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Video Game / Defender

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Defending my planet
Is all that I do
Hostile intruders
Put there by you
A mass invasion
Coming down from the sky
I'll come back fighting
Even after I die!
Manilla Road, "Defender"

While it lacks the pop culture legacy of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, Defender, the first game created by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar (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.)

But Defender'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. 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 in 1987.

The game also received an esoteric sequel, Stargate (AKA Defender II nowadays), a Pinball Spin-Off, a Spiritual Successor for the arcade called Strike Force, a Jaguar remake titled Defender 2000, as well as a 3-D re-imagining in 2002, released for the PS2, Xbox and Gamecube.

This game provides examples of:

  • A.I. Breaker: The Mutant Reverse Line, located at the far left edge of the radar, is a line that Mutants will not pass through, instead turning around to try and get you from behind by traveling the full length of the playfield. There is also a Swarmer Reverse Line, in a different location, just to the left of the player's starting position.
  • Alien Invasion: The basis for the plot. You're defending the planet and its native life against the inveaders.
  • Asteroids Monster: Pods, which break up into a number of fast-moving Swarmers when shot.
  • Autobots, Rock Out!: Plop your quarter in and press start? The game gives you an energetic synth guitar to get your juices flowing.
  • Blind Jump: The hyperspace ability relocates the ship to a random location, and has a small chance to Tele-Frag you upon use.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The scanner.
  • 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, along with all ten humanoids.) If you're looking for a harder game, you can actually shoot your own humanoids to cause the kaboom.
  • Enemy-Detecting Radar: It shows every enemy on it, in color.
  • Fate Worse than Death: For the humans, being converted into a Mutant.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Jump-drive type, and one of the few examples that can be used in atmospheric flight.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Some players employed the strategy of shooting all but one of their men, waiting around for a Lander to abduct him, then rescuing him from the fall but not bringing him back to earth, so as to prevent the planet from blowing up during that wave.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Joystik magazine reported, apparently seriously, that the U.S. Air Force was using Defender machines to help train its pilots.
  • I Have Many Names: The arcade version of the second game is only called Stargate; most home versions are only called Defender II. The Atari 2600 used both names (Stargate for the first run of cartridges, Defender II for later runs).
  • 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 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 Spin-Off: Appropriately enough, Williams Electronics produced a Defender arcade pinball machine. Click here for tropes.
    • 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.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • The Atari 2600 version crammed all the controls of the arcade original into a single-button joystick controller, having the player activate a Smart Bomb or use Hyperspace when he went offscreen. That said, it was considered a Porting Disaster.
    • However, the 2600 version of Stargate instead used the second controller for smart bombs, Inviso, and hyperspace. (Inviso was up, hyperspace was down, and the button was smart bombs if you had any left, otherwise Inviso if you had that but no smart bombs, otherwise hyperspace if you had neither). It's generally considered a much improved version all around, if somewhat less difficult than the arcade version.
  • Sensor Suspense: Oh so very much. The Atari 2600 version of Stargate made it worse, because the blips were all the same color.
  • Shown Their Work: How do you adapt Defender on the Atari 2600, which has ONE joystick and ONE button? Pretty well. How do you do the smart bomb? The developers intelligently designed it so that you had to go under the planet's surface and fire (though that meant you couldn't use it at will in an emergency, you had to prepare). Hyperspace worked the same way, except you had to go off the top of the screen.
  • Shout-Out
    • The Dynamos split into Space Hums, in a reference to the Frank Zappa song Dyna-Moe Humm.
    • The Phreds, Big Reds, and Munchers resemble square versions of Pac-Man.
    • See also Take That, below.
  • 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.
  • Take That! / Sdrawkcab Name: In Stargate, some of the aliens' species are anagrams of Williams' competitors. One of them is called the "Yllabian Space Guppy" (Bally spelled backwards). The alien race as a whole is now called the Irata (Atari backwards).
  • Tempting Fate: The more humans you land at once, the bigger the bonus. However, if you're killed while holding humans, they automatically turn into Mutants.
  • Video Game Remake: The 2002 remake, simply titled Defender, was a flight combat game in the vein of Rogue Squadron or the all-range segments of Star Fox. Insect-like Mechanical Lifeforms‎ called the Manti are in the process of conquering the solar system, and the player character, a rookie soldier named Kyoto, leads the fight to take them down. The game also includes six playable ships, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Warp Whistle: The Stargate in the sequel, which transports the player exactly halfway across the planet (or, in this case, the scrolling playfield), or directly to a humanoid if one is being abducted. It can also be used to skip to later levels.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


"Almost Over You"

Sheena Easton, from her "Almost Over You" video, throwing her cheating boyfriend's arcade machine (Most likely "Defender") off the balcony.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / DefenestrateAndBerate

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