Famous for being one of the SEGA Dreamcast’s final releases, Under Defeat is a vertically-scrolling shooter which wears its old-school credentials as proudly as possible. Updated with high-definition visuals and boasting deluxe features to entice on-the-fence buyers into making a purchase, Under Defeat HD is a fantastic way to discover a little-known shooter classic - but it’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s tastes.
Developed by small Japanese studio G.Rev (founded by former Taito staffers and famous for titles such as Border Down and Senko no Ronde), Under Defeat is unusual in that it places you in the cockpit of a helicopter rather than a futuristic warplane. Like Psikyo’s cult Zero Gunner series, this results in a slightly different attack system to traditional vertically-scrolling blasters. Instead of constantly firing forward, you can turn the chopper slightly and angle your shots. To do this, you simply release the fire button and move either left or right; pressing it down again to lock the angle of fire.
This unique hook has massive ramifications for the gameplay. Many enemies require you to attack them from an angle rather than head-on, and the need to constantly adjust your aim adds an extra layer of depth to proceedings, opening up all kinds of strategies and unique playing styles. Another innovative twist is the ‘Option’ device; in most shooters, this would merely be an additional craft which tracks your movement and lends additional firepower, but in Under Defeat it’s a little more complex. The Option can only be deployed when its power gauge is full, and once unleashed, it is only present for a short time before retreating to recharge. This again adds to the experience; sometimes you find yourself holding off until the last possible moment, hoping that the Option will mean the difference between success or failure in the next boss battle.
Set in a world which mimics the military style of the Second World War, Under Defeat packs a visual punch almost as impressive as its gameplay. Your enemies include massive, hulking tanks, monstrous battleships bristling with guns and aerial foes which boast the same angled firing ability that you do. The stark industrial aesthetic makes the entire game look incredibly authentic, despite the sometimes ridiculous nature of the bosses you face. The HD facelift has given the game a sharper edge, and the excellent particle and smoke effects add even more to the allure. There are times when the game betrays its roots as a 2005 Dreamcast release with basic 3D models and bland environments, but they’re mercifully few and far between.
The original version of the game was based on a narrow ‘Tate’ playing field - as has been the custom of vertically-scrolling arcade shooters for quite some time. Under Defeat HD offers a new mode which expands the viewpoint and makes it fit on 16:9 widescreen televisions, but to do this the developers have also had to modify the layout of each level and the placement of enemies. The original version of the game is contained on the disk as well - along with far less impressive graphics - so it’s possible to do a direct comparison between the two.
Surprisingly, the 2005 version seems to have the edge in pure gameplay terms; by confiding the player’s movement to a narrow screen, Under Defeat HD feels tighter and focused. The ‘New Order’ HD mode may appear more open, but by growing the viewpoint horizontally, some of the purity is somehow lost. It’s possibly something which is decided more by personal preference than anything else, but if you’re a fan of the original game then you may find the HD mode to be a little too different. Still, both are on offer here, allowing you to pick for yourself.
Elsewhere in the package you’ll find a music CD and digital art book, both of which are neat extras that are likely to be appreciated by hardcore fans but completely ignored by newcomers. To be honest, Under Defeat HD is the type of game that makes more sense as a digital download rather than a retail release, but there’s something appealing about collecting a physical copy of this kind of title - especially when you consider the lofty second-hand price of the Dreamcast version.
Like so many shooters, Under Defeat HD’s long-term appeal rests solely on how dedicated you are when it comes to beating high scores. Although the challenge is a stern one - even on the easiest difficulty setting - once the game is complete, the only reason to continue playing is to improve on your personal best. The two-player mode offers additional longevity, as do the inclusion of online leaderboards and all-important Trophy achievements. Even so, it goes without saying that Under Defeat HD is never going to rival the likes of Skyrim or Borderlands 2 when it comes to the number of gameplay hours on offer, but that is mitigated slightly by its low price.
If you’ve always wanted to play the Dreamcast version of Under Defeat but have never felt brave enough to stump up the large amount of cash to do so, then this PS3 update is the answer to your prayers. It offers not only the original edition, but a spruced-up HD variant as well. The core gameplay is refreshingly different from the norm thanks to that angled shooting system, but even with this innovative mechanic, Under Defeat HD isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Retro enthusiasts and old-school players are unquestionably the target audience for this release, and given this narrow appeal, it’s unlikely that G.Rev’s game is going to attract an entirely fresh audience. But variety is the spice of life, and despite its niche nature, we’re thoroughly pleased that we live in a world where games of this type can still command a retail release.