Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The History of Earth Defense Force - Eric Vs.

Eric from here with another longform essay about video games. Today's topic is the cult hit (but it really should be mega popular) Earth Defense Force series from Sandlot and D3 Publisher. Read all about every game in the series released so far after the jump.

As a quick overview, the Earth Defense Force games are mostly third-person-shooters - though there are a couple of spin off games - where you take on hordes of giant bugs and spiders and aliens that are invading Earth. The gameplay is usually point and shoot simple, but there is a huge variety of weapons to use and a growing number of character classes, all with unique abilities, that keep things interesting and fun. Because of the sheer number of enemies onscreen at a time the performance usually isn't smooth and the graphics are often a generation or two behind. Personally, I think the graphics have always been fine, and have definitely improved over the years, and the performance actually isn't really an issue anymore especially if you play the backward compatible games on your Xbox One or XBox series consoles or on a PS5. Some people will never be satisfied because they think EDF quote "Looks and plays like a PS2 game", but those people are dumb and wrong and probably smell bad.

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From a totally objective perspective, yeah, the EDF games are kind of ugly and janky and had bad performance and are shallow. I admit it. But they are also super double plus good fun in spite of all of those things, and that makes up for a lot of it. You can shut your brain off and just blast away at bugs and it is incredibly fun and rewarding and satisfying. But every site, and every reviewer, has a mental hangup on that and says "Thou shall not get higher than a 7". That's nonsense.

To me, the Earth Defense Force series is pretty much the video game equivalent of rich and fatty comfort food. You know it's bad for you / the games have definite flaws, but you keep eating the junk food because it tastes good and you keep playing EDF because they're pure dumb fun that revel in their distinct video game-ness rather than trying to be serious and realistic or cinematic like so many "AAA" games these days. 

Now lets get to the real meat of this video where we'll take a brief look at each of the games in the series to see how things have evolved over the years. I would say they're all worth playing, but that isn't exactly true because there have been a couple of missteps along the way that you should probably avoid. 

I suppose I should probably note that Jaleco's 1991 SNES shoot-em-up Earth Defense Force doesn't have anything to do with Sandlot and D3 Publisher's Earth Defense Force series. Yeah, it's a little confusing.

The first EDF game, known in Japan as Chikyū Bōeigun - which means Earth Defense Forces, go figure - launched in Japan in 2003 as part of the Simple 2000 budget priced series of games on PlayStation 2. It never released in the U.S., but it did release in Europe under the title Monster Attack. It is genuinely surprising how much they got right with this first entry in the series. It's undeniably a little rough and clunky and doesn't feel as good as the later games, but the foundation for the franchise was solid from the very start right down to those distinct EDF sound effects that are still used today. I don't know that it is a must play other than from a historical curiosity standpoint for fans, but it certainly isn't bad. 

While Monster Attack is a little rough and they hadn't quite perfected the EDF formula yet - it was the first game, after all - the sequel is kind of stunning in how much it improved to be pretty much exactly what we've come to expect from the franchise. Once again released only in Japan and Europe in 2006, EDF 2, known as Global Defense Force in Europe, absolutely nailed it. The gameplay feels good, there are tons of enemies onscreen, and the visuals got a nice upgrade over the first game. It also features locations in Europe, which is a fun change of pace compared to the mostly Japanese locales in the rest of the games. It got a remake on PS Vita that actually did get a release in the US as EDF2: Invaders from Planet Space, though the PS2 version still holds up well even today. If you can wait a little longer, EDF 2 and 3 have been announced for release in Japan on Nintendo Switch in 2021 and there is no reason not to expect them to hit the rest of the world too at some point. Any way you want to play it, I highly recommend giving EDF2 / Global Defense Force a shot. 

The next EDF release was the oft forgotten EDF Tactics in Japan and Global Defense Force Tactics in Europe. It was a turn-based strategy RPG that had you doing ... (snoring sounds). Oh, sorry. I think Global Defense Force Tactics has been lost to the annals of time for a reason - it wasn't very good and got fairly abysmal reviews at the time. I tried playing it and can't wrap my head around any of it. So, uh, it was a thing. Not really similar at all to the other games here, but yes, it was a real EDF game in the series at least. Moving on.

2006's Earth Defense Force 3 was the first EDF game to see a North American release as it hit the Xbox 360 with the title Earth Defense Force 2017 in March 2007. For most folks, this was their first EDF. Not just because it was the first one to get an actual worldwide hyped-up release, but because it was another dramatic step up in quality for the franchise and is a really great game even nearly 15-years later. The scale of everything was ramped up and the visuals got another bump in quality (those shiny robots and space ships still look cool as hell to me). It was also the first game that had the more light-hearted and campy tone that most people know the Earth Defense Force franchise for. The first two EDF games are more somber and serious but EDF 2017 went in a more campy and goofy direction that I think most fans would agree was a wise choice. I have to confess, though, that when it first came out and I reviewed it for I didn't really "get" the franchise yet. I gave it a 7/10 and complained about clunky controls and ugly graphics and shallow gameplay. This was back when I was still a shitty reviewer and a 7/10 was considered mediocre. Oh how times have changed. I don't think I'd necessarily give it a different score - we all know 7/10 is actually a good game these days - but the tone and text of the review would definitely be different. Anyway, I eventually figured it out and can highly recommend EDF 2017 whether you play the Xbox 360 version or wait for the Nintendo Switch version, though that will likely won't be out in the West until 2022.

