The Mythology of Strider

What is it about this series that's sucked us in? Superficially, all the critics' arguments hold true: there's very little plot to tie the levels together, no real strategy is needed to beat the games, and the levels themselves are too short. The individual games are over far too quickly, leaving the player craving more. Does that mean that the series itself is crap?

Not on your life. Strider's creators did quite a lot of research. To create this series, Isuke and Moto Kikaku tied elements from several different mythologies together and combined them with a technologically advanced ninja clan. These elements are often overlooked, and to this day, it's doubtful they've gotten the credit they deserve. With that in mind, let's dig a little deeper into the Strider series, examining the homages and references made within the games themselves and attempting to get at the heart of what Isuke and Moto Kikaku were trying to do.

The first reference is the one I noticed first, and it's also the one that sparked my further research. As most are aware, the first level's boss in the arcade game is Ouroboros. General Michiel and Kazakh's cabinet combine and transform into a giant, sickle-wielding, cybernetic centipede. Anyone who's seen it should know what I'm talking about.

It turns out that "Ouroboros" is not just a cool name for a bad guy, nor is it a coincidence that the enemy bearing this name has a serpentine form. Take a look:

If that shape seems familiar, it's because that's more or less the formation that Kazakh's boss uses to attack Hiryu. In Gnostic mythology, "Ouroboros" was the World Serpent, the snake that ate its tail. It supported the existing world by allowing the globe to rest upon it, and it in turn rested upon the backs of four turtles. It figured prominently into the Gnostic creation myth, and the Gnostics worshiped it as a god of sorts. The Ouroboros symbolized immortality, perfection, and the soul of the world.

What's interesting about this is that in Strider, Grandmaster Meio commands this perfect, self-sufficient being, using it to further his own goals and attack the hero. Hmm.

Another reference is another prominent endboss: Strider 2's Caduceus. It's always been a mystery what Grandmaster Meio was doing with that... thing... in the first place, not to mention why he was so astonished by the fact that Hiryu defeated it. It seems to come out of nowhere, both within Strider 2 itself and the larger Strider continuity.

That's the Caduceus, pictured at right. That's also roughly what the Strider 2 endboss looks like, except that Strider 2's Caduceus is more technologically enhanced. As it turns out, in Greek mythology, the Caduceus was a staff that the god Hermes carried. It didn't originally belong to Hermes, but to Apollo, the sun god. There's a whole story about how Hermes came into possession of the staff, but it's mostly irrelevant. The point is, the Caduceus granted its bearer diplomatic immunity and invincibility, which is why it was so valuable, and also why it's the symbol of the modern medical profession. In Strider 2, it was probably meant to be Meio's ultimate weapon. Once again, the Grandmaster commanded something connected to ancient gods... curiouser and curiouser.

A third reference appears in the NES Strider: Yggdrasil, the Demon Tree. In the game, Yggdrasil (or "Yugedesiral", as it's called) is the primary ZAIN terminal, the one that can spawn others. Once more, this is an example of an endboss that symbolizes much more than it appears to be. It would be bad enough if this were just the spawning place of the ZAIN terminals, but its name and design make it something far more.

In the Norse creation legend, three god-brothers (Odin, Vili, and Ve) killed the giant Ymir, who represented chaos. The universe was created from Ymir's dead body, and a massive tree grew out of his corpse. This tree connected the realm of mortals, Midgard, to the underworld, which was divided into three parts: Niflheim, the land of the dead, which is ruled by Hel; Jotunheim, the land of the Jotuns, giants who predated the Aesir gods; and Asgard, the home of Odin and the others. This tree had three roots, and each root went to a different part of the underworld and was fed by a different spring: in the land of Niflhem, the well of Hvergelmir (darkness) fed one root; in Jotunheim, the waters of Mimir (the source of all wisdom) fed another; and in Asgard, a third root extended into Utharbrunn, the waters of eternity. This tree that was fed by darkness, omniscience, and immortality was known as the Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

The Yggdrasil was a source of great concern for Odin, because he knew that if it could be created easily, then it could be destroyed easily too. So, he went to Jotunheim and drank some of Mimir's waters. He gained omniscience and special knowledge of the Ragnarok, the fate of the gods (now you know why Hiryu's best super is named that), but was forced to sacrifice one of his eyes to do so. Unfortunately, the knowledge was double-edged: he learned that one day, Loki (his bastard son) would invade Asgard and destroy it, bringing an end to the Yggdrasil (the universe) in the process. Once everything was destroyed, a new Yggdrasil would sprout and the universe would be reborn with a different pantheon (set of gods). A new race of men would evolve, one that worshiped the new gods rather than the old. Therefore, the welfare and the destiny of mankind was closely associated with the legend of the Yggdrasil.

