Game ninjas are a curious bunch. Eschewing the historical form of ninjitsu, which emphasizes stealth, hit-and-run tactics, and above all else remaining unnoticed, ninjas in videogames have a hard time staying under the radar. Whether it be from shouting ‘hiya!’ at the top of one’s lungs constantly, or in Strider Hiryu’s case, swinging a flashy plasma sword at robotic enemies while a stylish red scarf flaps in the wind. A reboot of the arcade classic, 2014’s Strider attempts to remain true to its retro roots while updating the experience to keep things from going stale.
“The developer’s love of the source material shines through”The basics are the same as ever, including the plot and premise. Striders are the top of the assassination world, and nobody does it as good as Hiryu. Dropped deep behind enemy lines in Kazakh City, it’s up to Hiryu to vanquish Grandmaster Meio and his army of robotic soldiers. Story is just one way Double Helix has managed to keep the spirit of the 1989 original alive, and the developer’s love of the source material shines through. Scan lines, remixes of 8-bit tracks, every move that Hiryu makes, everything gives the game a pleasant air of ’80s nostalgia. Even the Cold War-era setting of Kazakh City remains the same, despite being quaintly anachronistic long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Ironically, it’s in the game’s attempts to update that things go south. The biggest change is turning Strider into a Metroid-like adventure, where there are plenty of hidden nooks to explore and areas just out of reach until the prerequisite ability is acquired. None of the exploration or ability acquisition feels organic or satisfying in the way it does in Metroid or later Castlevania titles. Doors remain obnoxiously locked until Hiryu finds one of the four plasma sword types, turning what would be unique weapons into boring, multi-colored skeleton keys that serve little purpose otherwise.
None of the abilities or upgrades Hiryu receives throughout his quest feel necessary. This is especially apparent during combat, when jumping over enemies and rapidly slashing at them is a perfectly viable method of dispatching run-of-the-mill hench bots all the way to the game’s supposed big bosses. The new exploration element of Strider feels bloated. You know a game’s grown tiresome when you race from one part of the city to the next and ignore dozens of enemies because you’re just trying to get to the next point of interest and taking the time to dispatch any enemy has grown stale.
Despite its predecessor being a hardcore action title the combat in Strider is remarkably tame. Sure, things start out mildly difficult with enemies taking a chunk of health here and there, but once a few upgrades are acquired it’s the Kazakh army that’s outmatched. A game doesn’t need to reach the insane levels of difficulty of a Ninja Gaiden to be good, but Strider can barely get a pulse racing, let alone sustain interest over the long haul. Slashing through the same enemies becomes rote, and the same brainless tactics work on all of the bosses, none of whom live up to the title’s legacy; restarts are rarely a requirement.
“It’s as if Hiryu is outfitted for the wrong game”While giving Hiryu a multitude of new ways to take down bad guys might have sounded good initially, in action it’s a huge pain to remember what does what, and an even slog to repeatedly have to backtrack through Kazakh City’s large zones when all you want to do is progess. It comes across as filler, plain and simple, especially in conjunction with the non-threat of all the enemies and bosses. It’s as if Hiryu is outfitted for the wrong game, a different Strider where the exploration is compelling instead of bothersome and the action hard and varied, enough to justify so many combat options.
Strider isn’t the lightning-in-a-bottle remake that Bionic Commando Rearmed was. That was a clever reimagining, where the updates enhanced the experience rather than detracted, and every new armament felt like a natural requirement of the combat mechanics. Here, it’s overstuffed with nary a worthy challenge in sight.