Once upon a time in the mid 70’s, at the University of California at Berkeley, a Computer Science student stumbles upon an old mainframe computer buried deep in the bowels under the physics department of the school. Installed on it is the original computer game Spacewar!, the graphics of which are displayed on an oscilloscope attached to the machine. It soon comes to pass that other nerds are gathered around the machine playing the classic shoot-em-up late into the night, and the game plants in this student a fixation with video games. Upon graduation in 1976, the young man follows his earlier obsession with pinball to the four-year-old video game maker Atari, where he works alongside pinball guru Steve Ritchie. Toiling in relative obscurity in their upstart pinball department, he creates the visual and audio effects on such pin games as Superman, The Atarians and Space Riders. Unfortunately, most of the tables rolling out of Atari meet with major reliability issues out in the field. After two years, burned out and looking for a change, he is lured by President Mike Stroll to follow Ritchie to Chicago and Williams Electronics, who have the exact opposite problem as Atari; they’re well-established pinball champs looking to enter the booming videogame market. The company is seriously trimmed down from its 70’s heyday, and once again the man finds himself working with minimum supervision, enjoying total creative freedom in Williams’ manufacturing facility, a previously abandoned WWII factory. After working on various pinball projects, including Williams’ first speech synthesis pinball game Gorgar, our man gets his chance to fulfill his Spacewar and Space Invaders fueled desire to create a video game when in 1980 Williams gives him until an upcoming Amusement Machine Operators of America (AMOA) trade show, a span of about eight months, to get a working prototype of the company’s first original video game together. The new game is Defender, and that young man is Eugene Jarvis. And now you know…the rest…of the story.
Well, there’s a bit more to tell, actually. Defender wouldn’t be Williams’ first video game; the company had previously climbed onto Nolan Bushnell’s coattails with Winner and its 4-player variant Winner IV, both PONG clones released in 1973. Even in 1980, these are the days before ten-person game development teams, so a game creator must be a double-threat – designer AND programmer. Utilizing Williams’ advanced 256 colour variation video graphics hardware, Jarvis begins work on the project virtually by himself. After spending seven precious months toying with colour variations of current arcade hits such as Space Invaders and Asteroids, Jarvis settles on the concept of a space game exhibiting plausible rules of physics and comes up with the title Defender, so he knows the player’s job will be to defend something. When Richie suggests that the player should be sailing over the surface of a planet, Jarvis creates one, with mountainous terrain who’s horizontal scrolling is staggered with a star field background to further enhance the feeling of velocity. A spaceship comes next, enjoying full movement over the planet surface. After creating a host of alien villains for players to shoot at, Jarvis now has something that could be a full video game, but which still lacks that elusive play ingredient that would set his game apart from the plethora of space-based combat arcade games currently vying for quarters.
While he waits for inspiration to strike, he passes the time by creating a seemingly extraneous group of humanoids to populate the planet surface. With only two weeks till the AMOA deadline, the answer to the hole in Defender’s gameplay strikes Jarvis while drifting off to sleep one night. The player will use his ship to defend his fellow humanoids from kidnapping by the aliens, and if he fails the two will merge into a mutant alien with increased powers. Play is further refined so that if players manage to shoot the kidnapping alien before it reaches the top of the screen with the human, he must then catch his charges in mid-air before they crash into the mountains below. Along with a rapidly firing laser cannon, the Defender ship comes with three initial smart bombs that will destroy all enemies on the screen. In an homage to Spacewar!, also included is a hyperspace button that will cause the player to disappear and then re-materialize at a random place above the planet. One of the most compelling aspects of the game is that events transpire elsewhere outside of the Defender’s view – alien abductions usually occur off-screen, requiring the player to check a small radar scanner screen above the main playfield and race to the scene to rescue his comrade.
