There’s no definite date on Defender’s release this month 35 years ago, but whatever it may be, it’s a good time to look back on a bit of this arcade icon’s history and see why it continues to be a big deal.
There’s not a lot that I can say that has already been said by many others except to do my part and remember Williams Electronics’ gamble on a revolutionary kind of arcade challenge that would take them from pinballs to video games. At the time, Williams was the king of pinball machines along with others like Bally and Gottlieb having dominated the 60s and 70s. Even when pinball began to wane in the wake of video games’ growing popularity, Williams continued to thrive.
But even they couldn’t ignore the phenomenal rise of the new medium. Hits like Taito’s Space Invaders in 1978 proved how exciting it could be, and how financially viable, and Williams looked for a breakout formula that would surprise everyone. They had dabbled in video games before in the early 70s with a Pong clone, Paddleball, but now they wanted something that would put them on the map.
That’s when Eugene Jarvis was tapped to create a new game unlike anything anyone had seen before and Williams Electronics had essentially signed off on a blank check for him and his team to do whatever they needed to make it happen.
Mr. Jarvis was a seasoned pinball programmer with a number of successful tables under his belt but he took to the challenge of making a new game with ideas in his head inspired by space games which were popular at the time such as Space Invaders and Asteroids. Being the late 70s and the early 80s also meant Star Wars mania was rampant inspiring “wannabe” space epics such as 1980’s Flash Gordon (which also had to battle the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in the same year). Sci-fi was white hot and Jarvis took his staff into the unknown to try and carve out a piece of it for themselves…and for Williams.
The result was 1981’s Defender.
Jarvis and his team set out to make a shooter and in the end, developed it into an innovative piece of arcade history. Instead of being a vertical shooter, this one was side-scrolling. It also featured a number of neat tools for the player such as a “hyperspace” escape that would randomly teleport you from danger (or explode your ship) and a “reverse” button that allowed you to fly from right-to-left to fight enemies behind you. There was even a scanner at the top of the screen showing the location of enemies and the people that you could rescue.
And that was one of Defender’s more unique features — an actual story-like motivator that put a twist on scoring. A quote from Wikipedia (sourced from Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games) from Jarvis stated:
I had this whole justification for why you were there and what you were doing. A lot of games fall short. They just put you there, and all of a sudden you’re beating people up and you start to wonder. “Why am I beating these people up?” There was actually an old TV show called The Defenders about attorneys back in the 1960s, and I kind of liked that show. You know, if you’re defending something, you’re being attacked, and you can do whatever you wanted.
Hitting the arcades and expecting more than a scoreboard and targets was part and parcel of most of what the video arcade game experience offered in those years. If you wanted anything deeper, you probably had to look at something like Adventure on the Atari VCS which was still hot at the time.
Jarvis wanted something a bit different with Defender. Points were still important, but getting those points took on a subtle new meaning when it came to rescuing them from doom. There was also the problem of when a citizen would get absorbed by the alien if they succeeded in abducting them, turning the ship into a mutant that was a lot more aggressive.
To top that off, as the player continued to clear successive waves of aliens, more would appear with different kinds of attacks to shake things up. And all of that technical polish gave the game a standout appeal from the awesome sounding laser of your ship to its dying explosion (which would sound familiar to Sinistar fans years later in ’83).
It was also incredibly tough. Not only was it a side-scrolling shooter, but the player had an incredible degree of control over where their ship went (though if they wanted to go in the opposite direction, they needed to flip their ship by hitting the reverse button) and it was often easier to run into the aliens than it was to shoot them within seconds of starting. Hyperspacing to safety was sometimes an instant death sentence. And you could also accidentally shoot the people you were trying to save as they were lifted up by the aliens — when you were trying to delicately shoot the alien ship — or were dropped from way up high if you didn’t snatch them in time. Your ship also moved at only one speed: very fast.
With all of the extras it came with, it was also a bit intimidating. It caught on slowly but eventually became one of Williams Electronics’ best selling arcade machines of all time with 55,000 sold and ultimately garnering roughly more $1 billion USD to date, sharing the distinction of being one of the highest grossing games of all time with Pac-Man. That’s a lot of quarters!
Something that big also found a home across a wide spectrum of products from handheld gaming units (back then, handheld gaming meant buying a portable unit built around one game) to a port for the hottest console at the time — the Atari VCS — which you can even play online today. One of the nice things about the port (and a thing done out of necessity since the Atari joystick only came with one button) was that pushing left or right automatically changed your direction, though some fans would argue that was the only thing that was nice about it.
Over the years, Defender has appeared in collections (such as Midway Arcade Treasures for the PS2 in 2003) and has had its share of sequels, remakes, and clones over the ensuing decades.
Today, Defender’s legacy has left its mark on gaming that few others have. The rich number of variables introduced by its mechanics — shooting, scoring, rescuing, and simply surviving — enriched a simple formula impacting not only shooters but many other games in general as both hardware and tastes evolved over time. This was a game that asked players to do “more” than shooting things to score, much like how Pac-Man could become a tactical test on when it was best to gobble that power-up pellet for maximum effect than simply race around a maze. And it was also a remarkable gamble on pushing not only a company’s future into the unknown, but introducing something new to players’ imaginations at the same time.