Defender - GBA - Review
Seeing is believing. (Too) many years ago, I would spend my school-free weekend nights in the arcades.... playing various games and trying my best to get rid of every cent I earned at my part time jobs. One of the beastly games that needed my tokens was Defender (later, the more comprehensive sister game "Stargate"). The original Williams game was fresh and lots of fun. The sounds beckoned you to play-- calling to you from across the room. It had unique sound effects and fast-paced, white knuckle game play. Many games came later that tried to mirror the thrill, but Defender stood alone as the best of that genre. When I found the game was being released with a 2002 makeover, I was thrilled (again). Maybe I should have left my memories unchallenged.
The new version of Defender by 7 Studios is somewhat of a disappointment. I could say harsher things, but that would be my frustrations talking-- not fair and unbiased reviewing. My feeling was that the original was so good, something new must be totally awesome!! My feeling was wrong, in the case of this Gameboy Advance release. I am sure the other platforms may have gotten it right, but this one left me missing the promised thrills.
Defender is a side-scroller in which you pilot a ship in an attempt to rescue stranded humans that call to you from the ground. You must defend the human race and your ship from the alien invasion. If all of the humans are abducted by the alien onslaught, the game is over-- and you fail. It makes for tense and manic game play. At least it did 20+ years ago. What's left in the current GBA incarnation is a tense, annoying test of your thumb strength and ability to remain calm in times of utter frustration and disappointment.
Defender allows to you to play a few different modes. One is (thankfully!) the Classic mode, while the other two are XG and XGP. Sadly, none of these salvaged my bad feelings for the experience.
Classic mode allows you to play just like the original arcade version. The sounds and graphics are identical, and amazing. It never fails to amaze this "old" gamer when something so small can reproduce what used to take large cabinets and expensive monitors. Now, the whole game fits in one little cartridge! The only problem is, given the tiny screen and "ugly" controls, it is very hard to play it on the little GBA. I wasn't kidding about the thumb-issues. After a few minutes of play, I had to take a break, and that hasn't happened since I first played the original Soccer for the Sega Genesis (ouch!). The Defender craft moves so fast, and the action is so furious that it is hard to do well with the small GBA buttons and screen. Sitting still and/or moving slow results in dead humans, which is not a good thing.
The next one I tried was the XG mode (saving the best for last, I thought). To sum it up in a brief sentence, the XG mode is nothing more than the Classic with better graphics. Yippee. Same pains and irritations-- only things looked prettier. The ship has better detail, and the moving graphics in general looked nicer. The backgrounds are oddly just painted or photographed stationary dioramas. They reminded me of the backgrounds you buy by the foot for your aquarium at the pet store. This was actually a bad thing when it came time to distinguish between objects as things got intense. Dark and light areas are confusing when ships are attacking and shots are fired.
The big draw of this release is the XGP mode. This mode offers five extended missions on various celestial objects instead of only Earth. That was refreshing, but the background remained that annoying fish-display material that really bothered me for some reason. XGP allows you to select from several ships, instead of being stuck with the Defender ship, only. You can select what fits your playing style. Fast and weak, or slower and stronger... with everything in between. Five ships in all. I tried all of them, but never really found a favorite. They each had their benefits, but I mostly stuck with the Defender-- out of respect.
The humans on the ground look nice, and the alien ships are good looking. Everything moves too fast, though. That's the nature of the game, but again, on this small screen and with these controls, it was a challenge. If you go slow enough to focus and play smart, your humans are killed too easily. Thus, I found myself playing more fast and loose than I prefer, which killed my enjoyment, as well as a lot of humans! I do not like to play out of control. The object, as stated, is to rescue humans from alien abductors (the Manti). If you are flying around like an out of control pilot trying not to die, there is no room for surveying the action and studying the otherwise useful radar screens. It's either self-preservation or saving humans.... but doing both was a pain.
The Manti have more than just flying attack ships as in the earlier incarnation. They now have bombers, Baiters and ground-based "Infectors" to name a few. The game feels like a juiced-up Missile Command with all the ground to air attacks going on. That added to the challenge, but also the frustration (did I mention the sore thumbs??). With the chaos of the game, there isn't time to appreciate or study the attacking ships, but they're effective. If nothing else, they keep you so busy that their comrades use that distraction to steal away some humans.
The sound, with headphones, was very good. The graphics are mixed, as the backgrounds were so odd looking behind the moving ships. It takes a good grasp of the various control buttons to maximize the play. Your left and right buttons control radar and smart bombs (valuable!), respectively. Once they are mastered, playing becomes less exhausting, though never comfortable. I love being challenged by a game, but not by things that should not be a challenge-- like the controls and poor design. Maybe this game should not be on a small platform such as the GBA. There are some fun features of this version, and I did find myself returning to it often. It just falls short in ease of play and does not translate well to this size. It feels almost claustrophobic.
The Classic and XG versions were not much fun at all, but the XGP helped redeem the experience. The controls are just down-right difficult to use for these games. The screen and action do not mesh well together. There is not enough "room" to see what is coming and/or where you need to be headed. Flying the Classic Defender ship was annoying, as it required holding down the right button to get moving. In XGP, you need only push the direction button in direction you want to go. Duh. But... try holding down the radar (left) button while also shooting at an invader and having the smart bomb ready (right button) AND moving towards a screaming human. Good luck.
Aside from the annoying backgrounds, the graphics were decent. The ships come and go so fast, you can't really appreciate what they look like. Sit still for a second, and you'll get a REAL close-up look... then you'll die. The Classic version is identical to the original arcade version. That was nice. The humans in the XGP mode move well, and are easy to spot. Saving them, however, is something different.
The best thing about the game is the sound. Using headphones, you get a good feel for everything. It was great to hear the haunting sounds of the Classic game, as well as the modern enhancements in the XGP version.
The game was tricky, and not in a good way. Though the premise and assignment is easy enough, the process of carrying out the missions is daunting. The buttons on the small GBA unit just do not lend themselves well to the demands of the game.
Nothing new here, though Defender itself is a name that carries enough history to deserve an "original" tip of the hat. They managed to take a classic and enhance it, though to varied degrees of success. Making more aliens to combat was a nice touch.
They have provided a means to connect with another GBA and play one on one or having a friend as an ally. Of course, this requires both players to have the game.
Mixed feeling all over. As "The" side-action flight scrolling game, Defender is traditional no matter which mode you play in. I just don't feel it translates well to the small and limited play of the GBA. There are too many "button" needs to limit yourself to such a tiny panel of controls. You really need to stand back and SEE what's going on. You must have very quick fingers to survive for long. It was literally painful to play it at first. So many buttons, such fast action and too many attackers. If you have a superb grasp (no pun intended) of the articulation required for this game you will do well. However, if you can not multi-task in a challenging handheld firefight, then you may want to look elsewhere for your "save the human race" fix.