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The joy of guilty pleasures: why I've played the same broken game for nine years

The joy of guilty pleasures: why I've played the same broken game for nine years

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Whenever I have a cold, I like to watch The Sandlot. The 1993 comedy about the baseball-bonded boys of San Fernando is not the greatest movie. The plot is episodic, chasing new conflicts from scene to scene, and the film’s period, the summer of 1962, is more naively constructed than Main Street in Disneyland. You won’t find it on many top 100 lists. But whenever I’m prone on the couch and would rather not think or be challenged or even keep my eyes open, The Sandlot is my first choice. Which is to say, I’ve watched The Sandlot more than any other movie by a multiple of 10.

I suspect most people have, like me, made an emotional crutch from some sappy work of middle-of-the-road art. Surely most of us have movies, books, albums, and video games that act like whiskey on the never-ending gum pain we call life. And I’ll go a step further and guess that the entertainment that brings us the most joy, if not existential relief, is rarely the entertainment we label the best.

Is our favorite movie the best movie?

By why? Why is the entertainment I return to most so rarely the stuff I’d call a masterpiece?I’ve spent the slow summer months cataloging my sick day favorites, hoping when I see them all in one place their powers will combine for some sort of epiphany. For books, a dog-eared copy of Ray Bradbury’s pulpy short collection October Country has assumed permanent residency on my bedside table, and the Charlie Brown Christmas album never makes it more than five feet from my record player — even in July. My go-to feel-good video games have always been trickier to pin. Because of my job, I struggle to remain focused on any one game too long, but I think I’ve finally come to the obvious conclusion with Earth Defense Force.

Earth Defense Force 4.1

The Earth Defense Force games have long been my preferred video game comfort food. But only now am I recognizing them as such. Each sequel is a tiny variation on the original recipe: a human military operation battles giant bugs, UFOS, and robots in cities, on beaches, and across countrysides. Soldiers wield comically overpowered weapons that are just as likely to bring down office buildings and homes as they are to kill a few baddies. EDF’s carefree violence and destruction — half the fun is collateral damage, bringing down entire metropolitan centers in pursuit of alien extermination — is saved by the fact that innocent civilians in the streets can’t be killed by a skyscraper falling on their head, let alone by your poorly aimed rocket launcher. For a game about the end of the world, the stakes never feel higher than a rerun of Friends.

The low-stakes apocalypse

Since 2007’s Earth Defense Force 2017, I’ve been battling ants the size of buses and robots with the wingspan of a Boeing with more consistency than any other virtual goons. Whenever I’ve written about my love of the series, though, I’ve cushioned my opinion with a litany of buts: the game is glitchy and slow to load, repetitive and prone to crash, ugly, and very ugly. For a game I love more than most, it’s been important that I let you know that I know it’s imperfect.

At this point my complaints are irrelevant to my enjoyment, and I have the receipts. While the game has hardly changed in nine years and a handful of semi-sequels, I’ve still bought five different iterations (including dropping $100 to import a minor update from Japan). I wanted to play on long flights, so I downloaded the game onto my PlayStation Vita. When Earth Defense Force 2025 added a couple characters, I imported my copy for PS3, then a year or so later repurchased the slightly prettier update for PS4, and this month I paid for the third time to get a PC port of the game, because I hear it loads slightly faster. As I repeat the cycle, I’m unsure if I want the game or if I want the experience of buying the game again for the first time — similar to how as a child, I loved the act of opening a birthday present as much as I loved the present itself. But I think that’s a side effect of a deep-rooted fandom of an object: the desire to ritualize and repeat the first and thereby most intense experience.

Earth Defense Force 4.1

No, I think what I love about Earth Defense Force — and what I adore about all of my sick day favorites — speaks to some deep, psychological meaning I both can’t quite uncover, let alone expose to the world. The best criticism I can muster about my particular guilty pleasures is that they share a rampant nostalgia for light, old-fashioned stories with binary heroes and villains, emotional manipulation, and ultimately a security blanket-like sense of safety.

Our favorite entertainment has the power of a security blanket

Maybe there's something universal to that. Consider how millions of us manage to watch the same not bad, but hardly fantastic Christmas movies every December. In one of the most stressful weeks of the year, TBS runs a marathon of A Christmas Story, a film so narratively disjointed, you can watch it as 10-minute chunks in a random order as it reruns through the day, and still have a great, if not superior, experience. Why is that?

Do our guilty pleasures more truthfully define us than our Top 10 lists? It’s hardly a secret that we, as entertainment junkies, pen and share our list of favorites not merely as objective analysis, but as some demonstration of our own critical acumen. If a Top 10 list is a trophy display of big accomplishments, than the guilty pleasure is the lucky rabbit’s foot hidden in our desk drawer.

For years I’ve apologize for my guilty pleasures, but I think that’s because I couldn’t and still struggle to vocalize why it is I love them. This is why I suspect I return to EDF and Sandlot on sick days and rainy weekends: there’s a deposit of joy buried deep within them that I haven’t mined. I don’t want to deprive the guilty pleasure of whatever radioactive force that fills me with happiness; rather, when I’m feeling blue, I just want to be near that energy.

Earth Defense Force 4.1 The Shadow of New Despair is now available on PC.