Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be discussing the high-flying chicanery of Strider. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Capcom had established an impressive library of arcade hits by 1987, including 1942 (1984), Ghosts and Goblins (1985), Bionic Commando (1987), and Street Fighter (1987). This market was growing less reliable as home console popularity increased, however, necessitating more efficient means of arcade board production. Having previously developed new machines on a proprietary basis, Capcom introduced the highly flexible CP System in 1988 with Forgotten Worlds. The new hardware allowed the studio to simply plug in new ROMs to a standard arcade board for which all of the software was designed.
Capcom was simultaneously exploring new means of cross-promotion as it developed new intellectual properties (IPs). The first of these would be Strider, a stylized action-heavy ninja story set in the 2040s. Strider was planned as a triple release, combining a manga by artist collective Moto Kikaku with arcade and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) titles developed by two independent teams at Capcom. The manga was published in 1988 and the property made its CP System-driven arcade debut in early 1989.
Strider (Arcade – 1989)
Capcom’s Kouichi Yotsui was the creator of the franchise’s central character Strider Hiryu. Yotsui had gone to school for art and aspired to be a filmmaker, but outstanding educational loans and a harsh reception by his student project mentor – apparently a major figure in Japanese cinema – convinced him to take a job at Capcom in the late 1980s. Yotsui successfully pitched the concept of Strider to Capcom’s executives and he was assigned to lead development on the arcade version; according to a 2013 interview with John Szczepaniak published in The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, Yotsui pulled the name ‘Strider’ from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Due to a lack of communication between each team working on the property following an initial discussion of its fundamentals, the arcade release differs conspicuously from Moto Kikaku’s 1988 manga.
While the manga had centered on a conflict between protagonist Hiryu and a fellow Strider (this universe’s cybernetically-enhanced ninja collective), Capcom’s arcade game depicts Hiryu’s quest to assassinate the Russian Empire’s evil Grandmaster Meio in 2048. Hiryu infiltrates the East European city of Kafazu and then four more diverse locales, including the Amazon rainforest and a moonbase. Between stages, cutscenes convey an uncharacteristically engaging plot for the era.
Strider‘s presentation is generally quite flashy. Sprites are large and highly detailed, while Hiryu’s acrobatic actions are lushly animated. In spite of rough audio quality, Capcom recorded voiceovers in multiple real-world languages based on each character’s nationality; Russian, Japanese, English, and other clips appear during cutscenes and gameplay. Uncredited composer Junko Tamiya’s soundtrack maintains the high quality that defined Capcom’s late-1980s oeuvre.
Each of the game’s five stages feature a combination of platforming challenges and combat. In contrast with its genre contemporaries, Strider utilizes an eight-directional joystick which combines with two buttons to permit a vast array of slick ninja actions. Hiryu can cartwheel, slide along the floor, climb walls with a hook tool, and dice up enemies with his sword. Overpowered mid-stage and end-stage bosses eat up player quarters but are worth the investment, as they feature the game’s most memorable art design; highlights include Ourobouros, a Soviet-themed centipede comprised of Russian Empire officers, and a robotic gorilla.
Though Koichi Yotsui claimed in the aforementioned interview with John Szczepaniak that Strider was not a commercial success, numerous ports of varying quality were produced for home consoles throughout the coming decade. These include versions on the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive, SEGA Master System, Sharp X68000, TurboGrafx CD, and Sony PlayStation; most of these were reasonably faithful, with the Genesis/Mega Drive, PlayStation, and X68000 receiving particularly strong critical acclaim. The TurboGrafx CD iteration, which features some technical problems, is noteworthy for additional boss monologues and a desert stage not present in the arcade original. Ports produced for PCs like the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, and ZX Spectrum, on the other hand, were uniformly plagued with poor gameplay and presentation. Some even introduce continuity errors and an ending revision which recontextualizes the preceding events as a simulation.
Strider (NES – 1989)
The NES version of Strider shares the name of its arcade counterpart but is, in fact, a wholly distinct experience. It was developed simultaneously by a different team and actually bears more narrative similarities to the manga than the arcade version. Production was led by designer Masayoshi Kurokawa, who had formerly developed Higemaru Makaijima (1987) for Capcom. Fellow Higemaru Makaijima alum and future Mega Man 3 (1990) collaborator Harumi Fujita served as Strider‘s composer.
The protagonist is again Strider Hiryu and the game is set in 2048, though the surrounding plot concerns Hiryu’s assignment to assassinate captured former ally Kain rather than Grandmaster Meio. This initially straightforward goal is complicated, however, following Hiryu’s successful infiltration of the base where Kain is imprisoned. The quest then sees Hiryu exploring a series of seven additional locations as he attempts to avert the zombification of Earth’s population.
