Game Title: Earth Defense Force
Developed and published by: Jaleco
Platform: Arcade Jamma upright and Super Nintendo
Year of Release: 1991
Shmups have long been a dying race that steadfastly refuses to actually die. Part of the reason for that may lie in their nature; they are strictly simplistic in how they function. You should only need two hands to play a shmup, no matter how innovative it is. They are, in the strictest sense, 2-dimensional games, even if the modern ones have beautifully rendered polygonal bosses and background atmospheres. When the consoles and arcade uprights become too 3D-centric, they move to portables. When the portables become too much, we start seeing them on our cell phones. Fact is there will always be a niche for them no matter how sophisticated our technology gets, and because there are people who appreciate their simplistic, visceral virtues, they'll always have a fanbase.
Earth Defense Force--aka E.D.F.--is, at first glance, typical of the genre.
There are two versions of this game: Arcade and Super Famicom/Nintendo ("Super" E.D.F.). They are surprisingly different games; Super E.D.F. is not a console version of E.D.F. They do share many of the same stage maps and music, but the differences are distinct enough that they bear mentioning. Both versions were released in 1991, Super E.D.F. following a few months after its arcade counterpart, but the two were hardly copies of each other, so it would be a fallacy, I believe, to call Super E.D.F. a console port. In fact, the SNES version is so different, and so much better for its differences, it literally changed the way I played video games.
I played Super E.D.F. first, when I was 10, and very quickly fell in love with it. Design-wise, E.D.F. is a pretty standard shmup that falls back on a number of popular conventions. You have two "invincible" satellite pods that fire your special weapons and can assume various formations around your ship. You have an arsenal of weapons (4 in the arcade version, 8 in the SNES version) to choose from at the beginning of each stage ranging from a high-powered vulcan to search lasers. As you play the game and score points, your weapons gain levels (up to level five) and become more powerful and versatile. You have shields that will last you two hits--three strikes and you're done for. E.D.F. extends your play depending on how many credits you feed it; Super E.D.F. caps your continues at 3, and each time you run out of lives you much start the stage over. Both versions of the game have comparable graphics and music, although Super E.D.F. suffers from a bit more slowdown and bit less fine detail than its arcade counterpart. It compensates for this hardware-based deficiency with more animation frames for the sprites and by making use of transparency layers for the scrolling backgrounds--pretty.
I'm of the opinion that Super E.D.F. is vastly superior to the original game, and in this I think it's unique among shmups. Generally, you lose some quality in the conversion from arcade to console. So often, that "Super" tag at the beginning of the title is little more than fluff. It could have easily happened to E.D.F., as well, but Jaleco made an interesting decision when they brought E.D.F. over to the SNES: they made up for the SNES's inherent ROM limitations by changing the nature of the game itself. It's still recognizeable as E.D.F., but two key differences set the arcade and SNES versions apart. First, the arcade E.D.F. supported up to two players, with two different ships. Super E.D.F. Is a single-player only game. Second, there are "plot" twists in Super E.D.F. that are absent from the arcade game. More about those in a minute.
The things that make Super E.D.F. a better playing experience are less about technical comparisons and more about nuances and how the game is presented. When you first start Super E.D.F., you're treated to a very simple, but effective 40-second intro in which the letters E.D.F., huge and bold, scroll slowly across the screen. Looking inside the letters, you can see an image of your ship and its satellites hovering menacingly above a blue planetary atmosphere to the sound of a slow, electronic war beat punctuated by quiet computerish noises. The title screen itself "falls" onto your TV, crashing down with a slow flash of white light, and is thereafter completely silent until you start the game or let it sit there long enough for the demo to start playing. If you watch the demos, almost all of them end with the player ship going down in flames. It's an unusually bleak and subtle introduction for a shmup, and sets the mood of the game before you play. The arcade version lacks these theatrics, being nothing more than a colorful title screen showcasing your ships and a demo with a decidedly less dramatic conclusion.
Upon starting the game, Super E.D.F. treats you to a view of your ship rushing through a scramble tube, with an equally energetic, James Bond-ish tune to go with it while you select your weapons. In contrast with the dark tone of the intro, it gets you pumped up to kick some ass. When your ship blasts off, you're ready to come out with guns blazing. You should be, too--you're attacked not a second after the first stage fades in. Gameplay is fast and furious, but this is not a "manic" shmup; dodging is important, but you need more than reflexes to survive. Careful placement and maneuvering of your ship on the screen will ensure you do not get hit (easier said than done). Nor is it a "thinker's" shmup; trial-and-error strategies are not options, given your limited continues. This in mind, while the first three levels are manageable to any intermediate player, Super E.D.F. quickly becomes an extremely difficult game and is, for me, almost impossible to beat without cheating. I've only done it once and it was easily one of the greatest gaming accomplishments I can boast. The arcade version, on the other hand, is much easier to blast through in 2 or 3 credits.
