Friday, May 13, 2016

Super Earth Defense Force (SNES) Review

Written: May 12th-13th, 2016
Year: 1991 | Developed and Published by: Jaleco

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  Now my strong points when it comes to video game genres are platformers and RPGs (turn-based and namely action-oriented) but if there's one genre I don't consider myself to be really good at all the way is shoot'em ups (horizontal and vertical); it's probably got to do with the fact that these are precarious types of games for me in that I have to maneuver the ship around as I try to avoid a screen-full of enemy ships and enemy bullets (sometimes coming in right behind you).  But I figured today I may as well talk about one of the first horizontal-scrolling shoot'em ups I ever played during my childhood and am somewhat good at playing (to a point, that is): Jaleco's Super Earth Defense Force.

Shooting up in the sky, going up twice as high
Originally an arcade game in 1991 simply known as Earth Defense Force, the game (or rather its gameplay structure) got ported as Super Earth Defense Force to the Super Famicom on October 1991 which saw an American release on January 1992 until finally it received a European edition that same year.  And while the original coin-op edition had a two-player option and significantly different stages with unlimited continues (I should know, I got a chance to experience it years ago on one of my cousins' MAME CD), the Nintendo 16-bit release was exclusively rendered a single-player entry with only three continues at your stead amidst different stages.  So what is the first serious shoot'em up I'm covering on my StarBlog like?

What a nice space colony, I hope nothing bad
happens to it... oh, right, shoot'em up  =(
It's doomed  ={
Since this version in particular is slightly different than the original arcade counterpart, so too is its story.  The arcade Earth Defense Force takes place in the year 20XX where planet Earth is attacked all of a sudden by the alien Azyma Empire, whose sole purpose from its flagship the Orbital Satellite Buster is to wipe out all living beings on the planet.  Earth's only hope rests on the XA-1 and XA-2 space fighter ships sent forth from the organization E.D.F. (which stands for Earth Defense Force).  In Super Earth Defense Force, the Azyma Empire has established its own quarters on the dark side of the Moon, where it's revealed that after they attacked Earth they have a secret weapon on said Moon which could destroy the planet and all who inhabit it in one fell swoop.  It is up to the XA-1 space fighter ship sent from the E.D.F. organization to take these enemy forces out and obliterate the secret weapon before it's too late.

Attack this malevolent machine
Super Earth Defense Force is a horizontal-scrolling shoot'em up, and in it you take control of the XA-1 fighter ship, and regardless where you move around and maneuver it your ship will always face the right direction.  Liberally holding down the B button will allow you to shoot nonstop (both the ship and the two gun turrets), the A button will allow you to toggle the function of the two gun turrets around you, and the X button will change the speed of your ship (one arrow is the slowest and three arrows is the fastest; but I rarely bother changing the ship speed outside of the middle option).  Before you start each stage and after you lost a continue you have the choice to choose one of eight various weapons which you'll have to stick with until the end of the stage; I always opt for the Homing weapon because it's a very convenient feature and honestly all the other weapons I find to be useless by comparison and not quite as convenient (despite the variations in power, speed, and rapid fire).

Because this game is Darius now
Something that's quite innovative for this genre is the way that you have a shield stock as opposed to dying after being shot once (in the Config screen you can set it up to three).  Essentially taking a hit alleviates one stock from you, and once they're all gone you lose a continue (since a continue is the equivalent of a life in this particular shoot'em up).  Another neat innovation is how you could actually level up the weapon of your choice after shooting down a lot of enemies and/or garnering points which will fill up the level gauge, and once that's filled up you will level up your weapon up to Level 5, and once you fill up the bar any time after the fact you'll garner one extra shield stock.  Something of note is that how leveled up you are also enables certain functions of your two gun turrets; when you start the game the only options you can achieve with them are staying by your side or having them circle around you, but later on will also come their ability to either follow you around in a lined up fashion or get right up close to your targets (the best function of them all).

