Reviewed: December 18, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: October 21, 2002
Retro games have almost become their own genre. With high-tech remakes of classics like Asteroids, Space Invaders, Centipede, Frogger, and others there is an increasing selection of titles to put a fond smile on the thirty-something gamer’s face. Last year Midway released a 21st-century version of SpyHunter for the PS2 and Xbox that put retro gaming on the proverbial map, and now they’ve done it again with the 80’s classic, Defender.
Defender was one of those arcade games that always collected a crowd of spectators and would-be space pilots waiting their turn to save the galaxy from the evil Manti. Gameplay was simple in concept but incredibly challenging in execution. Designed as a horizontal Space Invaders, you flew your defender ship over a wireframe landscape blasting hordes of aliens bent on destroying the human race. In addition to wiping out the Manti you also had to rescue the occasional human. Often these humans were being captured by the Manti to be used to create more powerful mutant Manti ships. You had to carefully snipe the enemy then catch the falling human before he smacked the ground.
The original Defender pioneered several game concepts that are still used today. It was one of the first games where the screen offered only a small window into a much larger world. It was also one of the first games to use a primitive variation of what we now call “particle effects” to create some impressive explosions. Even more amazing is that this entire game took up less memory than a single icon on your current Window’s desktop.
7 Studios are the creative geniuses behind this state-of-the-art remake and you can tell this was truly a labor of love for the entire team. They have managed to keep just enough of the original game premise intact to make this update a worthy successor to the legacy of the 80’s classic, while creating a unique 3D visual style and adding a few strategy elements to enhance the gameplay.
Games in the 80’s seldom had elaborate stories. It was all about the gameplay back then and if there was any story to be told you usually had to read it on the cabinet stickers or on a few screens of scrolling text with the words “insert coin” flashing at the bottom. You can get away with that these days so 7 Studios has created an epic storyline that takes the core plot from the original and blends it with events that are dangerously close to those seen in the movie, Starship Troopers. A few cutscenes even brought back fond memories of Battlestar Galactica.
Once you get past the story and the flashy graphics you are left with a challenging alien shooter that will entertain retro gamers as well as a new generation of video game enthusiasts. Whenever you take a traditional 2D game and spin it into the world of 3D you have plenty of opportunities to screw things up, but the designers have managed to avoid all of the common pitfalls and created a game that remains simple yet surprisingly addictive.
First and foremost, Defender is a shooter. It might not have the finger-twitching intensity of the 2D original but you can be sure there are hundreds of Manti waiting to be destroyed and dozens of humans waiting to be rescued from the alien swarm. The game is played with a chase-view of your chosen class of ship with each variation offering unique stats such as speed, armor, strength, etc.
Controlling your craft in a 3D world is obviously more challenging than the simple left/right movement in the side-scrolling original. The ships all respond quite well to the movement of the analog sticks allowing you to move in all directions and perform loops and barrel rolls that are useful in avoiding enemy fire. The first two missions ease you into the action and the basic game mechanics before all hell breaks loose in the later levels.
You have two ships at your disposal when the game begins and as you progress through the game additional ships will be unlocked for a total of six by the end of the game. Surprisingly, there isn’t a huge variation in the ships’ statistics so no one ship rises to the top. The differences are just subtle enough to tailor the gameplay to the way you want to approach the game. If you enjoy going in with guns blazing then a high strength is recommended. If you don’t like to worry about avoiding enemy fire then take a ship with strong armor and suck it up. As you might expect, the more powerful ships are also the slowest.
All of the ships come equipped with some standard weapons, and additional weapons can be purchased between missions using the credits you earn during the game. Some weapons can be added to your loadout while others will replace the standard weapons that come with your ship increasing your overall firepower.
Missions take place on and in-between the planets in our solar system in an attempt to give the player some “attachment” to the events that unfold during the story. Most of the planets have multiple missions and most of the missions have multiple objectives. For the most part you can pick and choose which missions to tackle and how many objectives to complete. Some missions can be skipped entirely and you can move on to the next planet. This gives Defender a very non-linear feel and keeps the player from potentially getting stuck in a troublesome mission. You are free to move around to any of the available missions and earn more money to upgrade your ships before returning to the more difficult scenarios.
