DEFENDER Arcade Game

By Mark Nobes

Defender is one of the best-known video games from the 1980s, and was developed by Williams Electronics in 1980, and then released into the arcades in February 1981. It featured 2D, side-scrolling graphics, which certainly made the game feel ahead of its time.

Set on an alien planet, the idea of the game was to defeat waves of aliens whilst protecting astronauts on the planets surface. The game's two designers were Eugene Jarvis and Larry Dema, who were actually pinball game designers at Williams. 
Enext Arcade Defender Handheld Video Game from 1982

Entex Arcade Defender Handheld Video Game from 1982

Defender was one of the most challenging titles from the 80s, and actually seemed complex compared to other arcade games from the early part of the decade. This led to the game being slow to gain in popularity. However, once people learned how to master the controls, Defender went on to become the best-selling arcade game for Williams, and one of the best-selling titles of 1981, even giving Pac-Man a run for its money.

In the video playlist above, you can watch game play on the BBC Micro, Atari 8-bit, Atari 2600 and Commodore 64.

Inevitably, due to the success of the game, it spawned lots of clones, including Dropzone which was released by Arena Graphics in 1984 for the Atari 8-bit and C64 computers. Dropzone won critical acclaim in most computer magazines of the day, including a gold medal in Zzap! 64 for the C64 version with a 95% rating. I remember playing Dropzone on my Atari 800XL and it was extremely responsive and a joy to play. 
Defender Atari 2600 Cartridge Box (CX2609) by Williams Electronics

Atari 2600 cartridge box CX2609 (Williams Electronics)

Defender on the Atari 2600 

The Atari 2600 console version of the game is very different to the arcade version (both in terms of gameplay and graphics) due to the hardware's limited capabilities. In fact, all of the Atari 8-bit versions really lacked the refinement of the original.
However, it has to be said that the Atari 2600 version was pretty dismal. There are numerous problems, the main one being that your spacecraft disappears temporarily when you fire a missile. Whether this is the fault of the hardware or the programmer is up for debate, although other games managed it with ease, so my guess is that the programmer was at fault. Aliens also flicker and are pretty erratic with their movements, too. The controls are pretty clumsy and I'm not sure how this game seemed to slip under the radar when Pac-Man and E.T. got such a roasting from the critics.
Defender gameplay on Atari 2600

Screenshot from Atari 2600 version

Defender on the BBC Micro Model B and Acorn Electron

The BBC version was developed by Acornsoft and was a very authentic clone. In fact, it was too authentic for its own good and this led to the game being renamed Planetoid for legal reasons. The game was also released on the Acorn Electron, the budget version of the BBC Micro. Acornsoft were pretty brilliant at game conversions, and this is, without doubt, regarded as one of the best of all the home computer versions from the 80s, although the Atari 8-bit version is also very decent and has some excellent sound effects, as is Guardian by Alligata Software for the C64, which I'll come to in a moment.

Defender screenshot from the BBC Micro Model B

Defender BBC Micro Model B Screenshot 

Planetoid (Defender Clone) by Acornsoft for the BBC Model B

Defender on the Commodore 64

As with the Atari XL and XE computers, the C64 was a very capable and advanced machine for its time. Although not as refined as the arcade version, the game plays well on the C64. It looks a little crude, but this was one of the earlier C64 games and the graphics look more Hi-res than other home computer versions. The sound effects are excellent, and I also like the way the screen compresses and disappears to the right when you move up a level - a nice touch.

Defender C64 Screenshot

Defender C64 Screenshot 

Defender Atari 800 Screenshot

Defender Atari 800 screenshot 

Another impressive Defender clone for the C64 is Guardian by Alligator Software. You can be forgiven for not having heard of this game, as it kind of slipped under the radar back in the day, and it's actually very difficult to find any info online. However, I managed to find this video on Youtube, and as you will see, it looks and sounds very polished and the scrolling is super smooth and fast. I believe the game came out in early 1984, although don't hold me to this, and it's criminal that it didn't find a bigger audience.