In gaming there are the origin stories we all know – like the origins of Mario and Sonic the hedgehog – but there are many more characters who remain relatively obscure – like the stars of most microcomputer budget games or Japanese cassette titles. More interesting perhaps are the characters who had everything go for them – a cool design, a great game, a reasonable amount of publicity – but never quite made it into the mainstream. Characters like Strider Hiryu.
Though a quick Google might reveal that the Strider series is based on a Manga of the same name, this isn’t quite the case. In an interview hosted at Strider fan site The Light Sword Cypher Mainframe, Strider arcade creator Kouichi Yotsui explains that Strider was actually the fruit of an ambitious multimedia plan crafted by new Capcom development head Akio Sakai:
At that time, proposals for new games were only brought up within Capcom’s development department. When our new head of development joined, Akio Sakai, he suggested we try products with other companies. One that he was able to set up was the deal with Motomiya Kikaku who was succeeding in the manga world. It was to be a test of running a serialized manga and a game at the same time.https://lscmainframe.kontek.net/features/kyotsui.html
Yotsui and the other (as he described them) victims – Masahiko kurokawa from Capcom and a sales planner and artists from Motomiya Kikaku – were stuffed into a tiny suite in the Shinjuku Hilton and weren’t allowed to leave until they’d established the concept on which this joint game-manga series would be based.
Yotsui says he himself pushed hard for a near-future ninja concept:
We were leaning towards an action game so a ninja setting would’ve been convenient. However, I didn’t want to make it some old movie. Outside the Hilton’s windows a futuristic city view of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district. As the game creator and manga artists delusions clashed, the setting was decided: the near futurehttps://lscmainframe.kontek.net/features/kyotsui.html
Kurokawa and Yotsui went away and worked on the rough principals, building a rough designs for the character and his world. This went back and forth with the artists at Motomiya Kikaku until they had established an blueprint which each of the creators would tailor to their own medium. Strider, as a consequence would be made up of a trifecta of products: Motomiya Kikaku would produce a manga, Kurokawa would be responsible for producing a console game while Yotsui would handle an arcade adaption.
Strider pillar one: The Manga
The manga was the first of these products to come into being. Serialised from May to October 1988 in magazine Comic Computique, the Strider Manga may not have told the most original of tales but it definitely set the right tone for the impending vidogames: hauled out of retirement for one last job, Strider Hiryu must assassinate his old friend and fellow Strider Kane, who has fallen into enemy hands while on mission. The story follows Hiryu as he initially sets out on this mission but ends up uncovering evidence of sinister mind-controlling technology and a conspiracy that seems to connect back to the Striders.
Described by Edge as vanishing ‘without trace” ( “The Making of…Strider“. Edge (271). Pg. 96-99 ), this doesn’t seem entirely fair. Though long out of print today, the Strider manga completed its five month run and was printed as a collected paper back (a tankouban) after its initial run was complete. Strider Hiryu also returned for a prequel story intended to tie in with the Japanese release of the home game. It may not have been a rip-roaring success in its own right, but it definitely did the job of introducing the character and laying the groundwork for the interactive products.
Strider pillar 2: The consumer game
Consequently, Kurokawa’s home game for the Nintendo Entertainment System was probably the least successful of the original Strider products. Taking a nod from fellow Capcom stablemate Megaman, the Strider Hiryu NES game was an ambitious action-adventure title that saw the character Criss-cross across the globe, looking for items that would help him to progress in areas he had already visited. A longer and more complex experience than the game that appeared in the arcades, it didn’t quite deliver in the gameplay department, thanks largely to stilted and glitchy jumping mechanics.
Originally penciled to release in the Winter of 1988, the title ended up being delayed into 1989 before being cancelled completely in Japan and only seeing the light of day in the US. This was unfortunate: not only had the game already been advertised in Japan, but the plot points and characters tied directly into the Manga – itself unreleased on US shores.
Despite troubled development the game seems to have been recieved reasonably well, with EGM appreciating the title’s undeniable ambition. Predictably, however, this limited release doomed Strider to luke warm sales. A shame too: the titanic size of the combined US and Japanese markets meant that the NES was better placed to make Strider a hit than any other home platform in the world.
