Hop in your high-powered, weaponized spaceship and explore an unknown planet, fighting scores of alien foes and rescuing stranded astronauts. It may not sound like a revolutionary concept now, but in 1980, Defender was a landmark title for Williams Entertainment and the video game industry as a whole!
Not only was Defender the first original video game produced by Williams, it was now-legend Eugene Jarvis’ first video game creation. Jarvis had previously worked on pinball programming, and was chosen to head development of this title with a lot of creative freedom.
Defender is a side-scrolling shooter with a “wrap-around” level design, a neat trick for increasing the size of the game world with limited resources, as you can fly to the left or right off-screen and enter new areas of the level. Defender’s controls were fairly advanced for the time, with a joystick to move left/right and up/down, a button to control the thrust of your ship, a standard fire and a “smart bomb” attack, an unpredictable “hyperspace” warp, and last but not least… reverse! Once you take stock of the control panel, you must begin protecting your human allies from alien abduction. If they’re abducted by a ship and you don’t recover them in time (be careful not to let them fall to their doom!), they’ll return as deadly mutants and attack your ship. When you rescue a human, drop him off on the surface for bonus points, and keep firing at enemies. Not only are you tasked with protecting the humans, you need to wipe out the aliens to advance to the next level. Check the “scanner” at the top of the screen to track enemies. Move quickly and strategically – sometimes reverse is your best friend, especially against marauding mutants – and save your smart bombs for special occasions!
Featuring higher-res graphics than other games of its era, Defender also featured memorable audio effects with sizzling laser sounds and great explosions along with a stark, stylized space landscape and gameplay that really does feel like the intended combination of previous arcade hits Asteroids and Space Invaders. Defender is a very challenging game, but like Eugene Jarvis’ later creation Robotron, it masters that “just one more quarter” feeling that keeps you coming back for more, despite the difficulty. Upon its release, Defender drew crowds and more than a few coins, reportedly outperforming Pac-Man in 1981. Credited as the first horizontally-scrolling side-shooter, Defender’s impact was not only felt financially at Williams, it rippled through the entire video game world, leading to a popular sequel called Stargate and inspiring games like Choplifter. Jarvis would of course go on to create even more classic games (like Smash TV) and currently heads Raw Thrills Entertainment, one of the few companies producing successful modern arcade games.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan that’s eagerly awaited the return of this classic or you’re a new recruit who’s never played the game, you owe it to yourself to take on the alien forces of Defender at Ground Kontrol!