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Video Games: A Cultural History - #6 The Spectre Of Socialism In Strider

by Tim Clare

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 saw a shock defeat for the Russian Navy, and marked the first major victory of a modern Asian nation over a European one. The loss exacerbated Russian discontent with the Tsar, which would soon explode into the Bolshevik Revolution. It also greatly bolstered Japan's status as an international military power. Despite the win, Japanese nationalists were dissatisfied with the peace terms, feeling they had not been accorded the respect due to a victor, and this frustration combined with new feelings of entitlement served to spur on the country's rapid industrialisation and militarisation as it sought to take on the strutting bantam cocks of the West.

Of course, Russia's bloodied nose did not put an end to its expansionist ambitions, but merely delayed them until it had had time to metamorphose into the Soviet Union. The Japanese nationalist military complex soon found its own territorial expeditions into Manchuria and Korea reversed, the land seceded to Chinese Communists in the first instance, and in the second, split between the United States and Soviet Communists along the 38th parallel. Occupied as it was by America during the 1950s, Japan was quick to absorb the Free West's feelings of terror and hatred towards the looming Communist menace.

Strider supposes a future where, armed with incredible technology, the Soviet Union has conquered Eurasia in its entirety (not to be confused with English synth pop duo Erasure). The eponymous hero, Strider Hiryu, is a Japanese cyber ninja on a mission to infiltrate the evil Empire and battle his way to its core - a mysterious, all-powerful alien being called Grandmeister Meio (not to be confused with popular English DJ Simon Mayo). Strider leaps across the minarets of Moscow, hacks through packs of wolves to reach a launchbase hidden in arctic tundra, dangles from the rudder of a giant airship, fights female Amazonian hordes, and finally faces off against the nefarious Meio himself in a laser-studded moonbase.

Strider can kindly be described as an over-ambitious project. As well as wielding a laser sword, the main character can acquire multiple pulse-firing bots, plus a robot panther and a huge robot hawk, all of which fight alongside him simultaneously. Bosses range from a troupe of high-kicking Chinese ballerinas to a roomful of CCCP leaders who transform into a giant hammer-and-sickle wielding centipede. One particularly memorable sequence sees you battling the anti-gravity generator at the heart of the enemy's flying fortress, trying to orbit close enough to slash at it without the centripetal force slamming you into the wall.

It's a mercilessly tough game, with loads of falling ceilings, hidden landmines, and other cheap tricks to take out the unwary. It's also spectacular in its breadth of vision - it works its socks off to tell a unique, coherent, and gripping story, in a way that few modern titles manage. The voice acting is in four languages - English, Japanese, Chinese and Russian - for no reason I can discern except, well, that's where the characters are from, so why not?

In the year the game was released, 1989, there was a tantalising sense that the Communist beast might be mortally wounded. The Soviets had all but withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the Berlin Wall had finally opened. On the other hand, on June 4th the Tiananmen Square pro-Democracy protests had been brutally crushed by the Chinese Communist government. Strider is at once a synthesis of five decades of booming Capitalist Japan's anti-Communist fears, and a melancholic requiem for the unified global high-tech paradise Socialism once promised. Grandmeister Meio's final hissing battlecry still sends chills down my spine: 'All sons of old Gods - die!'