Let’s talk about games preservation and the defender of the universe.
This is Voltron
Today’s subject is Voltron: Defender of the Universe for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It is a Voltron title released five years before the critically praised Netflix Voltron “revival” of 2016. Theoretically, this Voltron experience was produced to promote the failed Voltron “sequel” Voltron Force, which was released the same year. But, to be absolutely clear, Voltron: Defender of the Universe is wholly based on the original Voltron series, and does not feature any “next generation” nonsense or a Sven that is old and grizzly from his stay at space hospital. This is the story of Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and whoever is piloting Blue Lion this week as they attempt to repel an army of purple people punishers with the occasional skull tank. There are robeasts. There are evil witches. And there are three main levels, so you will form Blazing Sword three times.
And if you are curious “how it plays”, it is primarily a twin stick shooter. There are multiplayer options available, but, by and large, you are looking at three stages of solo stick shootin’ mooks, a boss, and then forming Voltron to Simon Says until a robeast is slain. Repeat three times, and you have successfully defended the universe in perpetuity. There are two space stages that could be mistaken for lion-based Gradius, and the rest is running around random environments (and, for the record, we have “grass planet”, “desert planet”, and the finale, “Bowser planet”). Oh! And you have your choice of five lions, all with different stats (and three different-sized models between them). This is definitely Voltron.
You Cannot Buy Voltron
Unfortunately, you’re just going to have to take my word on all this information, as you cannot purchase Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Obviously, V:DotU is a licensed videogame, and, at some point Wikipedia fails to date, that license expired. As a result, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions are no longer available. There never was a PC release, so that is right out; and we never saw a physical release for this bite-sized adventure that only includes three worlds. Additionally, even if you do still have the game available, the DLC has been delisted, too. So if you missed that “survival mode” that was released six months after the initial availability, you are out of luck. And, as the extra special poison cherry on top, the Playstation 3 storefront as a whole has been “retired” to the point that it requires bizarre workarounds simply to access your own content (“I have to change my password now? Again?”), so you better hope your PS3 hard drive stays safe if you want future Voltron times. And going to go ahead and assume (but literally no way to confirm) the latest Xbox models do not carry this title forward…
In short, if you want to play Voltron: Defender of the Universe, and you didn’t buy it eleven years ago, you are just as damned as Medusa Anga (Robeast #27, true believers).
Is Voltron Worth Saving?
Let’s be clear on one important note: Voltron: Defender of the Universe was made almost exclusively for fans of a series that had ended over 25 years before the game’s release. Give or take the opening narration that accompanies every boot (just like it started every episode of the original series), there is no real explanation of what is happening here, or how the characters relate to what is happening on the screen. There are five lions! They turn into a giant robot man! Why? Who the hell knows! The antagonists don’t seem friendly with each other, but no explanation is given for why they are attacking, or why their vehicles look like things that could be easily scaled down to fit comfortably into a child’s hands. And there are random cut-ins from members of the Voltron Force, and… who are these people? Why does the blue one keep changing? Why does the green one sound so weird? And then the game ends by introducing another Voltron force? Is there the slightest bit of context for that narrative swerve? Nope!
Everything significant about Voltron: DotU was lifted wholesale from the original Voltron English dub. Animated scenes are marginally upscaled copies of the original (that look to be slightly above Sega CD quality), and all sound bites feature “the original voice actors” because they were lifted from the original dub tracks. Apparently Peter Cullen recorded a few new lines as the narrator, but you’d be forgiven if you assumed all those lines about “Voltron defeated Zarkon” were direct copy ‘n paste jobs. And the three “episodes” of the game are straight up Voltron episodes (specifically the opening “miniseries” with Part 4 featured, Episode 44 Voltron vs. Voltron, and Episode 50 the nigh finale of Zarkon Becomes a Robeast) that do no favors to the narration by skipping a solid fifty episodes of plot. In short, if you came into this franchise blind, Voltron: Defender of the Universe makes absolutely no attempt to welcome a new audience.
Meanwhile, if you were already a fan of Voltron, this is mana from heaven. Hearing the original voices, fighting those familiar playsets and toys, and even just hearing “Voltron will be right back after these messages” every time you pause is amazing. At release, it had been a quarter of a century since Voltron was new on the airwaves, and, even if this was a rehash of familiar plots, this game was a love letter to the original Voltron English release that was important to a number of childhoods (chief among them mine, because I am important [to me]). Voltron: Defender of the Universe was released at a time when Voltron awareness was at an all-time low, and it was the best thing to come out of Voltron in a long while (brother, if you talk about Voltron: The Third Dimension in this house, I will show you the door).
But, like this game, the world of 2011 is no more. Voltron is now a known property, no longer relegated to obscure DVD collections and “l33t rips”, but available immediately in its entirety on Netflix. And the new Voltron series brought with it years of new Voltron content and action figures. While the fervor has died down since the Netflix series ended, Voltron is now more available than ever, and a super fan does not need a PS3 game for their fix. Voltron has moved on, so maybe the loss of one random game isn’t a big deal. Newbies would get nothing out of the game, and the real fans have an embarrassment of riches to keep them company. The world doesn’t need Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
The Universe needs Voltron
What is the difference between this videogame and all the other Voltron media now freely available? Well, like it says in that very question, Votron: Defender of the Universe is a videogame. Specifically, it is a videogame from the early days of downloadable titles. And that is an entire branch of videogame history that people seem to ignore. V:DotU is a twin-stick shooter! Like Geometry Wars! Remember Geometry Wars? Everyone was playing it for a solid six months. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was once the single most downloaded game on the Xbox 360. But you will find more people that talk about its contemporaries of Resident Evil 4, Psychonauts, or God of War before they mention the little shooter that could. And by the time you get to 2011, you have Voltron competing against the likes of Batman: Arkham City, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and Portal 2. Does V:DotU deserve to be spoken of in the same breathless tones as a game that revolutionized singing robots for the second time? No, but it would be nice if someone remembered it happened.
