[In the latest in a series of
Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice
and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games, we examine Eugene Jarvis' devious but delightful 1980 arcade game Defender and its descendants. Previously in this
'bonus material' series: Elite, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Pinball Construction
Set, Pong, Rogue and Spacewar!.]
When Eugene Jarvis was developing the now-classic
arcade game Defender for top pinball machine manufacturer Williams
Electronics, he admits that the company's management was skeptical.
Defender's response at the November
1980 Amusement & Music Operators Association (AMOA) trade show was
indifferent at best. "They were afraid of this game," said Jarvis,
reminiscing on the game's debut. "I guess it was all the buttons."
Unlike most games of the era, which featured at most a few
buttons and a controller, Defender offered five buttons along with a
joystick to perform the game's esoteric actions.
its extraordinary difficulty, which was arguably balanced by the depth of the
gameplay and strong audio-visuals, Defender became a smash hit for
It quickly established both the company and Jarvis as players in the
rapidly expanding arcade game industry. The relationship led to another hugely
influential classic just two years later, Robotron: 2084, which is detailed in another bonus chapter.
of the attract screen from the arcade version of Defender.
August 2007 article, John Harris called Defender the "hardest
significant game there is," remarking that such a demanding game seems "unthinkable"
today. Although there are plenty of challenges in today's videogames, few
require the intense coordination and Zen-like concentration necessary to
achieve a high score in Defender.
screenshot showing Defender in
from Atari's Battlezone, which is
another classic game from 1980 that features a useful scanner for detecting
enemies off screen.
The primary goal of Defender is for the player to
pilot the titular spaceship and prevent stranded Humanoids from getting
abducted by aliens. These alien enemies include the Lander, Mutant, Bomber,
Pod, Baiter, and Swarmer. Keeping the Humanoids safe and rescuing them from
aliens was a formidable task to say the least.
The Defender was
armed only with a relatively slow-to-fire, edge-of-screen-length laser, a
limited number of screen-clearing smart bombs, and an unrestrained ability to
randomly disappear into hyperspace -- perhaps reappearing to worse danger or
even immediate destruction. Fortunately, tracking the Humanoids was simplified
with an innovative scanner or "minimap" shown at the top of the
screen, as well as a distinctive sound effect that played whenever a Humanoid
was in danger.
The minimap, which became a common feature in other games,
added a cohesive quality to the scrolling, multiscreen playfield. It was then
up to the player to race to the Lander's location before it reached the top of
the screen and destroy it without killing the Humanoid. If a Lander were
successfully dispatched, the Humanoid would begin to fall, potentially to its
death if the fall was great enough.
In that case, the Humanoid would go "splat"
if the player could not catch it mid-fall. The player could then fly with the
rescued Humanoid under the Defender until one or the other was blasted by an
enemy or the Humanoid was dropped off safely at the bottom of the screen, where
it would resume walking with no apparent destination. If a Humanoid was
successfully abducted, it would transform into a crazed Mutant, presenting an
even more fearsome enemy to deal with.
If all the Humanoids were captured, the planet exploded and
turned all the Landers into Mutants, creating a scenario that all but the best
players were unable to survive for more than a few seconds. Despite the amazing
difficulty, it is this "catch and rescue" play mechanic that stands
as one of Defender's best features and was mimicked in some of the
better games it later inspired.
screenshot from Defender showing a
Lander flying upwards with a captured Humanoid.
Affectionately dubbed SHMUP (shmup) by some enthusiasts.
 From the
multimedia retrospective on Williams
Arcade Classics (Midway, 1995; PC, Sony PlayStation, and others).
 Defender's development was completed
with the help of Larry DeMar, Sam Dicker, and Paul Dussault. Demar would also
work with Jarvis on Robotron: 2084.