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Defender by Williams - Classic Arcade Games Reviewed

Updated on December 2, 2012
Defender Arcade Marquee
Defender Arcade Marquee | Source

The classic arcade title Defender was produced at a time when every game released was a first of it's kind, and the pioneering developers were really exploring the forms that electronic entertainment could take. Williams Electronic's game was a great example of this pioneering spirit, being the developer's first original game, as well as a first for the developer Eugene Jarvis who had previously worked on pinball games.

With Defender, Williams produced a unique game, which provided inspiration for an entire genre of space combat titles, as well as a loyal army of fans who can still remember the first time they played this retro classic.

Promotional flyer for the 1973 game Paddle Ball
Promotional flyer for the 1973 game Paddle Ball | Source

Interview with Eugene Jarvis

Development of the Defender Arcade Game

In the early 80's, video game design was influenced by titles such as Pong, and later Space Invaders, both of which spawned many clones with virtually identical gameplay. Some developers, such as Nintendo, had failed in their first attempt at launching their video game empire with yet another space invader clone - and their attempt to create something different resulted in Donkey Kong.

Williams had previously had huge success in the pinball industry, having produced games since the late 40's, and had seen the potential of the new video game industry, when acting as distributor for Taito's Space Invaders as part of it's Midway division. Williams first video game as developer was actually a Pong clone, "Paddle Ball", launched in 1973, but they had released nothing else until the Defender project in 1980.

Eugene Jarvis was given the task of managing the development, and due to his lack of experience, and that of William's, the team were given a fair amount of latitude as part of the game creation process. This resulted in an extended process of trial and error, using inspiration from games such as Space Invader and Asteroids, where the team tried and rejected various technologies and gameplay formats, before arriving at the final design.

The name was designed to justify the violence within the game, which is centred around a lone pilot's attempt to defend the planet from an alien invasion, as well as effectively describing the game's objective in a single word.

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Defender Upright CabinetDefender Cocktail Cabinet
Defender Upright Cabinet
Defender Upright Cabinet | Source
Defender Cocktail Cabinet
Defender Cocktail Cabinet | Source

Defender Cabinets

The Defender game was launched as both the classic upright cabinet, as well as a sit down cocktail cabinet, both featuring a raster CRT display, rather than the vector display used in earlier games such as Asteroids. The game did however differ from earlier raster games such Space Invaders in that it had multi-colour graphics, which were used to great effect. The sound was also very distinctive, comprising alien sounding chirps and squawks which helped give the game a personality that the graphics alone could not convey.

The cabinets themselves were very distinctive, featuring bright red and yellow graphics against a black background, and that classic 3D lettering on the marquee. Such is the popularity of the Defender cabinet design, many multi-game cabinets for sale today are created using a similar style.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the cabinet is the complexity of the controls, which whilst difficult at first to use, allowed for hugely varied tactics during play. The game featured a novel joytick to control altitude, but not left of right movement, only the horizontal direction of your ship.which required a separate thrust button to move. In addition to the movement controls there were also 3 additional buttons covering fire, smart bomb and teleport functions.

Defender Arcade Gameplay

The experimental nature of the development process lead to a game that had a great number of different gameplay elements, increasing the replay value but also the difficulty. The came is best described as a bi-directional horizontal shooter, one where you control the direction of your ship, indicated by the movement of the landscape in the lower half of the screen, which eventually loops if it were a planetary surface.

The objective is to patrol (defend) the ground based humans from kidnap by invading alien ships, which swoop down to collect their prey. Destroy the aliens with your multi-coloured laser before they collect the humans, or destroy them and catch the falling humans so they can be returned to safety.

To help prioritise your blasting, a radar at the top of the screen shows the location of all aliens and humans, allowing you to zoom to the rescue of any kidnapped people. Fail to rescue them and they transform into more dangerous Mutants, which zoom in on your location in an attempt to destroy your ship.

When things get too frantic, you have 2 additional weapons to even the odds. Firstly is the smart bomb, which will clear the entire screen of enemies, but are limited in number. The second is the teleport, which will instantly transfer you to a random location on the map and out of danger.

Clear the screen of aliens and the next round begins, with more numerous and aggressive alien ships.

Defender Arcade Video

Stargate (Defender II) Arcade Cabinet
Stargate (Defender II) Arcade Cabinet | Source

Arcade Sequels to Defender

A sequel was released to Defender, entitled Stargate, although this was later renamed Defender II. Stargate built on the successful formula established in the original Defender, and added additional gameplay elements to provide more variery.

As well as adding new alien types, the game also featured a "Stargate" which would teleport the player to any humanoid in trouble so they could be rescued. There were also additional stages that consisted entirely of enemy ships which needed to be destroyed in order to progress to the next stage.

Further sequels would have to wait until 1995, when Atari released Defender 2000 for the Atari Jaguar, featuring very similar gameplay but with vastly improved 3D graphics and soundtrack.

Defender 2 for the Atari 2600
Defender 2 for the Atari 2600 | Source

Home Conversions of Defender

Due to the fast past nature of the game and multi-coloured graphics, as well as the complex control scheme, the game was very difficult to replicate on home hardware of the time. There were some noticeable exceptions however, spanning both early consoles as well as popular home computers.

One of the most popular home conversions of Defender was released for the Atari 2600, amazing for 2 reasons, namely the very basic graphics of the early console, and the limited nature of the joystick which only had one button. There were actually 2 versions released for the Atari 2600, with the second, Defender II, having the better gameplay and therefore the preferred option for retro video game fans.

For UK gamers lucky enough to own a BBC Micro, an excellent conversion of Defender was released by Acornsoft titled Planetoid. The game was an accurate in every way, and the closest thing to the original experience outside the arcade. Like many early arcade conversions, the developer chose "Defender" as the title for the original release. This was however subject to a legal challenge, and changed to Planetoid - but interestingly none of the gameplay was changed.

Slightly less impressive versions could be found on other platforms ranging from the Commodore 64 and Vic 20, the Atari 5200, Colecovision and Intellivision, but nothing in the early 2980's could touch the fidelity of the BBC Micro version.

More recently, conversions have been produced for modern handhelds, notably the Nintendo Game boy and Game boy Color. For today's gamers looking to recapture the feel of the original, without access to an original cabinet, the best option is available through Xbox Live Arcade as a downloadable title, featuring both original and enhanced versions of the game.

Planetoid for the BBC Micro
Planetoid for the BBC Micro | Source
Defender of XBox Live Arcade
Defender of XBox Live Arcade | Source

Defender Poll

What was your first Defender Experience?

See results


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Don't think I've played this one.

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      Never heard of Defender? You must have been born after 1985!



    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Never heard of the game but it looks great!

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      It was definitely a Eugene Jarvis game, not sure it could be called a sequel given the format, which owed more to Bezerk than Defender. But a great idea for my next Hub!



    • profile image


      6 years ago

      My first experience with Defender was in the game room of my college dorm where it sat next to a Firepower pinball. I put a lot of quarters into both machines, eventually getting a high score of about 823,000 on Defender. My favorite game of all time! One other comment: wasn't Robotron 2084 a Defender sequel?

    • RolyRetro profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Brentwood, Essex, UK

      That summed up Defender pretty well, flying around and blasting stuff! But it to really master the game required a bit more strategy, particularly as the difficulty ramps up in later stages. Which is probably why I never got onto the high score table...



    • Tonyx35 profile image

      J Antonio Marcelino 

      6 years ago from Illinois, USA

      Defender (1) was one of my favorite titles for the 2600. Flying around blasting stuff.


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