If a lesser superhero isn’t cutting it as a solo artist, what tends to happen is that they hook up with a supporting cast to form a super team. The idea dates back as far as 1940 when the Justice Society of America made their inaugural appearance in ‘American comic books’ published by DC Comics.
In 1985 exactly that happened to four King Features Syndicate creations who had either fallen out of public consciousness or who were barely there to begin with. All emerging from the 1930s, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and his best friend and partner in crime-fighting, Lothar, pooled their disparate resources to become the ‘Defenders of the Earth’.
“With our new young heroes, proving their worth
Four become eight, defending the Earth.”
This starring cast along with their children – Phantom’s daughter Jedda Walker (who speaks fluent animal and can be seen to change her skin tone and hair colour between episodes), Flash’s son Rick Gordon, Mandrake’s adopted son Kshin, and Lothar’s son L.J. – featured in a 65 episode cartoon series shown on Going Live! in the UK between 1986 and 1987, as well as a four issue comic in 1987 courtesy of Marvel Comics.
“The heroes of the past are here to save the future”
A sci-fi space opera set way way into the future in the year 2015 (if you can imagine that!), the plot revolves around the crew’s efforts to foil Ming the Merciless in his dastardly scheme to use the earth as a staging ground from which to take over the world, having already depleted the resources of his home planet, Mongo. The writers would never get away with that today! It’s for similar reasons that Ming is portrayed as a green-skinned, pointy-eared alien, rather than the white Mongolian he represented in his formative years (as well as in the 1980 Flash Gordon movie starring Max von Sydow as the First Mongoid).
Developed by Enigma Variations and published by Hi-Tec, the eponymous computer game followed in 1990 – it was released for the Atari ST, Amiga, Spectrum, SAM Coupé (a kind of spiritual successor to the Speccy), Amstrad and Commodore 64. Sorry if each of those company names has already triggered alarm bells in your synapses! Probably best to lay them on the table early, walk away swiftly and say no more about them.
On the Amiga side of the equation, coding was undertaken by Mark Mason and Nick Tuckett, music and sound effects by Sean Conran, and graphics by Peter Tattersall. I would have quizzed Mark on his experience working on the game, except he died in 2001 under horrible circumstances aged only 37. Rest in peace.
Note that Mark and Peter aren’t credited in-game since they departed the company in 1989 towards the end of the project to found Twilight (responsible for Alfred Chicken, WWF WrestleMania, Video Kid and Mega Twins), while Nick – also known for working on The Lost Patrol and One Step Beyond – was subsequently assigned to complete the task.
The structure and gameplay of the 8-bit versions is extremely similar, while the presentation is diluted in accordance with the various system’s capabilities as you’d expect. One significant difference is to be found in the scrolling mechanic – the 8-bit versions all make use of flick screen scrolling, whereas the Amiga’s is rolling and smooth.
None of them exactly rocketed the plaudits into orbit. Crash awarded the Speccy port a mediocre 76% score, while C&VG echoed their sentiments precisely where the Amiga edition is concerned. Ironically, Sam Coupé Scrapbook shaved off a couple of percentage points when reviewing what should have been an upgrade to the Sinclair title.
Amstrad Action weren’t overly impressed either, as reflected by their 61% adjudication. Zzap!, The Games Machine and Amiga Power added insult to injury with double 58% and 33% verdicts respectively.
Met with an equally underwhelming reception was the C64 port. Zzap! harpooned it (twice as bad as a lampoon!) with a pitiful 43% bottom line, whereas The Games Machine really took in the bunting with their 36% assessment.
Nonetheless, the quartet of superhero misfits weren’t phased by the scathing heat – they do operate from within a volcano HQ after all!
Anaemic as the plot is, it’s only a slight twist on that of the cartoon’s general arc. Ming has kidnapped the protagonist’s kids and is holding them captive deep within his medieval-decor fortress. If you dare attempt to foil his plans to infiltrate earth and establish himself as the supreme ruler of the world he has threatened to do them in. Charming! Anyone would think he’s some kind of comic book super villain.
Being so obedient and pliable you all go home and put your feet up with the paper and a steaming cup of cocoa. Game over, roll credits.
