Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Game On! "Earth Defense/The Earth Defend" for Sega Genesis

Many are the chronicles of bad games.  Between the myriad websites reviewing games of any kind, to the more specific sites that drill down to a certain console or era of gaming, there's no getting around the fact that every single game console has had its share of truly awful software.  Some games make you feel ashamed of being a gamer after you play them, others just cause you to marvel at what the programmers were thinking when they allowed their names to be stamped on such a pile of garbage.  The Angry Video Game Nerd has made a name for himself purely through playing, reviewing, and endlessly mocking terrible games.  And rightfully so - many of these titles were ones we either spent $3.50 to rent over a weekend (that sadly, we'd never get back), or worse, $40+ to purchase, only to discover that our newly purchased game was actually worth about as much as the rocks in the alleyway behind our house.  Either way, bad games are a part of every gamer's journey.  But truly bad games?  Those are special.

The Sega Genesis was not known for unlicensed titles like the NES was, but it had a handful of games that should have never made it out of the development stage.  I'm not sure if the folks at Realtec thought that they had a real winner on their hands, or if they were just trying to cash in on the shoot-em-up craze of the early 1990's, but whatever the reason, this game just defies all logic and reason as far as design, choices in game mechanics, sound design, graphics, and overall presentation.  First things first: if the box art didn't put you off, consider yourself lucky.  Maybe I'm being harsh, but it looks like a fleshed out version of what some 8th grader might have drawn in 1990 during a boring class.  And while it's reasonably colored and shaded, the perspectives are goofy, the art style overdone (and underdone, really), and it's just very amateurish.  Sure, Realtec tried to keep the two-tone red stripe motif Sega had going by that point (1993), but it doesn't do them any favors alongside that dreadful artwork.  Flip the box over and you're treated to the worst kind of low-rent hyperbole that makes it obvious when adults are trying to pander to "kid sensibilities".  If you're an adolescent in 1993 reading this box, you're not getting excited about this 'awesome' game, you're rolling your eyes at the marketing ploy because you've already been duped during the NES and Master System days - you know what you're getting yourself into and you're not falling for this nonsense.

Open the box and you'll see another bad sign: the cartridge is too small for the spot it sits in.  Yeah, it sorta stays in place, but when the box is obviously for a standard size Genesis cart, and you have a short stumpy version of what Electronic Arts was doing with Genny carts, you know corners were cut.  Realtec obviously bought some stock cart boxes and completely discounted the fact that the game cart they were producing was not the right size for the case they intended to put it in.  I realize this is a minor point when looking at the overall picture, but it's just another in a multitude of sins committed here in the name of gaming.  Slide your vision to the left from the cartridge compartment to the manual, and you'll see an even bigger atrocity.  The game is no longer called 'Earth Defense', but now the manual says it's 'The Earth Defend'.  THE EARTH DEFEND?  Could it be any more obvious that this is the product of some cheap, Taiwanese backroom operation?  In addition, the plane depicted on the manual is different than that on the cart and box art, and suddenly we've switched from a drab, lifeless color palette to bright vibrant colors, and from crude hand-drawn art to what appears to be digital art done on a computer of some sort.  The nail in the coffin is the fact that the manual is TOO LARGE to fit in the vertical space provided by the box.  Yes, it's about a half-inch too tall, so instead of making a couple design tweaks and re-printing, Realtec simply left the manuals "as-is" and squished them into the box.  Disgraceful.  And here's the best part: I haven't even got to the game itself yet!

Stylin' boxart, dude!

Uh, Houston, we have a problem...

I love this manual.  It's so bad.

So if you're brave enough to put the cartridge in your system, as I was some 10 years ago when I bought this abomination, you're treated to a super-cheesy intro with overly simplistic music, a giant plane on the screen that gets WAY too much screen time, a horribly under-cooked musical bit, and a very underwhelming overall first impression.  If this was on an NES, I'd be impressed, but I've been enjoying Lightening Force, Elemental Master, and other top-shelf Genesis shooters for years, so this falls short of expectations right away.  However, not being a first impressions guy, I forge ahead.  The title screen once again shows the plane as depicted on the manual (not the box/cart), and says 'The Earth Defend' with some Kanji characters above it, clearly indicating that this was pretty much a straight conversion with no frills.  The title screen's theme is probably the most catchy tune in the whole game, and that's another bad sign.  Feeling brave, I pressed Start, only to be greeted by a large map screen showing me my first destination.  Of course, the map is not indicative of my ship's trajectory or path like that of Ghosts 'n Goblins or something similar.  No, this map is purely utilitarian, to show me that my ship is actually flying somewhere, not just randomly blasting stuff along an aimless flight path.  Thanks for clearing that up, Realtec, I thought I might be mowing down civilians or taking out everything in my path, but now I know that I have specific targets.

At least they're asking 'Please', right?

Dude, have you ever seen an intro so cool?  I didn't think so.

