Today’s post is not exactly safe for children and the elderly, so please proceed at your own risk. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Time flows like a river, and history repeats. And, in a lot of videogame sequels, it gets kind of ridiculous.
Today’s game is Strider 2, the 1999 sequel to Strider that absolutely should not be confused with the 1990 NES sequel, 2014 latest sequel, or Tiger Handheld game I still have for some reason. Strider 2 is the direct sequel to the original arcade hit that sees Strider Hiryu once again fighting against the nefarious forces of the Grandmaster, an evil dude in a cloak with the magical ability to summon dinosaurs out of nothing. Fun fact: I don’t know why this guy has to “conquer” the world with a malicious army and enormous, flying battleship; I’d vote for anybody that ran on an all dinosaur-reviving platform (I’m a single-issue voter). Regardless, Strider fights through five stages in an adventure that seems like a “PSX remix” version of his previous arcade game. There are new challenges, new areas, and at least one headless horseman (sans horse), but there’s also the gravity lab, the Balrog, and other familiar spots from Strider 1. Like a lot of good videogames, Strider 2 deftly walks the line between nostalgia and innovation, and it winds up being a fine way to spend an afternoon.
But when you beat Strider 2, you’ll find this little gem of dialogue.
And, if you check the auxiliary materials for further information, you’ll find that the overarching plot of Strider 2 isn’t just “Grandmaster’s revenge”, it’s “Grandmaster’s revenge… 2,119 years later”. But don’t worry, Strider has been resurrected, reincarnated, or… something… so it’s all going to work out. And, conveniently, the exact same characters and venues have been revived along with Grandmaster, so you can fight the Tong Pooh triplets or Solo all over again. Just… try not to think about the fact that these characters are literally two millennia old, and all they want to do with their apparent immortality is fight some dork with a sword. I mean, I guess you have to do something to keep busy.
And it’s all happened before.
Like most of the nation, I’ve been playing a lot of Zelda: Breath of the Wild recently. Light spoilers and whatnot, but the main plot of that game concerns a Link and Zelda that were supposed to be the heroes that defeat Ganon like every Link and Zelda before them, but, ya know, mistakes were made, and now the kingdom is in more distress than usual. Now, anyone that has seen a preview image knows the exact reason Link failed to stop Ganon the first time, and that’s that he forsook his green tunic for some blue getup. Saving Hyrule is a very precarious balancing act, Link, you change one little detail, and the whole thing collapses! Or maybe it was just that this Zelda wasn’t that into it?
In a way, Breath of the Wild simultaneously resists the cyclonic nature of the “prophecy” and “reincarnating hero” myths with a Link that kinda fails, but also more deeply outlines exactly why this kind of trope is, frankly, ridiculous. There’s a giant pig monster menacing the castle? Well, who is the princess? Does she like dressing up like a magical ninja? Do we have some teenager hanging around in a doofy hat? The royal family of Breath of the Wild realized there was a singular answer to the Ganon problem throughout history (kid with sword), and failed because they tried to add a few bells and whistles (robots never go bad!) to “guarantee” a victory. And guess what finally winds up winning the day? Spoilers, it’s a kid with a sword!
So you’re damned if you try to game the reincarnation cycle, but, don’t worry, the reincarnation cycle will win the day in the end.
Castlevania follows a similar Grandmaster/Ganon revives, hero shows up to trash the place cycle, but at least Dracula gets genre savvy pretty early in that environment. If we look at one of the earliest Castlevania games, Castlevania Adventure 2, we’ll find a Dracula that has already identified “the Belmont problem”, and started kidnapping wee Belmont tots to further his own agenda. And then we’ve got Shaft controlling Richtor, who explained something about creating an endless cycle of vampire hunter death or whatever before some dhampir dork smacked a sword into his face a couple hundred times. And by the time Julius Belmont is ready to seal Dracula in an eclipse, the Belmont name has been hidden from the public for ages, because Drac figured out this whole “phone book” technology thing, and “Morris” is totally not in the B section.
