I’m going start with a harsh truth: the 90s sucked. We had to pretend frosted tips were cool, we had shitty boy bands on the radio all day, and we were bombarded with so many new ways to contract diabetes. It’s no wonder kids today are all fuckin’ fat, they learned it by watching us. Strafe aims to bring this era back in the one field in which the 90s was arguably not garbage – video games. It models itself after classics like Quake and Doom, and even throws in some glorious live-action FMV cutscenes. How I missed those.
Strafe’s first screens will catch you off guard. You’ll pick your starter weapon out of three in a nice and comfy starship, then enter the portal to start the game…and immediately snap to a gritty and devastated space corridor. Before you can get adjusted, enemies begin to charge towards you. From here, you’re on your own. The rest of the game is very much the same: shoot enemies, find the exit, repeat. Simple as it is, Strafe does add some spice to this trusty steak.
Live-action babes are always good.
An old friend makes an appearance.
Levels are randomly generated, meaning that you’ll navigate a different map each time you play. The variety this adds is more than welcomed, but it doesn’t come without at least one hiccup. More than once, you’ll find yourself cornered in a conspicuous corridor that doesn’t lead anywhere. Some rooms only exist to house enemies, as the number of them is consistent across playthroughs. Classic FPS games had superb level design, and there was a special charm to knowing every nook and cranny. Randomisation removes this charm, but those who enjoy variety more than familiarity will enjoy the feature. If the randomly-generated levels don’t pique your interest, there are other modes to play with too. Other modes allow for different ways to play, but offer no fundamental changes to the base game. VR support, however, is on the way.
Some levels have weapon upgrade booths, where you can hand in your weapon for a short time and fight off enemies with your bare hands until it comes back. If you do that, an upgraded weapon is all yours. Machine guns transform into gatling guns, shotguns become cluster grenade launchers, and the railgun becomes a death beam. Groovy. You’re not limited to the weapons you have ammo for, either. When a weapon runs out of bullets, you can use it as a blunt instrument. Explosive barrels can be picked up and thrown. Some spent weapons explode when you throw them. There’s no shortage of ways to blow enemies to smithereens, but the enemies themselves rarely get more interesting aside from the gun-toting ones. Mostly, you’ll be fighting dumb cannon fodder.
“They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!”
But if there’s one thing that Strafe doesn’t apologise for, it’s just how bombastically 90s it is. Blood spurts the walls using dynamic technology, enemies’ gibs will fly across the map and the graphics look like they’ve just come out of a Quake mod. The music, too, is more reminiscent of Unreal than Halo. It blasts circa-1996 electro music, but the sound design for the rest of the game fails to impress. Some of the weapons sound meaty, sure, but enemies don’t express themselves audibly. Games like Doom expertly used audio cues to distinguish enemies from each other and even let you know where they were attacking from. Another game inspired by 90s FPS, Devil Daggers, uses this mechanic perfectly. So why can’t Strafe implement this?
Graphical options are likewise disappointing. While the low-poly aesthetic of the game makes it viable for your top-of-the-line toaster, it’ll sputter occasionally. There’s an option to “Make Strafe Worse”, which lowers the resolution to MS-DOS proportions (no really, I checked). This mode definitely makes the game run better, but some more optimisation wouldn’t have gone unappreciated. The game won’t take you more than a couple of hours to beat (if you’re good) anyway, so this may not be that huge of a problem.
But the worst thing about Strafe is the same thing that made Kung Fury such an awkward film: it’s in on a joke that was never really a joke in the first place. The 90s were a different time, and bombastic games like Duke Nukem or Doom II weren’t some pseudo-parody of masculinity. They were taken completely seriously, with a face straighter than a defunct Twistie. Granted, the gameplay never quite gets that bad, but it’s the little touches that make you raise an eyebrow or sigh. Like when the robot inside the gun upgrade station does the Macarena while you wait for the upgrade to finish. You, stop that.
Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. And bits of sick.
Boom, boom, boom, boom~
Strafe knows what it likes. It likes brunette bombshells in their FMVs. It likes its balls firmly plastered to the wall. It loves gore and gibs. Put simply, it loves the 90s PC game…maybe a little too much. Modern touches are ignored that would have catapulted this game to classic status, and the new features that don’t directly hinder the game are controversial at best. If you want a 90s game like how Kung Fury was an 80s movie, give Strafe a go. But if you want a more fleshed-out 90s game…just play a 90s game.