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Strider’s Most Disappointing Console Port Had The Best Soundtrack

Image: Capcom / Kotaku
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Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today I’ll disparage Capcom’s arcade classic Strider and then try to win back your trust by praising its music. A bold strategy! Let’s see if it pays off.

Sega’s 1990 Genesis conversion of Capcom’s 1989 arcade hit Strider (Playlist / Longplay) was billed as having “8-mega power,” meaning it was the first Genesis cart to enjoy a full megabyte of ROM storage, allowing a more faithful port. EGM made a big fuss and got us kids all excited to experience this monumental sea change in 16-Bit High Definition Graphics.

I was disappointed. I think Strider gets a lot of passes for its cinematic quality and production values. To me it feels like a series of high-concept setpieces to mash through on a few quarters, with lots of dazzle but little room for player skill or expression.

OK, so I have a wrong opinion. What’s important today is that Strider’s music is pretty good, y’all. In fact, it’s by Junko “GON” Tamiya (interview), whom we just saluted for her Bionic Commando work.

While Tamiya’s Strider arcade OST pushed boundaries—and wasn’t easy to compose—what’s arguably the best rendition of Strider’s soundtrack is, funnily enough, stuck in one of its lesser versions. The tortured development of the NEC PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16) port, called Strider Hiryu (Longplay), is the stuff of riveting wiki entries. After its 1989 announcement it went through four PC Engine-family format changes before finally limping onto shelves in 1994, requiring the system’s late-release, unpopular Arcade Card add-on. It was a very disappointing port even with all that extra RAM.

But the music! While the PC Engine Strider Hiryu’s arranged soundtrack (AST) never saw official release, this fan-made gamerip will do the trick (it begins with several dialogue tracks that can be safely skipped).

Let’s listen:

Capcom / NEC Avenue / karanba72 (YouTube)

Strider’s iconic first-level theme is “Raid!” (1:22), and this is about as good a version as you’ll hear (a recurring trend on this release). The outburst of horns that begins at 2:07 is lovely and demonstrates a pattern you’ll notice throughout: relatively sedate, mood-setting passages followed by exuberant explosions of euphonic payoff. The second part of the stage, “Beasts” (4:37) kicks up the intensity a bit, and the “Stage Clear” (8:03) fanfare is an 8-second masterpiece of polyphony. I feel a little accomplished every time I hear it.

“Desert Zone 1” (8:34) and “Desert Zone 2” (10:16) are original compositions (interesting!) for a PCE-exclusive desert level that’s boring (damn!). Merely workmanlike.

Then level 3 is back to iconic. “Mass of Cloud” (12:47) and “Big Run” (14:46) comprise the famous snowy mountain setpiece, and both are in great form: the former mysterious and ethereal (...birdsong?), the latter powerful and triumphant.

Level 4’s airship assault is scored by “Short Spin” (17:07) which has a wonderful payoff. The strange boss fight against a giant anti-gravity orb features “Gravity Unusual” (18:56). It’s more an atmosphere-setter, but I enjoy how it resolves in that massive synth blast, as if someone cathartically jammed on a bunch of keys at once. ...I just think synths are neat.

Level 6’s “Theme for Counterattack” (26:13) is one last Strider classic, with an energetic “time to finish this shit” feel and tasteful horn and chime (?) arrangements. The credit scroll gets a very nice ending theme (32:42) that reprises earlier material, which I believe is a PC Engine original.

There are a few songs missing, unfortunately. The game’s lush opening fanfare is MIA on the PC Engine, as well as two entire tracks that cover the first third of the snow stage, and most boss themes. Quite some omissions, perhaps due to disc space, time, or budget constraints.

Omissions aside, every song that did make it into PCE Strider Hiryu is quality. Unlike some worse ‘90s game ASTs, it doesn’t use cheesy-sounding synths, suffer bad mastering, or clumsily obscure the best qualities of the originals. Strider Hiryu’s AST just about always improves on its source material, to the point that these are, for me, the definitive versions. Certainly the ones I’d want to listen to casually.

The AST’s credited to “K.M. Brothers.” No idea if that’s a person or an organization or an alias, but they apparently did arrangements for the Neo Geo CD version of bizarro comedy brawler World Heroes as well. (Just... made a note... for later.)

Bonus round? Bonus round.

Scitron was a pioneering early publisher of game soundtracks, and many of its releases featured a handful of arranged tracks alongside the OSTs. Such is the case for the album Strider Hiryu -G.S.M. CAPCOM 2- (Playlist / VGMdb), which has an arranged version of the first stage by GON herself and a Strider medley by GON and three other Capcom artists. Both are excellent. (Note: Tracks 9 and later are from another arcade game, Dynasty Wars.)

Here’s the medley:

Capcom / Villz McVillain (YouTube)

This album came out just six weeks after Strider’s March 7, 1989 arcade release, so it’s interesting to imagine Tamiya and her colleagues getting free reign to expand on these songs at a time when the video game hardware they primarily composed for was fairly limited. As you can hear, they didn’t hold back.

That’s it for today’s Morning Music. Say hi and/or viciously impugn my good character in the comments. I’ll see you bright and early Monday, assuming my hot Strider takes don’t get me canceled.