I don't know what it is about 2D action games, but I have a big soft spot in my heart for them. Call me an idiot; tell me I wouldn't know a good game if a polygon jumped out of my TV screen and hit me in the face—but I'd rather play Thunder Force III or Guardian Heroes than Quake III or Tekken Tag Tournament any day. Maybe it's because they remind me of the arcade industry's golden age—the 1980s and early 1990s—in which I had the pleasure of growing up. Chi describes it perfectly in his review of Gauntlet Legends. It was a time when you could go into the small deli or record store on the corner of your street and choose from games like Rolling Thunder, Rastan and Black Tiger. Back then, all console games aspired to the complex visuals only the arcades could deliver. But underpowered machines like the old Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System could never come close. The arcades were always one step ahead.
When the Sega Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 debuted in 1989, console gaming was closing the gap—almost reaching the arcade level. Arcade ports of Altered Beast and Vigilante—while not perfect—were proof that the true arcade experience could be brought home. One game in particular raised some eyebrows to that effect not too long afterwards. Sega's release of Capcom's Strider—a popular arcade game at the time—was the first eight megabit cartridge ever, and was as close to the arcades home console gaming had yet seen. (Strider was actually the second of three Capcom arcade ports to the Genesis that Sega handled—Forgotten Worlds and Ghouls And Ghosts were the others. Both were equally remarkable achievements in bringing faithful arcade ports of classic Capcom games to the 16-bit console.)
The Strider franchise actually has quite a strange story. The first home version of the game came to the U.S. on the NES, and was a good platform/action game that didn't stay faithful to the arcade original, but told a better story than any other Strider game to date. Well after the Genesis release of the arcade version, a company called U.S. Gold—a publisher with a penchant for producing pitiful games—came out with Strider 2 for the Genesis and Sega's portable Game Gear. I've never played them myself, but I remain curious as to how Capcom let such a license fall into such incapable hands.
It wasn't until the recent Marvel Vs. Capcom series of one-on-one fighting games that Hiryu (Strider's hero) once again began appearing under the Capcom brand name. Rumors soon began circulating of a new Strider game coming to the Sony PlayStation, and once screen shots of the Japanese game began popping up, fans like me were in a fever pitch. Finally, after many delays and much anticipation, the real Strider 2 has finally arrived on American shores—and after playing it—I can hardly contain my joy.
Much like the several other recent forays into old-school 2D action (like Treasure's Radiant Silvergun, Technosoft's Thunder Force V and Squaresoft's Einhander), Strider 2 boasts a combination of superbly animated 2D sprites set against lavishly detailed, side-scrolling 3-D backdrops. Everyone knows that 2D is Capcom's speciality, and truthfully, I've never seen such an exciting combination of visuals as in Strider 2. People used to talk about how PlayStation couldn't handle 2D graphics as well as Saturn could, but I'm here to say that Saturn could have never handled Strider 2. I've never seen better graphics on PlayStation.
I was initially a bit skeptical of the joining of the two different visual styles in Strider 2. I was wanting nothing less than full-on, take-no-prisoners 2D action—the kind where there's so much going on at one time that you can't comprehend a damn thing. But it seems there's no chance of ever seeing new games of that sort ever again, since all games now must have some type of third dimension (or the illusion thereof) thrown in to appease the mass market. Thankfully, I was blown away at how successfully Strider 2 blends sprite-based and polygonal graphics to create a fresh and convincing game world. There really is a true harmony between the various elements of old and new game design.
Character animation adheres to the same technique that was pioneered by Capcom in the arcade fighting game, X-Men: Children Of The Atom, and later continued and further refined in the Street Fighter series. The hero of Strider 2, Hiryu, was basically taken directly from his cameo in Marvel Vs. Capcom and inserted into this game. He is beautifully animated and retains all of his trademark superhero ninja moves. Just like the old Genesis game, Hiryu can scale walls and hang from platforms. He swings his sword in a lightspeed crescent blur, and enemies explode in brilliant flashes of color. You enjoy playing as Hiryu just because he looks so damn cool as he hacks his way through the game.
Strider 2 looks and feels like an anime action film with its sharp visuals and techno-rock soundtrack. Only in this instance, there's no time to stop and enjoy the futuristic scenery because the game constantly moves at a breakneck pace. There were times when I felt the game could have slowed down a bit and incorporated some stealth elements into the gameplay. After all, Hiryu's Strider clan is a direct descendant of the traditional ninja—why not exploit the possibilities the premise introduces and allow him to sneak around and beat the enemy with his brains as well as his sword?
As it is, there's no relief from the adrenaline-filled run-and-slash action. Sometimes the game cuts so fast from level to level that it's hard to understand what's going on. When a level is cleared, the scene will suddenly and awkwardly switch to a boss confrontation—which never takes place in an area that looks even remotely like the one before it. Case in point: After the first level, Hiryu finds himself fighting this enormous robot dragon that flies high above the city. We have no idea how our hero got there, because his numerous abilities don't include flying.
This dragon boss fight is actually an exhilarating scene, but the game has to cheat a little to show it to us. I thought some cinematic story development could have been inserted in between the action (like in the NES version), or the game could have just let us play all the way through without interruption. Anything would have been better than jumping from one place to another without any explanation, and it does this sort of thing all throughout the game. The climatic boss finale made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, but I really can't complain much. Strider 2 is really just an old-school arcade game at heart, and it doesn't try to be anything more.
Strider 2 comes in a two-disc set—one disc for Strider 2, and the other for the original Strider arcade game. Although Capcom somehow managed to label the discs incorrectly, they did a good thing in including the game that my friends and I used to play like crazy on the Genesis so many years ago. With the release of Strider 2, gamers can now get an up-close, hands-on experience with two interpretations of classic action game thrills. The old Strider is a chance to play a landmark game, while Strider 2 shows us how exciting old game formulas can be with liberal use of current console technology.