Like the saying goes, everything old is new again. In recent years, weve seen a fairly sizable resurgence of classic titles attempt to make lightning strike a second time. Its pretty clear that some have been more successful than others, although I think the key to pulling it off is in retaining the core elements while also significantly expanding on them. As I noted in my recent review of Contra: Shattered Soldier, simply updating the graphics and leaving the rest unchanged doesnt really work. Audiences expectations have been raised by a number of amazing efforts in recent times, and wont easily settle for the simpler formulas of yesteryear.
Midway seems to have keyed into this, and as such theyve been the most successful with resuscitating their franchises. Following up on the warm welcome given to SpyHunter, Defender is their next entry. Its easy to see why they selected it. The original was such a runaway hit back in the 1980s that Midway actually built a factory dedicated to making only Defender cabinets, and the game eventually achieved incredible penetration of over 60,000 units domestically. If that doesnt qualify it as a likely winner, I dont know what does.
This new Defender is best described as a mission-based space shooter. However, in place of the standard Top Gun-style macho pilot, our hero is actually an Asian female. This fact has absolutely no bearing on the gameplay, but I took it as a small (but positive) sign regarding the state of our industry. Any portrayal of a woman as both competent and fully clothed is a good one. Thumbs up to developer Seven Studios there.
Getting to the plot, the gist is that humanity has encountered aggressive DNA-sucking aliens called Manti while colonizing the outer planets. No surprise to anyone, a war for survival ensues. The buggers end up occupying human outposts and actually infest the Earth. Naturally, its up to the remaining Terran forces to kick some chitinous abdomen and take back the homeland. Defender wont win any awards for plot originality, but the cutscenes and in-game chatter do a great job considering that the arcade version had a story approximately one sentence long.
The game controls nice and tighta necessary element for successful fast action. Every button on the Dual Shock 2 is used, but its an extremely comfortable and intuitive layout. Since Seven Studios made the right decisions in terms of controls, the gameplay is a breeze to get into. A good thing, since the difficulty of later missions is challenging enough without having to fight the controls.
For those too young to remember, the original Defender was about rescuing little pixel-people from pixel-aliens on a side-scrolling wraparound map. (Mostly solid black with a few more pixels thrown in.) It was pretty simple stuff, but surprisingly hard and very addicting at the time. Seven Studios has kept the main theme of "rescuing" and brought it nicely into the current age. Not content to add graphics and produce an identical play structure, Defender now sports a good variety of missions and a satisfying amount of complexity.
The average scenario has the player defending (hence the title) various things such as fragile warp gates or sensitive scientific laboratories from the onslaughts of multi-legged bloodsuckers. In addition, there are usually a number of helpless Colonists scattered about the terrain in need of a rapid evac. Its simple enough to grasp, but the pace is quite hectic and rushed because there are always several things going on at once. Do you engage the Manti over your base and let the Colonists be reduced to extraterrestrial nourishment, or do you save the citizens and hope that your outpost isnt reduced to smoking rubble? Although it may initially seem impossible to achieve it all, its a lot of fun trying.
Adding even more to the original formula, there are now elements of managing ground units and allocating rescued Colonists by putting them to work. Once back at a base, a Colonist can construct tanks, anti-aircraft guns or power-ups at your discretion. Power-ups float above the base to be used when needed, but the manufactured hardware can be towed behind your plane and used to fortify the front lines. It gives the game a bit of an RTS (Real-Time Strategy) flavor, but never bogs the game down or becomes too complex. I greatly enjoyed the mix of juggling resources on top of enough rapid-fire shooting to satisfy even the most trigger-happy flyer.
In fact, Id say the game comes pretty close to being "the total action package." The only downsides I could find were a few small bugs in the games artificial intelligence around the last two or three levels. Most noticeably, some of the enemy aliens started flying erratically at inexplicable hyperspeeds, and after beating the game some friendly Dropships clipped into the landscape and got stuck. Things like this were quite rare but noticeable because the rest of the game was so completely polished. One other thing possibly worth noting was that the difficulty seemed to peak in the middle of the game and became much easier once the Terrans started the final push back to Earth. However, this is a very small quibble and one that I hesitate to even mention.
Overall, I found the game to be satisfying on every level, far exceeding my expectations. An extremely nice touch that really pushed the disc over the top were the extras paying homage to the games history. The creator of Defender, Eugene Jarvis, spends a few minutes reminiscing and sharing his thoughts on the first game while a number of developers from Seven Studios talk about how they created the new one. Theres even a small piece of footage showing the arcade version for those whove never seen it. (Im betting thats a lot of people.) A little tribute piece like this should be a must for all remakes, in my opinion. For fans of the original Defender or those just looking for fast-paced, high-intensity space combat experience, the game is a winner that stays true to its roots while providing a fully-fleshed, intense and enjoyable experience overall.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.