Strider is a lesson in videogame austerity

Broadly speaking, early game design favored austerity as a matter of pragmatism—simplicity lent itself well to a medium still in its infancy. Much as Hemingway strove to boil prose down to its essence, developers sought beauty within the bounds of technological limitations, streamlining their craft while stripping away clutter. Developers aspired to elegance. If Super Mario Bros. represented an early perfection of the form, it wasn’t for its complexity or breadth, but for its precision: more than anything its legacy is founded on the pared-down rigor of its core mechanics, which is to say the lucidity of its physics and the exactness with which it controls. The original Strider, released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, shares with Super Mario Bros. an emphasis on technical accuracy; the result is a game that even 25 years later feels as smooth as buttercream.

The recent trend toward retro-gaming remakes and reboots may betray a certain nostalgic impulse guiding the industry, but in this case romanticism is not without its benefits. For one thing, this shift has entrained a return to formal austerity that, in the case of retro games expressly developed for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, reflects a creative decision rather than merely a restriction of the hardware. Double Helix here presents us with an interesting test case. Their latest iteration of the once-popular Capcom side-scroller Strider, the first to arrive in three console generations, self-consciously adopts both the style and scope of its initial late-80s predecessor, contemporizing the look but retaining nearly everything else. It is in many ways no more elaborate or demanding than a game you might find on the Super Nintendo, which means that by design it must rely not on complexity or breadth but, indeed, on precision—on the kind of mechanical rigor to which the best early games aspired.

To this end the game is occasionally very successful. Strider opens with a burst of inspired simplicity: you are thrust at once into the fray of a rapid airborne skirmish, which you’re invited to hurtle through without introduction or direction. The game’s story, such as it is, may be accessed as a block of expository text via the in-game pause menu, but otherwise not even a pretense of narrative will impede the celerity of the early stages. The control scheme is likewise accessible in the menus, but the basic movements—a primary attack, a secondary attack, and a jump—will seem so intuitive to veterans of the sidescroller that they’re hardly worth consulting at all. Better, and more gratifying, for the player to simply proceed as intended, slashing through the many pushover enemies and cartwheeling through the air with abandon.

Double Helix have devised a system of advancement by which even basic additional skills and abilities are implemented gradually, which makes your progression through the game part of the process of learning to play it. Over time these enhancements begin to seem needlessly elaborate—on more than one occasion the player is bestowed some new ornament only so that the game can manufacture an obstacle to be overcome with it, which renders it nothing more than a glorified key—but for the most part the player’s repertoire strikes a satisfying balance between diversity and ease. Most appealing are those skills which augment the player’s movement: its these upgrades that yield the most significant improvements to the core action, which privileges speed and grace over endurance or brawn. By the time the player has acquired a slide, a double-jump, and a mid-air dash—the physics of which have been meticulously calibrated and feel laser-precise—getting around often seems like more fun than standing around to fight.

The moment you settle into the rhythm of the game, you’re confronted by a hurdle that seems insurmountable. 

It should be said that, to the credit of Double Helix, Strider boasts an excellence in both physics and controls that ought to be relished in a retro platformer. Where the game encounters issues is in the other areas associated with this sort of classic formal elegance—namely in balance and pace. The former is a problem most appreciable in the game’s many boss battles. Many, especially early on, are easy enough on “Normal” difficulty that they can be handily won without effort, often without the player incurring any damage; others, meanwhile, are hair-pullingly difficult, and it’s hard to account for the difference. (One boss fight, with the returning “Mecha Pon” gorilla, was so difficult that I abandoned the game for several hours; the boss prior, by contrast, I had defeated on my first try.) This erratic distribution of difficulty makes for a deeply frustrating experience. The moment you settle into the rhythm of the game, you’re confronted by a hurdle that seems insurmountable. I have no idea why.

Oddly enough, it’s a miniscule problem that ultimately thwarts the game’s efforts toward greatness. Early on the player acquires an ability which allows you to charge your sword before striking. The move takes about two seconds to prepare and deals about twice as much damage as an ordinary attack, which, as you might expect, makes it useful against stronger enemies but less so against large numbers of weak ones. The problem is that one of the only two types of enemies you must contend with most often is protected by a shield which can only be broken using the charged strike. The result is that every time you encounter one of these enemies, you must pause for a moment to charge before attacking, which becomes increasingly arduous as the enemy ranks mount. This proves to be an enormous miscalculation: the buttery flow of the gameplay winds up interrupted anytime a shield appears, reducing an otherwise elegant arrangements of slides, cartwheels and swipes of the sword to a fidgety process of stop-start hack-and-slash. Austerity, in Strider, has many benefits. But it also amplifies flaws—and this one may be too much.