I’ve got a love-hate relationship with this legendary arcade shoot-‘em-up. Crikey, I imagine that practically everybody has a love-hate relationship with Defender, bar those elite gamers with godlike joystick skills. Alas, for me, back in the eighties, it was an impossible game to play and an even harder game to love beyond those opening few seconds of excitement. And I really did try.
Fortunately, the retro gaming classic Defender is today available to play on Antstream Arcade, so there’s no need for me to sacrifice a towering pile of 10-pence pieces just so that I can play it for longer than 15 minutes. Antstream is the perfect place for Defender: the high score table is an exercise in extreme gaming prowess, while us mere mortals can practice with unrestrained abandon. You can even save your game!
But let’s talk about the game itself. Introduced into arcades in the early eighties, Defender was created by Eugene “Robotron” Jarvis and Samuel Dicker, along with assistance from Larry DeMar and Paul Dussault. The game is set on a barren planet; the player’s spaceship, a sleek and elegantly designed pencil of a craft, jets across the landscape at high speed, destroying the numerous enemy aliens. The aliens are trying to kidnap a scattering of humanoids on the ground. Should they succeed, they transmogrify into mutants, the fastest and meanest enemies in the game. The player’s ship has a laser cannon and can hyperspace to a random location to avoid destruction.
Defender offers an unfussy setup. The enemies and humanoids are displayed on the radar above as the landscape infinitely wraps around. I wrestled with Defender’s controls in the arcades: a joystick for up and down and four additional buttons: thrust, fire, reverse and hyperspace. It was the one element of the game that seemed unnecessarily complicated and another advantage of playing Defender on Antstream Arcade.
Having first encountered Defender in the arcades near my home in the early eighties, the machine followed me throughout the decade as if taunting me for my failure to save humankind. There was a cocktail version in the bar of a hotel we stayed at in Norfolk; another, this time a regular cabinet, at the small college where our school English class once spent a week. Despite my general uselessness at Defender, I could never help shoving a few 10-pence pieces into its slot just to test if, miraculously, my ability to save the humanoids had improved.
It never did. I was the worst videogames player in the world.
Then, sometime in the mid-eighties, my dad bought me a book. It had a picture of a Space Invaders arcade machine on the cover, so he probably thought it was right up my alley. And he was right, because in my hands was literary author Martin Amis’s Invasion Of The Space Invaders, a glossy and colourful love letter to the early arcade scene. Originally printed in 1982, this book has been unavailable for years until its 2018 reprint you can see pictured here. Defender, as you might expect, features heavily. “Of all the videogames, Defender is perhaps the most thrilling, sinister and tortuous yet devised,” began Amis in his six-page diatribe against the Williams arcade machine. “Defender is a masterpiece of the space-game challenge: real objectives, varied battle-dilemmas, gauged suspense, recurring crises – it is the ultimate test of guile, coordination and daring.” Several pages of tips followed, the important strategic points highlighted in bold. “By liberal use of your reverse button, you can sometimes divide and conquer the enemy concentrations,” declared one sentence. “Don’t get too close,” revealed another, somewhat less helpfully.
Amis became a master of Defender, marking his success as MLA in the traditional three-letter hall of fame. He admits to spending a small fortune on the game; in fact, it’s his first tip: “You have to spend a lot of money to get good at Defender. That’s rule one.”
I don’t feel so bad now.
Defender Fact File
Defender came from Eugene Jarvis’s desire to create a shoot-‘em-up similar to Space Invaders but with much more strategy.
The game is hugely influential, inspiring sequels of its own and a whole new genre of scrolling shoot-‘em-ups.
Defender was initially planned with just four colours before Williams and Jarvis opted for 16 in an effort to future-proof the hardware.
The Atari classic, Asteroids, inspired the wraparound map.
The humanoids were added to give the game more depth and avoid Defender becoming a monotonous shooting game.
Defender’s sequel, Stargate, appeared a few months later and is even more brutally difficult than its forebear.
The arcade game’s controls may appear odd today, but back in 1981, four-way directional joysticks were rare.
Many of the visual effects, including the dramatic particle explosions, were the work of Jarvis’s colleague, Samuel Dicker.
The current leader on the Defender Twin Galaxies high scoreboard is Chris Hoffman, with an incredible 79,976,975 points.
Defender on Antstream Arcade
Defender, its arcade sequel Stargate, and the Nintendo Entertainment System and Atari 2600 games, Defender II, are all available to play, for free, on Antstream Arcade. At the time of writing, there are 26 days left of our Defender II Tournament.
There are five Antstream Arcade Defender challenges:-
Mutant Massacre: Defeat as many mutants and landers as possible within three minutes.
Throttle Lock: Survive for as long as possible with your throttle locked in one direction.
Defend Your Honour: Score as many points as possible within three minutes.
Space Chase: Survive for as long as possible without firing.
Last Man Standing: Defend your one life for as long as you can.
High Scores: Paul Emerson is top with 138,450 points, with Ronnie Weston (108,900) and ALIBIADZI (107,325) in second and third place. Me? I’m rocking a lowly 473rd place with 6,675 points. I really should have another go.
Defender rightly holds its place as one of the greatest arcade videogames ever. Whether you’re discovering it for the first time or an old acquaintance like me, it’s never been easier to experience this legend, thanks to Antstream Arcade.
Wait! Don’t hyperspace out! Do you want to connect with fellow saviours of humanity or swap tips on surviving for longer than 30 seconds? Then head over to the Antstream Arcade Discord server: https://discord.com/invite/PGMYZ7k