Hall of Fame Inductee
Original Release: 1980 (Arcade)
Developer: Williams Electronics
Publisher: Williams Electronics
Defender has slowly become one of the forgotten titles of the arcade era. It’s not as memorable as games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong. Yet in 1981, even while the world was suffering from Pac-Man fever, Defender made more money than the ghost-hunting pie guy. Defender is one of those games that despite its difficulty and its complex gameplay (for the time), it still pulled in the quarters.
Defender is a horizontal-based shooter where the player controls a ship that goes from left-to-right or right-to-left. The screen continually scrolls although movement is on a loop (eventually, you’ll go so far in one direction you’ll end up back at the starting point). The ship is in charge of keeping the planet safe from space aliens that are attacking and trying to take away people from the surface. If a human is abducted by an alien, it returns to the playing field as a mutant trying to attack the player’s ship. Once all the enemies in a level are defeated, the player moves on to the next level.
In 1980, when every game in the arcades was either a Pong or a Space Invaders clone, Williams was doing something different; pinball machines. Video games, though, were a growing market and they looked to pass pinball machines in popularity in a very short time. Williams decided to jump into the game. Although Defender wasn’t their first video game, it was the first one where they put their best developers on the project. The game was in development for over half-a-year with plenty of roadblocks and missed deadlines. It was almost a miracle that it met production by 1980.
Many of these delays were because you constantly had the developers making improvements to the game. They weren’t wasting time; they were constantly at work adding to what would become a profitable formula. Even though they couldn’t really push the boundaries of what a video game is supposed to look like with the limited hardware available at the time, they did change how people were used to playing video games.
It was a space shooter which was not unlike games like Asteroids or Space Invaders however the approach was vastly different. The game was played with a spaceship racing across the screen from along the x-axis. Originally the ship was only supposed to go left-to-right but the programmers decided to also allow for right-to-left scrolling as well because they felt it would be more exciting. There were also other neat little things added like unique explosions for each time the player defeated an enemy. The enemies also made the game more random as different foes did different things; like one type would abduct astronauts while other enemies littered the sky with floating bombs. The game was one of the few unique experiences to come out of the early 80s.
Despite production delays and a wicked difficulty curve, Defender not only became Williams’s best-selling arcade title but also the game made more money in 1981 than Pac-Man did. Some had written off Defender because it wasn’t as casual a game like Space Invaders or Pac-Man. Most people who tried playing Defender for the first time most likely only lasted a few seconds before they saw the game over screen. Its saving grace was that it provided unique gameplay when most arcades were littered with the classics and their copycats. It was also very fun, which usually means there’s a good chance people will take to it.
Even though Defender was a popular game in the early 80s, it didn’t become a franchise that Williams (and later Midway) could capitalize on. The original Defender game was ported to some of the home consoles at the time. While the Atari 2600 version wasn’t as good as its arcade counterpart, it did help move units of the console and is responsible for the Atari’s early leap to the front of the home hardware market. Stargate, released a year later, was the sequel to Defender. Although for legal reasons, the home version of the game was called Defender II. Unlike the original which had innovative ideas, Stargate was more of the same with very few new additions. This was one of the reasons why the game didn’t become a strong franchise. Another was because the follow-up in the series wasn’t released in the arcades for another ten years.
Defender II was released in 1988 for the home-console market but failed to make a splash. Once Midway was acquired by Williams, there were three more Defender games released: Strike Force in 1991 for the arcade, 1995’s Defender 2000 for the Atari Jaguar, and 2002’s Defender for the Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, and the Sony Playstation 2. To say that these games were met with lukewarm response would be putting a positive spin on things. Midway’s bankruptcy in 2009 has put the future of the franchise in jeopardy.
This all has helped in Defender’s decline in the minds of the gaming public. Although Midway has packed the game in various compilations over the years for all the major consoles and handhelds, it has largely been forgotten. The latest release for the original game was a mobile release in 2003 as well as on the compilation Midway Arcade Treasures on the Xbox, Playstation 2, Gamecube, and the PC which was released in the same year.
Defender is not remembered by many but those who do remember it do so fondly. Williams made an excellent game that was able to dethrone Pac-Man as the most popular title in the arcades and was one of the most in-demand units during its heyday. It’s a shame that neither Williams nor Midway were able to follow up the franchise properly. Its large difficulty curve may turn off newer players who are used to easier games with better graphics. However, for a few moments, Defender was on top of the video game world.