So why does this keep happening across videogames? On one hand, it’s an easy story convention that clearly predates videogames. I’m pretty sure Hercules had only existed for two weeks before some random dude decided to make a “Hercules reborn in modern times” story… even if “modern times” was “The Roman Empire”. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to co-opt some ancient bad guy and reincarnate/revive the dude for instant gravitas. Hero barely beat Villain the first time! Now he’s back from the dead, and he’s got…. let’s see here, what would be threatening… a laser rifle! How ever will ancient hero with his ancient ways win this one!? Heck, you don’t even have to get heroic to pull off this trope, just look at how many “modern reincarnations” of Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast have made it into the theatres. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, Tingle and the Link.
But there is something different about videogames. Videogames are about recurring stories, yes, but there is always more to a videogame than just the story. The gameplay has to be familiar, too, and to reuse Zelda again in an article ostensibly about Strider (I have been playing a lot of Breath of the Wild, dammit!), it’s one thing to have a Zelda game that doesn’t feature Zelda, but God help you if you want to make a Zelda game without a boomerang of some kind. Link will fight Ganon, and he’ll do it with arrows, the Master Sword, and a blue shield with a triangle on it. Remember how Symphony of the Night was the greatest thing to happen to Castlevania in a decade? Remember how people at the time spent hours of their lives whining about the “unforgivable blunder” that Alucard couldn’t use a whip? I remember. Oh, God, I remember.
But it’s that strict adherence to familiar gameplay moments that make these games so seemingly impossible. It is one thing to have a dude rescue a princess from a pig man every century or so, but it’s another that there just happens to be an Impa, hookshot, and Beedle available from the beginning of time until the end. But the fans would be upset if those beats weren’t recycled, so here’s your Temple of Time all over again, even though it seriously calls into question the capricious work habits of the masons of Hyrule.
Which brings us to the most insane abuse of this trope: Gunstar Super Heroes, which, save a few minor changes, features the exact same plot as Gunstar Heroes, complete with characters with the same names and roles. Green betrays the team, Orange is muscle man, and Black has built another damn board game castle. It all happens exactly as it did in the previous game, which supposedly takes place centuries before. Did… nobody write anything down? Bah, it doesn’t matter, what’s important is that you’ve got a minecart battle with Green in a shape-shifting mech, because, if that somehow didn’t happen, then what’s even in the point in making a Gunstar game?
And maybe that’s what we need to learn from Strider 2. If we want to have a game that reuses beats from the previous, beloved game, then maybe it’s okay that the plot is exactly the same. We’ve gotta have that gravity room, we’ve gotta have that fight on the back of a dragon-Russian parliament thingy, and we’ve gotta fight the Grandmaster again. It wouldn’t be Strider without it! So the people of the Strider Universe have to be stuck in an endless time loop to get there? Well, more’s the pity, but we have to squeeze the Balrog in there somewhere. Plot is secondary to gameplay in any given videogame, right? You’re not supposed to be thinking about how Strider Land “works”, silly player.
But time flows like a river, and, inevitably, a little voice in my head is going to repeat, “Yeah, but why is this whole thing happening again?” And you can’t just slaughter another grandmaster to get the answer to that one.
FGC #259 Strider 2
- System: Playstation, Arcade, and wherever it pops up as a downloadable title. Playstation 3? That sounds right.
- Number of players: There is only one Strider Hiryu. Though I guess you can play as the other ninja after you beat the game once.
- Favorite level: The third stage features a cybernetic wooly mammoth flanked by malevolent hockey players. Then there’s a scientist that drinks a werewolf potion. I want to ground up that level and snort it.
- Thar be Dragons: Hiryu is Japanese for dragon. Ryu, either the star of Street Fighter or Breath of Fire, is also named for dragons. So, how many dragon heroes are in the Capcom pantheon? And do they all get together and hang out on occasion? BoF Ryu is unimpressed by SF Ryu’s so-called “dragon punch”, and Strider just hangs out in the corner, drinking punch? Is this what Capcom Fighting All-Stars was going to be about?
