The late Seventies/early Eighties period is often referred to as The Golden Age Of Arcade Games, and looking at the games released during this time, it’s hard to dispute this. Released in 1980 by Williams Electronics, space shoot-‘em-up Defender was at the forefront of this revolution, and has inspired sequels, thematic follow-ups and just plain rip-offs ever since. Antstream Arcade takes a look back at the legend that arguably defined Williams, and set in motion the career of Eugene Jarvis.
Defender (1980) – Arcade
This is where it all started, in the arcades, the new shooter consuming 10p coins in short order from the pockets of wide-eyed teenagers. Set on a series of distant barren planets, Defender scrolls to the left or right, a single line defining the surface, incessant waves of aliens harassing both the player and the stranded astronauts they are supposed to be rescuing.
Following the outer space theme that was hugely popular at the time, the player’s spaceship is able to zip across the surface, jumping through hyperspace to random locations when things get a little hot. An innovative scanner, situated at the top of the screen, betrays the location of enemies and by using the ship’s colourful laser, these mutants can be dispatched in a glorious cascade of pixels, preferably before they have had a chance to abduct a humanoid survivor from the surface.
Context is vital here; back in 1980, the majority of arcade games were static, one-screen affairs. Defender, with its smooth horizontal scrolling and lightning-fast game play inevitably stood out from the crowd and was a justified smash hit. Its use of multiple buttons (reverse, hyperspace, thrust and fire, plus the vertical movement stick) was also innovative in an era when most games employed just a sole fire button, and it remains a frighteningly challenging experience to this day.
Stargate/Defender II (1980) – Arcade
One year after Defender came Defender II aka Stargate. Essentially more of the same, Stargate introduces the concept of the, well, Stargate, that warps the player to another part of the planet, the location determined by imperilled humanoids. Otherwise, the aim of the game is still to rescue errant humans, only this time it’s faster and harder, with a greater variety of opponents. The inclusion of yet another button (for a short-use shield called inviso) only added to the game’s steep difficulty curve. A number of home conversions followed, some of which are called, rather confusingly, Defender II.
Strike Force (1991) – Arcade
Arcade fans had to wait a decade to experience more Defender, and in the era of other Midway classics such as Smash TV (another Antstream Arcade favourite), it was inevitable the game would have flashy effects and much-improved graphics. With a brand-new array of power-ups, Strike Force should be a less demanding version of Defender (it was touted as a low-key Defender III), yet the inclusion of ground-based enemies and a fast assortment of tougher meanies means it’s just as hard, if not harder, than the original, and a bit too devastating to be much fun.
Defender 2000 (1996) – Atari Jaguar
This update from shoot-‘em-up legend Jeff Minter represents good value for Defender fans, offering the original game, a modified version called Defender Plus, that includes more enemies and its author’s trademark psychedelic infusion, and the titular Defender 2000. The latter combines the frenzied action of the arcade classic with some fun power-ups, and while the player’s spaceship is just a little too large, making the game even harsher, it still reverberates with the instant playability of Defender, and is a must for fans. If you’ve got an Atari Jaguar, this is a game you should have.
Defender (2002) – PlayStation 2/GameCube/Xbox
22 years after Defender first wowed gamers around the world, the legendary shooter finally got an update into 3D in 2002. Despite the change of view, its plot is similar: human colonies are being attacked by swarms of aliens (the bug-like Manti), and it’s your task to rescue as many people as you can. Variation is added with six different ships to fly, and there’s a wealth of weapon and shield add-ons that can be picked up or purchased in-between levels. While it’s an entertaining shoot-‘em-up which retains much of the purity of the first game, the move into 3D unfortunately meant Defender was a little lost at the time by a gamut of similar space shooters, but it’s still well worth checking out.
Atari 2600 (1981)
Converting the four-button Defender to the one-button Atari 2600 was always going to be a challenge on the popular console. But it kinda works, despite the clumsy way in which the player deploys smart bombs or hyperspace (basically moving to the top or bottom of the screen and pressing fire). Given the limitations of the platform, it’s a very decent effort that plays reasonably well.
