It’s been twenty-four years since the original Strider made its way into our homes. That’s pretty depressing in and of itself, but rejoice in the fact that it has now made its way back into our hands with this new release. Swinging in from Double Helix Games, after a troubled development, the good news is that it’s good, properly good.
For those unfamiliar with the Strider of old it originated as a side-scrolling arcade platformer, with players assuming the role of Hiryu, a futuristic assassin and member of the group known as the Striders. Why do we need assassins in the surely idyllic future I hear you ask? Well, of course someone has gone and ended up being a supreme dictator and let’s be honest, that just won't do. As Hiryu, you enter the city of Kazakh with the mission of removing the Grandmaster from his position by way of stopping him breathing.
As you, quite literally, drop into the beginning of the game there is a fantastic sense of continuity with the game that came before this iteration, and preservation of legacy with the added bonus of better visual fidelity is a theme that runs throughout. The game still plays out in a 2D perspective but one that is visually alive, with each area populated with animated backgrounds that give a great sense of place, whether it be scientists working in the background in labs or people runnings for their lives in the black market district. The sheer amount of artistry that has been ploughed into bringing the world of Kazakh alive is something that is never short of impressive and you will rarely feel that you have seen this background or that background countless times while playing.
The animation also deserves a mention as it is smooth as melted butter, with every somersault and power slide being rendered in a high dose of frames per second. When the screen gets busy with action there are two things you will notice. Firstly that the game keeps pace with the madness and you’ll never be cheated by the system operating slower than your fingers. Secondly you will always feel in complete control, not once in the game did I lose track of where I was, who I was fighting or even what direction I was facing. This is no mean feat in a game that can really zip along at an eye-watering pace at times.
Hiryu is also a joy to control, being truly nimble in the tightest of spots and with the ability to switch between a range of attacks mid flow without dropping your controller. Truth be told there is a lot going on with the controller, not so much initially but as you progress and unlock various upgrades, options and cypher types the controller becomes a playground of destruction. Your D-Pad becomes your method of controlling what Cypher type you use, with your Cypher being your sword...obviously. From the ability to deflect bullets, to setting fire to your enemies you will be able to swap between these abilities at will and with great speed in any situation thanks to the slickness of the controls. And you will need to manage the differing types of Cypher for a number of reasons. Some enemies can only be defeated by certain Cypher types and you may have different enemy types on screen at the same time so you need to be quick and decisive with your attacks.
The clever thing about the Cypher types is also that they operate as keys to different doors throughout the game, so for example your Cypher type that freezes enemies will also slow down some spinning doors that you were previously unable to move through to allow you access to previously unreachable areas. And this is where Strider really passes from perfectly acceptable modern imagining to a rock-solid standalone. What Double Helix have done is to move beyond the simple arcade platformer to develop what is, at times, a labyrinthine MetroidVania. That is not to say that it simply apes that genre but rather it takes it and makes one of the finest examples of the genre to date. You will find yourself revisiting areas that have now opened up to hunt down as many collectibles and upgrades as you can, and it truly is a game for those of you who love to hunt down that elusive 100% ranking.
It’s not all roses though and there are a few niggles that do emerge - the first of which is that the game is really not that tough. It is one way that it really differentiates from the original but not in a particularly good way, as you will rarely find yourself stumped with deaths typically stemming from idiocy, bravado or not understanding a new enemy attack pattern. It’s a shame that the difficulty wasn’t ramped slightly, as even on the higher levels it remains enjoyable rather than challenging. To counter that point is the fact that because it is never over-challenging you will see the game through, you will enjoy it and you will go back to cover as much ground as you can in the quest to max out all collectibles, and so forth. The other real niggle is purely sometimes Hiryu is a little bit stickier than he should be, not saying that he has soiled his stylish blue futuristic trousers but rather he clings to walls at inopportune times. While not a major blemish on the absolute joy of the controls it can be frustrating when a jumping attack suddenly has you dangling from the ceiling like a ninja pinata with all and sundry having a free swing while looking for the ninja candy. But these are merely trifles in an otherwise exceptional package.
I would be utterly remiss if I ended this review with no mention of the boss fights in this game as they will truly bring a smile to your face. These are big, bold and obnoxious boss fights like the games you remember from the 16-bit days brought to you in next-gen presentation. They are a real driver in keeping you moving through the game as it is a joy to work out the attack patterns and exploit them over and over again. From a quartet of female assassins known as The Winds to flying through the air on the back of a robotic dragon, the game is tirelessly inventive and fun and serve to tie together the shaky story in a creative and fun way. There is something wonderfully pure about Strider, the marrying of slick controls with slicker visuals in the hands of a developer that not only knows their source material but know how to improve it is something unfortunately quite rare.
The best compliment I can give Strider is that it is a game that will succeed on its own merits and not by comparison to the original. There has been a lot of love thrown into this game by the developers, but more importantly they have also infused their vision of what the original game could always have been. It’s exemplary work and while not perfect you really couldn’t ask for a better Strider game. If you hear a strange rhythmic noise, don’t worry, it’s just me at the back of the room starting a slow clap.