Much like its parent series, Voltron: Defender of the Universe is a product of its time. The “fan service” that is continually on display was a naked attempt to appeal to the demographic that was just then grown up enough to max out their credit cards on nostalgic crap. The “twin stick” gameplay is something literally anyone could master, so it could bring in Voltron fans without requiring JRPG or fighting game-style expertise. And, yes, it was a “budget” downloadable title in a time when that kind of thing was viable for licensed products. If it was successful, they could produce enough DLC to expand into a “full” game. If it dropped like a wet thud (which is closer to the reality of what happened), it would still be a complete experience well worth ten bucks worth of Xbox points. In short, V:DotU had clear goals and an audience, and it was not the only of its kind in 2011.
But now that portion of videogame history seems to be stricken from the record. Much in the same way that the original Japanese Beast King GoLion is forgotten in a sea of other mecha anime in its native land, Voltron: Defender of the Universe for the PS3 is forgotten here. It is another in an ocean of downloadable twin stick shooters from the era. And that era in its entirety? It has been ignored for the AAA titles (and their copycats) of the age. Skyward Sword just received a rerelease despite its difficult to emulate controls, Portal 2 has never not been available on your computer, and even Saints Row: The Third was a comparatively modest hit that somehow has representation to this very day. And never mind that this was the same year both Dark Souls and Minecraft were released! Ain’t nobody talkin’ ‘bout the latest game being a Voltron: Defender of the Universe-borne-like.
So, yes, the world needs Voltron: Defender of the Universe because the world needs its history. We need the failure games. We need the licensed games. We need the ability to experience these games that are lost in legal limbo, because watching a youtube let’s play or reading about it on a blog is simply not the same. We need to play these lost games, and live in a world where they are available. We need to learn from our collective past, and not simply sweep history under the rug. Now, more than ever, we need a defender of the universe, even if that defender failed to make an impact on said universe.
Voltron: Defender of the Universe, like all games of its ilk, deserves a chance to be played. And if you need anyone to defend this defender? Then I’ll form the head.
FGC #631 Voltron: Defender of the Universe
- System: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. You know, if you got them when they were available…
- Number of players: I have no idea. Seriously! I know there are at least two players available, but it is possible they jacked that up to the whole five with online play. I really don’t know!
- Favorite Voltron Lion: Green has always been my go-to, but his nimble movements and shooting exist at the cost of crappy armor, and the later stages require a little more durability. So with that in mind, Black Lion seems to win as the general allrounder that can survive long enough to put down the forces of the Drule Empire. Sorry, Pidge, I want to see you live through this fight.
- So whatcha got: If you are asking what Voltron: DotU has gameplay wise over its twin stick competitors, I point to “survival mode”, wherein you are punted out of your lion and forced to survive on foot if your HP drops to zero. It takes ten whole seconds for a Voltron lion to repair itself, so ducking and avoiding heavy artillery is a must if you want to literally save a lost life and hop back into your vehicle for an offensive. On earlier levels, this is basically a ticket to infinite lives; on later levels, it is survival mode in every sense of the word. And it’s fun!
- Exploitable: You receive bonus points for surviving Survival Mode. I do not know if there is an upper limit to the number of times you will receive points for surviving, but it sure seems like a ticket to a max score would be to repeatedly crash your lion, and then “survive” over and over again. What are the million point strats for Voltron?
- Favorite Level: Surprising no one, I prefer the two autoscrolling space stages. They may nix Survival Mode (sorry, no spacesuits for Voltron Force), but the simple progression of floating through space and obliterating anything in your path is ideal for a twin stick lion shooter. And the latter space stage even gets a cameo from Castle of Lions floating around! Always good!
- Form Blazing Sword: All Voltron fights are “press X at the right time” style affairs, not unlike getting a critical in Shadow Hearts. This is… a choice. It is presented with a GUI not unlike a fighting game, though, and now I am just imagining a Mech on Monster style fighting game. Or has that been done before?
- Did you know? In the original Voltron (and thus, this game), Pidge was voiced by Neil Ross, the same man that voiced Keith. Pidge basically had such a bizarre voice because there were like six people voicing dozens of people on the show, and you have got to keep everybody separate somehow. See also: Inhumanoids, where Neil Ross was responsible for voicing everyone from Herc Armstrong to Ronald Reagan. And he was Green Goblin on the 1994 Spider-Man animated series! So at least he stuck to a good color.
- Would I play again: Some stages in Voltron: Defender of the Universe are downright… relaxing? Basic run and shoot gameplay that ain’t too bad on a Saturday afternoon. I am unlikely to play the whole thing from top to bottom again, but it is likely on the replay list for individual levels.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pac-Land! The one where Pac-Man is running around on legs for some reason. Please look forward to it!