Super E.D.F. uses a lot of color schemes I personally appreciate. The words "stark" and "contrast," come to mind. There are few soft edges in this game, with many examples of very dark shades paired with sharp spikes, lines, gradients and pinpricks of bold, bright color (as of this writing, I have set my livejournal to use a panoramic shot of the second stage map as its background--this is a good example of what I'm talking about).
The story of E.D.F. and Super E.D.F. (as much story as shmups ever have, at least) unfolds wordlessly as the game is played. While the arcade version is fairly upbeat and bright all the way through, Super E.D.F. begins with a cheerful romp through the clouds and becomes increasingly bleak as the game progresses. The sun sets by the end of the first and the second stage is a night flight over a terrestrial cityscape. You then fly through a graveyard of destroyed naval ships, watch helplessly as one of your space colonies is carved up by an enemy laser beam, and wrestle manically with the enemy armada on your own. You then dive headlong on a suicide mission into the mothership. The music of the last stage is yet another Autobot-Decepticon Battle Theme clone, but a good one, fast and chaotic in comparison with the previous, more mournful stages; this is it.
It's a very lonely task without the benefit of a 2nd player, and this only adds to the urgency of the gameplay--for while this game is hard, it is not impossible, and if you fail, it's your fault, yours alone. There are no excuses and the game is unforgiving when you give up your last life. It literally slams a door in your face.
The jazzy, metropolitan soundtrack becomes more lamenting as you advance and fits the mood of each stage very well. The songs are even named appropriately: First Encounter, Midnight Intercept, The Cave, Sunlit Colony, Premonition, and Armed Satellite. Sunlit Colony and Premonition are exclusive to Super E.D.F., and, in my opinion, are superior to the original songs they replace (this seems like a case where the makers of the game looked at the original's flaws, picked out the two songs that SUCKED, and replaced them with something better and more fitting with the rest of the soundtrack). The Cave and Premonition are my two favorites, the former because of its defiant, yet steadfast feel and the latter because of its mournful tone; you get the impression that the "premonition" is not a good one. As it turns out, it is not.
Your satellite ships are almost heart-tuggingly loyal in E.D.F. They remind me a bit of the exocomps from the Star Trek TNG episode "The Quality of Life" (but I digress...). In some cases, when you run out of shields and die, they will cling to your ship as it slowly falls and smokes in an apparent attempt to keep it flying or go down with it, and they will continue pointing at the enemy ships even as you burn, protecting you to the last. The only way to defeat the final boss in Super E.D.F. is to let them attack its weak point while you busy yourself trying not to get hit. If you're skilled enough to destroy said boss, they sacrifice themselves at the end of the final stage in an attempt to save you from being stuck inside the mothership when it self-destructs. But, try as you might, you can't outrun the explosion.
The Super E.D.F. credits start to roll against the dark side of the moon. As they do, the perspective slowly shifts so that more and more light filters onto the screen, and you begin to see a vague silhouette...which eventually proves to be the drifting remains of your ship. The canopy is still in tact, but the rest of the ship is pulverized. Earth slowly comes into view, saved, but too far away to rescue you, if indeed you survived at all (in the arcade version, you are, in fact, rescued by a conveniently placed friendly armada--in Super E.D.F., the screen fades to black without answering any questions, and I prefer it that way). There's no reward for the hero except to face a cold, lonely demise in space. That was quite an ending for a 10-year-old to contemplate. I don't think I would have felt it so strongly if I hadn't spent so long challenging the game over and over for the satisfaction of victory. I had worked for that victory, I deserved it--but what I got was a silent vision of my fate. It made me love the game even more, though; it made every stage and, as far as chiptunes go, beautiful piece of music, mean something in retrospect. It made me feel a bit of apprehension at the idea of beating video games anymore, but apprehension of the type that made me play harder and appreciate gameplay to a greater extent; games were no longer just for beating after I played Super E.D.F. It's a bit jarring to realize that you were struggling so hard only to speed your ultimate doom. It makes you view the game in a more sober light every subsequent playthrough.
This game evokes a very specific mood in me, a trait its arcade counterpart lacks, and I believe it is better for the discrepency: Finality. There is no continuation of this story, because at the end, you die. The arcade version comforts you with salvation, and I think that's cheap and typical and too optimistic for a game that otherwise seemed to focus on things falling apart in the face of your success. The arcade version is brighter, seeing half of the stages in daylight. Sans the first stage, Super E.D.F. is a dark night flight, not only because of starfield bitmaps. If E.D.F. is dawn, Super E.D.F. is Twilight, and I think the latter analogy is more appropriate for the overall feel of the game.
Super E.D.F. made bold usage of simplicity, which is, in my opinion, something all memorable games have in common. Its stark, high-contrast stages, well-composed soundtrack, urgent pace, and thoughtful ending underscore innovation and some effort on the part of its programmers to not only compensate for the limitations of a console system but also reinvent an already good game in a way that made it even more enjoyable and worth playing, whether you'd played the original or not.