Strider pillar 3: The Arcade Game
If Strider was to become a recognised success, all hope presumably fell on the third and final prong: Yotsui’s arcade adaption. Fortunately for Capcom, we’ve saved the best for last.
Though the plan was to develop all three Strider products from a common blueprint, Kouichi Yotsui quickly decided to ditch a lot of their ideas found in the manga and NES title. Not only did Hiryu himself end up looking less like a typical ninja character, but the array of villains and support characters found in the manga went in the bin: he reasoned that an arcade game couldn’t do justice to the complex narrative they required.
Instead, clinging onto just Hiryu himself (in a slightly more western-friendly form) and the Kazah Empire, the arcade Strider tells a much simpler tale: Strider’s mission is to infiltrate the Kazah Empire and take down the shadowy cloaked Grand Master Meio.
The result was a game which rose above action-platformers titles from the era. I think the factors that made Strider stand out so well were its narrative and fluidity. Yotsui reservations about the depth of narrative an arcade game could support seemed to have stemmed from a mastery of the subject: though Strider’s stages are largely linear, each is packed with awe-inspiring set pieces and satisfying visual progressions – be it Hiryu’s initial hang glider entrance, Stage two’s climactic troop carrier hijack or the daring escape made after the destruction of stage 3’s battleship.
Of course these stand out moments wouldn’t really matter if the gameplay didn’t hold up. However Hiryu’s movement is almost poetry. His basic running, jump and sword slash almost flow together beautifully making the game as engaging to watch as it was to play. Even Hiryu’s falling animation – which sees him position his arms and feet into a perfectly satisfying triangle – looks the business. Strider was a cool game.
In fact, Strider went beyond cool. Equipped with a hand-held grappling hook, Hiryu’s capability to cling to almost any wall or platform underside has the player feeling like a genuine ninja. This feeling helped by the combat as well, with almost everyone except robots and boss characters requiring a single hit from Hiryu’s cipher. That’s not to say it made the game too easy, mind you – thanks to clever enemy placement success still requires a rewarding blend of speed and precision.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Strider caused a lot of fuss as soon as it was finally made available for public display. First seen under the Western name or “Falcon” at the 1988 Jamma AM show, Strider received a lot of positive previews, with Games TM magazine commenting on the “outstanding graphics” and the main character’s “Olympic gymnast pedigree” and Commodore User noting how the Falcon has to “cope with gravity in the most realistic way I’ve ever seen on a coin-op.” These accolades continued after the game was released too, with Strider performing well across the board n Japanese magazine Gamest’s “Game Grand Prix.” I think it’s fair to say that Strider had everything it needed to become a hit.
However, Yotsui has gone on record both at The Light Sword Cypher Mainframe and in other interviews to suggest that, commercially, Strider wasn’t a big success. As claims go this isn’t terribly easy to verify. We can definitely say there were production issues which might have hindered the title’s finances – Yotsui was apparently quite hard in pushing his team and their quest for perfection made the game overrun both budget and release date – but the information needed to judge the financial performance of an individual title doesn’t seem to be in the public domain.
With that said, the collector resources at arcade-history.com do give us at least some insight into arcade availability today. According to their list, Strider is currently among the top twenty five percent of the US’ rarest arcade machines. Without the intervention of some sort of excessive mechanical failure rate (Strider originated before Capcom started routinely using ‘suicide batteries’ as a copy protection mechanism,) this would definitely suggest that – despite widespread critical and popular acclaim – Strider simply didn’t make Capcom a lot of money.
Having thought about it, this does make some sense. One thing that’s immediately apparent about Strider is that – for an arcade game – it’s unusually fair. Strider takes three hits to kill and insta-death pit traps are relatively few and far between. It’s still not an easy game to finish, but its difficulty ark feels more in keeping with a home game rather than an arcade title. Though the design had a number of tricks up its sleeve to keep the player engaged (surprising the player with a boss fight at the beginning of the second stage, in particular, was a masterstroke – as was the attract mode prompt that reveals if the stage being shown has been beaten by a player yet), the installation manual reveals a potential flaw:
With even relatively incompetent games lasting a good 4 or 5 minutes, its easy to see how Strider could be both popular with players and relatively unpopular with arcade managers. Though UK magazine The Games Machine suggested that Strider was a hit in the arcades here, success in the relatively small UK market wouldn’t have been enough to offset a flop stateside or in Japan.