After the very successful release of EDF 2017 D3 Publisher thought the best way to grow the brand even more was to completely toss out everything that made it fun so they had American developers Vicious Cycle Software make EDF Insect Armageddon in 2011. In their attempt to Western-ize EDF they basically turned it into Call of Duty. Suddenly it was serious and realistic and boring instead of cartoony and campy and fun. Suddenly there were mission objectives besides just killing every creepy crawly you saw. Suddenly the dumb brightly colored bugs were gray and brown and looked realistic. Suddenly there were a lot less enemies onscreen at a time. Suddenly the shooting started to feel freaking awful. Suddenly there were turret sequences and scripted set pieces. This was no longer Earth Defense Force. It was Call of Duty mixed with EDF but ended up somehow being lesser than the two. It's freaking boring and isn't fun and I absolutely hate it. It was by far the worst EDF until it was topped by an even bigger steaming pile a few years later. We'll talk about that one in a couple minutes.

For 2013's Earth Defense Force 2025 Sandlot one again took the reigns and delivered another classic EDF game that greatly expanded on EDF 2017 and while it was a sort of back to basics EDF game, it really polished up the formula to make the best EDF game yet. It also added different classes of characters in addition to the traditional soldier class, which greatly increased the variety of combat options the game could offer. Though I, stubbornly, still pretty much only play soldier because I'm scared of change.

EDF 2025 was so good that it got a PlayStation 4 exclusive port titled EDF 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair in 2015. This release cleaned up the visuals significantly - still kinda PS2-esque, but man are they sharp now! - and the performance greatly improved. This was the first new EDF release to skip Xbox platforms in 9 years, a trend that has continued to this day much to the frustration of Xbox fans. Seriously, why the hell isn't EDF on Xbox anymore? Someone answer me! I Tweeted at Phil Spencer that Microsoft should just throw some money at D3 Publisher and Sandlot, so I'm sure he'll get right on it.

And then the big daddy greatest EDF game yet came out in late 2018 (2017 in Japan) with Earth Defense Force 5 for PS4. EDF 5 basically smoothes out all of the rough edges to create the best playing, best looking, best performing, most over the top overwhelming awesome fun EDF game yet. Everything was turned up to 11 in this one with more enemies onscreen than ever before and the scale of the battles is really something to behold. It also, wisely, tweaked the progression system a bit so that now you collect armor upgrades and new weapons that are shared among all of the different playable classes, which is a huge improvement over past games where you had to grind with each class separately to level them up. Experimenting with the various classes and all of the weapons is a lot easier and more fun in EDF 5 so you're more likely to actually try new things instead of sticking with a soldier in every game like I do. I do think that most of the "real" EDF games are worth playing, but if I was going to recommend one and only one to a new player it would definitely be Earth Defense Force 5. 

A fun spin off game was released on PS4 and Steam right before EDF5 in the form of a shoot-em-up called EDF 4.1 WingDiver the Shooter. In this game you play as a WingDiver in a vertical scrolling shooter where you blast away at the same ants and spiders and spaceships as the full EDF games. It's actually super well done and a lot of fun. It is $15 normally, but it's on sale on PSN constantly so give it a shot. 

Earth Defense Force Iron Rain came out 4 months after EDF5 in Spring 2019. The quick turnaround time was because Iron Rain was made by Yuke's, of terrible WWE wrestling game fame, instead of Sandlot and was another attempt to Western-ize Earth Defense Force to make it more mainstream. The result is that Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is the worst EDF game and it isn't even close. Well, it's sorta close since Insect Armageddon is also a  steaming pile, too, but Insect Armageddon wasn't just straight up insulting to series fans the way Iron Rain is. In an attempt to Western-ize the series and make it mainstream, Iron Rain basically sucks all the fun out of everything in favor of dark and gritty blandness and it freaking sucks. Old fans won't like it. New fans won't like it. They basically screwed up everything they possibly could - the shooting feels awful and the progression system is totally busted and grindy, there are dozens of enemies onscreen instead of hundreds, and it is dark and serious instead of fun and goofy. This is the second game where they thought the way to make Earth Defense Force more popular worldwide was to make it dark and serious and suck the fun out of it. If you think you need to remove a franchise's entire soul to make it more popular why even bother?

The newest Earth Defense Force game released in Spring 2021 on PS4, Steam, and Nintendo Switch and has developer Yuke's taking another swing at making an EDF game with Earth Defense Force World Brothers. Right away you can tell this one is different thanks to the blocky Minecraft-esque graphical style. Everything is made out of blocks - the world, your characters, the enemies, everything - and it is brightly colored and crazy. The core gameplay is still the same third-person blasting away at bugs and spaceships and aliens, but now the game has a team mechanic where you find and recruit more than 100 different characters and can switch between four of them at will during a mission so you have a variety of weapons and abilities available at all times. It's the first real evolution of the Earth Defense Formula in 20-years and it works absolutely brilliantly. I love it. And I'm surprised I love it because before release I thought it looked awful. Seriously, the screenshots made it look like a visual mess that you couldn't tell what was going on. But I had FOMO during launch week and bought it on PS4 anyway and I'm glad I did because its great. The visuals are great, the sense of humor is classic EDF but even more ramped up and goofy, and the gameplay still plays like EDF. It's great and highly recommended.

And that's it for now. Sandlot is currently plugging away on Earth Defense Force 6 with plans to release it in Japan by the end of 2021, but who knows when it'll get release everywhere else. EDF 6 goes back to the traditional more realistic visuals of Earth Defense Force 5. No platforms have been announced yet, but it's safe to assume it'll be on PlayStation 4 and 5. 

Thanks for watching. I hope I encouraged you to give Earth Defense Force a try because I really do love the series. Please like and subscribe!