When a series has an impact on you as a player, it’s usually because of something deep, or moving, impactful in a way you never imagined possible. The twist in Bioshock. Leaving the Vault in Fallout 3. The Last of Us’ sudden, shocking ending. You really wouldn’t expect the same level of reverence to apply to a cheap-and-cheerful series of games where you shoot giant ants, fire rocket launchers at UFOs and destroy entire cities for no real reason other than because you can.
And yet, Earth Defence Force has a committed, dedicated cult following. These games are big, dumb fun in the most straightforward way, and they're basically the reason I have a fondness for the term ‘brain-off entertainment’. Why, with all the wonderful and delightful and thoroughly lovely games out there – games that have something to say, series that actually make real progress from iteration to iteration – do I remain obsessed with the Earth Defence Force series?
Earth Defence Force 4.1’s release last month marks the latest in a lineage stretching back over a decade, the latest in a long line of games that have changed very little over time, yet have (generally) been loved just as much as ever. There’s a simple way to show how little has moved in the world of these games: the menus haven’t changed much over the years. A decade’s worth of games, boiled down to four static images of menus that look like they were made by accident in 1992. Brilliant.
It’s not just the menus that stay forever the same – rolling is a constant through every giant insect-slaying jaunt, even the especially rubbish Insect Armageddon:
You know when people say ‘it’s just the same game again’? A lot of the time it’s similar, not the same. It’s an exaggeration, often born of frustration. In EDF, it’s absolute truth. The game has changed so very little since its inception, it borders on criminal.
But when what you’re doing from day one is this:
It tends not to matter too much.
Back in 2004, it would have been odd for a very Japanese budget release to see a full, boxed version heading to Europe. And yet, Monster Attack did land on our shores – and not in the US – all those years ago. I remember word getting around on forums of this mad bastard of a game – that it was absolutely nonsensical, generally rubbish, but it ramped up the Dicking About levels to critical. You were a dude who ran about gunning down giant ants and UFOs, sometimes in a vehicle, and always destroying every building in your way without penalty.
I was immediately whisked back to my childhood, standing in the playground with friends discussing what the ‘best’ computer game would feature. I was brought back there because the description of Monster Attack was everything we’d ever wanted when we were kids. It was the game of my childhood dreams.
The sordid affair continued with the PS2 follow up Global Defense Force, hitting in 2006. The same year as the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The same year as Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. The same year as Hitman: Blood Money.
Global Defense Force did not fit in 2006.
But I lapped it up all over again. And why not? EDF never tries to be anything more than what it was first time around, just with a few different abilities and weapons thrown in. The sheer catharsis of annihilating hundreds – nay, thousands – of mindless insects continued to carry it, and would continue to carry it through to the next generation.
In 2007 we got Earth Defence Force 2017 – the first EDF of the 360/PS3 generation and, bizarrely, the first of the series to actually get a release in North America. Apparently nobody thought the Yanks would enjoy idiotically blowing things up before, which seems an oversight on someone’s part.
Earth Defence Force 2017 also ratcheted things up on the adorable rubbishness front, with the advent of voiced characters. I haven’t laughed as much in any game as I did when one young soldier, fresh on a mission to a subterranean ants’ nest filled with hundreds of 20 metre tall insects, exclaimed “I’m on an exciting underground adventure!”
That stupidity was key to the earlier games’ success, in my eyes. Maybe partly due to translation, definitely partly down to a lack of budget, there was always a glorious B-movie feel to the games while you were busy gunning down gigantors by the thousand. And that’s why EDF 2017 was, relatively speaking, popular.
And that’s why we got Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon in 2011. Wrenched from its creators Sandlot and handed to US studio Vicious Cycle, the new game would have, shock, production values! Menus, mission structures and multiplayer that all made sense! Other stuff!
It also had manlier-than-manly soldiers saying things like “tango down”, irritating hyper-military phrases and a general feel of Call of Duty about it. Insect Armageddon tried, I’ll give it that, but the game lost a hell of a lot of the magic: it didn’t feel overwhelming, it didn’t feel cheap enough and it absolutely missed the mark by intentionally trying to be funny.
It’s actually good that the US-made game came out, when you think about it, because it showed those of us who were fans of the series that there was something redeeming about the prior releases. We weren’t just being obtuse and liking something because it was cheap and nasty – we fell in love with its sheer passion. Oh, and the feeling of being consistently overwhelmed by armies of insects, spiders, hornets, UFOs, giant robots called Hector (not joking) and a one-hit-kill mothership that still pisses me off to this day.
As if to double-down on that vindication, EDF’s next release in 2014 – Earth Defence Force 2025 – was back in the hands of Sandlot and back to doing what we know and love: being big, dumb fun of the best kind.
EDF 2025 retained classes – one of the few good things Insect Armageddon brought to the... insect... armageddon, but brought them back in the style of the older games. Meaning: Wing Divers! Or Pale Wings, whatever they want to be called. An all-female battalion of jetpack troops (in ludicrously short skirts, natch), they were great in GDF but hadn’t been around since. You could boost really high up in the sky before raining down white-hot plasma death on a quiet residential area below, razing all of the buildings to the ground and making some formerly alive giant spiders a bit more dead.
Earth Defence Force 4.1 – a stupid title given previous naming conventions, thus immediately showing itself as a true heir to the EDF throne – is the first step of hopefully many for the series on the PS4 generation. It’s not the first time it’s been spoken of in semi-reverent tones on these pages, so I won’t prattle on too much about it. Save to say that the ability to play online with a team of three other players – once you’ve wrestled through a menu system that was truly designed by a fool (honestly, the analogue stick navigates options while the digital pad selects emotes, in a menu) – makes EDF 4.1 one of the best things in the world today, for me.
The fact you have an EDF anthem you can all sing a verse each of is just... sublime. Yes, the giant ants and spiders and Godzilla-like monsters and all that good stuff is present and accounted for, but how many games out there let you sing an army’s anthem together while flying around in a jetpack and razing an entire city to the ground?
And that’s just it: it’s as simple as they come, born from the Simple series of budget games in Japan, the kind of base level idea that anybody could come up with and the sort of thing that takes no time to explain in its entirety a newcomer. Get guns. Shoot ants. Repeat
But there’s nothing else like Earth Defence Force. Nothing at all. Long may it continue, long may it reign, and long may we all be chanting “EDF! EDF! EDF!”