Whether a successful in its original arcade form or not, the amount of attention Strider generated meant there were other areas where it could turn a profit. In Europe, the most obvious was from porting the game to the established microcomputer scenes.
Helpfully, local reaction to Strider was highly conducive to this. Personally, one of the reasons I initially found Yotsui’s comments about the profitability of Strider so hard to believe was the arcade’s relative omnipresence in 1989 – from the early previews of the arcade in features with names like “Arcade action” to the excited news sections about the incoming home ports before the final previews and reviews of the finished game, Strider was talked about a lot. (In the UK at least) we were excited by the possibility of home ports of Strider.
Released courtesy of US Gold, the quality of these computer ports varied considerably. The 8-bit conversions were generally surprisingly playable. Though there were a number of predictable compromises (the level geometry was simplified and a number of enemies were cut,) the programmers responsible managed to recapture a lot of the original’s look and feel on hardware that had been rendered obsolete years before. On the Spectrum at least, Hiryu felt swift and responsive, and retained most of his animation. In fact, the Zx Spectrum port is arguably too close to the original at times: though Hiryu and his opponents feel as if they are as big and chunky as the arcade sprites, with a large part of the screen devoted to a chunky status bar this comes at the expense of overall visibility.
Though on paper the 16-bit microcomputers had the power to create an experience much closer to the original arcade, the end result was actually more disappointing than the Spectrum and C64 versions. The Amiga and Atari ST versions might look and sound better, but they don’t look anywhere near as impressive as the arcade and they were still based on the same simplified geometry and enemy roster as the 8-bit titles, making them seem aesthetically like a waste of potential.
Still, all of the microcomputer ports were more or less playable – a surprising feat when you consider that the name of developer Tiertex generally elicits the same sort of withered groan from European gamers as the name LJN does from American NES fans .
Released into crowded Christmas 1989 line up that was packed with conversions of popular arcade titles from the likes of Taito and Sega, the computer ports did ok financially. The 16-bit ports debuted at spots two and three in the Amiga and Atari St charts but placed slightly lower on the more popular Zx Spectrum and C64 – leading to an overall placement of five in the Gallup all-formats chart. Still, Us Gold were happy with that. They would go on to compound their sales by packaging Strider in a compilation of their other Capcom ports before develop their very own home-grown Strider sequel.
Cypher Razor Cut
Though microcomputers held a firm grip on the UK games market in 1989 (to the extent that electronic games were inevitably referee to as computer games rather than video games), Strider was also a hit on the platform that would control Western videogames markets until the arrival of the Sony’s PlayStation: the Sega Megadrive.
Though Capcom may have been tempted to produce their own port for the Megadrive – there were similarities between the technical specs of Sega’s console and Capcom’s CPS arcade board – their hands were effectively tied by Nintendo’s brutal exclusivity agreements. The Megadrive port of Strider (along with Ghouls’n’Ghosts and Forgotten Worlds) consequently ended up being the fruit of a licensing deal between Capcom and Sega themselves.
For game players, this was probably the best possible combination: Capcom’s game was just the sort of title that could showcase the new console’s full power, while Sega themselves were undoubtedly in the best position to program a version that would use as much of that power as possible.
The end result matched these expectations. Though not quite reaching the strict criteria we would use to describe a port as ‘arcade perfect’ today, by the standards of the time it was as close as you could hope for. There were a couple of nips and tucks in places, but the look, sound and the quality of the animation are all incredibly similar.
In the pre-Sonic the Hedgehog market, Strider was a huge deal. For Sega it was the first game that required an 8 meg (bit rather byte – about 256kb) cart – a fact Sega of America flaunted in a huge double page advert in Electronic Gaming Monthly. When it came to critics it was universally adored on both sides of the Atlantic, recieving 90+% scores in multiple outlets before going on to become EGMs game of 1990. The hype train – as we would rather excruciatingly say today – was thundering down the tracks. This time, the excitable prerelease coverage was actually reflected in sales as well: Megadrive Strider leapt straight to the top of the charts in the UK and performed well in the US to boot. It’s just a shame that things were never quite so rosy in its Native Japan.
