Friday, September 7, 2018

Run Saber (SNES) Review

Received: April 9th, 2018 / Written: August 29th-September 7th, 2018
Year: 1993 | Developed by: Hori Electric
Published by: Atlus

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and ready for another game to talk about!  =)

Image from Strider's Wikia page; Happy 30th Anniversary, manga I never read
On May to October 1988 there was a Moto Kikaku manga series in Japan called Strider Hiryu published by Kadokawa Shoten which centered on Hiryu, the elite-class member of "Striders", a group of futuristic, high-tech ninja-derived agents who specialized in black-ops and wetwork.
Image from Wikipedia
The manga was successful enough to warrant the coin-op license Strider on March 1989 by Capcom, who alongside Moto Kikaku jointly own the IP.  It was one of their biggest games that year for it proved very successful and surpassed the manga in terms of popularity thanks to the sleek and intuitive gameplay, multilingual voice samples, and diverse soundtrack.  The titular ninja would appear as a playable character in Capcom's ongoing Marvel vs. Capcom one-on-one tournament fighter series.
Image from Wikipedia
Capcom also made a game about Strider Hiryu for the NES which came out in America on September 1989 which was apparently more source-accurate to the manga despite being structured differently, but it was the preceding arcade game that left the biggest impact not just on those that played it but on video games starring ninjas for it got ported to many home systems at the time (including the 1990 MegaDrive/Genesis port reprogrammed by Sega).
Images from Wikipedia
Coin-op Strider would also warrant differing sorts of sequels; unofficial (Tiertex's Strider II or Journey from Darkness: Strider Returns depending where you live), and spiritual (Mitchell Corporation's arcade-exclusive Cannon-Dancer/Osman),
Images from Wikipedia
until eventually in 1999 Capcom made a coin-op sequel of their own with Strider 2.  February 2014 saw the most recent installment in the form of the reboot developed by Double Helix Games and Capcom Osaka Studio which was well-received.

There were several ninja games that were influenced by and/or tried to cash in on Strider's success, one in particular being Japanese developer Hori Electric's Run Saber which Atlus released on the SNES in North America on June 8th, 1993 and saw a European distribution later that year.  Because Strider was never given a Nintendo 16-bit treatment of any kind (to the disappointment of the game's and Nintendo's fans), it is the closest one will get to playing Strider on the system.

It is the year 2998 and Earth has been polluted which makes it uninhabitable for the people to live in.  Dr. Bruford has experimented with radiation and genetic structures in the hopes to fix the radiation problems of their home planet, but the experiment goes horribly wrong and ends up mutating him.  Now he and the genetic monsters plan to conquer the planet.
Fortunately there is hope for Earth yet, for this is where Dr. Bruford's previous achievement comes in to serve as its defenders: cybernetically advanced cyborgs known as "Run Sabers", Alow with his Thunder Saber and Sewa with her Ice Saber.
As they go through Bruford's forces on the way to eliminate him Alow and Sewa will occasionally face off against their predecessor, the Fire Saber-wielding Kurtz, who had malfunctioned and retreated to Earth before Project Saber was complete.

Alow starting his mission in Taj Base
Run Saber is an arcade-like side-scrolling action-platformer for which its gameplay pays influence to Strider in a lot of aspects, but does enough to make it enjoyable in its own right.  As either Alow (who swings horizontally) or Sewa (who swings vertically) you can move left and right, double tap either direction to boost your speed (whether on the ground or when hanging on the ceiling), climb as well as cling on to walls and ceilings, and duck down.  The default controls are B to jump, with how much altitude you gain based on how hard you pressed the button and can be controlled in midair, Y to use the saber which is the main method of attacking enemies (which can be pressed in quick succession for consecutive attacks regardless of your position), with the X button you can use the hyper bomb which will affect all enemies onscreen and/or deal a good amount of damage towards bosses, and finally the left and right shoulder buttons will enable you to slide on the ground.