Here we have the Strider story being associated with a third creation myth. What's going on here? Is Meio the one responsible for this universe, as Hien seems to believe; or did he have something far more sinister in mind when he invaded Earth? We don't have enough information to tell, at this point. Perhaps the characters themselves can provide a clue.

Strider's creators didn't just draw from mythologies; they drew inspiration from regional superstitions as well, using them for bosses and even main characters. One of the most obvious superstitions they used was the monster called the Kraken. In Strider 2, the boss at the end of Mission 03 is called a Kraken. Looking something like a cross between Caduceus and a giant squid, this boss uses weaponry and tactics similar to Caduceus, making it one of the more difficult bosses in the game. Why is it called "the Kraken," though?

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, when explorers first started finding new trade routes from Europe to Asia, there was a sailor's tale about a giant underwater monster with ten arms, giant eyes, and a ferocious disposition. It was large enough to attack a man-of-war vessel and completely crush it, according to the sailors who claimed to have seen it and survived. This superstition spread, causing many people to fear travel upon the open sea.

Today we know of two animals that could fit this description: the giant squid and the giant octopus. Since the octopus is shy by nature and does not enjoy the company of other undersea creatures, and since it only has eight arms, many scientists have ruled this animal out of the equation entirely. However, the giant squid fits the description, and has a reputation for being aggressive to boot. Undersea squids have been known to attack submarines and oil tankers that were passing through arctic waters.

If the base in Antarctica was designed to enhance living creatures with biotechnology, then there's no real reason why Meio wouldn't want a creature to terrorize the sea as Ballog would enforce his rule in the air. The Kraken would be perfect for this task, as it had a history of superstition attached to it.

Another superstitious creature used was the Dullahan. According to Irish legends, the Dullahan rode on a horse, holding its severed head aloft, searching endlessly for something it would never find. The head was the color of moldy cheese, and glowed with the light of decaying, rotting matter. By holding it aloft, the Dullahan was able to see for miles in any direction. It never needed rest, but every time the Dullahan stopped, a person died. It was death's herald, sent by the lord of the underworld to retrieve souls from this realm, and announced its presence by calling out the name of the person it had been sent for. This was the only time during the entire journey that the Dullahan would speak, and no one could resist its summon. The only way to escape a Dullahan was to throw a piece of gold at it. Dullahans had an irrational fear of it, and would run away at the slightest display of a gold item. Of course, those who beat Strider 2 know that a Cypher works just as well.

A final important reference comes from the first game. And again, it's a boss's name. The Kuniang M.A. team who guard the exit from Strider's second level are an enigma unto themselves. Who are they? Why do they look alike? And why do they have such weird names? Some have guessed that they are clones, but this answer is unsatisfying and only leads to more questions. Additionally, while searching through the late, great Strider Honbu using AltaVista's translate function, the names of the Kuniang M.A. team came up as "Westerly Wind", "Easterly Wind", and "Northerly Wind".

This piqued my curiosity. After some more research, I discovered that the Kuniangs were indeed named after three of the four winds: Nam Pooh, or Nanpu (北風), is the north wind; Ton Pooh, or Tongpu (東風), is the east wind; and Sai Pooh, or Syapu (西風), is the west wind. This begs the question: who is the south wind? Who is Beipu (南風)? The existence of the other three Kuniangs implies the existence of the fourth, since they are each named after one of the four winds. So where is she?

As it turns out, "Bei Pooh" is Nam Pooh. Somehow, the kanji translations got mixed up. I noticed this when looking up Chinese cities. Beijing is written 北京, and means "northern capital". Nanjing is written 南京 and means "southern capital". If you compare the first character in Beijing (北京) to the first character in Nam Pooh (北風), you'll see it's the same character. So "Nam Pooh" should really be translated "Bei Pooh", meaning the real "Nam Pooh" (南風) is still at large. So where is she? And why was "Nam Pooh" misnamed, to begin with?

There's more. Grandmaster Meio, in Japanese, is rendered 「グランドマスター」冥王, which pretty literally translates into "Lord of Darkness". It can also mean "Lord of the Dead" or "Lord of Hell", as well. From this, it's clear that Grandmaster Meio was meant to be an updated version of an underworld god. He is literally a technologically enhanced version of Satan, and the fact that he commands elemental forces of nature only makes him more menacing.

