Arcade legend Strider is starring in a new adventure - we speak to the team making it happen.
When you're able to call upon more than thirty glorious years of industry experience and development, it's little wonder that companies like Capcom have such a varied and exicting selection of fan-favourite titles.
Capcom's stable includes the likes of Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Mega Man and Dragon's Dogma, but one series which has been overlooked for far too long is Strider, which started life in the arcades way back in 1989 before busting onto the Sega Genesis where it won a whole new legion of fans. Futuristic ninja Strider Hiryu got a sequel in 1999 and enjoyed cameo roles in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, but hasn't starred in his own game for over a decade.
Which is why fans are getting understandably excited about the news that a new Strider is inbound, and looks to honor the legacy of the franchise whilst upgrading the concept for the high definition generation. For some of these loyal followers however, that expectation has been sullied slightly by the confirmation that Capcom has entrusted American studio Double Helix with the coding duties. Design director Tony Barnes is aware of the skepticism, and wants to assure concerned parties that Strider couldn't be in better hands.
"It’s understandable that there is some trepidation when it comes to different developers taking on a beloved series," he tells Red Bull exclusively. "With regards to Strider, we are gigantic fans of the series ourselves. I personally have been making games for a number of decades and for the past 20 years have always said that my 'dream game' to make would be Strider or something 'Strider-like'. Different developers all over the world have different methodologies for game making, but the most important thing any game maker can have is a love and passion for the game they’re creating."
And Strider is a title that is worth getting passionate about. A side-scrolling action adventure with a balletic protagonist, hordes of robot enemies to slay and a suitable imposing, Soviet-style evil empire to infiltrate, it's slashing its way to PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One and PC this February.
Double Helix studio head Patrick Gilmore feels that by fusing western development talent with Japanese style, this new Strider will end up being something which both surprises and delights fans of the franchise. "What I find awesome about the game is that the exaggeration and stylization you get from Japan is tempered by a flavor of Western structure and presentation, which, I think, makes the whole narrative and world believable. It doesn’t always work this way, but in Strider’s case I feel like the whole truly is more than the sum of the parts."
Both Gilmore and Barnes are acutely aware of the size of the task they've taken on, but insist that the pressure is pushing them - and their studio - to new heights. "We always feel pressure to give gamers the best game we can, whether the game is an original IP or a licensed product," says Barnes. "We spent a lot of time listening to the public, whether they knew it or not. We read forum posts, articles, blogs, and comments - both good or bad. All of the data was factored into the development, because this isn’t just a 'product', it’s a dream for some people to finally have a new Strider game. We take this responsibility very seriously and as fans ourselves, we have very high expectations of what a new Strider game would be."
One of the first questions many Strider fans ask is whether or not series creator Kouichi Yotsui has had any involvement with this new entry. "The original creator has not been involved with the development of the game," admits Barnes, no doubt causing much upset for those who have carried a torch for Hiryu's adventures over the past few years. However, that doesn't mean that none of the original staff is involved. "We have had a great staff of advisors from Osaka, including an artist that worked on Strider 2 and a designer that worked on such great games as Ghosts n’ Goblins," adds Barnes.
In fact, the Japanese company's input is actually more significant than many fans may be aware. "We’re working side by side with Capcom on the project," explains Gilmore. "Some of the members of the team actually worked on those original games, so we feel like we’re getting as close to the original source material as it’s possible to get. At the same time, fans don’t always perceive the difference between how they remember a game, and how they’d like it to play today. 'Fast and fluid' meant something different in 1989 than it does today, so a huge aspect of what the team is doing is reinterpreting the core values of the original game and helping fans understand how those creative decisions have made something that’s essentially Strider, but also the right game for a more modern audience."
Capcom and Double Helix's relationship isn't unique; Capcom has worked with western studios on other projects, including Lost Planet 3 (Spark Unlimited), DuckTales: Remastered (WayForward) and DmC: Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory). Given these prior experiences, it should come as no surprise to learn that working with Capcom has been a pleasant venture, despite the large distance between Osaka and Double Helix's offices in California.
"Even without our own fandom and research on the Strider universe, they provided insight into Strider - Hiryu in particular - that was invaluable," says Barnes. "Getting their feedback on our work helped maintain consistency and a more global outlook for Strider."
Gilmore agrees: "This hasn’t been a traditional publishing arrangement where we work with producer liaisons who represent publisher interests. The Osaka team has contributed materially to art, design and the look of the game overall, and has been invaluable when it comes to the core character and mythology."
Strider is much more than just another action platformer, and the arresting sci-fi storyline - spearheaded by a Japanese comic-book adaptation which accompanied the original arcade release back in the '80s - has added to the allure of both the character and the grim, frost-covered world he inhabits. Double Helix is respectful of the narrative that has grown up around Strider, and is looking to pull in elements from several different outings to create the ultimate title.
