Monday 15 February 2021

Defender (1981)

Introduced February 1981

The Golden Age of Arcade Machines really started in 1978 with Space Invaders, an addictive game built on simple hardware. But technology was pushing ahead at a pace, and the same sort of hardware that was finding itself into microcomputers of the era was also finding its way into the arcades.

Defender is a case in point – the first arcade game from pinball masters Williams, the Defender machine used the relatively new Motorola 6809 CPU and a 16 colour monitor with a 320 x 256 pixel resolution, with a second Motorola CPU (this time a more basic 6800) handling the sound. Of course, powerful hardware is one thing, but good gameplay is even more important.


Thematically, Defender was a sort of cross between Space Invaders and Asteroids. The player controls a small spaceship which is tasked with protecting humans on a barren planetoid from hostile aliens. The ship can move left and right, causing the screen to scroll with it, or up and down to the top of the screen. The play area wraps around from left to right, and is displayed on a mini-map at the top of the screen. Aliens will either try to kidnap and mutate the humans, or will attack the player’s ship directly. Compared to other shoot-‘em-up space games, Defender allows the player a large degree of mobility and they can develop their own strategies.

However, the game was notoriously difficult to play. The controls consisted of an up/down joystick, a thrust button, reverse button, fire button, smart bomb button and away from all the others was the emergency hyperspace. Pressing “thrust” would make the ship accelerate in the direction it was pointing (left or right), keeping the button pressed down make it go faster and faster until usually you smacked into an alien invade. Slowing down required the use of the reverse button and then reverse thrust. While trying to do this, invariably you would need to shoot at stuff and keep an eye on the minimap. Newbies would die very quickly – and this being an arcade game, they’d need to put in more money to try again.


Ergonomics? What's that? Defender's notoriously difficult control panel

The Defender game itself had been subject to a prolonged period of development difficulties (although the Motorola EXORciser used to develop it is a whole rabbit-hole by itself), and had taken up a considerable amount of time and money at Williams. When it finally hit the arcades in 1981 it was unpopular at first, most likely due to the difficult gameplay. But as people got used to it, Defender became more popular.. and eventually turned into a massive hit. Williams shipped nearly 60,000 arcade machines which brought in more than $1 billion of revenue.

The humble 8-bit 6809 CPU was pushed right to the end of its performance with the game – indeed, it could often suffer from lag when there was too much going on. But it made a good candidate for conversion to the growing market of micros and consoles which were also expanding in capabilities at the time, with a variety of official and unofficial ports available for almost every system that could keep up with the demands of the game.

Defender demonstrated that video games could be more complex than the simple format inspired by Space Invaders, although not many games would succeed if they were as unforgiving to newbies. But other side-scrolling games followed, including Scramble which hit the arcades later the same year. Today Defender machines are quite collectable today assuming you have the space and.. errr.. about £7000 or so.

Image credits:
Matt Grommes – CC BY-SA 2.0
Rob DiCaterino via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

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