The pleasures of mediocrity

I’ve been playing a lot of Earth Defense Force 4.1 recently.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Earth Defense Force games are about alien invasions of Earth. And also giant ants and spiders and bees? This particular one is very insistent that all of the animals are “giant insects,” which, y’know, spiders aren’t… but, mostly, the enemy list in the game runs on the Rule of Cool more than it does on any semblance of coherent design. You fight said aliens and creepy-crawlies with a wide assortment of guns, rockets, artillery strikes, tanks, and even giant mechs, across a series of enormous sprawling maps littered with destructible terrain.

Are they fun to play? Yeah. But, to put it bluntly, every game in the series is a bit of a mess. I’ve been playing the series since I imported the second one from for my backwards-compatible Japanese PS3, which could play PS2 games, and a decade-plus on the series is very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and said evolution is something of a dead-end of design. Aiming still stinks, navigating the too-large levels with the default soldier-dude class (the Ranger) is slow and tedious, and the upgrade system is basically “play a level with lots of drops over and over and over again,” which is never a great sign.

And yet.

I’ve actually played EDF4.1 every evening for the last three nights, for several hours, with a friend online. And it’s been a ton of fun. I laugh a lot, make fun of the uniformly terrible voice acting, and then proceed to wipe the battlefield of the hordes of ants–they come in two colors, because why actually expend effort on new enemy designs?–and flotillas of weird spaceships. And then I do it again, and again, and again.

There’s something deeply pleasing about the game despite the fact that it is, objectively, mediocre at best. The upgrade loop is a compelling “ooh, what’d I get this time?” version of a gacha machine, the plot is so ridiculous it almost loops back around to awesome, and it is just so damn satisfying to mow down hordes and hordes of weak enemies with laser guns and automatic rifles. (Also, it has a sense of scale unrivaled by just about any other video game I’ve ever played.)

The long-running Dynasty Warriors series scratches a similar itch, mowing down hordes of mooks in an otherwise very bland game design, but for whatever reason it’s never quite resonated with me the same way that the Earth Defense Force games do. I actually spent quite a bit of time playing through the Xbox 360 version of the game (the third in the series) on the couch of an old college friend, playing split-screen multiplayer all the way through the campaign. It was a lot of fun then, and it’s still a lot of fun now. And I think I know why… or, at least, a part of if.

When you play a game like, say, the most recent God of War, or a perfectly-tuned modern indie game like Celeste, you need to be on in terms of engagement. They’re carefully considered experiences, to be savored and enjoyed and appreciated and noticed. Because of that, I’m not always in the right frame of mind to play those sorts of games. Playing them half-asleep is doing the games, and myself, a disservice.

But a game like EDF, exemplar of “just good enough” design? Who cares? You’re just going pew-pew with the lasers and getting even better lasers. It’s perfectly fine for me to be only 70% present when I’m playing, because the designers were only 70% present to begin with. It’s not a guilty pleasure, really, so much as it is a guiltless one. The game says: “I am perfectly happy to be a near-mindless time-filler with lots of explosions. If that’s all you can handle right now, I’m here for you.” And sometimes, yeah, that’s all I can handle.

I wouldn’t want every game experience to be the interactive equivalent of a B-movie… but I’m glad that such games exist, to fill the same sort of hole. Sometimes you just don’t want to have to pay that much attention to what you’re doing, and it’s those times that mediocre games are here to fill.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go destroy another three million, six hundred and twelve thousand, three hundred and fifty-five giant ants before they take over the planet.

Pew pew.

5 thoughts on “The pleasures of mediocrity”

  1. I started with EDF on Earth Defense Force 3 “2017 ” back on the Xbox360, and I’ve been hooked on the series ever since for the reasons you mentioned. The games really shouldn’t be as fun as they are, but whatever numerous technical shortcomings they have, they make up for them, and then some, on being fun to play.

    I finished EDF5 recently and it’s better in the sense that they made QoL improvements to make some of the more tedious stuff in 4.1 less tedious. There are slight, but significant changes to the classes too. I usually play as Wing Diver, and the mechanics of how a lot of the weapons work have changed. She also has a dash function now. Some of the new enemies are fun to fight as well. Hard to go back to 4.1 after it.

    EDF Iron Rain, I haven’t been too keen on since it looks to mimic the style of Insect Armageddon, which is make it more suited to the tastes of a western “AA/AAA” game audience. To me, that doesn’t work as well for a game like EDF. The brazen disregard the devs have for anything resembling high production standards in order to focus on pure gameplay is part of the charm.

    Dynasty Warriors never really grabbed me either. My attempts have come from playing the Fist of the North Star Musou game and getting Fire Emblem Warriors (which I have yet to start).

    1. I’m actually looking forward to playing EDF5 after this one. We beat 4.1 in multiplayer tonight… but it was on Easy. Time to crank up the difficulty and get better weapons and armor to match.

      I’m definitely skeptical of Iron Rain, but it is being done by Yuke’s rather than an actual Western developer, so it has a better chance of not being a total mess.

      I’m currently playing Dragon Quest Heroes off and on; it’s fine, I suppose? And the DQ elements add a lot of charm. But it’s still pretty boring compared to EDF.

  2. Paul got me started on EDF a few years ago. I always have fun when I put it on but I don’t think I’ve ever made it to the final stages of any of the series.

    Competently executed but not excellent is underrated.

    There is also a context component. I’ve started watching Cheers in the background while playing Switch. It is/was an excellent show but is much less dense and requires less attention to be paid to it than currently running shows. For example, I couldn’t put The Good Place or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on in the background without missing a bunch of subtle background references and jokes.

    1. Yeah; I watched the first couple of seasons of Cheers (basically until Diane left) several years ago. It held up surprisingly well–the show’s still quite funny, which is not exactly a given with old stuff–but the pace is definitely much, much lower than modern television.

      Older stuff is an even bigger gap; think about the difference between an episode of, say, Gunsmoke, versus something like The X-Files in terms of how much “stuff” you need to have in the back of your head. Then take The Wire or A Game of Thrones.

      Reality TV may be terrible, but modern drama is honestly a bit insane in terms of complexity. My mom’s never quite caught up; she likes to watch it all but often wants to rewatch the previous season before seeing the new one. And I get that.

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