“EDF! EDF!” For those who fought in Japan’s 2017 wars, the rallying, staccato chant is unforgettable. Few videogames can draw strangers together with such an economy of reference. But veterans of the Earth Defense Force will, within minutes of meeting one another, bellow the war cry like Homer Simpson shouting “USA!” upon finding a forgotten doughnut, all literal meaning lost to the joyful physicality of the outburst. It calls to mind the kind of squadron camaraderie that can help a soldier make it through a war even if not making sense of it. And making it through Earth Defense Force 2017 is pretty much all that matters. You’ve certainly no chance of making much sense of it.
Dropped in a Tokyo suburb with nothing for protection but a red-and- silver romper suit and a pistol, you’re jolted into action by a commanding officer’s orders to push through the oncoming crowds of civilians. Overhead, a mile-wide glittering sphere hovers still in the air. Polished to a brilliant silver sheen, like some kind of stratospheric mirrorball, its size ensures a sense of menacing spectacle is somehow maintained. The scenario is preposterous; not in fantasising an alien invasion of such scale, but rather in suggesting that the Earth’s governments would send you and the other woefully under-equipped EDF soldiers to face it.
If it were possible to find a moment’s detachment from the scene, you might ponder the fears that lurk within the Japanese psyche to fuel this obsession with the oversized monsters that relentlessly attack the nation’s capital city. What darkness in the nation’s past do these colossal horrors represent, and what psychological relief does their fictional destruction bring? But there’s no room for such philosophical ruminations here, nor perhaps did developer Sandlot ever intend there to be. EDF 2017 appropriates the form and format of the monster movie, but dispenses with its metaphor. Sat in the cinema, there might be time to draw the parallels between Godzilla and the hulking spectre of nuclear fallout. But when you’re the one standing on a street corner, squinting into the sun as a 40-foot ant scales the skyscraper above, the imagery is never anything but one-dimensional.
In fact, almost everything about EDF 2017 is one-dimensional and therein lies its strength and ultimate downfall. For all the game’s triumphs, there’s a reason why its apologists always start with the apologies. The budget visuals, grinding framerate, no-frills mechanics and meagre extras are the sort of conspicuous shortcomings that few gamers will stand for today. Throughout, the game has the anachronistic feel of a cut-price production. Its engine and visuals, while robust and internally consistent, provide a sharp counterpoint to the other polished, graphically arresting Xbox 360 blockbusters launched around the time of its release. It lacks almost all of the wider structural features gamers have come to expect from contemporary boxed releases, multiplayer restricted to a splitscreen co-op mode, online non-existent. You take just two weapons into battle, and these can’t be changed once you’re in. Then, over 53 stages, you fight just a handful of different types of alien, ensuring levels deliver the kind of repetition that would see most videogames torn to pieces by critics and left for dead by consumers.
But it’s exactly this anachronistic approach that touched a nerve. The game’s balls-to-the-wall simplicity and purity of purpose arrived on the young Xbox 360 with perfect timing. While most western developers were furnishing their shooters with labyrinthine backstories and forward-facing narratives, EDF 2017’s story doesn’t budge an inch until the end credits: shoot the aliens, save the world. Likewise, while other early shooters for the console – Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six et al – busied themselves with developing the genre’s window dressing, multiplying complexity with ever-more futuristic and fussy weaponry, EDF 2017’s bald choice of two guns per stage felt refreshingly pure. In this reality, war’s not about sending a drone over a wall to scout out enemy positions in protracted, sterile preparations for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it skirmish. It’s about 30 minutes of jumping around relentlessly shooting ants in the face. It’s about reminding gamers of why they first started playing games, it’s about the fireworks and the fury.
There had been attempts at recreating the B-movie in videogame form before, of course. Indeed, the sci-fi sub-genre’s themes and motifs are a perfect fit for the medium and its audience’s nerdish yet martial tastes. But B-movie videogames almost always come across as mere homage, too calculated and well-funded to achieve any sort of authenticity. By contrast, EDF 2017 is the third budget release in a series that started life in the Japanese PlayStation 2’s cheap and cheerful Simple 2000 range. Developer Sandlot has, since 1999, released a game a year owing to its small size and niche area of expertise. EDF 2017’s B-game credentials are indisputable.
But these circumstances forced more than just the aesthetic. Restricted by studio size and budget, developer Sandlot was forced to set defined, realistic boundaries for the project. As a result, long, tortuous narrative interludes have been discarded in favour of short interactive cutscenes. At defined points, the camera will be wrestled from your control to pick out a point of interest, such as a clutch of jumping spiders, clicking and bounding over the crest of a hill, or a sleek 50-foot aluminium robot with lasers for eyes wading through the shallows ahead. Here, story is discarded in favour of scenario, ensuring the primary concern for the player at every moment is, as it is for all soldiers on the ground, not so much ‘why am I going to fight my enemy?’ as ‘how am I going to fight my enemy?’
The graphical mediocrity, far from negating the sense of spectacle, encouraged Sandlot to perfect that which it could achieve. So while Tokyo’s buildings may be built from simple textures, they crumple and disintegrate with a rare sort of beauty. By choosing to ignore collateral damage rather than punish it, the game encourages its player to make a beeline for the swarms of red dots on the HUD map, firing rocket-propelled grenades or heat-seeking missiles into the sides of the skyscrapers and townhouses that stand between you and the horde. Then, rather than weighing down the ants and spiders with realistic physics, Sandlot instead allows them to ping-pong into the air in their death throes, the resulting shower of insect and concrete more spectacular than any biblical sky plague to befall a Pharaoh.
There are just six Achievements in the whole game: five won by clearing the game at different difficulty levels and one for collecting all of its 150 weapons. This is a flagrant disregard of Microsoft’s intention for developers to use the meta-reward system as a way to lead players through the experience with a crumb-trail of tantalising rewards. And yet what at first appears like a thoughtless choice actually draws attention to the game’s fascinating, if brutal, metagame structure. Tying your character’s total number of hit-points to the number of health pick-ups you’ve collected is a masterstroke. Each red pack collected from a dropped foe adds a single hit point to your total, the only hope of completing levels at the higher difficulties found in working through the lower ones, powering up your character one lonely point at a time.
As a result, those six difficulty options become less of a way to pitch the game’s toughness to an individual player’s level of expertise and more a sort of giant meta-campaign to be worked through step by step. By releasing new weapons randomly as pick-ups in each level, holding back the very best for the latter stages and highest difficulties, a kind of giant ad-hoc progression curve is formed, one that varies from player to player.
EDF 2017’s success as a game and failure as a retail product was almost certainly down to timing. It provided some light, focused Japanese comic relief at a time when the definition of the new console generation was inextricably linked to the western FPS blockbuster. For gamers worn out by grand narratives and convoluted controls, here was an uncomplicated flurry of oversized arcade action that wore its simplicity of purpose with pride.