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The History of Defender: The Joys of Difficult Games

July 14, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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 side-scrolling shoot-'em-up[1] arcade game Defender for top pinball machine manufacturer Williams Electronics, he admits that the company's management was skeptical.

Furthermore, 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."[2]

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.

Nevertheless, despite its extraordinary difficulty, which was arguably balanced by the depth of the gameplay and strong audio-visuals, Defender became a smash hit for Williams.

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,[3] which is detailed in another bonus chapter.

Screenshot of the attract screen from the arcade version of Defender.

In Gamasutra's 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.

Arcade screenshot showing Defender in action.

Screenshot 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.

Arcade screenshot from Defender showing a Lander flying upwards with a captured Humanoid.

[1] Affectionately dubbed SHMUP (shmup) by some enthusiasts.

[2] From the multimedia retrospective on Williams Arcade Classics (Midway, 1995; PC, Sony PlayStation, and others).

[3] 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.

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Tom Newman
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Defenfer was the game that I always wanted to be good at, but back in the early 1980's my quarter only got me about 1 minute of play time. I did spend a lot of time watching people who actually knew how to play, and even today, I find this game both insanely difficult and still very interesting. Great article!!!

Roberto Alfonso
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I have never been good at Defender, but was pretty good at Choplifter! Not a fan of shmups, but interesting read nonetheless.

Geoff Schardein
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Hmm, Defender is the only Game machine I ever considered trying to find after market to put in the basement. I played it quite well and won a ball cap with my hi score from a local arcade. It was close to 3 million and would have been higher, I had been playing all day on a quarter, but friends told me of a party and it took me almost an hour just to suicide all of my ships to end the game...ah those were the days.

Gregory Kinneman
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Honestly, I would have liked a deeper discussion on the difficulty besides just it was hard and frenzied. Also, a little more info on exactly how the game played would be nice. However, it was a good history lesson on all the ports and sequels.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks, Gregory. You have to remember that these are not meant to be the end-all-be-all on the topic. It should arm you with what you need to know to find out more on what particular area(s) interest you. The main game is used as a launching point for discussion of the genre and games like it in general, just like the rest of the chapters, and is meant as a companion to all of the other chapters and vice-versa. Also, these were originally meant to be included in our book, Vintage Games, but due to space considerations were pulled as bonus content for Gamasutra's use, free to even those who haven't bought the book, so the "article" itself was not spec'd for unlimited space, but for book space, which is far more limited. By the way, a few bonus images for the article are available here for those interested:

zed zeek
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Speaking as someone who used to hang out in arcades from the 'real' start of videogames. ala spaceinvaders

Whilst I enjoyed stargate far more than defender.

Ild have to say defender is the coolest most influential arcade game ever, not space invaders, kong, galaxians, pacman et al.

Zev Youra
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Defender was a little before my time, but I remember wasting way too much time on the awesome (relatively recent) Choplifter derivative "BushFire." It's like choplifter with no normal combat, plus firefighting, and all kinds of fun little things. A great example of addictive, simple gameplay. After some googling, I finally found the site ( ) where it's a free download now... Nostalgia imminent!

Noah Falstein
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I came to Williams not long after Eugene and Larry had left, but their influence stayed with us. When I initially tuned the difficulty on Sinistar, I used Stargate (which I always found incredibly tough to progress through) as a standard. Then the Williams management decreed we had to decrease the average play time and so we had to make it even tougher, something the team always regretted - although from a purely financial viewpoint I think they knew what they were doing. Personally, I think Robotron was Eugene's real masterpiece from a playability standpoint, and it's hard to explain to players today how overwhelming the number of moving objects on the screen was, making use of our new "blitter chip" to radically increase the display speed from Stargate.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks for the great input, Noah. I think difficulty in the classic Williams arcade games is something that is often overlooked (and the reasons behind it), since everyone was too enthralled with the base gameplay to really care that they were getting their butts kicked so ruthlessly. Also, the very next bonus chapter is on Robotron, so great timing!

Giles ODell
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I've always thought it's an interesting contrast between the elegantly simple control scheme in Joust, to (what for me was, at the time) the intimidating complexity of the array of buttons for Defender. Looking at it now, I think perhaps having a button to reverse your direction was a bit much -- that perhaps should have just been controllable with the joystick. But, like all Williams games, it had great style in its art direction and kick-ass sound.

steve roger
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I was a kick ass defender player. Which made me the star of our arcade. That is the value of difficult games. If it is easy nobody becomes accomplished and there isn't a competitive drive built up between players. I recall having people bunched up around me as I payed. I felt like a rock star.:)

zed zeek
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I didnt think stargate was that hard, I used to love the dogfighter stage ~level13, blowing away a group of aliens like that is satisfying, half the reason it was I believe the awesome sound effects, the best of any game, So good in fact they showed up in a few williams games eg robotron :)

Cheers for this article, Its inspired me to have a go at a defender clone(*)

(*)though knowing me will turn out very different

Ive already ditched the thrust == forward control, since its far harder to control, having the reverse button though is good (though of course will leave the option in for someone to play it with thrust)

Noah Falstein
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Giles, John Newcomer who designed Joust was not a good Defender player and was specifically trying to create a game that was more accessible. His battle was for the flap button, which he (correctly!) felt was a big part of the feeling of the game - he had to fight some people who wanted to just make it a 4-way joystick which would have absolutely ruined most of the elegance and appeal.

Matt Barton
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My friend Mark Vergeer recently made a video showing all of the hundreds of Defender clones out there...I didn't realize there were quite so many! And apparently these are just a selection.