Mattel Intellivison (1983)
Despite the rivalry between Atari and Mattel, the former recreated a handful of its iconic games for the Intellivision. The history behind these games is complicated (check out www.intellivisonlives.com for more information), yet one of the results was an excellent version of Defender that was even superior to Atari’s own VCS port.
Entex Handheld (1982)
In an era when home consoles were nowhere near as ubiquitous as today, many gamers settled for dedicated machines such as this one from Entex. With its VFD crimson screen and unit-based movement, it was never going to be the most thrilling of adaptations, although it was fun enough to entertain a rebellious Groot throughout Guardians of The Galaxy 2.
Atari 8-Bit (1982)
It seems this is where Atari concentrated its efforts on the home ports, given it’s an excellent conversion, easily superior to the Commodore 64 and Apple II games. Fast, exciting and faithful to the original, this is the best of the official home computer efforts, and regularly features in top ten lists of Atari 400/800 games.
Commodore 64 (1983)
It was early in the C64’s life, but this is still a disappointing official port from Atari itself. The scrolling is jerky, the collision detection a little off, and it just lacks the overall instant fun factor of the original. A year later, Dropzone would expose this lack of polish and simply blow Atari’s official conversion away. Not to be confused with Interceptor’s cheeky Defender 64.
Given its popularity in the arcades, and the relative youthfulness of the home computer market, clones of Defender were inevitable. Here’s a selection of some of Antstream Arcade's favourites.
Chopper Command (1982) – Atari 2600
In many ways better than the official Atari 2600 conversion of Defender, Chopper Command replicates numerous features of the arcade game, including two-way horizontal scrolling and a helpful radar screen. It’s just as rock hard, however, and a real challenge to even the most experienced of gamers.
Defence Force (1983) – Oric Atmos
The Oric Atmos home computer wasn’t renowned as much of a games machine, but this conversion from ace coder Andrew Moore and Tansoft aptly showed what the machine was capable of in the right hands. A colourful display, quick gameplay and crunching sound effects make it a must-play for fans of the system and Defender alike, and it’s only let down by some rudimentary jerky scrolling.
Defenda (1984) – ZX Spectrum
Published by the short-lived Interstella Software, Defenda (see what they did there?) is an unashamed rip-off of the arcade classic, and a decent early effort for the Spectrum. While the main spaceship’s movement is a little spasmodic, it maintains much of the speed and excitement that makes Defender such a delight to play. For more 8-bit home computer Defender, try Invasion Of The Body Snatchas by Crystal Computing, also on the ZX Spectrum, and Guardian (Commodore 64) and Guardian 2, which was released on the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64.
Dropzone (1984) – Commodore 64
This C64 Defender clone is as wonderful today as it was 34 years ago. Replacing the spaceship with a jet-powered astronaut, Archer MacLean’s Dropzone scored incredibly highly with the press of the time, and is still rightly regarded as an all-time classic on the Commodore computer. A classy, beautiful game with smooth and rapid scrolling, it’s an absolute must for all Defender fans.
Revenge Of Defender/StarRay (1988) – Amiga/Atari ST/Commodore 64/PC
Released as StarRay in Europe and Revenge Of Defender in the United States, this clone launched Defender into the 16-bit age with new and improved graphics and parallax scrolling. Unfortunately it’s a little too quick for its own good, which saps much of the fun out of the game. Slightly more playable on the 8-bit Commodore 64, it inevitably suffers in comparison to the legendary Dropzone.
Datastorm (1989) - Amiga
Clearly inspired not only by Defender, but also the Commodore 64 masterpiece, Dropzone, Datastorm is a fantastic shoot-‘em-up released on just the Commodore Amiga in 1989. Power-ups (including a dramatic auto-fire, level skip and shields), crazy graphical effects, sharp controls and huge powerful bosses combine to make Datastorm a marvellous game, and one all Defender fans should play. A cracking tune and an impressive intro complete the package.