Of course not, silly me. You play as the square-jawed leader of the DoE, Flash Gordon, in a side-scrolling platform game, armed with your puny ray gun and your friends on speed dial. The reason Flash decides to go it alone – as explained in the manual – is that relying on his solo stealth he would stand a better chance of evading Ming’s intruder defence system. Nothing at all to do with the complications of animating five separate sprites and switching focus between them at will then.
While you don’t control the rest of the team directly, you can call upon their services via the Dynak-X AI adviser (powered by a crystal harbouring the ghost of Rick’s deceased mother, who was murdered by Ming!) by pressing the spacebar whenever the situation demands their skills. For instance, Mandrake can conjure bridges to plug impassable chasms, and “by jungle law” The Phantom aka “the ghost who walks” kicks doors in by calling “forth the power of ten tigers”, which is handy to say the least.
“His strength is a legend, his skills conquer all! Armed with his power, we never will fall!”
Lothar goes about breaking and entering in a slightly different, less crashy-smashy manner – by picking locks, while Kshin’s pet Zuffoid, Zuffy, aids the cause disabling force field barriers by manipulating computer terminals.
Zuffy is an extraterrestrial initially found by Rick Gordon on the planet Mongo, and adopted by Kshin. He’s a kind of cutesy, purple, mop-haired mogwai Capuchin monkey, lacking communication skills aside from emitting distinctly Gizmo-y squeaks and murmurs.
That’s one thing the game excels at – capturing the – I won’t say essence – but the core components and characters from the show. An authentic rendition of Stan Lee’s synth metal theme tune is played over the opening title sequence, there are some Flashy speech samples, and all the main adversaries are present and correct.
There’s the enslaved, frost-coated earthlings (or are they the Blue Man Group?!), Ice Robots with arms descending directly from their heads, Ming’s pet serpent, Mongor, and his android AI octopus adviser, Octon. Oh, and a caged Bogglin.
Clinical psychology consultants, Richard J. Crowley and Joyce C. Mills can’t be seen anywhere in-game, though may be with us in spirit. Yes, like ThunderCats, Defenders of the Earth’s staff included a morality inspector, or two.
Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Considering it’s supposed to be a platform game, there’s a discordant dearth of platforms; throughout the entire game you’re rooted to the ground plane.
What little gameplay there is comprises running left and right with autofire locked permanently in the on position. You’ll be lost without this since the endless parade of freaky foes is relentless. They hit you like the dumb coin-op waves of yesteryear, rallied by a single directive – shoot Forest shoot!
You begin with four energy shield packs (lives essentially), though can collect more by jumping into health-giving lighting icons. Weapon upgrades can be exploited in the same way – the ballistics all travel through the same predictably horizontal trajectory, though some make more of an impact than others.
Some basic, awkwardly paced parallax scrolling and bargain basement animation are in effect. You’ll also find a cyanide dispenser on the dungeon wall should you play for more than five minutes and lose the will to live. That last bit is more of a retrospective feature suggestion than a true proper factoid to be honest.
Guarding your nemesis, Emperor Yellow Peril himself, is a chain-incarcerated goblin who fires blue orbs and rolls skulls at you.
With him out of the way you face Ming’s levitating, bobbing disembodied head. Dodge his six way pellets, stick a few caps in his ugly mug and you’re home free.
Your kids appear from Nowheresville – I take it we can consider them rescued because a couple can be seen punching the air in a kind of ‘I’ve just been rescued, ta very much’ gesture… and with that we’re unceremoniously dumped back at the high score table with which we started this 15 minute legendary space quest.
How does it feel to be the saviour of the universe, slayer of retired Oriental caricature tyrants, paving the way for Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader to fill his boots?
It’s been… emotional.
Silence pathetic snivelling earthling! Speak only when spoken to!
But y-y-you asked.
Enough insolent child!
H-h-how are you still barking or-or-orders when you’re dead your royal Mingliness?
No-one will read this far anyway so who cares about continuity gaffs? We’re running out of time and space so let’s draw a line under this drivel and post it off to Amiga Power.