- Don’t judge a book: Just so we’re all clear…
The disc on the left that is labeled “Strider” is the disc for Strider 2, and the disc on the right that says “Strider 2” contains the original Strider arcade game. This is not confusing at all.
- Credit where credit is due: I will admit that this article partially found its origin in a comment by one Metal Man Master on a previous (already linked) FGC entry. Thank you, MMM. Playing Strider 2 after Breath of the Wild may have made a teeny impact, too.
- Did you know? The illustrations for this game come compliments of Tatsuya Yoshikawa, right? The same guy behind the art of the PSX Breath of Fire games? It really looks that way, but, one way or another, art good, ya’all.
- Would I play again: This whole game feels like it takes about ten minutes to complete. That’s a good thing for the last of the “arcade” style action games. So, yeah, I’ll probably make another high score run again.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Giga Wing for the Sega Dreamcast! This is not to be confused with the lesser Mega Wing or Kilo Wing games. This is Giga Wing, all the way. Please look forward to it!
Fighting games are the closest experiences we have to “standard” cinematic experiences. Your average “action”-based affair features a hero, hero’s best friend, and hero’s inevitable love interest versus the forces of bad guy and bad guy’s second. Toss in a couple of comic relief characters (works for either side), an inescapably doomed mentor, and maybe the romantic lead’s chubby friend, and, basically, you’ve got the full cast of a movie, dramatic television show, or fighting game. Walter and Jessie versus Gus and Mike, or Ryu and Ken versus M Bison and Sagat? It doesn’t matter from a basic story structure perspective. What does matter is how many videogames necessitate… a slightly larger cast. The blockbuster, genre-defining Super Mario Bros. movie involved King Koopa and his army of two (2) goombas. Super Mario Bros. for the NES included more goombas in its first ten seconds, and never mind the sheer number of surprisingly lethal turtles wandering around. JRPGs are all about defeating Big Bad and his four malevolent lieutenants… and the 17,000 random monsters between here and the next town. Remember that beloved scene in Back to the Future when Marty is walking back and forth between Doc’s Mansion and Hill Valley, and he has to slaughter twenty random wolves and Big Boss Wolf? Yeah, me neither. In short, a number of videogame genres are forced into a sort of endless loop of adding more and more “nobodies” to the plot to validate gameplay conventions, while Fighting Games have to put in no such effort. Liu Kang hates Shao Kahn, and, after fighting six guys, they’re gonna settle this thing. Who would want to play a game that complicates that story?
So it’s always kind of surprised me that more games don’t borrow (re: steal) the basic layout of a fighting game. I’d argue that Smash Bros. does this with aplomb while still being more of a “platform/action” game without carrying all the baggage of a typical fighter (and I suppose that statement thus includes every game that ever copied Smash Bros). And, in a way, most sports games follow the same template, as you don’t have to battle, say, the Dallas Cowboys Color Guard before tackling the real Cowboy opponents in the latest Madden. But I guess that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? In film, a tight cast is a standard bit of storytelling, while, in a videogame, you’re only going to see such a thing in a sports/competitive environment. Otherwise, without a bunch of random nobodies to kill, what are you going to do? We all love that Street Fighter 2 bonus stage, but you can only beat up a car so many times before it gets old.
Or maybe cars can beat up… each other?
Today we’re looking at a game from the Playstation/N64 days. Most people remember the mid to late 90’s as the age of the JRPG boom brought on by Final Fantasy 7; however, this was also the epoch of the rise of “cool people games”. After a decade of videogames being synonymous with furry mascots and stabby elves, the big guys all seemed anxious to push a mandate of more “mature” gaming. And by “mature”, I mean “appeals to teenagers that so desperately want to drive a car and maybe touch a boob”. This led to the premiere of many “realistic” heroes, like Gordon Freeman and Lara Croft, who fought real-life problems, like aliens and t-rexes. Okay, the games might not have been any more realistic than what came before, but at least they were less cartoony, and that was good enough for a generation that was, finally, ready to play it loud.