Sewa dropping in to action
Some additional controls that will come into play are a powerful spin cycle attack which is done by holding up when deciding to jump and doubles as a shield to certain enemy attacks while you're in midair, sliding down thin platforms by pressing B while holding down as well as climbing up said thin platforms, and when you're in midair you can press down to use the dropkick attack either straight down or at an angle.  Throughout you'll be facing a slew of enemies which you'll have to take down, with some of them occasionally leaving behind power-ups (some of which you'll also find appear in specific spots of each area).  When you start the game or after you lose a life you're left with a small-ranged saber, but if you get a saber power-up it will augment your range and become more powerful in the process; the hyper bomb icon adds another one to your present count; the white first-aid icon replenishes one spot of health while a blue one heals double that amount (eight is your health capacity); and lastly the life icon lets you gain another life.  Anytime you lose a life (whether by falling offscreen at the bottom or being depleted of all your health) you resume right at the spot with a health of three and two hyper bombs, and if you lose all your lives and choose to use one of three continues you're allotted you'll also resume at the spot.  Luckily there is no timer, which is a plus.

Duck and slash
The goal of each stage is to reach the end and fight a boss for which victory will grant access to the next stage, but on the way there you'll have to contend with a few individually placed mini bosses (among them the corrupt Kurtz) as well as the aforementioned enemies you'll come across from time to time.  Interesting thing to note about this Strider knockoff is that while there is a single player mode there is also a cooperative two-player mode where both Alow and Sewa fight side by side if you've got another player by your side, something this game has over the 1989 Capcom classic (whereas in that title the two-player mode was of the alternating variety).

Fighting a boss while hanging on a jet
Run Saber's visuals are very decent to look at, and the respective areas' color palette is well-chosen for most portions of the game.  Taj Base (North America)and Jodvalley (South America) have got neat mountainous backdrops (when you're outside at least), in the early portion of Gray Fac (Italy) there are backdrops of a classic architecture as well as houses adorned on a mountain, but the best-looking part of the game is Tong City (China) where it begins on a sunset as you traverse yourself through a path replete with terra cotta statues and then later on it's night with the colorful neon signs atop the buildings in the backdrop (in one moment you find yourself climbing the top of a building with a pointy top that's reminiscent of when you did that in the opening stage in Strider; maybe that homage was intentional?  I wouldn't put it past Hori Electric if that was the case).  In the final area there is a moment where you drop down where in the background there is vertical parallax scrolling occurring which I found visually impressive as that kind of parallax scrolling is rare in video games.

Not everything is as it seems; some enemies
are actually terra cotta in disguise
Alow and Sewa are drawn well in-game and have solid animations at best, although the former is very similar to Strider Hiryu in terms of design and overall motion (the spiky hair and saber swinging animation give it away).  Still, both characters have got solid animation when it comes to walking straight or at an incline or decline whenever you're on a slope (the dashing animation is the walking animation sped up), as are their clinging, climbing, jumping, and sliding animations.  When it comes to using the hyper bomb Alow's thunder dragon and Sewa's ice barrage look neat and vary depending on the difficulty setting you play, and I appreciate the fluttering animation of Alow's outfit or Sewa's hair when either character fall downward.

One aspect that's fascinating about Run Saber is that you can change the palette of your given character by pressing Select while the game is paused to one of eight color choices which you can cycle through whenever you please.  I can't think of another game where you could do that without having to access the option screen or during a character select screen.  One slight inconsistency between the characters, which is a nitpick really, is that Alow's backside has a shaded outline while Sewa's sprites don't have any black outlines to speak of; I surmise that Hori Electric couldn't make up their mind on which approach to take in this regard.

