, you’ll be dropped right into Kazakh City and given the assignment to kill Grandmaster Meio. Who is Grandmaster Meio, you ask? It’s hard to say, because we never really learn anything about him or the characters that pop up throughout the game other than the fact that he’s a bad guy, they’re all bad guys with him, and Strider needs them all to die. Really, the only insight we get into these character’s deplorable actions are the randomly-spewed lines of clumsy labor propaganda that tells their citizens how important it is that they be working and the dramatic calls for Hiryu’s death. Conversely, we know just as much about Strider Hiryu as we do Grandmaster Meio; he’s a Strider, he’s a good guy, and his one goal in life is to do nothing but kick ass, without ever bothering to collect the names of the androids and bounty hunters he slices in half. Then again, why should he?
Holding Strider‘s lack of story against it is moot, however; a waste of energy that completely misses the appeal the game is going for. Acting as a retelling of the classic arcade/NES game, this platforming beat-’em-up is much more interested in giving you the whats of gameplay than its whys of story. Borrowing elements from classic games such as Metroid and Castlevainia, Strider awards players with new abilities that help them defeat certain enemies and access different areas of the map. It’s not necessarily a game that calls for a lot by way of backtracking, but those who take their time and really go out of their way to explore the ins and outs of Kazakh will be able to make the most of their playthrough.
Oddly enough, exploring the city proves to be frustrating because of the curious decision the designers made to hide health and energy upgrades in the deepest reaches of Kazakh, essentially punishing players who don’t wish to explore the city with a tiny health bar that does little to forgive mistakes as the game progresses. Hiding collectibles can be a decent way to pad the experience and provide additional content, but the decision to hide away essential upgrades in this manner seemed a bit disingenuous.
The actual combat of Strider is truly an enigma. Best described as having a split personality, the game’s fighting movements are fluid and visually pleasing, but are quickly snuffed by odd enemy placement, strange AI behaviors, and attacks that feel nothing short of cheap. Attack interruptions occur sporadically, boss battles often feature near-impossible levels of cheap difficulty that will all but guarantee taking multiple tries to defeat, and the game calls on specific moves to be used to kill different enemies, but does a poor job of setting up enemy encounters in order to facilitate the effective use of these movements. It’s a hot-and-cold experience that I (at times) had some fun playing, but often growled at in frustration. Satisfaction is there when a boss is defeated or an area is cleared, but it is significantly lowered due to the stress and frustration that preceded it.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I didn’t enjoy playing Strider, but I did take some enjoyment out of finally clearing difficult stages or memorizing a boss’ pattern in order to be able to defeat them effectively. Essentially, I think the way I felt about the game itself mirrors that of the way competitive eaters feel about a hot dog eating contest. I show up for the challenge, wanting to test my skill and see how well I can do in a stressful situation, not necessarily caring for the experience that bridges the gap. A competitive eater doesn’t show up to a hot dog-eating contest because they love the taste of hot dogs; they show up because they want to prove they are the best and most efficient eaters out there. The same holds true of my time with Strider.
At some point during your time with Strider, you’ll see the main character Hiryu strike a dramatic pose as he stands stiffly upright, feet together, arms crossed across his chest in a bold projection of defiance, digitized scarf billowing behind him as his body language all but screams “You will not defeat me!”
Were it able to emerge into the real world in humanoid form, I imagine the very game of Strider itself would mimick Hiryu’s stance, issuing this same challenging statement to any who felt the urge to test their skill in its hardened world. Strider is difficult, challenging, harrowing, and all other -ings that will sate the needs of those who love hard games and are patient enough to figure it out. It upholds the series’ legacy of fast, smooth combat and unique platforming, while also resurrecting the same mechanics and conventions seen in the classic NES days of old and re-vamping it for the modern age with an all new look. Not all ideas age gracefully, however, and Strider‘s weakest points are often caused by ideas that worked once upon a time, but have since been replaced by far more intuitive innovations, leaving us with some awkward and clumsy elements that eventually kept it from being great.