Some games are made to tell a story, to evoke emotions, and to create art. The Earth Defense Force series, on the other hand, was created simply to be mindless, monster-shooting entertainment.
Originally created as part of a series of budget games in Japan called the Simple series, the first game, Chikyū Bōeigun (Monster Attack), was released in June 2003. Monster Attack was short on plot but allowed players to fight giant bug monsters using rocket launchers, machine guns, and a variety of other weapons. The game did well enough in Japan that it was released as a PS2 port in Europe in early 2004.
Subsequent additions to the series have added new weapons, armor systems, and vehicles, but the general premise remains the same: players operate as the troops defending Earth in a war against giant bugs, aliens, and mutants. The most recent American port, Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair released in December 2015 and features four player types, hundreds of weapons and vehicles, and 98 online missions.
The EDF series has a strong Japanese flavor, from the anime-style designs of some of the characters to the architecture in the cities players try to protect. So how did a little-known Japanese game series develop a cult following across the Pacific?
In Monster Attack, players only had the option to fight giant bugs as a trooper. In the second game in the series, Global Defense Force (and it’s PlayStation Vita port, Earth Defense Force 2: Invaders From Planet Space), players had the option to fight either as Storm 1, which was similar to the trooper, or the Pale Wing, a female character with strong weapons and the ability to fly short distances.
Earth Defense Force 2017, the third game in the series and the first to be released in North America without a port, went back to a single class type, Storm 1.
In Earth Defense Force 2025 and it’s upgraded next-gen port, The Shadow of New Despair, players are able to choose from one of four characters classes. The Ranger is based heavily on the Storm 1 and trooper classes, with a lot of mobility and low armor. The Wing Diver is an upgrade on the Pale Wing, able to fly a bit farther and with a variety of new weapons. The Fencer is the heavy-artillery unit in EDF, with a dual-weapons system that can lay waste to almost anything, and the Air Raider is a support unit that can call in artillery attacks, vehicles, and air raids.
Players can try each character type to see what works best in each level, and what works best for their particular play style. Players who want lots of fast action and reaction will prefer the Ranger or Wing Diver, while a player who doesn’t mind moving slowly but wants to mow down rows of enemies is better suited to the Fencer. The Air Raider is the most difficult class to play, but can still be satisfying, as the vehicles in the game are a lot of fun.
When a player shoots one of the multitudes of enemies in EDF, there is a chance that the fallen enemy will drop a weapon, armor, or health. The weapon drops are randomized and based upon the difficulty of the level, but a large amount of a player’s time is going to be spent “farming” for new weapons, better armor, and better health. It is intensely rewarding to beat a super-difficult level only to discover that one of the many weapon crates that dropped had a high-powered new instrument of destruction ready for you to use against the enemy hordes.
Each installment in the series has added more weapons for each player class, so there are hundreds of weapons to choose from. The weapon types range from assault and sniper rifles to laser cannons, plasma grenades, and rocket launchers. Every player has the opportunity to discover which weapon types work best for them, and often the type of weapon needed changes from level to level. A close-quarters battle against ants in a tunnel requires something with less range and a lower chance of accidentally blowing everyone on your team to smithereens, while a big city spider level requires long-range, heavy hitting attacks. The diversity of weapons and system in which players retrieve them is ultimately rewarding and provides a neat strategy element to an otherwise straightforward game series.
Tanks, Gunships, and Mechs
Just as EDF allows for a player to customize his or her gameplay through weapon and class selection, there are also some fun vehicles to choose from. There’s the Battle Machine Vegalta mech, a hoverbike, tanks, armored railguns, motorcycles, depth crawlers (which are basically mechanical spiders with guns), and the Walking Fortress Balam (the giant mech pictured above).
Some vehicles have class restrictions, but they are another fun addition to the game. It’s hard not to enjoy playing as a pilot inside of a giant mech fighting against alien monsters like something in an anime or Pacific Rim.
The vehicles are not the focal point of the series and can get a little glitchy at times (in particular, depth crawlers have a habit of disorienting pilots by crawling up walls willy-nilly), but there’s always room for improvement and the little issues don’t really affect the enjoyment of using these vehicles.
Bugs, Robots, and Mutants, Oh My
Thank goodness for all of the incredible classes, weapons, and vehicles, because the EDF games are known for throwing vast hordes of horrifying enemies at players. The original antagonists are giant bugs, but as the series progressed, additional enemies were added. In The Shadow of New Despair, there are ants, spiders, hornets, spaceships, giant robots, drones, and mutants.
On more difficult settings, the sheer number of enemies can be literally staggering as the console tries to catch up. The game occasionally gets choppy when there are hundreds of enemies onscreen, but it’s more charming than it is a problem, and there is a serious sense of achievement when a player blows enough enemies up at once to cause the game to slow down. It’s a sense of “I just killed so many bugs that I literally broke the game for a second”, and it’s pretty amazing.
There’s also something to be said for the enemies themselves – they’re bugs, invading aliens, and giant invading robots. These are enemies no one can feel bad about destroying, except maybe the most sensitive entomologist.
The Earth Defense Force series doesn’t take itself very seriously, which works in its favor. There is a sort of Starship Troopers-meets-1950’s sci-fi camp flavor to the series that makes everything just a little bit silly, but enjoyable. These games won’t ruin your day with depressing stories (looking at you, The Last of Us), or bring you down with serious themes and realistic consequences. There is zero consequence in the game for destroying buildings, and sometimes it’s easier to blow up a whole block than it is to try and take out individual enemies.
This is a game series without realistic repercussions, focused entirely on letting off some steam and blowing up the bad guys. There’s no real emotional involvement, and the campy factor has a kind of nostalgia to it that makes players feel like kids again.
Also, of course, you can get in a giant robot and fight an enormous kaiju in The Shadow of New Despair, which is pretty awesome.
Fraggin’ with Friends
While there are a couple of games in the EDF lineup that are single-player only, most of the successful ones include cooperative gameplay. There is something to be said for the teamwork involved in taking out hordes of enemies, and working together in co-op or online mode has a way of bringing people together (or making them hate one another).
Co-op and online modes help players get through particularly difficult missions, as it’s easier to survive when a partner can come and revive you if you get overwhelmed. Whether playing side-by-side on the couch or over an internet connection, shouts of “Oh man I’m down come help” are common. The multiplayer system is well designed and allows players to do their own thing as well as help one another. The only downside to the multiplayer aspect is in the higher difficulties, as the damage from friendly fire is raised and it’s very possible to accidentally blow up teammates.
There are also dialogue options that allow the characters to sing an EDF song to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, with lines and lines of lyrics involving blowing up bugs. Computer-operated teammates will get in on the singing, and fellow players can join in as well.
When buildings crash and robots fall, EDF never fails to provide the player with spectacular explosions to look at. The explosions are gorgeously rendered with high-quality sound effects and controller rumble features, and like the rest of EDF, it’s just plain satisfying.