[Classic Review] Super Earth Defense Force (SNES)

Super Earth Defense Force box art

Developer: Jaleco
Genre: Shoot-em-up, horizontal scrolling

Before we begin, this is completely unrelated to the Xbox 360 Earth Defense Force games.

Aliens are attacking Earth, and you have to fight them off. Story generally is not a strong point of shoot-em-ups, especially in the days of the SNES, and there is in fact absolutely no mention of the story in-game. This is how it should be. No, what the game does mention is weapons, and this is where it stood out compared to some of its competition.

Weapon Select

Homing is less awesome than it sounds, but if you’re using Laser, I pity you.

Eight weapons to choose from. Laser and Vulcan are about what you’d expect. Well, other than the part about how Laser is the worst weapon in the game and you should never use it; you probably didn’t expect that. Homing is crap beyond the first level, but you may want it there, for reasons we’ll get into shortly. The other weapons are more interesting; Atomic creates a big explosion on impact, and said explosion will destroy many enemy bullets. Explode splits into numerous submunitions, which fly off in several directions; great against some oddly-shaped bosses such as all of them, but a bit awkward for the rest of the level due to its slow fire rate. S.Laser is like Laser with the suck surgically removed; shorter beams, but a much higher refire rate, and it pierces through targets, continuing to damage them as long as its beam is in contact. Also, it automatically aims at targets for you, though it doesn’t home in like Homing does. Photon is a charged attack that, when charging in the default satellite formation (once again, I’ll elaborate in a bit), offers a defensive shield before unleashing the strongest attack in the game. It also has S.Laser’s piercing properties, but the projectile is too fast to really exploit that on a single target. And Grenade is… crap, but it’s powerful crap. Slow to fire, slow to refire, slow to get to its target, and slow to explode when it arrives, but the damage is impressive.

First Encounter

Not pictured: Me ramming the next guy because I didn’t pause to take this.

Here you have your standard shmup interface, more or less, but there’s a few additions. The Level-1 note, for example, isn’t about what level we’re playing on, it’s your weapon level. As you score points, the bar beneath the level indicator fills up, and when it fills completely, your weapon levels up. This, incidentally, is why you may want to use Homing for the first level; to make sure you kill everything. You can change weapons between levels, and the weapon level is shared. For all weapons, power and visual effects increase; the explosion of Atomic and number of submunitions for Explode also changes. Also pictured: Shields. I have three, currently; this means that I have to be shot three times to die. You can start with less, if you want. Weapon levels max at 5; filling the bar after that gives you an extra shield. You don’t have extra lives, just two Continues; mercifully, weapon levels are preserved, but your score resets. The arrows next to the weapon level are another feature that was, as far as I know, relatively uncommon in shmups of the day; in Super EDF, you can control your own speed. A tap of the X button switches you between three levels of movement speed. R-Type didn’t add this until Delta, and Gradius is still an asshole about speed control.

Satellite Control

Totally not Bits. Not Options either. Really!

Super EDF’s satellites are the other distinguishing feature. A tap of the A button lets you switch their mode; shown above are the two initial options. In the first one, your selected weapon is stronger, fired from the main body of the fighter and, for all but S.Laser, two levels above what your satellites can fire individually. (S.Laser works a little different visually, but functionally the same idea, and Homing just limits you to a certain number on-screen.) Additionally, it’s only in the first formation that Photon creates a protective shield in front of your ship while charging. In the second formation, the satellites orbit your fighter, firing weaker versions of your gun, while your fighter contributes with a dinky Vulcan of its own; the firing mechanics are the same for the other two formations we’ll go over shortly. The two formations are roughly equivalent, but the second is usually preferred because the satellites absorb most bullet types and damage enemies on impact.

At weapon level 3, you get a formation that makes it even harder not to call these Options: they follow behind you, copying your motions. There aren’t many places where this is useful, but if you’re in a situation where you can exploit their collision damage, it’s worth considering. At weapon level 5, you get the best formation. The two satellites sit behind your fighter until an enemy appears on screen. Then they get in his face. All you have to do then is hold down the fire button (B, by default) and wait for the target to die. Naturally, one late-game boss has an extra target specifically to thwart this.

This screenshot was taken near the end of the review, but shut up.

You get points for killing enemies, and those points fill up the weapon levelup meter. At the end of the level, you get a bonus based on how many enemies you killed, which also contributes. Further, if you finish a level without taking damage (as I clearly did not), you get a large bonus that, you guessed it, also helps you level up your weapon.

The first midboss

Meet the first midboss. He’s kind of a wimp.

So, gameplay’s solid, and ignore the fact that I’ve been hit twice on level 1 if you would, what about everything else? Music’s a mixed bag. Level 1’s music is kind of annoying after a bit, but the song from level 5, Premonition, is one of my favorite shmup BGMs. Sound effects are generic and underwhelming, but this also means they’re not terrible or particularly intrusive. So, points for mediocrity there.

So with sound covered, we move on to Graphics. The developers weren’t lazy with this; you may have noticed the gradual sunset in the background of these pictures. Level 5’s background shows your gradual approach of the alien homeworld, and level 4… ah, but I shouldn’t spoil it. Of course, it’s also important to be able to keep enemies, bullets, and your own craft distinct. To that end, while everything is made of metal, your fighter has a distinct blue tint, while enemy craft are variously brown, greenish, or pink. Generally, projectiles follow the same rules; however, the Vulcan primary is orange, as are several enemy bullets. So that’s a problem. Every end-of-level boss has multiple phases, illustrated by increasing damage. For example…

To make matters worse, they fall off at the drop of a hat.

Every boss’s attacks come from a different part of the ship, and when they go to the next phase and that area’s damaged, they can’t use that attack anymore. It should be noted that damage isn’t at all based on where you hit the target, I only mention it because I appreciate logical consistency. They still gain new attacks, but they’re usually no more threatening once you adjust. For example, the first boss loses his gatling guns and gains a spread shot, but the spread shot fires slower projectiles.

As for the quality of the graphics, you can judge for yourself. Of course, level 1 is pretty dull visually, with just clouds and enemies, so let’s go for something more interesting…

Shields refill to your chosen max between levels, I’m just out of practice.

That’s a bit better.

Super Earth Defense Force is available on the Wii Virtual Console, or on Amazon for prices starting at a bit under $2 (before shipping). It was the game that got me into shmups, so I definitely recommend it.

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