When it comes to classic movies from the 90s, one that orbits somewhere around “timeless” is Starship Troopers. Based on a Robert Heinlein novel, Paul Verhoeven’s film takes the source material and goes off on a tangent of its own. The film is often seen as biting, anti-propaganda satire, using the backdrop of a war story featuring giant bugs to go after the contemporary military industrial complex. Starship Troopers sort of became a franchise, but no follow up ever truly captured the original political vibe. But a recent video game entry in a long-running niche series has aimed to do that, and seems poised to succeed.
You may not have heard of Earth Defense Force before. Started on the PlayStation 2 for the “Simple 2000 Series” of budget-friendly games in Japan, the Earth Defense Force series takes the aesthetic of Starship Troopers, and engages with it at face value. It’s a goofy, low budget, action series about soldiers firing machine guns at giant bugs. Several of these games have been localized into English, and the localizations’ trademark is wacky voice acting that is purposefully bad. It’s all about the cheesy vibe selling the low rent visuals and other production values, peppered with okay enough gameplay to keep the fanbase interested.
But for whatever reason, longtime developer Sandlot briefly stepped aside to make room for Yuke’s, the developer behind the WWE 2K series, to make a new spinoff of sorts. This game, which launched in early 2019, is called Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain. It’s an entry without a number in the title, with a new developer, and a new vibe. It’s still a silly game about shooting bugs, but there’s a much more serious tone. There are themes of propaganda, “fake news,” and government and military labor exploitation.
Much of this ambiance is achieved in dialogue sequences between missions, in which the soldiers trade banter with one another. Usually in Earth Defense Force games, the soldiers are sources of wacky soundbites that often make no sense, but are good for chuckles. Here, in Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, they talk about their situation and surroundings on a deeper level. Some of them talk about how poorly maintained their equipment is, and how the cost of getting it fixed would come out of their own pockets. Another soldier talks about his living conditions. He will note that if he can get a higher standing within the EDF, he can move with his family to a safer, better protected area considered more valuable to the military.
During the story, we also get a look at the EDF-run news programming, which is often all too happy to prop up the EDF in propagandist fashion. At the same time, it is designed to distract viewers from issues more likely to directly impact them. (That sounds familiar!) Its funny how a game ostensibly about shooting ants with rocket launchers also has the audacity to call out the world for its self-inflicted troubles.
Of course, Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is also a video game, and therefore must "video game." These games are third-person shooters, often pitting a single player characters against hordes of massive bugs. They explode, as you would expect, but in Iron Rain there’s a bit more intelligence to the AI. This means more of a challenge. The original Starship Troopers flick wasn’t much of an action film, but many of the follow ups are, such as the Roughnecks series. This aspect of the IP being an important part of the video game version is inevitable, but Yuke’s does what it can to make a compelling action experience push players through to the end.
It’s amazing to me that not only is Earth Defense Force still going, but it’s viable enough to warrant localizations. What’s even more amazing is that a new developer was brought on to take the idea a little more seriously. It’s still goofy, but in this case, there’s a little more bite to it. In learning about this commentary-like vibe to Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, I immediately ran to Starship Troopers with my thoughts. While the original novel is quite different, the movie most entertainment geeks know and love is famous for its commentary on propaganda and lack of ethics in American military structure. While that satirical interpretation of Starship Troopers is long gone, seeing shades of it reappear in this niche, Japanese video game is worth taking notice.