I may be free-associating here. I might be making more of these loose ends than they deserve... but I don't think so. Let's look at what we know. We know that initially Meio came here with Ouroboros, with the intention of conquering the earth. Hiryu defeated him, but not before Meio made a cryptic comment about the "sons of old gods" dying:

Grandmaster Meio: "I shall raise the city up to the sky and rid the Earth of all creatures. I will create a race to fill the New Earth. All sons of old gods, die!"

Nothing about the situation was clear-cut, other than that Meio was bad. The cutscenes themselves aren't much help, either. Since Meio brought along a god from an ancient religious cult, though, it's safe to assume he was attempting to set himself up as the first god of a new pantheon.

Then Hiryu kicks the Grandmaster's ass and apparently seals him up in a sarcophagus in El Dorado. Hien comes onto the scene and releases Meio, making more cryptic comments:

Hien: "Hiryu, you must stop. The Master's already left here. Don't you understand that he is the creator of this world? The ruins, our country, the Striders...everything!! Hiryu, stop this. I don't want to fight with you. You are fool..."

...and Meio makes another attempt with Caduceus backing him. He figures that, even though he was defeated when he had a god backing him, this time he can't lose. He's got instruments of terror (the Dullahan and the Kraken)... and the Caduceus, for invulnerability. There's no way he could possibly lose this one... but he does. Hiryu puts the smackdown on Caduceus too, and kills Meio off. Before he dies, Meio makes one final cryptic comment, leaving us scratching our heads once more.

Grandmaster Meio: "What... What has happened...?! Could you be?! Are you that Hiryu?! The one who appeared before me almost two thousand years ago before I took this world?! Are you going to finish what you couldn't do back then?!"

As if things weren't dicey enough already, I don't think it's a coincidence that Caduceus looks like a Zain terminal. In fact, I think that part of Caduceus' role was to destroy the Earth's Yggdrasil and replace it with the more demonic one Hiryu destroys in the NES game. That would make Meio the first of the new pantheon, according to Norse mythology. Unlike his attempt with Ouroboros, it wouldn't matter if he died, since he'd be resurrected.

The destruction of Earth's Yggdrasil would also explain Meio's puzzling remark, "All sons of old gods, DIE!" Since the fate and welfare of mankind is tied to the Yggdrasil, destroying it would destroy the human race and give rise to a new one, as the Norse legend states. Additionally, Meio's control over elements with close ties to creation myths implied that Kikaku-san intended for him to be the creator of this realm. Whether he actually was or not is irrelevant: his intentions were to overthrow the existing order and set himself up as the primary deity in a new one. Yet Hiryu defeated him, thwarting his plans and proving that the power of men is the ability to choose their own destinies. They aren't vulnerable to the Ragnarok, as the gods are.

All these pointers back to Norse mythology might solve Meio's cryptic comment at the end of Strider 2 as well. As we've seen, in the Norse legends, the highest god, Odin, wanted omniscience, desiring knowledge of what would happen in the far-off future. So he drank from Mimir's waters in Jotunheim, and had a vision of the day when Asgard would be invaded by Loki and he would be overthrown. Maybe... just maybe... Meio did something similar. After all, he was trying to overthrow the old order of gods. Maybe he wanted to know what was going to happen in the future, and during his attempt to find out, a vision of his defeat at Hiryu's hands appeared to him. In the new pantheon, Meio would be Odin and Hiryu would be Loki.

I personally think that something like this happened. It's the only way that Meio's comment makes the slightest amount of sense. And it does make sense, if you can follow all the backstory that Kikaku-san tied into this series. I think that this is what Isuke and Moto Kikaku were implying... that Meio, the god of the underworld, had control of the earth's inception (Ouroboros), its weather (the Kuniangs), and its fate (Yggdrasil). He used instruments of terror that were based off of our oldest fears (The Kraken and the Dullahan). He even had the ultimate weapon (Caduceus)... but even with all this, the race of men was able to defeat him. One man was able to defeat him. Inspiring, huh?

And that is the point. However deeply one chooses to dig, Strider's overarching storyline is simple: one man can stand up for what's right and make a difference. No matter how insignificant he may seem, or how unevenly the scales are tipped against him, the true power of mankind is the ability to choose our own fates. We are not tied to the fates of the gods, and never will be. In this, we are their betters.

Hiryu: "Who can see the future? Those who create it."