Posted by Sean Aaron
"Live up to your name, Defender!"
Defender was Williams Electronics first video game and its biggest seller with over 60,000 units sold. It was noteworthy for the level of control players were given over their space ship as well as excellent visuals and sound. It was a badge of honour if you could play the game with any skill due to the complexity of the controls, but nevertheless Defender stands alongside Pac-Man as the biggest selling arcade game of all time. It's no surprise then that following the 20th anniversary of Defender a 3D shooter was published for PS2 and Gamecube by the same name. What is a surprise is that unlike the majority of 3D facelifts given to 2D arcade classics, they actually managed to make a decent game in the process!
Rather than being a simple 3D graphical update, the Gamecube version of Defender (subtitled "For All Mankind") presents a more fleshed-out storyline and a full campaign putting you in the shoes of Commander Kyoto (voiced in cut scenes by Traci Elizabeth Lords) as she pilots her Defender craft through a series of missions in a cinematic story of Humanity's fight to take back Earth from the alien Manti. On top of that are co-op and versus 2-player splitscreen modes - rare for a game of this kind on Gamecube.
After starting a new game and selecting difficulty (choices are Rookie, Veteran and Elite) you're treated to the first of several cinematics that advance the story. The plot is essentially Starship Troopers meets Wing Commander; Commander Kyoto is a new recruit in the star fleet of the Galactic Stargate Authority; tasked with defending the human colonies of the Sol system. During the course of the game you'll be helping the GSA to solidify control of the outer solar system whilst working towards the ultimate goal of driving the insectoid Manti from Earth.
From the mission select screen you can view all the mission locations, though no more than 3 or 4 will be available at any given time. The game is made accessible due to a gradual increase in mission difficulty and, outside of a few key story moments, you can often skip missions that prove too taxing (though when moving from one world to the next you're warned that you won't be able to go back and attempt unfinished missions). This can be a good thing because even on the lowest difficulty setting, Defender can be quite challenging.
After choosing your mission you need to choose a ship. There are initially two available: the all-purpose Defender and the slow, but tougher Guardian. In the course of play four other ships will be added to the roster after passing certain story milestones, though all ships are available for use in Multiplayer. Each ship has different stats for speed, handling and armour as well as different weapon load outs. After choosing your ship you're given the option to upgrade or buy additional weapons using credits earned based upon previous mission performance. Once satisfied with your selection you then start the mission.
Each mission is preceded by a communication from the leader of the counteroffensive, Colonel Adams; bookended by Memory, the computer brain of the giant battleship which is key to humanity's survival. The voice acting is of good quality and Adams's tough-guy with a heart of gold routine is one of the game's highlights. Before your mission starts proper, Memory gives you a narrated tour of the site indicating your objectives, which often change during the course of the mission. During the mission you'll hear in-game chatter from Adams, Memory and the people you're trying to defend and an unobtrusive techno soundtrack. Colonists give nice death cries when mutated or dropped from too great a height; best of all the pulse cannon on the titular ship has the same sound effect as the main weapon in the original game.
Enemies are colourful, varied and animated; large bosses are quite impressive when seen up close and personal. Mission settings are a bit on the drab side though that's to be expected on snowy Europa and barren worlds like Io or Mars. Whilst the game visuals have a decent level of polish, there are inconsistencies in the menus that grate a bit. It's clear there was some shuffling of the mission order during development, but little care was taken with the mission select or loading screens. You'll choose a mission at Promethea and be given a briefing about Titan or select a mission at Phobus only to find yourself on Europa. This is minor and only happens on a few missions, but it creates a sense that most of the effort went into the core game and then it was rushed out the door before final detailing.
Every button and stick on the Gamecube controller has a function which is fitting considering the complex controls of the original arcade game. The left stick controls the pitch and roll of the ship, L and R are used for reverse and forward thrust, respectively; clicking the two results in dropping carried objects or strafing. The B button toggles through weapon choices, A fires the selected weapon, X activates the special weapon (smart bombs, hyperspace and energy shields are the main ones) and Y gives you information on the currently targeted object or enemy. Z brings up a map of the level and the D-pad is used to display an on-screen prompt pointing to the nearest colonist, allied vehicle, objective or enemy. Last, but not least, the C-stick is used for acrobatics like barrel rolls, 360 loops and a 180, which is basically the same as the Reverse button from the arcade game. Control is quite responsive and the game maintains a solid frame rate, so playing through the campaign is an enjoyable if challenging experience.
