Released on various computer platforms in the late 1980s, the original Defender of the Crown put you in the role of one of four Saxon knights struggling for control over England. Robin Hood played a supporting role in that game as you led armies, dueled in daring raids, and jousted in tournaments for fame. More than a decade later, Defender of the Crown has been remade for the PC and major consoles. While the themes and even general gameplay mechanics remain largely intact, the legendary Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws (Little John, Wil Scarlett, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian) step prominently into the starring roles. At its core, the new Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown is essentially a turn-based series of minigames. It's deeper and more enjoyable than you might expect from that description, but ultimately it gets somewhat repetitive and can be completed rather quickly and easily.
You play as Robin Hood; as you start the game, you'll be defending Sherwood Forest from the Sheriff of Nottingham. This first portion effectively serves as a tutorial before you take over the entire region of Nottingham and eventually go to war with the lords in the other areas of England. The reason the entire island is in turmoil is that King Richard has been abducted and is up for ransom in Austria. Richard's evil brother, Prince John, has declared Richard dead and seized the throne of England for himself. You are tasked with gathering up enough money to pay Richard's ransom, raising armies of your own to fight for control of each of England's counties, and eventually attacking Prince John and overthrowing him from his seat of power in southern England. At the start of every turn, you'll collect taxes from your counties; the more counties you control, the more money you bring in. The gold you collect you can use to raise armies for your campaign forces or county garrisons, to build strongholds on your provinces, or to partially pay off King Richard's ransom. If Maid Marian is around, you can send her to spy on an enemy province, which will give you a permanent look at the troop strength in that territory. Once you're done reinforcing your army or your defenses, you will have a few basic choices. You can go on a raid in one of your enemy's provinces, you can hold a jousting tournament with Sir Ivanhoe serving as your proxy, or you can attack a neighboring province with your army to bring it under your control. Each choice opens up a different minigame.
There are two different types of raids. The archery raid is basically a shooting-gallery minigame where you fire arrows at passing horsemen and carriages as they travel along a forest road or through a clearing. With every rider you kill, you earn gold from an enemy's coffers and add it to your own. Enemy archers will be part of the train, however, so if you get shot three times, you're forced to retreat, and you won't get any money. Raiding castles opens up a sword-dueling minigame. Here you'll move through various portions of a castle, fighting against footmen and knights until you eventually reach the castle's treasury. The dueling mechanics are pretty simple, and generally you can earn more money from a castle raid than an ambush. The danger is that if you lose all your health while dueling through a castle, you'll be captured and thrown into that castle's dungeon. You'll lose precious turns in the world map as you try to ransom your way out or escape.
Jousting tournaments are an entirely different minigame. There are three rounds in the tournament, and each round is played for higher and higher stakes. The first round affords you extra fame if you win. The second round is a wager for gold with an enemy lord, while the winner of the championship round will actually be able to take a county of his choice from the loser. The actual jousting is separated into two portions. The first part is done much like the sprinting in the old Track & Field arcade game; you pound two buttons alternately as fast as you can to build up the speed of your horse. In the second portion, you get a first-person view from Ivanhoe's perspective as you try to aim your lance at the opponent's torso or head to score points.
The battle command portion of Defender of the Crown is probably the most boring minigame of all, which is disappointing because you'll be spending so much time doing it. Your army consists of five different types of troops: peasants, footmen, knights, archers, and catapults. The battle minigame happens in real time--you use your foot soldiers to basically run interference and attack across the screen as your ranged units fire from the back. You attack and protect down three channels on the battlefield, and the battle continues until one army is totally destroyed or retreats. Though each of the units gains some special abilities as you proceed along the campaign, the interface for doing battle is clunky and limited, and watching a battle unfold is as exciting as seeing chess pieces slide across a board and knock each other over. If you have an excess of one type of unit, there's no way of splitting them into two smaller groups to cover more channels. So in the later stages of the game you're essentially required to have all three types of foot soldiers to cover all the channels, even if you have the money to field an army entirely of the stronger footmen and knights.
If you attack a county with a stronghold built upon it, the battle game is preceded by a catapult sequence, which proves to be far better looking and more interesting than the real battles. Over four turns of siege combat, you'll be able to choose which wall of the castle you'd like to attack and knock down with your catapults. If you fire over the wall you have a chance of killing part of the standing army inside and whittling down its numbers. In the meantime, the enemy archers are firing down on you from the castle and thinning out your attacking force. The more walls you knock down prior to the battle minigame, the easier the ensuing battle will be.
Though Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown intersperses a lot of story-based missions and cutscenes into the campaign, the game ultimately comes down to a lot of repetition. You'll play these minigames over and over again as you try to build up money, take over counties, and advance toward Prince John's castle for the final showdown. On the plus side, the graphics of the cutscenes are decent, and the quality and quantity of voice acting throughout the game are pretty good as well. Unfortunately the game proves to be all too brief--experienced strategy-game players can beat the campaign in one extended sitting of about six or seven hours.
Overall, Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown proves to be a faithful re-creation of its predecessor; the jousting interface and castle raid scenes in particular bear strong resemblance to the original. Certainly, the game is amusing and enjoyable enough to recommend for a quick rental. Unfortunately, though, the strategy genre has advanced greatly over the years, and the additions made to Defender of the Crown still don't allow it to stand up very well to its competitors. Diehard fans of the original should find a lot to like about Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown, but if you don't have any such emotional attachment, there are better alternatives.