Most of the missions take place planetside, but there are a few missions that take you into the void of space, or at least it would be a void if it weren’t for the dozens of Manti ships that attack you with all of the ferocity of the Empire in that final battle scene in Return of the Jedi. These space missions offer some of the most intense battles in the game.
The planet missions are the truest to the original with plenty of Manti swarming the landscape, humans to rescue, and a bevy of pick-ups at your disposal. Mixed into the action is a subtle strategic element that adds greatly to the gameplay. As you rescue the humans and drop them off at the nearest base you are rewarded with power-ups, but you can also drop these people off at certain buildings to created special weapons such as tanks and missile turrets. You can then pick-up these units and place them around the level to assist you in fighting off the alien horde.
The strategic element of Defender makes for a more challenging game that gives you the opportunity to flex your mind as well as your fingers. Thoughtful placement of additional weapons will certainly make your life easier, but for those seeking the mindless twitch-fest of a conventional shooter you will be happy to learn that you can play and finish this game without ever exploring the strategic elements it has to offer.
Obviously, this 21st-century remake of Defender blows the original away, and aside from a few more traditional genre shooters like Top Gun there is really nothing to compare this game to on the Cube. The designers have taken great care to create several visual ties to the original design and in doing so may have condemned this game to mediocrity. Rather than blowing us away with next-gen visuals we get something more akin to a 2002 facelift. Even so, the graphics managed to edge out the PS2 version while coming in just under the quality of the Xbox.
To its credit, Defender manages to pull off some incredible landscapes, impressive, yet simple architecture, and some excellent ship designs that manage to impress while hinting at their 80’s origins. Both the Manti and your fleet of defender ships are well modeled with some excellent textures and subtle details that manage to accurately reflect the fact that these ships are no strangers to battle.
Buildings are simple in construction and mapped with uninspired textures, yet when you or the Manti blow them apart they explode and fall in a very convincing manner. There are plenty of special effects that steal the show including plenty of particle effects, glorious explosions, smoke, fire, rocket trails, and even a dust cloud that kicks up when you skim your ship across the planet surface.
If I were to rate the visuals on cutscenes alone this game would get a perfect score. The lengthy opening movie was stunning, and the cutscenes that appear between the various missions are nearly as good although they were generally pretty short and only served to advance the story to carry you to the next mission or planet.
Defender offers some excellent audio, both in music, sound effects, and even in the voice acting. The opening movie features a wonderful score that blends traditional techno tunes with some high-energy music from KMFDM who performs the title track. Trigger also contributed an original techno track called “Vaunt” that evokes an entirely unique sound experience.
Sound effects are nothing you wouldn’t expect from your typical space shooter, but if you listen closely you will definitely hear some subtle usage of sounds from the original 80’s classic suitably upgraded for this remake. This is a great homage for those who recognize those classic effects, but the tribute will probably be lost on a majority of the gaming public.
Voice acting is excellent even though the scripted dialog approaches the B-Movie level on more than one or two occasions. Your Defender pilot is voiced by singer/actress, Traci Elizabeth Lords (Cry-Baby, Blade, Serial Mom). You may have even heard her music on soundtracks for Mortal Kombat and Virtuosity.
Aside from the acting in the cutscenes there is plenty of com-link chatter and a few hilarious quips that appear at random to take the edge off the gameplay. Overall, the sound design is most impressive and compliments the visuals and the gameplay perfectly.
Defender offers 20 challenging missions that will keep the lone defender busy for 10-15 hours. Granted, this isn’t a lot of gameplay, but keep in mind this game is a remake of a title that was designed to empty your pockets of quarters/token as quickly as possible. Your game time will certainly vary based on your approach to each mission and whether you opt for strategic gameplay or a full frontal assault.
To enhance the limited single player component there are a few additional modes including a cooperative campaign mode that allows two defenders to tackle the Manti together and a competitive mode that pits defender vs. defender using all of the ships and weapons from the main game.
Of all the recent retro remakes, Defender is easily the best of the lot. While it might not achieve the same level of technical splendor as other games currently being released for the GameCube, it does prove that a good game design can hold its own, even after 20 years.
There is plenty of great action that will appeal to fans of the original, and even the kids of those same fans. So whether you want to save the universe from oppressive aliens one more time or just bond with junior, Defender is the perfect game for the job and one that is guaranteed to entertain everyone who plays it. With so few games in the simulation/shooter genre, this should probably be a part of everyone's game library.