by Ryan Lambie
When Defender arrived in arcades back in 1980, nothing looked or sounded quite like it. The controls had a steep learning curve, and its shooting action was intense and relentlessly difficult. Yet Defender's boldness made it stand out in arcades full of Space Invaders clones, and gamers quickly fell in love with it.
Created by a designer pushing the boundaries of early '80s technology, Defender's development wasn't without its drama. Here's a look at Defender's making and its lasting effect on the games industry.
1. DEFENDER WAS WILLIAMS'S FIRST PROPER, ORIGINAL ARCADE GAME.
With its foundations tracing back to the 1940s, American company Williams specialized in making pinball machines. When Pong ushered in a new age of electronic games in the 1970s, Williams knew it had to break into the same market, but its first attempt was tentative, to say the least: 1973's Paddle Ball was, for the most part, a straight replica of Pong's bat-and-ball action. Fortunately, a young programmer named Eugene Jarvis had a more pioneering spirit.
2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY SPACE INVADERS AND CHESS.
Jarvis joined Williams in the late 1970s, where he initially worked on the software for the company's pinball machines—titles included Airborne Avenger, Gorgar, and Laser Ball. But even as those machines were making their way into arcades, they were being roundly upstaged by a new game on the block—the coin-guzzling shooter, Space Invaders. The game immediately inspired Jarvis to make his own sci-fi shooter, though one which also took in the vector graphics of the seminal Spacewar (a game he'd played while in college) and a hint of chess. He wanted his game, he later told WIRED, to be a "rich, tactical and strategic experience."
3. THE TITLE CAME FROM A 1960s TV SHOW.
As Jarvis's ideas for his game began to develop—and it moved further and further away from the straight "blast the aliens" scenario popularized by Space Invaders—he began to think about an objective that involved rescue and defense rather than straight-up shooting. And early on, he adopted the name Defender, derived from the '60s courtroom drama series, The Defenders.
"I kind of liked that show," Jarvis said in Steven Kent's book, The Ultimate History Of Video Games. "You know, if you're defending something, you're being attacked, and you can do whatever you want."
4. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST SIDE-SCROLLING GAMES.
Jarvis and his small team of programmers and designers, which included Larry DeMar and Sam Dicker, worked up a game design which, for its time, was hugely ambitious. Back then, most games took place on a single, static screen. What Jarvis proposed was a game which scrolled smoothly and rapidly along a map that was far larger than the display. At the top of the screen, a small mini map showed the player's current position. Both ideas were groundbreaking, and the mini map is a ubiquitous design feature in the games of today.
5. IT WAS COMPLETED JUST IN TIME FOR AN IMPORTANT TRADE SHOW.
As months of development passed, Jarvis was put under increasing pressure to get Defender finished in time for a trade show called the Amusement and Music Operators Association Expo. Jarvis worked feverishly to meet the deadline, but on the evening before the trade show, he had a horrifying realization: the game lacked an attract mode—the demo designed to show would-be customers how the game looks in action. An all-night coding session began, which, following another terror-inducing moment where the game refused to load up properly, the finished Defender was ready on the morning of the expo.
6. PLAYERS WERE INITIALLY INTIMIDATED.
Defender cut a strange and unnerving figure at the AMOA trade show. Where most games of the time had a joystick and one button, Defender had a joystick and five buttons—something which, Jarvis later suggested, left some people wary of even trying it. At first, though, Jarvis wasn't concerned, saying in an interview on the Williams Arcade's Greatest Hits game disc that the team was "proud that it intimidated everyone."
7. IT BECAME ONE OF THE HIGHEST-GROSSING GAMES OF THE GOLDEN AGE.
Everything changed when Defender appeared in arcades. Williams's first game of the '80s was also its biggest, selling 55,000 cabinets and reportedly making more than $1 billion in revenue. Players, it seems, couldn't get enough of Defender's speed, color, and sheer challenge.
8. A STRANGE BUG OCCURS WHEN YOU SCORE 990,000 POINTS
While Defender became famous for its vertical difficulty level, a certain breed of gamer rose to the challenge. The game's most dedicated players even discovered a bug: reach 990,000 points, and an error in the game's algorithm results in a sudden shower of extra lives and smart bombs. Yet even the bug added to Defender's absorbing challenge; as Jarvis told US Gamer, "Some of the richest elements of Defender [...] were bugs, things that I never even in my wildest imagination could have coded."
9. IT'S STILL INFLUENTIAL TODAY.
Defender's groundbreaking design paved the way for an entire generation of scrolling shooters, including Jarvis's 1981 sequel Stargate, Konami's Gradius series, and many more. Even today, Defender continues to inspire 21st-century game designers. Finnish developer Housemarque's side-scrolling shooter Resogun draws directly on the mechanics in Defender. In 2017, Jarvis teamed up with Housemarque to develop the game Nex Machina, which released to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
More than 30 years later, Defender's audacious design is still making an impact.