If Halo is a rugged Walmart sweatshirt of a videogame and my game ZiGGURAT (buy now on iOS (please (it’s only a dollar (I am so hungry)))) is a holey vintage metal band T-shirt, Under Defeat is a Burberry cashmere scarf. You might scoff at a Burberry scarf’s $400 price tag, because, hey, it’s just a scarf, right? Wrong: it is a connoisseur’s scarf. And it is a scarf not just for connoisseur’s of scarves—it is for connoisseurs of fabric. Before it was a recognized brand, it earned that recognition.
Unlike a $400 Burberry scarf, Under Defeat HD will only cost you $30. You can buy thirty fantastic iOS games for that $30, and you may end up pouring ten times as much time into those thirty games as you might into this one. What you get for $30 in Under Defeat HD is a stomach-churning thickness of concentrated quality evident in every five-millisecond increment of game experience.
Japanese shoot-em-ups (please don’t use the word “shmups” around me—it is weird and vaguely gross) are a connoisseur’s game, and often the tireless talking subject of videofriction raconteurs such as myself. The developer Cave is responsible for most of the modern hallmarks of the genre, and many of those games are worth studying.
Cave’s games are, however, not strictly speaking “accessible” as pop-culture. A newcomer’s first glance at a super-player of a Cave game will result in most likely an expression of horror: There are just so many god darn objects on the screen, and the player is staring, motionless, in a meditative trance, at just one tiny point on the screen. A newcomer might wonder how exactly someone ends up with a hobby like this, and from there they draw wild conclusions.
Cave’s games are, by and large, brilliant and important. Are they fun? Sometimes. They are traditional, and probably as important a Japanese cultural element as sumo wrestling (or at least variety television).
G.rev’s Under Defeat, however, is not traditional.
Unlike the newer wave of 2000s hardcore shoot-them-alls, G.rev’s Under Defeat is not about little girls, or insect princesses, or fairies. Unlike the old guard, it is not even about a lone spaceship sent to destroy an alien space army.
No, it’s about a lone helicopter sent to take down a gray, lumbering, cold, iron imperial navy.
Unlike most of your top-down scrolling shoot-them-all games, Under Defeat’s weapon does not automatically fire upward. Rather, it points where your ship is pointing. That is to say, your ship’s pointing direction changes.
It changes as you move. See—you’re in a helicopter. Click to the right, and your ship swishes to the right, its swish peaking at an angle relative to the duration of your stick click. Click to the left, and it’s the same deal.
By the way—you’re ideally playing this game with a big, loud, clicky joystick. If you’re not, that’s okay: The PlayStation 3 analog stick controls nicely enough in this version, with generously nuanced sensitivity controls. Heck, even the directional buttons work well enough.
When you press the fire button, your helicopter’s front guns fire at the exact angle that the front of your helicopter is facing—or (and here’s the important part) was facing at the point in your stick-click-duration-relative movement swish.
Here’s kicker number one: As you hold the fire button, your helicopter maintains the pointing direction of the guns. With just one joystick, directional button, or analog stick, you have charted a drastic change in strafe lock. Here we have a first-person-shooter’s competitive edge summarized in twelve milliseconds.
Kicker number two is that you’re doing this all the time—just constantly, masterfully, quickly, gently releasing the fire button, clicking your control mechanism, pivoting your helicopter, and sliding your finger back onto the button again. If an FPS is a coloring book, Under Defeat is oil painting. Other action games are tricycles; Under Defeat is a stick-shift roadster.
Kicker number three is the sub-weapons, my favorite of which is the rocket launcher. When I first played Under Defeat on the Sega Dreamcast in 2006, the rocket launcher blew me away. If I were writing a list of the ten most elegant action game mechanics I’ve ever encountered, it would easily be number two.
Here’s how it goes: When you let go of the fire button, a green bar begins charging. The rate of its charge is just muscle-memorizable enough. When the meter fills, a beep sounds. This is your cue that you may now fire a rocket.
Now, the next time you touch the fire button, the rocket launcher bursts out of the front of your helicopter. One metronome-click later, it fires a deadly rocket which impacts the first object (be it a ground or air target) available in the line of sight your helicopter occupied when you touched the button.
Emphasis on the “occupied”: To master this game, you’ll need to get your mind and muscles working together to remember the importance of facing one strategic direction just long enough to fire a missile, and changing direction to destroy multiple targets in the space between the deployment of the rocket launcher and its deployment of the rocket.
That’s where the stick-shift metaphor explodes—now you’re driving stick-shift at a hundred milels per hour down a winding mountain, and rocks are falling everywhere.
And so, with one button and controls that aren’t even analog, one game serves you two mechanics which are, in all their permutations and beggings of perfectionism, actually two million mechanics. And you will relish the polishing of those two million mechanics as gunmetal-gray battleships and helicopters and tanks and watchtowers eat your bullets, twitching and rumbling and popping, and bursting spectacularly into flames. Under Defeat is a game about utilitarian war things falling apart beautifully, and it’s all your precious fault.
This is the game that my fellow action connoisseur Kenta Cho called “possibly the best action game of all-time”. For the longest time your choice had been to either pay around two hundred dollars for a copy of the Dreamcast version;, or to live in ignorance of it. Here it is, now, in 720p widescreen, its quaint, perfect 3D graphics and generous particle effects lovingly replicated, its music just as pumping as before.
It even includes a just-neat-enough dual analog stick mode, which is redundant if you understand the game’s beautiful simplicity (which is no difficult feat, if you give it a chance). It’s a heck of a gesture, though.
In closing: helicopters. Do you love helicopters? Have you ever been on a helicopter? Have you ever seen one up close, for real? I can answer yes to all of these questions. If you answer no to one of them, it’s probably because you aren’t answering yes to all three of them. Helicopters are beautiful, unique creatures of engineering, and Under Defeat—full of juicy, hyperkinetic rotors, rumbling tanks, watchtowers, battleships, airplanes, particles, and bullets everywhere—gives helicopters the treatment of one of those well-lit porno films that couples are meant to watch together. If you for some reason want to know why I roll my eyes at every action game I play nowadays, it’s because none of them play anything like God Hand. Also, it’s because I wish Dark Souls was about helicopters and played like Under Defeat.
And by the way: the game has virtually no story and the characters never talk. Bonus!
tim rogers is the founder and director of Action Button Entertainment, the game development studio behind ZiGGURAT. follow him on twitter!