Defender has been described as ‘quite possibly, the hardest significant game there is’ by people who know about these things. It is also the most referenced in popular culture, appearing as the subject of part six of our Pac Man Fever odyssey, the Weirdies’ recent ‘I Wanna Play Defender’, ‘Defender Contender’ by, apparantly, R. Cade and the Video Victims, and getting a mention on the Beastie Boys’ ‘Body Movin’ with the line ‘…and if you play Defender I could be your hyperspace’. This last point bears further explanation. Hitting hyperspace is a usually a guarantee of a fairly safe, if a bit haphazard, safety net, as we saw previously in Asteroids. However, Defender’s standard gameplay is so barking mad that it’s already like being trapped in some random electronic maelstrom. Nonetheless, so iconic is Defender that it is the only video game to feature on a postage stamp, and it’s ringtone package is the internet’s most frequently dowloaded non-musical fellow passenger annoyer. Welcome, then, to to a baffling world of instant death and mutant madness, of baiters and pods and swarmers, of one joysticks flanked by a battery of buttons, all screaming for attention. Welcome to Defender.
In common with many classic games – indeed, classics of any genre – Defender had a difficult birth. Eugene Jarvis was an unknown designers in a software house better known for making pinball machines – Williams – and was charged with writing the game on an exciting named but unfortunately useless Motorola Excorcisor, which he later described as ‘the most bloated and overpriced computer ever created’. Undaunted, Jarvis battled on, and inch by inch the game emerged, acquiring its essential componants – the horizontally scrolling screen, mountain range landscape and basic player premise – ie, kill all the aliens.
For all Jarvis’ wrestling with bloated computers though, the initial build produced an end result that was somewhat hum-drum and indistinct. The hum-drumness stopped abrubtly with the addition of a new enemy – Baiters – which appeared when the player was deemed to have taken too long on any particular level. Baiters were slippery characters, difficult to hit as they were all skinny, and with a habit of flying straight at the player firing volleys of highly accurate missiles. Baiters added a great deal of urgency to proceedings, but the game still required a hook. This came to Jarvis as he was falling asleep one evening after a long day swearing at the Excorcisor. He found himself in a dream where Landers – the primary enemy craft in Defender – were capturing and assimilating human beings. This lent the games’ central narrative dynamic a novel twist. If a Lander captured and assimilated a human, the Mutant that was created was a formidable adversary. However, if a Mutant was hit, it would release the human who would fall to earth, perishing if the drop was too severe. By using excellent flying skills, the player could rescue the doubtless highly disoriented human and land them safely, scoring generous bonus points and preserving the end of screen bonus.
Along with Landers and Baiters and Mutants, the baddie compliment was made up with Bombers, which flew about the place laying mines for the player to crash into, and Pods. Pods looked innocuous enough, like a gently drifing chest of drawers. When hit, however, they released nine Swarmers, which were difficult to hit, a bit mental, and would effectively mob the player unless he produced some very sharp shooting indeed.
With the game finally ready to roll, Defender debuted at the trade fairs around the US in 1980. Understandably, considering that the controls are laid out in such a way as to induce cramp in the left hand of any player making a decent go of things, it was largely snubbed as too hard and too intimidating by show goers. Williams did not help themselves by accidentally soldering the ROM chips – essentially, the game’s brain – upside down, which spectacularly burnt them out as soon as the game was turned on. What the show goers failed to realise was that, difficult as it was, Defender was extremely exciting. The unique sound effects stem from Williams’ pinballing heritage, which supplied a broad palette of ready made screeches and blasts and whines. It’s a good looking game, too, with rich colours and spectacular explosions pushing the internal processors to the very limit. In fact, so much stuff was often going on on-screen that the game would slow significantly, aiding the player, and then suddenly jump back to normal speed, usually killing him.
Nearly thirty years later, Defender retains an enduring appeal and kudos, and this is a tribute to Jarvis’ contribution to the arcade gaming gene pool. As you might expect, Defender has spawned an array of clones and imitations, including the unfortunate 2002 Game Boy Advance emulation, described by an IGN reviewer as ‘…the worst classic remake since Atari botched Pac Man’. Whatever. This game is a classic among classics. You owe it to yourself to get hold of an emulated copy, or at least download the ringtones. Personally, I’ve done both.