The variety of genetically altered monsters comprise of enemies with alien heads (including some wearing trench coats), spearmen emanating from seemingly ordinary terra cotta statues, mechanical dinosaurs, organic propeller heads, winged demons, et al, and plenty of them leave an impression on account of the creepy and grotesque nature of their design.  The mini boss designs are well chosen, like the aforementioned battles against Kurtz with his varied animation (and the way he enters and exits the scene after he sustained enough damage via smoke is a nice touch), as well as the battle against a huge disembodied head, a hawk fighter whose mechanical body emerges from the ground like a zombie,
a giant chess knight, and the energy dragon to name some, and they animate well too.
But the real standouts are the main bosses that cap off each stage, for they are huge and imposing as they tower over you, like the zombie witch in Tong City and the fossilized parasite dragon in Jodvalley.  There are a handful of Mode 7 effects, like when you zoom in and out of the map screen inbetween stages, the fighter jet you hang on to as it rotates while you're confronting the first major boss, and the Jodvalley boss stretches and skews momentarily as it takes damage.
The last set of bosses you fight in the final stage are grotesque in terms of look and design, and are some of the darker bosses aesthetically speaking, the former of which owes its influence to the late H.R. Giger's design.

Saber beats rock
Run Saber's music was composed by Hikoshi Hashimoto, who previously contributed sound and/or music to games such as the Sega 16-bit port of Sega's Super Real Basketball/Pat Riley Basketball, the Vic Tokai shoot'em up Whip Rush, Victor Musical Industries' UltraBox 5-gō, the Sega 8-bit port of Sega's Alien Storm, SIMS' Shura no Mon, and Capcom no Quiz Tonosama no Yabō on the Mega-CD.  Hashimoto does a good job at lending the appropriate sense atmosphere to each of the areas that you embark in, but this is one of those instances where the music is best heard within context of the game as opposed to when listened to by itself where it might not leave as big an impression.

You'll be seeing that victory pose A LOT
Taj Base kicks things off with a theme that thrusts you into the fray, Tong City's theme has got an engagingly catchy and oriental flair going for it (it's also one of my favorite songs in the game), and the theme for Gray Fac is atmospheric in its own right.  The mini boss and major boss themes are serviceable, whenever you get confronted by Kurtz he's got a theme dedicated to him that you sadly might not hear in its entirety as it's a great battle theme (pausing renders the game silent), and the credits theme is pleasantly rewarding to listen to with its hopeful tone.  If you hold the B, Y, Select, and right buttons during the Atlus logo screen you'll enable a secret menu (you'll know you did it correctly when the copyright screen has a message telling you that it is available) which entails a sound test as well as a stage select feature, but Run Saber is so short and manageable that the latter option is not even necessary.

Yyyyeah, not exactly a dignifying swing pose
The sound effects are well-implemented, like the soft "vwoom" sound for Alow and Sewa's saber as it's being swung prior to being upgraded, the enemies have varying sounds as they get dismantled and defeated, and there is a sound whenever you get the life icon that is similar-sounding to a sound cue from Nintendo's 1990 16-bit Mode 7 tech demo and flight simulator Pilotwings.  Whenever you defeat a mini boss, provided you're not standing at an angle, Alow or Sewa will stop for a second to do their victory pose as the digitized voice clip "Run Saber" is being said while they raise their saber in the air which I found tends to happen more often than it needed to considering the amount of mini bosses there are in this platformer.

Reptile wall monster
There are three difficulty settings in this game--Easy, Normal, and Hard--and there isn't a huge difference between the three aside from the different number of enemies, how much damage bosses take before biting it, and the slightly different presentation of Alow and Sewa's hyper bomb attacks.  Regardless of the difficulty there are three continues and any time you use up a life you start off with a health of three and two hyper bombs at your disposal which you can accumulate more of but will have to reserve them for when you really need it (in particular the battles with Kurtz and the battle against Bruford at the end).  This is one of those games where you start off the subsequent stage with the amount of health you had when you beat the previous one, so say if you beat a stage with a health of two then you would begin the next stage with that exact amount.
Image from GameFAQs
The cover's artwork was done by Texan-born artist Julie Bell, whose trademark has been the "metal flesh" which maintained the sensual softness of the skin even though they were drawn with the fluency of water and the hardness of steel.  This adds a lot of distinction and really draws the eye especially thanks to her unique sense of color and dramatic composition.  She also worked on the covers for the console and handheld versions of Turrican, the Sega covers for Tiertex's Strider II, and Capcom's Demon's Crest to name a few.  I think it's a good cover now that I look at it more clearly, and I think she's a good artist from what covers of hers I've seen.  =)