In Japan, ports of arcade Strider didn’t take off in quite the same way. One factor that worked against Strider was the shape of the industry: though the Megadrive was the first 16-bit console to launch in the US and UK, in Japan it was pipped to the post by NEC’s PC Engine. In Japan the Megadrive never really recovered from this loss of initiative, finishing behind both the PC Engine and Nintendo’s Super Famicom.
For Strider this was not good news: not only did this mean its highly-impressive Megadrive port was less impactful, but a PC Engine port ended up in limbo. Originally announced before the Sega port, the PC Engine was another licensing deal – this time between Capcom and NEC. often cropping up in the rumour section of PC Engine magazines, it was hit by delay after delay, being first developed for the enhanced Super Grfx console before being shunted around every available PC Engine hardware arrangement NEC offered and finally hitting shelves as a cd-based arcade card game. Not released until 1994, producer Toshio Tabeta actually shaved his head in way of apology for the project over running – an event that seems to have given rise to a bizarre internet rumor that one of the developers went mad and committed suicide.
Was it worth the wait? As Strider ended up as a CD based game on the PC Engine it had some benefits: the soundtrack was rerecorded as a fancy cd-based affair and the still screens that appeared between stages in the original arcade were replaced with fancy animated movies. On the design side the game also boasts an exclusive desert-based level that’s found in no other version of the game.
Unfortunately the game itself had some significant shortcomings. Visually weaker than the four year old Sega version, technical shortcomings also impacted on the gameplay due to a high amount of sprite flicker. As for the extra stage, the fact that the main menu gives the player the option of skipping it entirely should give you a clue as to how well it meshed with the rest of the game.
The PC Engine wasn’t the only Japan-based wash out. Interestingly, though Nintendo’s exclusivity arrangements lay at the root of Capcom being unable to port Strider themselves, they opted against bringing the game to the SNES – a pity given both how well appreciated Capcom’s Super Ghouls and Ghosts was and how well suited Strider’s anti-gravity sections are to the SNES’s hardware sprite scaling. The closest we came was Atlus-published Run Saber, an obscure title that did little to hide the source of its inspiration.
In the computer sphere, a near arcade perfect port of Strider was released for the Sharp x68000 in 1992. Featuring hardware that was even closer to the original arcade than the Megadrive and spanning three floppy disks, it had room for all of the elements that had been forcibly cut from Sega’s version of the game. Unfortunately once again there was a caveat: Sharp machines made up only a subset of the Japanese computer games market and the computer games market, as a whole, mounted to only a small share of the overall games market.
In fact, all of Strider’s successes need similar qualification. Though the home computer market in Europe was larger than you’d think (by 1992 the Spectrum alone had shifted five million computers), it was relatively small in comparison to the combined gargantuaness of the combined NES and Famicom markets. The same was true of the Megadrive. Though by 1993 the combined UK and US market amounted to an impressive eight million consoles, when Strider released in 1990 the console was relatively niche affair, having sold between five hundred thosuand and one million units in the US and only eighty five thosuand in UK. With the 8-bit Nintendo game being cancelled in Japan and receiving only a muted release in the States, Strider becoming a genuinely huge seller seemed an insurmountable task – despite the plethora of potential platforms arcade Strider could be rebuilt for.
Indeed, to add insult to injury, Capcom may have made even less than you would originally expect from these ports. In 1986, US Gold did deal with Capcom to produce home ports of ten of their arcade properties – paying £750,000 for the privilege. Depending on the royalties Us Gold paid per copy sold, they could potentially have made just £75,000 from all of the European microcomputer ports.