Gameplay is less complex than the arcade version. Hiryu again navigates sprawling 2D stages from a side-scrolling perspective but is generally limited in actions to sword strikes and jumps, while a rudimentary physics system allows Hiryu to leap higher after he gains momentum or bounce off of walls. Hiryu collects experience points and can level up to enhance his strength and acquire new abilities – like healing and projectile attacks – as the game progresses. Stages must be revisited to collect formerly inaccessible items and unlock additional areas in the style of a Metroidvania, though that platforming sub-genre would not otherwise achieve mainstream popularity until the late 1990s.
Due to the NES’ limited processing power, sprites are smaller and less detailed than in Strider‘s arcade predecessor. Recorded voice clips are likewise absent. Harumi Fujita’s soundtrack, however, is exceptionally varied and complex.
Though planned for the Famicom in 1989, Strider would only be released in the West. The appearance of an unreleased Famicom ROM in 2014 confirmed that it was even less polished than the troublingly glitch-prone NES version. A 2006 port to the Game Boy Advance as part of Capcom Classics Mini Mix is the game’s only subsequent re-release after 1989, but poor emulation renders it a lackluster port.
Strider II / Journey From Darkness: Strider Returns (1990)
In a complication to the franchise’s already-messy naming convention, the next series entry was titled Strider II in its native Europe while a later North American release was re-titled Journey From Darkness: Strider Returns. It bears the franchise’s name and is broadly similar to the arcade title in its 2D side-scrolling gameplay, but is otherwise a poor imitation. It was produced for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, IBM PC, and Amiga by Tiertex, the studio that had developed Strider‘s disappointing PC ports, rather than Capcom. One of the more amusing consequences of this shift in developer is the protagonist being renamed The Hero (Hinjo in some ports) due to Tiertex’s failure to secure the rights to the name Hiryu from Moto Kikaku.
Strider Returns began life as an original title called T.O.R. that used Strider sprites as graphical placeholders, but Tiertex determined at some point during development to stick with the placeholders and license the Strider intellectual property (IP) from Capcom. The result is a game that looks like Strider but fails to capture the kinetic energy for which the franchise is known. In an echo of the game’s origins, the Hero even has the inexplicable ability to transform into a robot during boss encounters.
Strider Returns‘ five stages are non-linear in the manner of its NES predecessor rather than the series’ arcade debut. Boss encounters are generally less imaginative than either earlier release, centering more or less entirely on bland military machinery. In spite of this, Strider Returns sees the series move more explicitly into a science fiction aesthetic rather than a heightened dystopia image of the real-world’s near future. The Hero is summoned to another planet at the game’s start to rescue a princess rather than taking its cues from the Cold War; one wonders if this is down to the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, though a more likely explanation is (again) the game’s original prototype. The arcade original’s antagonist, Grandmaster Meio, reappears under the new name Evil Master.
Ports were created for SEGA’s Master System, Game Gear, and Mega Drive/Genesis in 1993. All are improvements on the PC original, though none succeed in capturing the charm of their arcade namesake. Poor reception to the NES version of Strider and 1990’s Tiertex-produced sequel forced the series into hibernation for most of the following decade.
Strider 2 (1999)
Strider creator Kouichi Yotsui left Capcom for Takeru in 1990 and soon moved on from there to Mitchell Corporation. Ten years after its series debut, however, Capcom finally brought the Strider IP back under the care of its Production Studio 1. Hiryu’s appearance as a playable fighter in 1998’s Marvel vs. Capcom likely played a role in this revival, as Strider 2 lead developer Atsushi Tomita had also been the main designer of that earlier one-on-one fighting game. Co-designer Harumaru looked to American comic books like Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn as the studio redesigned Hiryu’s look for a new audience. Though the game initially underwent a troubled development cycle and a lukewarm reception when previewed at E3 1999, Tomita successfully guided it to completion before the end of the year; Strider 2 was released to critical praise at arcades around the world in December 1999.
Players take on the role of the acrobatic ninja as he battles his way through five stages to prevent the recently resurrected Grandmaster Meio from conquering Earth. In contrast to its arcade predecessor, Strider 2 allows the player to choose the order in which they tackle the first four stages. Due to this non-linear progression, Hiryu gains access to improved skills and stats through temporary power-ups like he had in the original Strider rather than in the ability-gated Metroidvania style of the NES version. Hiryu’s acrobatic moves are likewise inspired by Strider 2‘s arcade predecessor, though he can now double jump and gains greater range based on his movement momentum.
Strider 2‘s greatest update is its presentation. Hiryu and most other characters are sprites, but they are juxtaposed against 2.5D polygonal stage environments. Massive bosses, on the other hand, are comprised of textured polygons. Sadly, voice acting represents the one area in which Strider 2 does not constitute an improvement the 1989 original; interstitial still-image cutscenes return but all characters are voiced in Japanese rather than languages associated with their real-world homelands.