"This game is another game in the Strider universe, somewhat like a Bond film," says Barnes. "It has all of the elements you know and love and expands upon them, enhancing them for a modern audience. There are elements from Strider 1, Strider 2, Strider NES, Marvel vs. Capcom and even the manga. It truly is a love-letter to all things Strider, meant to sit alongside those other great games, not replace them. The team is fully immersed in any project we take on, absorbing any and all publically-available information. For Strider, we played every game, read every FAQ, read the mangas, studied every sprite, screenshot and video. Once the universe is embedded in our DNA, we maintained a razor-like focus on our vision. The vision for this Strider was established early on between Double Helix and Capcom, with the final game deviating very little from that vision."
However, Barnes is well aware that things have changed a lot since Strider guzzled so many coins back in 1989, and the demands of players have shifted. Short-burst arcade experiences have given way to longer, more demanding entertainment, the likes of which is measured in hours rather than minutes.
"From the start, it was important that this game be a Strider game," insists Barnes. "That meant; fast and fluid combat and seamless navigation. If anything interfered with these core elements, it was removed or streamlined. With practice, you can play through the original Genesis Strider in about a half an hour. In those days, a lot of the entertainment value came from death-and-respawn combined with repeat play and pattern recognition.”
“It was apparent that a 30-minute arcade experience wasn’t going to suit modern gamers, even for a downloadable title. Today’s gamers want longer and less punitive experiences." To accomplish this, Double Helix is giving players a sprawling world which doesn't have to be tackled in a linear fashion, as was the case with the arcade original. "Give the player a full world to experience, and let the retracing come from new enemy spawns and different setups rather than the death and respawn cycle. The freedom of movement, enhancement of abilities and expansiveness of the world are natural extensions to the franchise, appeasing modern gamers, while staying true to the core."
Of course, Double Helix hasn't ignored the years of game development which have elapsed between 1987 and now, and the studio is looking to incorporate influences from other esteemed titles. Konami's 1997 classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night established a sub-genre known as "Metroidvania", thanks to the fact that it took the open-ended nature of Nintendo's Super Metroid and filled it with vampires, ghouls and other creatures of the darkness.
Metroidvania games have been appearing steadily since then, and both Barnes and Gilmore are aware that comparisons will be drawn with Strider, too. "Although the new Strider isn’t 'Metroidvania' in the strict, compartmentalized sense of the core 'power up and backtrack' loop that drives games like Super Metroid or Shadow Complex, we definitely referenced those and other titles to help deliver a more open world," says Gilmore. "In my opinion, Strider always needed to be its own thing. While there was a strong 'Metroidvania' influence, the team didn’t want to deliver a complete structural imitation of that format. I think the end result strikes a great balance."
Barnes is in agreement. "Because the original Strider was a short arcade game, it was apparent from the start that we needed a more robust world and play-mechanics to provide value and meet the expectations of the modern gamer. A massive open-world that unfolds and expands based upon the abilities you acquire seemed just natural for a modern Strider game."
"Our in-house technology enabled us to create a game that not only runs really well on multiple platforms, but also contains some enhancements for more-powerful platforms," Barnes tells Red Bull. "The PS4 and Xbox One versions both run at 1080p and 60 frames per second, with improved lighting, higher resolution models and enhanced visual effects."
However, Gilmore is keen to stress that the visual enhancements are just that - visual, and the gameplay is just as polished no matter which format you choose to play on.
"It’s definitely better on the high-end systems, but the spirit of the experience is identical, without any added gimmicks." The Wii U is one system which is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to Strider's release; Gilmore says that he is aware that Nintendo fans want to play the game, too, but sadly doesn't have anything to reveal at present. "At the moment our primary focus is to deliver a high quality product for all the platforms we’ve announced for," he says. "We are always excited to hear about what the community wants, but for now we have no news on this."
Followers of Double Helix will be aware that Strider isn't the only esteemed title it has rebooted in recent memory - the studio worked with Microsoft to create a new Killer Instinct game for the launch of the Xbox One.
"Both Strider and Killer Instinct have been incredible projects," says Gilmore. "I think both teams got a lot out of the process of deconstructing classic games, understanding the core creative value systems that produced success, then building back up in a modern context, for modern fans."
Could we see more projects of this type in the future? Gilmore seems to think so, but is keen to stress that his studio's talent lies not only in reimagining the creations of others, but also in crafting original and entertaining content. "We are absolutely open to more reboots in the future, but are also looking beyond established or classic franchises and leaning towards more original creations. Double Helix Games has very exciting news in the months to come, and we look forward to spreading the word when the time is right."