Attack that mechanical dino
This was the first game done by Japanese-based studio Hori Electric, and what's really bizarre is that despite this fact Run Saber never saw a release in Japan.  It wouldn't be the first instance where this happened though, one of the earlier examples of the West getting a game that Japan didn't that I can think of is Nintendo's 1986 NES light zapper/platformer hybrid Gumshoe, but considering that it feels more like a Japanese game than an American one it's a bit odd.  Hori Electric would subsequently serve as the Japanese publisher for the Nintendo 16-bit action/puzzler Pieces by Prism Kikaku (who would end up porting Capcom's 1991 slash'em up The King of Dragons to the system) in 1994, and in 2000 they worked on their second and last game (as far as I know) in the form of the PlayStation One fishing simulator Winning Lure, but only in Japan.  No game has been done by them since.
Basically Hori Electric developed as many games as the ill-fated Whoopee Camp did with their lightheartedly silly yet endearing PlayStation One Tomba! diptych series, or Tombi! if you lived in Europe.
Cutting a hawk fighter to size
I think it's fascinating that Atlus of all companies served as publisher for games such as this and fellow Nintendo 16-bit thirty minute arcade-like platformer Telenet Japan's Super Valis IV (the localized version of Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome) in North America when considering that they're primarily known for working on and/or publishing numerous RPGs over the years.  With that knowledge in mind it's quite surprising as you wouldn't expect a company of this caliber to distribute these kinds of platformers, although Atlus did also distribute Osman's Japanese version Cannon-Dancer in Japan, so maybe it's not that surprising.  Still, it's impressive how far Atlus have come.

Avoid getting singed by the rising fire pillars
I first played Strider in 2006 on the PlayStation Portable compilation Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, and I found it to be a fun game in spite of its difficulty, plus I liked Strider Hiryu's acrobatic nature of his jumps and how diverse its locales were.  I first found out about Run Saber over a decade ago if I recall correctly when I saw a gameplay video on YouTube by Shiryu, but I didn't consider playing it until about several months ago when I asked for it as one of my birthday gifts this year for my twenty-seventh.  It wouldn't arrive until a few days later, but I was genuinely curious what the Nintendo 16-bit equivalent to Strider would be like since that game was never given a port or a sequel to this system (unlike the MegaDrive/Genesis at the time which saw not only a Sega 16-bit treatment of the first game but the unofficial Tiertex sequel Strider II as well).  And for what it was, I enjoyed it.

That was close
Having played Strider beforehand, it's clear that the people at Hori Electric were big fans of the 1989 Capcom classic in terms of gameplay and slick nature of the controls for they made no attempt to hide their obvious influence.  That's not to say that it's necessarily a bad thing as it doesn't come across as distracting and for this kind of game it works in spite of that.  The Cutting Room Floor website put it best when they described Run Saber as a mixture of a Strider knockoff and Konami's Contra Spirits/Contra III: The Alien Wars/Super Probotector: Alien Rebels and I can see that; both games have their share of mini boss fights leading up to end of the stage and there are moments that have a grotesque alien-like aesthetic to it (not to mention the seemingly non-stop action as well as the fact that you can climb and cling on to surfaces).

Hopping over the factory's molten lava
I can understand people's disappointment in Strider not being given a Nintendo 16-bit treatment by Capcom, but the question is: would it have worked?  Would it have been possible? least without facing the wrath of Nintendo of America's censorbots because that game had its gruesome moments (well, gruesome for 1989 anyway), not to mention that the ESRB rating system would not come into effect until 1994.  There's also the fact that some things would've possibly been lost in transition from arcade to SFC/SNES anyway, like the multilingual voice clips or reducing the number of enemies and activity onscreen so as to avoid graphic slowdown as best they can on a relatively square ratio as opposed to a screen with a wider size resolution (or worse, taking out a stage altogether due to size constraints).  Maybe it would've worked, maybe it wouldn't have, but one thing's for certain: regardless of what the quality would've been like, it would not have held a candle to the arcade original.

