While it lacks the pop culture legacy of Pac-Man
, Donkey Kong
and Space Invaders
, the first game created by Eugene Jarvis
(and the second video game by Williams Electronics
), is one of the most popular and most relevant video games of the arcade era.
The game's premise is simple: Defend a planet, and its 10 humanoid inhabitants, from abduction by hostile alien spaceships. The difficulty is in the implementation: Defender
presents the player with a dizzying array of controls. The player's ship is controlled with an up-down stick, a thrust button, a fire button, a reverse button to change direction, a smart bomb button that kills all enemies on screen, and an Asteroids
-style hyperspace button. And you have to keep your eye on a scanner
that tracks out-of-range enemies.
When the game debuted at the AMOA (Amusement Machine Operators of America) trade show in 1980 — which it almost didn't, due to the ROMs being loaded the wrong way — visitors were afraid to go near its complex control panel. Observers decreed that Defender
would fail in the arcades. These same observers thought Pac-Man
was also doomed to failure, for being too repetitive. (The critics' darling? Rally X
's revolutionary side scrolling, cutting-edge 16-color graphics, bold cabinet, fast action, and strong sci-fi storyline compelled arcade patrons to try their hand at its intimidating control panel. It took a while, but gamers eventually warmed to the difficult controls, and achieved scores the game's creators didn't think were humanly possible.
Why is Defender
historically relevant? Its success proved that even casual gamers could handle complexity. Without Defender
, it would have been risky for a company to release an arcade game that challenged the player to manage a joystick and six buttons... which didn't happen again until the first Street Fighter
game, seven years later.
The game also received an esoteric sequel, Stargate
(AKA Defender II
nowadays), and a Spiritual Successor
called Strike Force
, as well as a 3-D re-imagining from the early 2000's.
This game provides examples of:
- A.I. Breaker: The Mutant Reverse Line.
- Alien Invasion
- Asteroids Monster: Swarmer pods.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The scanner.
- Difficulty Spike: After only the first level, the game takes a disproportionate leap in difficulty. Somewhat justified, since it was an arcade game, and it needed to be over at some point so other people could play.
- The Determinator: Mutants and Swarmers.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: If all 10 of your humanoids die, your planet explodes, and the game becomes much more difficult — all the enemy units that would otherwise be relatively docile Landers are instead the much more ornery Mutants. (If you can survive to an attack wave that's divisible by 5, your planet is restored.)
- Enemy Detecting Radar
- Fate Worse than Death: For the humans, being converted into a Mutant.
- The Golden Age of Video Games: This game was one of its biggest stars, especially among the hard core.
- I Know Mortal Kombat: Joystik magazine reported, apparently seriously, that the U.S. Air Force was using Defender machines to help train its pilots.
- Nintendo Hard: Not only is Defender insanely difficult for a first-time player, but after its success, design team Vid Kidz (Eugene Jarvis and Larry De Mar) adopted the attitude that a game should "kick the player's ass" — their words — the first time he tries to play it. They applied this philosophy to Robotron: 2084, a classic in its own right.
- Stargate was even harder (half a dozen new enemies, the namesake in-game gate, and you get another button (inviso) to mind. The game's chapter subtitle in one of the early guide books was "More difficult than flying a 747".
- Urban legend has it that when the team was working on Stargate, one of the prototype machines was placed in an arcade which - unbeknownst to the designers - was the home of a Defender champion. So they kept cranking up the difficulty until it could kick his ass.
- Not the Fall That Kills You: Shoot an alien abducting a human and the abductee falls to his death unless you catch him with your ship (or the fall is short enough).
- Planet Looters: With humans as the resource. If a Lander successfully abducts one, it becomes a dangerous Mutant ship.
- Incidentally, the humans were an afterthought. Earlier versions of the game lacked them, but Jarvis felt that something was missing. Then he realized that the title was meaningless, because there was nothing to defend...
- Pinball Spinoff: Appropriately enough, Williams Electronics produced a Defender arcade pinball machine.
- Unsurprisingly, Defender itself borrowed heavily from Williams' earlier pinball games. Every sound effect in the game was generated by circuits that had been developed for Williams pinball machines.
- Sensor Suspense: Oh so very much.
- Smart Bomb: Arguably the Trope Namer. Definitely the Ur Example.
- Stalked by the Bell: The game spawns fast and short (thus elusive) Baiters to hunt down lollygagging players.
- Video Game Remake: The 2002 PS2 remake was a flight combat game in the vein of Star Fox, with insect-like Mechanical Lifeforms called the Manti conquering most of the solar system, and the player character, a rookie soldier named Kyoto, leading the fight to take them down.
- Wrap Around: The playing area is larger than the screen, but if you fly in one direction you'll end up back where you started (as if flying around a planet).
- The wrap-around was exploitable by skilled players, because your ship could cross this invisible boundary, but the aliens could not, so if you crossed the wrap-around point, the aliens would all turn around and head the other way.