If my first impressions were underwhelming, then my second impressions are downright tepid.  Control is reasonably tight, but with goofy enemy attack patterns and relatively cramped area to work in, tight control is not exactly a saving grace.  The music playing in the background is banal, and never grabs your attention long enough to do anything but make you glad it's not grabbing your attention.  Graphics are 'serviceable', but little more, as the pixelated, less than interesting scenery scrolls by in the background, content to be nothing more than a backdrop for the shoot-em-up action going on.  No parallax scrolling, no layers or even effects going on?  By 1993, this should have been a requirement to make a quality shmup on the Genesis, but Realtec threw the rule book out the window.  Your pea shooter is sufficiently under-powered when you get it, like many early weapons, but you quickly discover that the only road to success is to either choose the 'wave' weapon due to its forward fire and relatively destructive power, or to be brave and go for the 3-way shot, which is pathetically weak until it's powered up about 2 or 3 times.  If you die, you lose that weapon and go back to the pea shooter, and usually it happens when you need it most.

Apologies to the random gaming site I took this snapshot from.
Graphically, I think Fire Shark had a leg up on this game 3 years earlier...

Nearly indestructible enemies are present in the first level as well, in the form of these armored soldier suits that look like they were left over from M.U.S.H.A. or maybe Robo Aleste.  Powering up several times will allow you to take them out, but don't count on being able to do so enough in the first level, let alone keep those power-ups.  Add to this, the aforementioned goofy attack patterns, and the fact that sometimes the enemies and bullets filling the screen make maneuvering more than a challenge.  This is common in shmups, to be sure, but this game just doesn't execute it well, as tight spaces and inescapable situations are far too common.  On top of that, the Genesis is somehow pushed to the limit by the number of simultaneous on-screen sprites, which means that slowdown abounds.  This is often helpful in some games, giving you a bit more reaction time to move into a safe area, but here it just means you watch your death more slowly and painfully.

Apologies to Sega-16 for this screenshot thievery.

Bosses in the game are a joke as well - with your pea shooter they take forever.  If you're powered up 2-3 levels it's not quite so bad, but the best option is to use the special attack, which basically puts up a 'fire forcefield' around the ship and allows you to move around for several seconds unharmed.  It doesn't appear that this forcefield does much damage however, so the best way to down bosses with this tactic is to get up 'in their face'.  This exposes another major flaw of the game: the fire rate of the ship.  Your ship's fire rate, based on the strength of any non-popcorn enemies, is woefully slow, and even though Realtec included autofire, they didn't make it fast enough to make you feel like you're gaining much.  Using a joystick with a variable turbo/autofire control can help this, but out of the gate it's not very balanced.  The real flaw, however, is that your ship fires faster as you approach the top of the screen.  I've seen this in many shooters, though generally the rate of fire coincides with both the proximity to the top of the screen AS WELL AS the proximity to incoming enemies.  This can be a very helpful tool when enemies are bearing down on you, or when you can kamikaze attack a boss to get more shots in.  However, when the fire rate increases ONLY when you approach the top of the screen, it makes boss fights more frustrating/annoying than they need to be, especially if you have no forcefield activations left.

Music and sound are just as laughable.  Despite the fact that there are 4 different weapon types, the shot sound is the EXACT SAME THING for all of them.  What is this, 1985?  Adding insult to injury is the fact that it's a high-pitched annoying sound as well, rather than something satisfying to hear when shots are fired like you might expect from a good Genesis shmup.  All the music is so basic, and the tunes are highly repetitive.  That's okay when the tracks are good and you enjoy getting them stuck in your head, but these songs just aren't well composed, nor are they catchy or memorable in any way.  They're totally forgettable.  The sound effects otherwise are basic - explosions sound like crumpling of cardboard, your ship doesn't blow up in a blaze of glory but in a tinny little pop, and sound otherwise is incredibly sparse.  Graphically, if you haven't figured out by the screenshots already, it's a pretty boring affair.  Bright colors don't count for much when the scenery isn't interesting, and when you fly over mountains and plateaus in level 2 that are as pixelated as they come, you know you're playing something that should have been a launch title, not a game released during the apex of the console.  Your plane has exactly three frames of animation - left turn, right turn, and head-on.  Not much development effort for the actual character sprite, despite the fact that it's so huge that the hitbox is massive.

This game just reeks of poor design, under-developed ideas, low production values, no proper translation of the game's title and manual before hitting the Western market, and the list goes on.  When you add it all up, it equals a frustrating game that isn't much fun.  There's fun to be had when playing with another person in the "Let's play this terrible game so we can laugh at it and see how far we get" kind of Saturday afternoon mode.  However, I've only ever seen fit to subject one person to this mess, and he was a willing participant in the aforementioned methodology.  However, I'm hoping that I won't have to do so again, and that my review is enough of a warning sign to ward off those who might be looking to pick up a shooter they don't have in their collection.  If you're looking for a copy merely to own as a curiosity, knock yourself out.  If you actually want to play it, I pray that shmup fans everywhere will be strong enough with the force to avoid this steaming pile known as Earth Defense.  I mean...The Earth Defend.  I mean...nevermind.  (Waves hand).  This is not the game you're looking for...


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