The game's title is not simply a result of clever marketing, but a description of your primary objective in every mission: defending colonists, bases and drop ships from waves of enemy Manti. Even though you're always defending things there's more to the game than simply blasting every Manti in sight. Some missions take place at disused bases which have automated defence systems that need to be powered up using batteries you can pick up and move to the desired location. Colonists can be dropped off at designated buildings to grant you power-ups which replenish health as well as consumables like special weapons and missiles; later they can be dropped off at special facilities to build tanks and missile crawlers to fight Manti ground and air units, respectively. Managing these resources becomes critical in later missions as you simply cannot fight off the Manti swarms alone. The missions successfully create the feeling that humanity is on the brink of annihilation with many victories resulting from a successful withdrawal rather than actually eradicating enemy forces.
Potential camera issues have been addressed by fixing it a short distance behind the ship; pulling back a bit when accelerating to give you more of a sense of forward movement. This generally works well, though sometimes it can be difficult telling where your ship is in relation to other objects because you cannot see the front of it. This is mostly problematic when performing slow manoeuvres to collect power-ups or grab a falling colonist after blasting the Lander that abducted him. The camera position also makes it difficult to drop plasma bombs - which are released from below your ship, with any accuracy. The developers have tried to compensate for the lack of a top-down view by having multiple bombs drop in sequence every time the weapon is activated, but in practice you'll only find out if you hit your target when you turn around for another pass. The option to have a zoomed-out 3/4 view of the action would have nicely addressed both issues, but could be another casualty of getting the game to market quicker.
The biggest problem in the game comes down to a simple lack of information. In addition to tanks and missile crawlers you'll find allied tank-like vehicles that emit electrical arcs. The arcs from these unnamed vehicles can heal your ship and other vehicles. Later on in the game you can build them and place them near tanks and missile crawlers to help maintain defences around critical base locations whilst you're trying to fight off enemies elsewhere, but at no point are these rather important vehicles named or referenced in any way. Ship weapons are similarly undocumented without anything other than a name and cursory description ("Cuts enemies to ribbons!") being displayed in the game or manual. You cannot view descriptions of equipped weapons at all. Practically speaking the only way to find out what a weapon is like in action is to "suck it and see," but given you cannot reverse any upgrade (you have to click past a warning to that effect to finalise a purchase) finding out that the upgrade to the basic pulse cannon on the Defender ship is a less effective limited-charge beam weapon can be a costly lesson. Your best bet is to limit upgrades to secondary weapons like chain guns or missiles and create a save file prior to purchasing them in case of "buyer's remorse."
Using one of the five save slots instead of autosave is also recommended if you've purchased extra lives (the cheapest upgrade at 5000 credits each). You can only purchase one extra life before each mission with a maximum of five lives (minimum of two) in your reserve. Any extra lives lost in a mission are gone for good since autosave kicks in after every mission win or lose. If you're short on credits you can find yourself facing subsequent attempts at a difficult mission with only two lives which can seem a bit unfair.
Replayability is dependent upon how much you enjoy the basic game, because once you finish the campaign there's nothing more on offer beyond replaying the game at a higher difficulty. You cannot replay your favourite missions without starting a new game; nor can you play through earlier missions with different ship combinations since extra ships are only unlocked at certain sections in the campaign. On the other hand, the two player modes do make for an interesting diversion. One is a death match where you and a friend choose your ships from the six on offer and go at it on one of four worlds. The other is co-op against the Manti on the same four worlds.
It must be mentioned that for arcade fans there is one major omission: the original arcade game is nowhere to be seen. There is a short video extra containing interviews with Williams Electronics CEO Louis Nicastro and game designing legend Eugene Jarvis about the history of the original game (and another short talking to the developers of this current game), so you would naturally expect to be able to play the emulated original; sadly that's not the case. For PAL gamers this hurts all the more since Midway elected not to release the Arcade Treasures titles for the Gamecube anywhere but North America meaning that there is no "legit" way to play the seminal classic on either of Nintendo's most recent consoles if you live in a PAL territory.
Defender is a bit of a surprise in that it's a decent game that builds upon the arcade original and delivers a fun mission-based 3D space shooter. There are some let-downs in the lack polish outwith the core game and the bare bones offering of basic single-player and two-player modes, but it's an overlooked title that Gamecube and Wii owners should definitely check out.