Arcade gaming at the end of the millennium was an exciting place to be, stained carpets and cheaply laminated floors across the globe covered in a whole range of BeatMania and Dance Dance Revolution machines, Crazy Taxi blaring out a selection of Offspring tracks to anyone in a five mile radius (why is that always the one cabinet you can hear over everything else?!), and Typing of the Dead somehow making the ridiculous look effortlessly cool. Any arcade machine that hoped to be anything came with some sort of enormous novelty attachment or an eye-catching bucket seat with speakers in the headrest – a mindset that made it a pretty tough place to be an old-fashioned arcade game that wasn’t a danmaku shmup or one-on-one fighter. In spite of this Strider Hiryu 2 insisted on waltzing in without a care in the world – the sequel nobody asked for in the genre nobody was paying any attention to. Things weren’t any more welcoming for Strider 2’s home port a few short months later either – this was a time when a console action platformer meant playing Croc 2, Sonic Adventure, Spyro, Rayman 2, and [shudder] Earthworm Jim 3D, after all. Metal Slug X may have been doing its best to keep the 2D action embers glowing in its natural environment but for all the joys that game brings it was still very much a specialist niche release playing to a diminishing crowd, a quirky little throwback to a style and time most had already happily left behind.
However this brave/stupid (you could make an honest case either way, really) decision to pursue something other than the status quo did have some benefits for Strider 2: As nobody really knew what it meant to be a 2.5D action game in this future-obsessed 3D era (not a good one, anyway – not unless you’re Klonoa) the team behind Hiryu’s triumphant return were by and large free to do as they pleased, safe in the knowledge that they had no direct competition to worry about and all of the older action-platformer favourites the game could have been compared to were rapidly fading from memory. Strider 2 didn’t even have to worry too much about how it held up to the original Strider either, as by the time the sequel was released a whole decade divided the pair which in gaming terms – especially when you consider the speed of technological evolution between 1989 and 1999 – meant they may as well have been a thousand lifetimes apart.
Although Strider 2 may have decided to ignore contemporary trends it still needed to stand out in a noisy arcade or on shop shelves next to countless other PlayStation titles – it still needed to have, for want of a kinder term, “regular” gamers feeding arcade machines with credits or parting with cash to play it at home. So it had to find that head-turning “wow” factor… in a game running on hardware that was positively ancient by arcade standards, definitely long in the tooth at home, and held at its core cherished memories of games gone by. Strider 2 handles problem this with confidence and beauty, combining Hiryu’s hallmark fluidity of movement with truly non-stop action to create the finest dystopian future sci-fi ninja action game with added penguins gaming has ever seen.
Like Treasure’s 16-bit love letter Alien Soldier, Strider 2 dispenses with the standard level/boss/level/boss routine found in most side-scrolling action games and replaces it with nothing but finely-crafted highlights of the highest highs the genre has to offer. These breathless scenes may only last for two or three minutes at the very most – and ideally far less if you’re playing well – but each delightful morsel plays out like the perfect answer to the most ridiculous questions a level designer could ever hope to come up with: “What if you had to fight a cyborg walrus while you were upside-down?” “How much fun would it be to fight a trio of lithe lady assassins on top of a line of hover cars?”, bringing to life all sorts of bright flash-in-the-pan ideas other games wouldn’t dare to touch. You would be right to question just how much depth there is in a scenario that can be accurately summarised as “FIGHTING A ROBOT HORSE KNIGHT” and “FAT GUY WITH A ROCKET-FIRING BELLY” and the answer can only be… very little. But these off-the-wall thrills work perfectly within these bite-sized settings, their only concern being to present you with as many exciting set pieces as often as is humanly possible, and that is why this is the only game that has you moving from cyborg woolly mammoth fight time to I guess we’re upside-down in space now in what feels like the blink of an eye.
