Honestly, when I was told that there was a new Voltron game being released, I thought that there had been some sort of communication error. I mean, it is 2011, right? Without some sort of movie tie-in agenda, what sort of reason could there be for Voltron to form up on modern consoles? I then recalled Rockstar Toronto’s 2005 beat-em-up adaptation of the 1979 classic film The Warriors. Despite the weird chronological disparity, that was a pretty fine video game! With that in mind, I started to have second thoughts. Could this new Voltron game be a work of pure adoration for the classic '80s anime series? The answer to that question is “probably yes,” but unfortunately there is a little bit more to it than that.
For the majority of the game, players will pilot one of the five lions of the Voltron Force and mow down enemies in typical dual-stick shooter fashion. I like telling myself that they were specifically inspired by fellow 80’s icon Robotron: 2084, but it is more than likely that the countless number of dual-stick shooters that followed also contributed to this decision. The controls here are quite strange and take some time to acclimate to. The lion puts its entire weight into its run, so making any sharp turns is mostly impossible. The result is watching as your giant robot lion not-so-comically skids across the ground as a legion of enemy robots riddles it with holes.
Should you find yourself gunned down in such a situation, your pilot will pop out Metal Warriors-style while a Survival Mode timer counts down ten seconds. Once that timer is up, you can hop back into your lion and resume your fight. If your pilot is killed during this mode, you will lose a life. This is a neat little gimmick, and adds an extra bit of tension to a game that mostly lacks it.
Between the unfriendly controls and the forgiving Survival Mode, plan on dying a lot. Not that the game is particularly difficult, but it gives no real incentive for learning enemy attack patterns. Powering through enemy fire and mowing them all down indiscriminately is almost always enough to get through every mission. This is fun for a short while, especially if you’ve got friends involved, but eventually I found myself simply going through the motions. Here is where the other two sections of the game should theoretically come in to save the day.
While in space, players once again pilot the lions of the Voltron Force, but here they are confined to a vertical scrolling pathway reminiscent of shoot-em-up games such as Konami’s TwinBee series and Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun. Here, enemy fire seems to have a bit more nuance to it. Combine this with the fact that the 2D playing field means less dimensions to worry about, and it is possible learn and adapt and generally have a prolonged sense of achievement. If more of the game were like this, Voltron: Defender of the Universe would have been a much better package.
For the game’s third gameplay type, you form Voltron, and here is where things get a bit weird. The act of forming Voltron is an inspired bit of fanservice that must be experienced to be believed, but following this the player is locked into a one-on-one fight with a giant Robeast. Here is where the game completely drops the ball.
For as much as the gaming community decries the constant interference of overbearing tutorials in modern video games –- perhaps for good reason -– Voltron: Defender of the Universe completely fails to explain anything of this fight. Not that there have been any tutorials or instructions anywhere else in the game, but this particular fighting mechanic is completely incomprehensible the first time that it is seen. Eventually I discovered that it involved something to do with bars and a move-pool and… a dartboard? Even if you are unable to decipher the meaning of the many prompts the game throws at you, you can still defend and counterattack during the enemy’s turn with a simple press of the X button (or whatever) in a Quick Time Event. This will not only stop the enemy attack, but also inflict damage to the Robeast as well. This is actually easier than learning the real game mechanics.
All of this is made even more confusing when you involve friends. When you play the Voltron-Robeast boss fights in co-op mode, each player controls a different prompt. For example, one player selects the attack, while the next player has to land the dart thing in the target area, so on and so forth. Of course, it’s made unclear which player is in control of what roles, leading to some trial and error here that could have been avoided with a simple “Player 2” marker here or there. It’s a mess, and that’s a real shame. Forming Voltron may be a highlight, but playing as the titular mech is a really weird bummer.
As poorly as the game represents such pivotal moments in the classic anime, you may be surprised to learn that the Voltron heritage overall is treated with a great deal of reverence throughout the game. This is where Voltron: Defender of the Universe really shines. From the way each level is bridged by footage from the cartoon source material – super compressed and low resolution, as if it were ripped right from a seedy anime torrent website – to the silky smooth voice of Peter Cullen narrating the events, there is a lot here to love for children of the '80s. The little throwbacks and gags kept me smiling throughout, which, in these days where nostalgia is a practically a profitable genre of its own, is quite a triumph.
The question of why this game was made in the first place still remains. Why in the world would anyone want to make a $10 dual-stick shooter based on this beloved 1980s anime series? Clearly, after my time playing this game, the only answer is that developer Behaviour Interactive truly does have a love for the source material. There is probably no hidden agenda here, and no secret marketing intent. Voltron: Defender of the Universe may not be the best game of 2011 by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the best Voltron game of 2011, and that is pretty darn cool.
William Carpenter is the section editor of Infinite Ammo here at Comics Bulletin and chief of staff and editor of Pixel Fist.