Following his departure from Capcom, director Kouichi Yotsui was burdened with expectation following Strider‘s success. Sadly, despite his inventive, risk-taking approach to game development, he would never again win the limelight. In the mid-’90s he had a fling with Mitchell Corporation, a studio formed of ex-Capcom staff that coaxed him into creating a spiritual sequel to Strider. Known as Cannon Dancer in Japan and Osman internationally, it failed to garner enough attention to warrant a home port. 27 years on, and that injustice has finally been rectified.
Taking a leaf out of Strider’s rich aesthetic tapestries, Cannon Dancer trades out dystopic Russia for the warmer climes of a futuristic Middle East; a bristling metallic skyline gilded with neon, mile-high searchlights, and a fusion of Turkish and Arabian embellishments. In real-world history, Osman was the name of the founder of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, which may indicate where Yotsui’s fictitious world sits geographically.
Your hero, who is referred to once in an in-game exchange as “Abdullah the Slaver”, wears bell pants and has one of those little ponytails popularised by ’90s Steven Seagal movies. Questionable fashion sense aside, he sports even more in the way of acrobatics than Hiryu. Weaponless, he’s a pinpoint brawler with furious kick combos and considerable range, slicing the air and anything in it. Where Strider would halve enemies with his Cyper in a flare of light, here, violent soles spray them about the screen in satisfying arcs of blood.
Initially, the game seems challenging, but after getting to grips with everything you can do, it becomes infinitely simpler. The freedom of Strider’s movement has been expanded upon, and the control scheme is agile, free-flowing, and razor-sharp. It feels great to air-grab an enemy and pile-drive them into the ground before dicing the next with a gunshot heel. You can also skid while foot jabbing, flip and change direction mid-air, and snatch enemies into a spin-dryer tumble before firing them spectacularly into nearby assailants.
In addition to being both nimble, powerful and able to rapidly fire out blows, you can collect orbs that power you up through several levels, altering the colour of your circus pants in the process. More than an MC Hammer-style wardrobe upgrade, this is where the game offers strategic depth. While the highest power levels are able to slice through bosses with impressive speed, you also generate a trail of glowing after-images following your attacks. These shadows linger for a few seconds in the location they were deployed, continuing to do damage as you tap the button before rubber-banding back to your sprite. This ability is key to almost every boss battle and can be experimented with for various methods of defence. You seize windows of opportunity by leaping in, kicking out several shadows into a boss’s face, and then doubling back safely out of harm’s way. By continuing to hammer the attack button your temporarily fixed after-images will deal out massive damage. The more powered up you are, the more shadows you generate, encouraging you not to concede too many hits.
There are plenty of bosses in the game, with simple guardians populating waypoints and a smattering of decent set-pieces involving tigers, runaway trucks, turbulent oceans and blistering desert planes. While the atmosphere is unique and absorbing, the plot — allegedly an allegory for Yotsui’s unceremonious departure from Capcom — is difficult to follow. It at least possesses an interesting air of Middle-Eastern mysticism, persecution, and religious symbolism – a mishmash of styles that works far better than it probably should thanks to Mitchell’s small-team vision.
If one must compare Cannon Dancer to Strider (and one must, as it happens), it falls just slightly short of its predecessor. Despite its graphical sumptuousness and impressive variation, it doesn’t quite achieve Strider’s sense of scale: the former’s benchmark contiguous stage layouts still a more impressive cinematic assembly.
Cannon Dancer’s music is normally a point of criticism. It’s pretty lo-fi and parts of stage two sound like someone wheezing in a cluttered pantry. That said, while not an accomplished score, it grows on you, conjuring notes that complement the game’s style and momentum.
Although the first few stages hint at a potentially superior game — its combat, control, tactility and speed all exceeding Strider in terms of definition and feedback — the overall doesn’t quite achieve the same highs. There’s plenty going on and the lithe battle line is superb, but some of the bosses are confusing to track and fairly haphazard, regularly roaming off-screen. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this (and Strider’s bosses weren’t dissimilar in this respect) but a little more in the way of pattern processing would make for fewer moments of uncool flailing. For desperate measures, you can unleash a super attack that shoots you in a star pattern around the screen. Grossly overpowered, this move can fell many bosses with one use, and you’re given three per life.
There’s not much of an end sequence compared to its plentiful cutscenes, which is mildly disappointing, and it’s come to light that several sections from stage three where you travel through warp-like corridors, were sadly axed from the final product.
Cannon Dancer is more difficult to clear on a single credit than Strider, but also less measured. Coupled with plentiful health icons, pragmatic use of super attacks makes it almost too easy to cruise to the fifth and final stage. Many bosses and larger enemies fall quickly to a flurry of powered-up blows, and only the second half of stage four begins to test you in earnest. Although Strider is similarly short at approximately 15 minutes in length, its difficulty curve is more even-tempered. Cannon Dancer’s fifth stage, where, after seeing the sumptuous sights of a night-lit technopolis, the searing blood sun of a scorched desert, and the rusty depths of a sinking warship, you’re plunged into an abstract cloudscape, where, unlike previous stages, a death now sends you back to a checkpoint. Taking care to avoid falling cars and trucks that have found their way into this hellish subspace, the stage recycles a couple of bosses early on, placed on awkward slopes to make them more taxing. You then fight a ‘fake’ shadow image of yourself where consultation of a guide is absolutely necessary to figure out how to effectively retaliate. It’s simple when you know how, yet nigh on impossible to fathom if you don’t, and that’s slightly troubling in game design terms.
Following this, you’re placed in an arena to fight three previous bosses in unison. With no structure and each doing its thing on random about the screen, you’re left to unleash those stored-up special attacks and be done with it. Thankfully, the last battle is well executed, and, while rather easy, is still no way near as easy as Strider’s final guardian, Meiou.
Does this finale negatively affect the game overall? A little, perhaps, but primarily because it’s such a brisk affair until this point. You find yourself ploughing through an adventurous and elating 12 minutes, give or take, only to face a difficulty spike that will quickly send you back to the start of the game. If you’re looking to clear Cannon Dancer on a coin — and you should be, since it’s too fleeting otherwise — it’s actually a good idea to make use of the new save state feature for Stage Five, learn it down pat, and then go back for a one-credit clear attempt. If you’re only looking to credit feed through it or utilise its new invincibility cheat options, you might find it all a bit short-lived for the money.
Publisher ININ Games’ presentation here is very uninspired, using the same flat text menus as the Wonder Boy Collection with far less in the way of accompanying art. There are no galleries or fan bonuses, but at least the in-game configurations fare better. Both Osman and Cannon Dancer region variations are present, and the CRT filter is, once again, incredibly granular, allowing you to tweak almost every key parameter from screen curvature to mask gradations. There are save states, rewind functions, cheats for cheaters, and our personal favourite, a toggleable set of enhancements. Seeing as it would otherwise have just been a bare-bones port, being able to add auto-fire attacking and a double-jump into the game provides a new dimensionality for players who have exhausted it on defaults. This added trickery also gives rise to a host of interesting game-breaking properties, too. Challenge Mode strips the game back to its purer arcade profile, doing away with cheats and rewind features, while still gifting up to two enhancements for players to toy with.
While a wonderful arcade game, the price may be an issue for some. Finally getting a home port is cause for celebration, but $30 still feels over the odds considering the package’s limited content.