Consequently, it’s understandable why no Strider sequel was forth coming from Capcom. As fantastic a game as Strider was, all of its successes seem to have been limited by a number of unfortunate qualifications. Plus – if poor financial results weren’t damning enough – circumstances conspired to make a Capcom sequel even less likely: Shortly after Strider was completed, Yotsui and two of the driving forces behind Ghouls’n’Ghosts and Megaman (Akira Kitamura and Shinichi Yoshimoto) left the company, taking a large chunk of Capcom’s prime platform-creating talent with them. This would have happened just at the moment that martial arts-themed games – led by Capcom’s own Street fighter 2 – were about to become a global phenomenon.
Return from Darkness
On top of financial and personnel woes, a Strider sequel had a further complication: rights to all the characters used in the original Manga – including Hiryu himself were shared between Capcom and Motomiya Kikaku. Capcom US, however, came upon an ingenious solution: because the original arcade game had deviated so far from the characters and setting used in the manga, they could license their own sequel independently – just as long as the game made it clear that the Strider in question wasn’t Hiryu.
Presumably because of both the existing relationship and their success in the microcomputer market, US Gold were quick to convince Capcom to give them the gig. Hitting the shelves in time for the the Christmas of 1990, Strider II: Return from Darkness actually made it to market ahead of some conversions of the original game!
On the surface, Return from Darkness is a very easy title to ridicule: The future-cold war theme is out, replaced with a trip to outer space. The Strider charges around with a gun. Inexplicably, before each boss fight he also transforms into a giant robot.
The reason for these sweeping changes is apparently quite straightforward. From a contractual point of view, all of the changes made distanced US Gold’s Strider from the original concept. On a more practical level, Return from Darkness actually started life as a different game from the one that was released. In a post on a Tiertex Facebook group, Alan Findlay recorded the kind of pressures he was placed under by management while working on a cancelled Megadrive version of “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was originally going to be “Indy 3 but bigger” (that was the design spec!) We started work on it and got some huge maps in there and they turned around and said “we need long levels with cartoony graphics” (Aladdin had just come out on the Megadrive)…the PC version was A point and click So suddenly “it has to be an adventure game too!”…after loads of work trying to make it look “cartoony” Flashback came out on the Megadrive and they said “We don’t like Indy now, it needs to be more realistic looking”
Needless to say, Strider 2s disjointed design elements speak of a similarly fragmented development process.
However, though they sound ridiculous when written down, these changes weren’t actually quite as irksome from a gameplay perspective as they might seem. As part of a general habit of aggressively de-Japanising games for European release, the artwork accompanying the home computer releases had already re-imagined Strider as a something a lot closer to He-Man. Taking a step towards a more fantastical sci-fi world didn’t seem such a tremendous leap.
Though the gun was a bit questionable, the robot transformation was linked to a requirement for Strider to find energy hidden across each level. This energy hunt changed the design of the levels from the original’s dramatic narrative affairs to maps that were smaller and more labrinthesque, rebalancing the gameplay significantly towards exploration rather than outright action. Given the compromises required to bring the original Strider to the aging 8-bit machines, the design of Return From Darkness was one that arguably scaled a lot more easily to the platforms that would be running it.
From the perspective of the critics, this gamble paid off: Strider 2 reviewed at least as well and often slightly better than its predecessor, with C&VG saying that the Atari ST version was “an improvement on the original without a doubt” and Your Sinclair producing a positive review of the Spectrum version. When it came to sales, however, it didn’t fair so well. Though it’s true that December 1990 was a very competitive month – it was up against the Computer ports of the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and sequel to smash-hit RoboCop – it failed to make any impact on the Gallup charts.
Surprisingly Return from Darkness’ story doesn’t end there. After its initial release on home computers, Tiertex asked Alan Findlay to port the Amiga version to the Megadrive. Tasked simply with taking the Amiga game and making it “better and full screen”, he did a stand up job. Especially since – having moved from business software development – it was actually his first game.
Rather stick rigidly to the original brief, Findlay removed many of the original games computer-based perculiarities: The robot transformation was replaced with a shield that helped during boss fights, Strider’s (infinite) gun was swapped for (limited) shurikens, The relatively random boss characters were swapped for some more familiar faces from the original game and the maps were reworked to offer less back tracking and (slightly more) Strider-style set pieces. It wasn’t what we’d class as a “triple A” title by any means, but the console version of Return from Darkness was a more passable Strider sequel than the original Amiga title.