Of course it’d be silly to pretend that this sort of presentation wasn’t in any danger of feeling quite “bitty” and inconsistent, a sugared-up string of random events held together with little more than earnest enthusiasm and a stage number – the hope perhaps being that it was all passing by too fast for you to think too much about it. But thanks to that special sort of lavish attention to detail you only find in arcade-born titles these individual nuggets of pure exhilaration never lose their sense of place, filled with unique flourishes that can tell you where you are just by looking at them – please take a moment to enjoy the fluffy collars on the winter gear worn only by the “popcorn” goons in Antarctica, and do notice the way the gun-toting baddies found only in the first section of the battleship level are leaning back to compensate for the extreme angle of the ship’s tilt. Hiryu himself has a variety of angled animations and poses to match anything the game can throw at him too, and that is why his expertly animated sprite never looks out of place whether he’s hanging from the underside of a small floating platform or slicing away at the barriers panicked scientists are hurriedly erecting to block his path. These “fluff” details are hugely important in a game that wants to mix 2D sprites with 3D structures well as it’s very easy to feel that disconnect between the two – and that would create a huge problem in a game that’s all about skill and precision.
But all of this attention heaped on the sprites doesn’t mean the polygonal structures of Neo Hong Kong or The Third Moon are ignored either, the careful camera shifts as Hiryu runs into the screen add a sense of depth without ever separating you from the action, the gritty PlayStation-level textures bridge the gap between sprite and background well, and when the game goes all-out and offers up a gorgeous panoramic view across a bridge at sunset it serves as both a spectacular piece of imagery as well as a practical view of all of the landmines and enemies you’re about to rush at like the most deadly ninja gaming has ever known. And this is what makes Strider 2 really sing: Everything is always about everything else, the 2D working with the 3D working with these superb wafer-thin slices of action, all tuned and tweaked in such a way to make sure you don’t just look cool but you get to act cool too; all fearless leaps and hanging off walls and turning into a whirling ball of death at the drop of a hat. The character, and your experience in the shoes of that character, are at the center of everything – Strider 2 always feels like a game that was made to be enjoyed.
This is reflected in the way the game handles its progression system too: Rather than forcing you to play from the first level and stop when you run out of lives, money, or patience you’re given free reign to choose any one of the first three stages, and once that’s out of the way you can either move on to the freshly-unlocked stage 4 (which then unlocks the final fifth stage) or go back and tackle one or both of the other two in any order you like. This allows newbies to see stages they might not otherwise reach and lets those who want to get in some serious practise on a tricky stage without wading through the bits they can already clear in their sleep do so, getting everyone straight to the part they want to play the most as quickly as possible. However due to this need to take into account the friendly hug of immediacy as well as the stern gaze of arcade-level challenge it’s fair to say that purely from a survival perspective Strider 2 is in no danger of being considered difficult by any stretch of the imagination, especially as using a continue revives you on the spot and you can do so as often as you like (or as often as you can afford to, in an arcade) – reaching the end credits is simply a matter of patience, not skill.
This is completely intentional.
Strider 2 is the action-platforming equivalent of an arcade shmup – of course you cleared the game… but did you do it well? How quickly did you do it? What rank did you get? Doing well in Strider 2 means nothing less than a fast and flawless run that requires you to plan your route around picking up hidden bonus point items sneakily stashed throughout the stage, deliberately putting yourself in even more danger and increasing your chances of taking a score-decimating hit as you do so. The scoring is unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes and ranking is harsh, the sort of thing where a decent run from a normal player will earn them a C rank if they’re lucky and anything higher than that is the exclusive domain of only the most dedicated of fans.
In keeping with the true score attack experience Strider 2 does as terrible a job of communicating this area of importance to its players as any other (see also: Nights Into Dreams); not even the manual for the PlayStation port makes any serious mention of scores, ranking, or any real hints as to where the meat of the game lies – it gives more space over to an advert for the game’s (excellent) soundtrack than it does helpful pointers on finding the true heart of the game. Now this may not be a new or unexpected issue for this sort of thing but it’s so very frustrating to see something that’s already in there and polished so well, something that has the potential to awaken a whole new group of dedicated score-chasing fans if only they knew it existed at all cast aside with a derisory “Pick up items to increase your score” comment and nothing more. Shmups have enough of a “culture” surrounding them to help shield them from “Why play it again when I already finished it in ten minutes?” comments but Strider 2, marching to its own beat and outside the safety of the 80’s arcade bubble, does not. In the right hands it’s fast, fluid, and utterly breathtaking with just the right sort of raw arcade challenge to make mastery of the game’s skills and secrets extremely satisfying – but only if you know that secret metagame exists in the first place.