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The History of Defender: The Joys of Difficult Games
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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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