A Sony PlayStation port released in 2000 is exceptionally faithful to the prior year’s arcade version due to Capcom’s use of the Sony ZN-2 arcade board. A similarly faithful PlayStation port of the 1989 arcade original, included as a second disc in the PlayStation release, allows the player to access additional playable character Strider Hien in Strider 2 if they complete it and import save data when booting up the latter title. A bonus stage in Strider 2 is likewise made accessible by completing and loading in data from the packed-in Strider.
In keeping with Strider‘s idiosyncratic ten-year release cycle, a follow-up to Strider 2 was in development at the Barcelona branch of European studio Grin in the late 2000s. This Capcom-licensed product was quietly canceled in 2009 upon Grin’s sudden closure. Though the studio had only officially published a brief promotional teaser prior to its bankruptcy, unreleased Strider concept art was preserved and made available online in 2012.
The IP’s popularity among fans online made Capcom accept a proposal from California-based studio Double Helix, which had developed PlayStation 3 titles Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008) and Front Mission Evolved (2010), to reboot the series in the early 2010s. Double Helix worked closely with longtime Capcom employees at the Japanese developer’s Osaka branch to ensure that the game captured the spirit of its predecessors without retreading overly familiar ground. The result is a reimagining that pulls in character iconography and abilities from Strider, Strider 2, and Marvel vs Capcom while establishing an entirely new approach to game progression.
Level design is non-linear and takes cues from the Metroidvania genre in an effort to extend the game’s playtime without becoming tedious. In a direct nod to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997), player character Hiryu begins with all of his abilities but loses them shortly after the game’s introduction. Players then explore the massive landscape of Kazakh City, opening up new avenues of traversal as skills and augmentations to Hiryu’s sword are recovered. Grandmaster Meio returns as the primary antagonist.
Unlike the comparatively realistic rendering of the character and universe that appeared in Grin’s prototype, Double Helix’s Strider features a highly stylized 2.5D art design. All models and environments are polygonal, rather than sprite-based, though Hiryu’s new appearance was created by Capcom art director and Strider 2 illustrator Sho Sakai. In spite of its larger scale and heavier emphasis on exploration, Strider (2014) features significantly faster movement speed than any earlier series entry.
The fifth Strider game launched across digital distribution services for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC in February 2014. The versions for seventh generation hardware run at a framerate of 30 frames per second while the eighth generation and PC ports run at 60 frames per second; all versions are otherwise identical. Though criticism has been directed towards its comparatively conservative environments and sometimes-uninspired boss encounters, reception overall was extremely positive.
No spinoffs to Strider were published or licensed by Capcom, but character creator Kouichi Yotsui developed a spiritual successor to the arcade original during his time at Mitchell Corporation. 1996’s Osman – titled Cannon Dancer in Japan – sees the player take control of its eponymous Hiryu-esque figure as he runs, jumps, and fights his way through a variety of 2D stages. The story is quite similar to 1989’s arcade version of Strider, with Osman being ordered to assassinate a nefarious sorceress threatening its technologically advanced dystopian future. In contrast to Strider’s USSR stand-in, Osman’s sinister world government is clearly influenced by the United States. The plot deepens slightly through double-crosses conveyed via lightly animated cutscenes and roughly localized dialogue.
Though it is highly reminiscent of Capcom’s IP, a handful of differences successfully set Mitchell Corporation’s 1996 arcade side-scroller apart from Strider. The most immediately apparent update is its Middle Eastern aesthetic and Persian Gulf setting. Osman also utilizes punches and kicks, rather than a sword, to defeat enemies. Power-ups unique to the game offer Osman the ability to duplicate himself with shadow doubles while an overpowered special attack can be used to defeat all on-screen enemies or trivialize otherwise-challenging boss encounters if the player conserves its limited uses.
Strider took the arcade world by storm upon its original 1989 release, though a middling NES version and a badly-received licensed sequel threatened to sink the property by the early 1990s. A popular port of the arcade original to the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis, lead character Hiryu’s appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom, and Capcom’s long-overdue arcade follow-up ensured that the character would avoid being a one-hit wonder. Hiryu’s ongoing popularity among online fans even resulted in another excellent home console sequel 15 years after his last outing. While there is no word of a sixth series entry at the time of writing in February 2020, the series’ idiosyncratic release schedule inspires confidence that Hiryu will somersault his way back on-screen in the next decade.
What do you think about Strider? Which is your favorite title? How about your favorite boss? How could Capcom modernize the franchise in the 2020s? What’s your favorite surface to climb on? Let’s discuss below!
Here is a tentative list of upcoming Franchise Festival articles:
- #83: Deus Ex – March 20
- #84: Style Savvy – March 27
- #85: Sonic the Hedgehog (2D) – April 3
- #86: Sonic the Hedgehog (3D) – April 10
- #87: Masters of Orion – April 17
Please also be sure to check out the Franchise Festival podcast, in which I discuss the history of The Legend of Zelda franchise entry by entry with my co-hosts Spencer and Hamilton. Check it out using your preferred podcast app or online.