Neatly subtle sunset effects
Visually Super Earth Defense Force is decent to look at, and even though it's not anything to write home about there are some neat-looking segments here and there.  The first stage transpires above a sequence of parallax scrolling clouds which seamlessly turns from day to dawn in the most subtle way possible, for instance; the second stage has nice city lights below a starry atmosphere, and both the fourth and fifth stages have got a cool Mode 7 moment (the former of which has a space colony slowly zoom in to the side before it looms in the same playing field, and the way the Azyma Empire's Moon base rotates and scales in at the same time in gradual fashion during the latter is an impressive sequence).  =)  And when you turn on the game there is a greatly detailed XA-1 and gun turrets on top of a skyline transpiring behind the huge blank "E.D.F." letters which slowly pan to the left amidst a black screen; it does get you prepared for what's to come.

And now we have an enemy mech from R-Type,
because of course it has one such similar enemy
The XA-1 and its gun turrets are designed decently in-game, and the Azyma Empire's forces that you deal with have got varying designs that look cool; among them round cannons, fish-like mechanical enemies who could easily belong in a Darius game, and creatures made out of ice.  Any time you approach the main boss there will be a lightning strike to signify the event and many of them are huge; such as a giant mechanical swordfish, an ice worm, and even a huge mecha creature with a radioactive canister used for its fuel.  And after enough hits have been dished against them they're still functioning but look in worse condition thanks to their detail (and when they explode it's quite satisfying).

Well, that machine sure is crabby today
The music in Super Earth Defense Force is one of the best things about this game, for not only does it augment a sense of atmosphere in each stage but it also sounds really good in terms of composition and nature; too bad that it often gets obfuscated by the very loud same-sounding shooting sound effects (with some occasional explosions and during the fifth stage shattering ice effects) throughout.  Why did you do that, Jaleco, why couldn't you be more like Lagoon where there are little to no sound effects affecting the background music (thank God for the sound test combined with the fact that pausing will still have the music playing)?  =(

I'm outnumbered
As for the songs themselves they are fun and catchy to listen to, in particular the themes for the second stage, fourth stage, and fifth stage.  I like the way it's composed with its sound samples and how intense it could sound like during the boss theme, even during the final two boss fights within the same stage; and the credits theme ain't so shabby.  =)  The original Earth Defense Force arcade was composed by Tsukasa Tawada (who also worked on the first Ikari no YĆ“sai localized as Fortified Zone for the Game Boy), but the music that was done for the Nintendo 16-bit take Super Earth Defense Force was provided by Yasuhiko Takashiba (whose other main contributions for Jaleco was the first Rushing Beat which as a whole was woefully altered when localized for the Western release Rival Turf! and the one on one fighting game Dead Dance which got localized as Tuff E Nuff), and I have a fondness for this soundtrack since listening to it as a child whenever I played it during visits at my relatives'.

Icy salamander in your midst
The thing about most shoot'em ups is that one hit usually results in you dying and when that happens you either usually start from the beginning of the stage or the closest spot where you died; Super Earth Defense Force's inclusion of shield stocks alleviates that sense of worry although when you do lose a continue you must start over from the beginning of the stage where you lost all your shield stocks at (which is no problem really since they are not very long).  The game is actually fairly manageable even for me to play during the first three stages which is not a problem (especially since enemy pattern memorization is key); where the difficulty starts picking up for me (and likely everyone else) is the boss at the end of the fourth stage.  If you were to play this on say the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console (if you did not have confidence playing this kind of game) you would probably abuse the save state feature from this point onward (because the bullets and enemy fire are flying fast at you), but there is a way where you can still play legitimately without resorting to that measure as much... although it may disrupt the flow: pausing and unpausing, over and over.  It might not be 100% fullproof, but pausing is the equivalent of stopping the action and unpausing is the equivalent of resuming it, and the former especially helps when you can exactly pinpoint where the bullets are flying and where you should maneuver your ship.  When did pausing a game suddenly become a way to alleviate some challenge?  <=(

