The legend of the Sega Dreamcast’s meteoric rise and cataclysmic downfall has become a hallowed legend amongst avid gamers: the industry’s very own Titanic. The passing of time has made it easier to forget that the system had very few exceptional games, and that developers continued to make games long after the industry solemnly erected a tombstone over its grave. Under Defeat was one of these posthumous productions, an arcade shooter released in 2006 –– five years after the official discontinuation of the console. It’s possible (though unlikely) that this HD re-release for PSN and XBLA will succeed in delivering the simple thrills of its genre and in evoking nostalgia for a bygone era. Most gamers, though, will find it practically unplayable, a broken and buggy disaster that exacerbates the difficulty of the game to the point of distraction.
Two warring factions, The Union and The Empire, are locked in combat for Reasons that are entirely superfluous to the gameplay. You take command of an Imperial combat helicopter and get sent on solo missions to lay waste to dozens of enemy vehicles and fight big boss war machines at the end of every stage. The stages are varied and colorful, from forests to deserts to massive naval engagements. You can choose from several different types of helicopter in the options, but they’re all mostly cosmetic differences. There are really only two kinds of helicopter: ones that deploy power-ups as gun drones, and ones that use power-ups to change the shooting style of the chopper itself. The helicopters can also change their angle of attack, so you can shoot diagonally as well. The game includes the original arcade version of the levels, for those who want to play it at a fraction of the size of their TV screen.
The game attempts to do everything you’d want from it: murderous difficulty based on dodging a hailstorm of bullets and missiles requiring precision twitch reflexes and impeccable spatial awareness, an unforgiving arcade system that punishes failure by forcing you to start all over again, and addictive gameplay based on its simplicity and the ease with which other local players can join in mid-game. To be sure, these elements are definitely there, but it is difficult to determine if they are well-executed because of the unintentional obstacles that stand obnoxiously in the way.
Chief among these irritations is an inexplicable frame rate slowdown that occurs when literally anything blows up on screen. The game slows down to half speed, like a computer that just barely meets the minimum requirements for a game struggling mightily to render the particle effects. The frequency of explosions means the game slows down and speeds up every five seconds. This ruins your ability to properly time your movements, and consequently Death visits you twice as often as he should. It’s even worse when playing with another person, as the game seems unable to handle two helicopters pumping bullets at the same time that enemy units are firing their weapons.
There is a tremendous amount of visual clutter as well. Every bullet that hits a target sends sparks flying across the screen, sparks that look a little too much like the bullets your enemies are firing at you. It’s manageable when playing alone, but the addition of a second player inundates the screen with so many brightly colored tracers and sparks that it becomes a monumental task to pick out the dangerous red blobs from the harmless green and yellow ones. In contrast, the excellent Super Stardust HD, a game with twice as much visual clutter as this one, compensates for the amount of lunacy on the screen by giving each weapon, obstacle, power-up, and enemy a thoroughly distinct shape and color; Under Defeat would have benefitted greatly from a similar philosophy.
Add a disappointingly easy achievement set that consists largely of stage clearances and a handful of performance trophies that can mostly be attained in your first ten minutes entirely by accident, and the result is a game that does nothing to make it stand apart from the competition in a positive way. There are dozens of side-scrolling shooters for legacy platforms and for current consoles that are excellent alternatives; unless you are such a fan of the genre that you simply can’t pass one up, there is little reason to play this one. There are much better ways to spend thirty dollars.