Sunday, April 17, 2011

Game of the Week: Defender for arcade

In the late 1970s and 1980s, there were a lot of shooting arcade games that involved blowing invading aliens out of the sky. Space Invaders, anyone? Remember Galaga? Most of those games seemed pretty similar, and could possibly bore a gamer after a while.

But then in 1980 the pinball wizards from Williams Electronics decide to make the move into the arcade game business, and they did so with style. The company's very first venture into the arcades was with a game that has become a classic, Defender.

What made Defender so different? It was just another game in which you shot aliens out of the sky, right?

Not exactly.

Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits (Defender, Joust, Sinistar, Robotron 2084)Most alien shooting games at the time were modeled after Space Invaders, meaning the player controlled a ship at the bottom of the screen that shot at advancing aliens at the top of the screen.

Defender wasn't like that. In Defender, the player controlled a spaceship that could fly all over the screen horizontally while shooting at aliens, but not like Asteroids where a player could go anywhere. In Defender, the player's ship could go left and right, the screen scrolling along with the ship, and the player's ship could go up and down but there was ground beneath that prevented the ship from scrolling down and a monitor at the top of the screen that prevented the ship from going up. Many have called Defender the very first scrolling shooter game, and there's a lot of truth to that; at the least, if Defender wasn't the very first scrolling shooter video game, it was at least the first popular scrolling shooter.

In some ways it is surprising that Defender was such a popular game. For one thing, it's a pretty complicated video game for the time when it was released. There's a lot going on on the screen, and the player has a lot to keep track of. Also, the controls were quite complex, featuring a joystick and five buttons.

Five buttons!?!

Yep. That doesn't sound like anything special today what with all the multi-button game controllers for home consoles, but back in 1980 most video games only had one joystick and maybe two buttons, sometimes only one button or no buttons.

To gamers of the day, Defender looked somewhat intimidating. But once one got familiar with Defender, and that didn't take long, it was soon evident how much fun this game actually was.

Defender shined in part because of its complexity. Few other video games had that at the time, and it made the player think and think fast. It also didn't hurt that Defender had great graphics and great sounds.

Defender became so popular that there were a number of sequel games based upon it, even a pinball game. And of course Defender was ported to just about every computer and home video game console of the time. Defender is even available for today's computers and home gaming systems, usually on a greatest hits collection disk.

But not only did Defender have sequels and home ports, but it basically created a whole genre of video games, the scrolling shooter. Tons of other games have been based upon the style of Defender, from Chopper Commander back in the 1980s to modern scrolling shooters such as Sonic Rush.

One last historical note about Defender: This game was originally developed by Eugene Jarvis, one of the more famous video game creators. Jarvis not only lead the team that came up with Defender, but he also created such famous games as Robotron 2084 and Smash TV.

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