This, coupled with the advances in graphics and scaling technology, led to a lot of racing games. A lot. Like, there was a time when you could walk into an Electronics Boutique, and there was just a wall of random cool looking cars staring back at you. “Realistic” racing games were meant to be system sellers, and, perhaps as some kind of residual aftereffect of Blast Processing, speed was king. One of these days I’m going to review that Playstation “future” racing game that involves the half-pipe and moving at super-speed… but I’m not going to name it right now, because I can’t remember if it’s that game I’m thinking of, or that other game with the exact same premise. Or maybe it was that other one? Meh, I’ll figure out later. Point is that there were a lot of racing games at the time.
Racing games naturally fall into that “competition” category like fighting and sports games. That means that your average “car game” could easily copy the fighting game template, and do the whole “unique character/unique story/unique ending” thing. That’s good! That creates memorable characters, that, in a sea of “red car vs. blue car” could make your new unique IP standout. People are always going to remember Scorpion, you could transform your racing competition game into something perennial with the right merchandising. Let’s make a car fighting game, and be legends forever!
And that car fighting game became… Twisted Metal. Who doesn’t love Sweet Tooth!? He was in Playstation All-Stars!
Three years later, there was Vigilante 8. Vigilante 8 does not feature any characters that resurfaced for Playstation All-Stars… or… anything else, so I guess there’s something to be said for being first to the finish line. However, Vigilante 8 attempted to do something rather unique with its car combat simulator: it copied everything about fighting games. Not content to just copy the (good) basic plot structure of a fighting game, Vigilante 8 went the extra mile by copying the worst part of fighting games: the distinctive, often esoteric motions for special moves. And it married that concept to a “fight” where you basically only have one reliable offensive option (shoot), so a new player will have something of an distinct disadvantage when battling a veteran player (or, ya know, the entire single player campaign). There are even car “fatalities” available, and the game constantly prompts the player to “total” incapacitated enemies… but… how am I supposed to do that again? Come on, Activision, you always knew this game was a rental at best, why do you think anyone would read the instruction manual?
Vigilante 8 isn’t a terrible game; it can actually be quite fun if everyone involved knows what they’re doing (and you have a TV large enough to accommodate blurry 64-bit split screens), and you’re not just skidding around each other desperately trying to clip your opponent with a dinky machine gun (only in Videogame Land may a machine gun be effectively useless). But what could easily have been a memorable game with interesting characters (interesting by late 90’s videogame standards, mind you) is severely marred by a bizarre insistence on copying everything about fighting games, good and bad. Mortal Kombat with cars could be a great game, but only if you leave the silly input motions on the cutting room floor.
Pull that off, and maybe then we’ll get some decent memories out of a bunch of fighting cars.
FGC #258 Vigilante 8
- System: Playstation, N64, and… Gameboy Color. Suffice it to say, the GBC version is a tweeeeak different, and looks more like R.C. Pro-AM. There’s also a modern HD version that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anyone ever mention.
- Number of players: I believe we’re limited to the standard two on Playstation, but the N64 version takes full advantage of those multiple controller ports, and allows for up to four. The Gameboy port has never been simultaneously played by two people on Earth, so who knows about that one.
- Port-o-Call: The N64 version was released a solid nine months after the Playstation release, and seemed to gain a few bells and whistles to overcompensate for the delay. The most important changes seem to be that the secret character (an Area 51 alien) gets his own story mode, and story mode itself can be played with 2 player co-op. More wannabe fighting games need co-op story modes.
- Favorite character: Beezwax is a bee keeper with bee-based special moves and a battle-camper. I can’t say no to that kind of insanity.
- Did you know? Molo’s “battle school bus” featured heavily in advertising and the game’s box art. Then Columbine happened. Then, for some reason, the advertising campaign for Vigilante 8 went the way of the dodo. Go fig.
- Would I play again: For a kid that wanted to claim that the N64 was somehow better than Playstation and its Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8 at least could start an argument. Now, however, it’s little more than a curiosity. I doubt I’ll ever revisit this title.
What’s next? Random ROB is back up and working again, and we’ve got… Strider 2 for the Playstation! Yay! Ninja times are here again! Please look forward to it!