Unfortunately for Return from Darkness, passable wouldn’t cut it. Not only was it an inferior game to its predecessor, but it hit the shelves in 1993 – three years after the original was voted game of the year by EGM. With popular series like Streets of Rage, Sonic the Hedgehog and Shinobi all pushing the design envelope for Megadrive games significantly, Strider couldn’t afford to take a backwards step. The game received luke-warm reviews from critics, and didn’t set the charts aflame.
Though Some might be tempted to blame Return From Darkness for Strider’s decline, I think it should be treated as a symptom rather than a cause. It wasn’t unusual for microcumputer-based publishers to produce their own sequels (Ocean’s Target Renegade was a title that was arguably better than the original, Tiertex-developed Human Killing Machine was a less successful sequel to Street Fighter) but it was unusual for these to rise up the food chain and cross to foreign markets/platforms. It would seem that Capcom had no major interest in Strider.
Consequently, that might very well have been it for Strider Hiryu. Though Yotsui would go on to make a spiritual successor in the form of the Mitchell Corporation-published “Cannon Dancer”- a game with Arabian-themed protagonist whose round house kicks seemed almost like sword slashes – there was no word of an official sequel from Capcom.
That, however, was to change. Seeking characters to pad out the roster for 1998’s Marvel Vs Capcom, Hiryu was deployed on the Capcom side of the title. Funilly enough, though the rise of two-dimensional fighters might have been a factor preventing a Strider sequel from being produced in the early 1990s, his inclusion here – and the warm public reaction to it – ended up leading to an official Strider sequel.
Unfortunately, the project was beset by problems. From the offset, Strider 2 was targeted at the wrong platform. Instead of Sega’s new (Dreamcast-linked) Naomi platform, Capcom opted for hardware derived from Sony’s aging PS1 (Sony ZN-2). Though this might have made sense when it came porting, the game suffered as a result, with the ambitious expansive maps of the original replaced with smaller segregated areas.
On top of that, the project was beset by heated differences between the developers and experienced high turnover of staff. Though the game reviewed well enough when it was eventually released – Gamespot gave the PlayStation port an 8/10 and described it as a worthy successor to the original, the game underperformed financially – as would perhaps be expected from a relatively anonymous game released at the moment all eyes were looking towards a new generation of hardware.
All this is a shame as the final product was a pretty interesting one. Mixing 3d environments with cartoon-quality sprites, Gamespot weren’t wrong when they described Strider 2 as a worthy 32-bit successor. It’s unfortunate that the underlying technology robs it of that distinctive flow that made the original so compelling, because in most other areas – such as the platforming and combat – it does exactly what a Strider fan wants it to do.
The Unfortunate Mr Hiryu
Poor Strider Hiryu, then, is an unfortunate example of what can happen when a character is repeatedly released in the wrong place at the wrong time. Played again in 2020 – with our interest in retrogaming piqued and our love of well-designed two dimensional experiences renewed – the core Strider gameplay stands out as something that feels even more fresh and ambitious than it did at the time. Strider, however, never took off quite as it should.
While today we think of the NES game as a footnote in the history of the arcade release, the original home game was probably the lynchpin of the original project, anchoring print and interactive media to one another in a way that provided the most potential for cross-pollinating interest. Though ports of the arcade game did well on the European microcomputer scene and Strider’s acrobatic gameplay was the perfect showcase for Sega’s fledgling 16-bit console, without a strong sales showing from the 35 million (approx) Nintendo owners in the US and Japan, Strider was always playing catch up.
Indeed, after the world’s relatively mute response to Strider 2, history was to repeat itself. Outsourcing to respected studio Double Helix, Strider was rebooted once again. Finding himself once again in the Kahza Republic on the trail of Grand Master Meio, 2014’s Strider combined the poetic action of Yotsui’s arcade game with the exploration and backtracking of the NES interpretation.
Releasing without a massive marketing budget to a world that was just getting to grips with the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s fair to say that rebooted Strider didn’t receive the reception it deserved despite critical praise. We can only hope that, if the cycle repeats and a new Strider game appears around 2026, the character finally gets the popular recognition it needs.