Slash that tall and lanky robot
Run Saber is a very manageable game that is easy to follow due to its linear nature (the arrows next to the HUD tell you which way to go, but it's easy to pick up which direction to head towards more often than not), there isn't much in terms of challenge as it is not terribly difficult (using the saber blocks most projectiles also), and it's rather short at roughly thirty minutes.  And yet, there is an arcade-like feel for this game and despite its brevity I found it to be enjoyable.  The gameplay felt smooth and slick, which I think helped a lot as it made the controls simple yet intuitive, I liked that there was a subtle variation regarding Alow and Sewa in terms of their sabers, and there was enough of a creepy sense of atmosphere to make the proceedings interesting.  It's no Strider, but as an equivalent to that game it works really well (well enough to warrant a cult following), though it is by no means without its flaws.

Dropping down
The area designs are nicely laid out and fairly done for the most part, though there is a moment during the final stage where there is an upward platform riding portion followed by a downward platform riding portion  followed by another upward platform riding portion which I felt was redundant.  I genuinely feel that the victory pose is done way too much in this game following the defeat of the bosses to the point of ad nauseam; it's okay if they do it at the end of each stage, but there's no reason to do the same after each and every mini boss battle beforehand as it grinds things to a second-long halt.  The intro is easy to comprehend (and is really the only bit of story you're given in-game), but the first time I watched it I thought Bruford's human form was a disguise whereas the monster form was real and not the other way around; in hindsight it's obvious what the real situation is (thanks to outside sources and the final boss), but because there's a lack of accompanying text that moment in particular got warped in my mind.  Even if there was accompanying text, the intro whizzes by fast so the text would probably not have caught up.  There's no attract mode in Run Saber either, as after two or three seconds in the title screen the intro plays again.  Every.  Time.

Jumping to the next portion
The biggest setback comes from the battles; the majority of them are easy as they've got simplistic patterns and barely put up a fight (except Kurtz), and the reason it's so disappointing is because they're designed so imposing and huge.  The Tong City boss looks amazing, but sadly she's defeated as you swing at her face enough times while standing on her hand (only to move away if the laser is coming your direction), and then there's the Jodvalley boss whom you can defeat by doing the spin cycle attack against its head several times which protects you from the fire it breathes (provided you time it right).  I generally find myself defeating the bosses without resorting to using the hyper bomb, with the exception of Kurtz whose attacks are unpredictable and doesn't hold still for as a result you're more likely to sustain damage from him should he execute the fire attack or use his slide attack against you--I do try sometimes to defeat Kurtz with just the saber, but because the invincibility time after each hit you sustain lasts one second it becomes a move out of the way when the enemy attacks kind of battle and if you stay too close you'll wind up potentially depleting your health quickly (the problem with that is that the saber is a relatively close ranged weapon for he's also got one advantage over you which adds some difficulty to the battle: long-ranged projectiles).

Climbing and slashing
But aside from those blemishes I do find Run Saber to be a fun, solid game to play every once in awhile as there is enough action to keep you busy; and as manageable and brief as it is, it makes it easy to go back and replay it regardless of the character and difficulty setting you choose.  If you can afford a copy then I recommend this platformer; if you crave an arcade-style action game then I think you'll have fun with it; if you're looking for something with a challenging difficulty then you won't find it here, but if you want to play a game that is accessible in terms of difficulty then this will suit you just fine; if it's a game with longevity you're searching for then this game may disappoint you, but if you want to play something short and sweet then this a good option.  If you liked Strider but were curious to how the SNES equivalent fared, then Run Saber is the closest you'll get to getting that experience for it's a fun game while it lasts.

My Personal Score: 7.5/10
d(^-^)bTO EACH THEIR OWNd(^-^)b

Happy 25th Anniversary, Run Saber!!!  =)

Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think (neither spam nor NSFW comments are allowed); hope you have a great day, take care!  =)

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