Growing up during the 80s, there were only a few cartoons that really grabbed me. Transformers and GI Joe were obvious favorites, of course, but one of the ones that has stayed in my mind for years has been Voltron: Defender of the Universe. In fact, my Gaming Trend forum and Twitter accounts are both named after the main bad guy from the series, and I’ve been using the name for years. When it was announced that Voltron was coming back in a big way this year and was coming to PSN and XBLA in the form of a game, I had mixed feelings. While I still fondly remember the show, I also know now how badly it was butchered for American audiences thirty years ago.
Still, it wasn’t too much to hope for a fun game which would bring back the great times of “Form Blazing Sword!” and Robeast destruction, all in the name of saving Planet Arus from the evil forces of King Zarkon. Developed by Behavior Interactive (Wet, Naughty Bear), this game is a twin-stick shooter in the vein of Robotron 2084, SMASH TV and many others. Players take on the role of one of the five original Voltron pilots (including Sven) through twelve levels and three difficulty levels to take on a variety enemies before uniting to form Voltron to defeat the Robeasts summoned by King Zarkon and his minions.
A nice touch in the game is that each of the levels are prefaced with pieces of the original TV show. The game itself covers the first few episodes from the series as far as I can determine, as it features the original five pilots without the Princess (which would have been after the 6th episode of the show). The twelve levels are split into three episodes, each with four levels with the last level of each being a ‘boss fight’ between Voltron and a Robeast.
Graphically, the game looks very nice for the most part. It’s bright and colorful, almost all of the enemies are easily seen, and there’s some nice background animations when you run through or blow up trees. The only real problem, though, is the camera is set so far back from the action that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where your Lion is at. In fact, if you’re playing with multiple players, it’s even harder due to all of the various clutter on the screen. It’s worse if you’re ejected from your Lion (which happens during ground missions if you run out of energy) and put into Survivor mode. The game barely zooms in, and your pilot is so tiny to be almost invisible, which can easily lead to death and frustration.
The game also controls mostly well, with the left analog stick controlling movement while the right one controls the laser turrets that each of the five Lions sport. The left and right bumper buttons are used for melee attacks while the left trigger is a special attack and the right one is a pouncing attack (or a looping evade during space levels). The Lions respond fairly well for the most part, although they turn rather like old Buicks rather than anything leonine, with the exception being the 180 degree move which is caused by flicking the stick in the opposite direction you’re currently facing. Finally, the A button shows your current objective, although figuring out the direction of it can be a bit difficult at times.
The sound in this game is lifted almost entirely from the cartoon, and this is by far the best feature of the game. While a lot of the voice acting in the show was goofy and cheesy as all get out, the score is still impressive nearly thirty years later, and having Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) as the narrator announcing that ‘Voltron will be right back’ when you pause the game is full of win. The attack sounds from both sides of the battle are solid if not overwhelming and each character has a number of soundbites which aren’t bad at all.
Most of the gameplay features ground-based combat with one or more players playing as the Lions, moving along the level and defeating waves of enemies. These range from basic foot soldiers and robots which are slightly more difficult to air-based bombers which must be dodged and pounced, various types of tanks with missiles and lasers and even stationary laser cannons. The levels also feature groups of civilians which need to be rescued (with an achievement for rescuing 100) and Star Pieces which need to be collected for extra lives and your special attacks. Once you’re at each objective, there will either be a wave of enemies or a sub-boss to battle, with the end of each level featuring a larger boss battle.
A couple of levels are different, however, featuring space travel between planets. This feels more like a game of Galaga or Galaxian with waves of ships showing up for you to destroy as well as asteroids and other obstacles. Again, Star Pieces are available for collecting, and while the space levels are a bit more difficult than the ground ones (at times) it’s still not too horrible on normal difficulty. While the levels are different in how they’re presented, they’re very formulaic without really anything to differentiate one from the other. Still, they’re relatively fun for the most part, especially with multiple players. Finally, every fourth level features a major boss fight between Voltron and a Robeast, and here’s where the game completely falls apart. These battles are turn based where one of the players will choose an action for Voltron, at which point a meter will go from right to left while a trigger point will go back and forth, with the object being to press the A button when the meter is in the middle of the trigger point. Success equals an attack while failure equals a miss. The moving trigger point can make this quite difficult if it happens to be moving to the far left at the moment the meter begins.
Once the players have had their turn, the Robeast acts, giving players a QTE to avoid the attack, although the time given to notice and respond is really fairly fast, which can lead to some definite frustration when combined with the above issues. Honestly, turn-based combat after three levels of twin-stick mayhem is nothing but boring, and sucks the fun right out of the game. It’s also fairly anticlimactic, as you can literally defeat the boss with four moves.
While each of the five Lions have different stats, strengths and weaknesses, in actual gameplay the differences seem minimal. There’s really not much difference between the Lions other than the voice and the color as each of them are equally capable of beating the game in single-player mode, given a skilled-enough player. The game also features two-player local multiplayer, but Xbox Live is where the fun is, featuring full five-player gameplay. While it’s fun to run around with multiple players, the issues with the camera and the distance from the gameplay turn it more into a mess than it really should have been.
While there’s definitely some fun to be had in the game, it’s heavily tempered by frustration and boredom caused by the camera distance and the yawnfest that is the Voltron levels. Also, given how big a show Voltron was, twelve levels in three ‘epsiodes’ for 800 Microsoft Points ($10) seems a bit lacking. While there are a number of achievements, many of them require multiple playthroughs which really is less plausible unless you simply have to have those for your Gamerscore addiction. To me, the blazing sword seems a bit dimmer in this game than I’d prefer.