Review: Super E.D.F. Earth Defense Force (SNES)

Emergency on planet earth

Back in the 16-bit wars, the SNES was unquestionably the comfortable winner when it came to RPGs. Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, depending on where in the world you're reading this) was completely and utterly outclassed in this area, despite the presence of brilliant titles such as Shining Force, LandStalker and Light Crusader. It's one of those debates that really isn't worth indulging in – the SNES was the champ, and that's all there is to it.

However, when it came to arcade shooters, the opposite was true. The SNES may have contained advanced hardware and those famous Mode-7 sprite scaling and rotation capabilities, but it was also lumbered with a slower CPU than Sega's machine. As a result, the Mega Drive was a hotbed of quality blast-processing action, with a seemingly endless production line of must-have shooter product – Hellfire, Zero Wing, Thunder Force IV, Gynoug, Steel Empire, Truxton, MUSHA Aleste…the list goes on. The SNES, by comparison, had very few notable shooter titles – Axelay, UN Squadron and Macross: Scambled Valkyrie are excellent, but they're members of a very small club.

Despite the SNES' lack of suitability for this kind of shrapnel-heavy caper, there were a few brave developers with enough gumption to at least attempt to give long-suffering Nintendo fans a bit of decent shooter entertainment. Super Earth Defence Force (sadly not part of the PS2/Xbox 360 3D bug-blasting series of the same name) was Jaleco's effort, and despite being critically mauled at the time, it's actually not that bad of a game.

Back in the day, reviewers were especially unkind about the rather generic nature of Super EDF's gameplay, and unfavourable comparisons were made with Technosoft's superlative Thunder Force titles for the Mega Drive. While it's true that Super EDF does bear more than a passing resemblance to those famous blasters, it still has enough ideas of its own to stand out from the crowd.

In fact, in many respects Super EDF is something of a maverick. For starters, you're not given lives. Instead, your craft has shields, which are knocked out whenever you sustain a direct hit. When your shield stock is entirely depleted, you have to use one of your limited stock of continues to keep the fight going. Skillful players can replenish their shields over time. This system removes the "stop-start" nature of many arcade blasters, where losing a life pushes you back to the last checkpoint and ultimately interrupts the flow of the game. Some purists prefer it that way, but personally we like titles that don't force you to re-play entire sections just because of one momentary lapse of concentration.

The second interesting thing about Super EDF is the weapons system. Before you start a game you're given the choice of a staggering eight different weapon load-ups. To be honest, the homing laser is the best of the bunch by a country mile, but the other choices do at least allow you to experiment and find one that suits your style of play.

In a move that foreshadows the likes of Treasure's near-legendary Radiant Silvergun, you don't collect power-ups to increase your weapon strength. Instead, successfully clearing waves of enemies boosts your power bar, and filling it entirely allows you to advance a level – just as you would in a standard RPG. The level is retained even when you're forced to use a continue, and this lends the game a real sense of progression; you have more reason to keep on playing if you know that when you restart, your armament is going to remain at the same level of power. What's more, leveling-up affects the behaviour of your two drone craft, which hover around your ship providing both firepower support and defence. The positioning of these external craft influences the direction and power of your shots, making them an incredibly potent tool – although possibly not quite as potent as R-Type's famous "Force" orb.

These concepts are genuinely interesting, and help Super EDF to standout from the deluge of other shooters that were released during the early '90s. The action is also surprisingly busy, considering the SNES' aforementioned sluggish CPU. The screen is often completely awash with enemies and their deadly projectiles, although it should be noted that the developers have decided not to include much in the way of on-screen environmental hazards – as a result, the screen feels a little empty at times, like a void filled entirely with ships and bullets.

Visually, Super EDF isn't in the same league as the luminaries of the genre, but it's not ugly either. Scaling effects are used well in certain levels, such as the space colony which starts off way in the distance and then glides elegantly up to the player as the level progresses. These graphical tricks do much to make up for the otherwise bland presentation; you'll also find some pleasingly large end-of-level bosses, too.

For all of its positive points, Super EDF is afflicted with random bouts of terminally dull gameplay. The opening level in particular is painfully boring, and is probably the reason why so many people have such a negative impression of the game – it's easy to see why gamers of the '90s, spoiled with the amazing shooter titles on the Mega Drive, would turn their noses up at this based purely on the first stage. Lamentably for Super EDF, it doesn't really hit its stride until much later on. Although you could argue that its reputation is unwarranted, the almost pedestrian nature of the opening levels is unforgivable.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Super EDF isn't a bad shooter. In fact, by SNES standards, it's one of the better ones available. Granted, it pales in comparison to the best the Mega Drive has to offer, but that doesn't make it a complete write-off; there are some really interesting ideas here – especially the RPG-style weapon level-up system – which have gone on to feature to more famous and critically-lauded titles. We certainly wouldn't recommend that you pick Super EDF over more worthy examples of the genre, but by the same token it would be unfair to ignore it entirely.

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