Sooo much flashing and wearing down
Super Earth Defense Force is not a widely regarded shoot'em up, and the developer Jaleco isn't a generally well-liked company as not many people seem to like them or their games (as far as I noticed).  During the console wars of the '90s the MegaDrive/Genesis dominated as far as this genre was concerned as opposed to the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo, and there's a reason for this: while Sega's 16-bit console did not have good sound samples or a plentiful color library it did have a fast processor which meant that games could go at fast speeds with no problem, Nintendo's 16-bit console had great sound samples and a huge color library but at the expense of being a slow-processing machine.  This basically meant that any time a lot was going on onscreen or when things were becoming hectic there would be graphic slowdown; and early in the Nintendo 16-bit console's lifespan gamers largely did not react well to Konami's 16-bit foray in the form of their 1990 sorta port of 1989's Gradius III, Taito's console-exclusive Darius Twin, or even Irem's Super R-Type because of this fact or because they didn't offer as much speed and/or challenge as people would've liked, and by the time today's game came out there wasn't much confidence with the shoot'em up genre as far as the Nintendo 16-bit console was concerned (the only exception during 1991 being Capcom's sorta port of their 1989 arcade adaptation of Area 88 in U.N. Squadron which was positively received).  But some of what came after from 1992 onward did renew some confidence as they were better received in and out of comparison.

Great formation, here's your award!
I remember first playing Super Earth Defense Force during either 1997 or 1998 when I was six or seven over at my one of my cousins' house whenever I visited them, and suffice it to say it left an impression on me when I was young (that opening especially and even the entrances of some bosses) and I could really only get up to the fourth stage before I lost all my continues.  It was one of the very first games I played in the shoot'em up genre, and admittedly for the first half it does make for a pick-up and play kind of game (especially since your power-up can level up and your ship has a shield stock of three, and the soundtrack is really catchy).  Each year I went and visited this would always be one of the games I wound up playing as I do find it fun (one of my cousins who owns it loves it and has beaten it a few times), and while it's true there are amounts of graphic slowdown I didn't feel it detracted from the fun to be quite honest (in fact, sometimes I saw it as a benefit).  =)  A common thing about shoot'em ups is not touching the upper and bottom surfaces or even stationary obstacles otherwise you'll either lose a life or health, but in this case you don't have to worry about that until the final stage.

Skeletal swordfish sure are waterproof
For years I had always meant to procure my own copy of it since I had fun childhood memories of today's game, but being a collector meant I was curious about so many games, so because of this games that I was largely curious about ended up catching my attention (and add to the fact that I'm indecisive and basically collecting games is hard in a nutshell).  Last Summer I decided to download Super Earth Defense Force on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console (released by current license-holder Hamster), and while I would not have objected to owning a physical cart (since it doesn't cost much on eBay) I did have enough points to download it on there so I decided to use them.  =)  And while it's not without its problems I do personally find it to be fun to play once in awhile, and it was during this time that I discovered the pause-unpause solution.  And yeah, while I do find myself using the save state from the end of the fourth stage onward I do try to get by with the pause-unpause trick (as it is bound to get you places); but hey, at least in Wild Guns I only start using the save state during the final stage.  But, you know, apples and oranges (Natsume's game is a shooting gallery, today's game is a shoot'em up).
If you're searching for a decent shoot'em up to play then Super Earth Defense Force is not a bad choice to play once in awhile.  If you don't desire graphic slowdown when playing this genre you're better off playing something else which admittedly is better.  But if you're forgiving of the slowdown and would like to see how Jaleco attempted their take on the genre during its heyday then it's fun while it lasts (or until you run out of continues), and if you like innovative features in your shoot'em ups such as leveling up your weapon and shield stocks you may end up liking it for what it is.  It's not great Jaleco entertainment but it's solid Jaleco in my book, and I'm normally not good at shoot'em ups.  =)  Make of it what you will, for your mileage may vary.

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. If there's one game I'm worse at playing that I start using save states earlier than either this game and Wild Guns it's Castlevania: Dracula X; but I am far from ready to talk about that one.  That title is neither Konami's finest nor is it in league with the 1993 PC-Engine classic that the 1995 SNES action/platformer is misleadingly named after (they're not the same game, despite the same setting and controls).
P.S. 2 Sweet, I got my third title that I promised I would talk about this year in my 2016 Video Game Reviews Bucket List done, now I only have to talk about six more left!  =D
P.S. 3 And in a total non-irony, Jaleco would return to the shoot'em up genre for the Nintendo 16-bit albeit as publisher of the North American version of R-Type III: The Third Lightning for Irem... because they couldn't publish it themselves for some reason.  =/
Happy 25th Anniversary,
(Super) Earth Defense Force!!!!!!!!!  =D
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think!  Have a great Summer, and take care!  =)

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