The Twitch Shooter Returns
With gameplay now fully coalesced only a week before the prototype is to be demonstrated, practically the entire programming staff at Williams throws in with Jarvis to complete the project, including Williams pinball master Larry DeMar. Also helping out is Sam Dicker, responsible for the memorable sound effects heard throughout the game. Working around the clock, the team has the code finished and burned into a ROM chip in the early morning hours of the day of the show, and it is raced to the game cabinet already located on the floor at the Williams booth. Both Defender and the other maverick at the show, Midway’s Pac-Man, are considered potential bombs by industry players…the company’s top-down racing game Rally-X is touted at the next big thing. When Williams releases their game in 1980, however, the industry pundits are proved wrong on all counts. Defender explodes into the arcades, rocketing up to the top of the sales charts, muscling for first place with Pac-Man and then Donkey Kong the following year. It is as far from the ‘cutesy’ phenomena forming in the arcades as you can get, an aggressively brash macho shootfest where players’ penetrating shots powerfully explode the enemy; Defender is what Jarvis refers to as a “sperm game”. Even aurally the game accosts you; in an arcade ringing with videogame bloops and bleeps, you can sure hear when someone drops a quarter into the eardrum-rattling Defender game. It goes on to beat Pac-Man for the AMOA’s Videogame of the Year award in 1981, and Williams eventually sells around 60,000 Defender units, still by 1983 ranked as one of the top five money-making video games. There are, of course, plenty of Defender imitators and knockoffs, and more than 5 million cartridge versions are sold of Atari’s own immensely popular VCS/2600 Defender port, released in June of 1982.
Through the Stargate
At the time of Defender’s release, Eugene Jarvis is making about $40,000 a year as a salaried employee at Williams. As his creation begins bringing in an obscene amount of money for the company, Jarvis feels he should be compensated for his work. Williams’ offering, a cash bonus and stock options spread out over four years, does not appease him. Amid the swirl of chaos in the wake of Defender’s smash success and the subsequent influx of designers and technicians into the company, Jarvis walks and with DeMar forms video game design company Vid Kidz in April of 1981. But despite the rather insulting salary offer Williams has presented, the two don’t want to create games for anyone other than their former employer and they rebuff offers from other videogame distributors, almost immediately entering into an agreement with Williams to manufacture and distribute games from the developer. The first product on the slate is the Defender sequel Stargate, released in 1981 and later renamed Defender II for legal reasons. If people at the 1980 AMOA thought Defender was too complicated to be a success, one wonders what they must have thought of its sequel, featuring an astounding six buttons, controlling reverse, thrust, fire, hyperspace and the new Inviso cloaking device…used to render the ship indestructible for a short period of time. The Stargates of the title are portals onscreen that if entered while a human is being kidnapped will warp the player to the scene of the attack. The game carefully retains the play value of the original, but added are a number of new enemies to destroy, and the evil alien attackers now have names, such as the Irata and Yllabain…which by some strange coincidence happen to be the names of Williams’ competition spelled backward. Also present is an improved colour palette adding new spice to the graphics. Shipping near the end of 1981, only 26,000 machines are eventually sold, still a solid success but seen as a disappointment to Jarvis who considers the sequel superior to the original in many respects.
Welcome Our New Robotron Overlords
Next from Vid Kidz comes Robotron: 2084 in 1982, originally called Robot War: 1984 while under development. The groundbreaking control scheme features two joysticks; one for moving the onscreen character around and another for firing. Berzerk provides inspiration for the game and its two sticks; Jarvis likes Stern’s product but is frustrated by only being able to fire in the direction the character is moving. With the extra joystick at his disposal, the player can fire in eight directions while running from the enemy. More inspiration comes from Midway’s coin-op Omega Race and the idea of the player being swarmed by enemies, who drop mines to be either avoided or destroyed. Robotron also sports a fairly complex SF plotline, taking place in the future with a species of robots known as Robotrons finally fed-up with the liabilities of humans, who they try to wipe from the planet. The hero, a genetic freak “superhuman”, must save the last (although apparently vastly extended) human family from a cornucopia of evil machines. Initially, the design of the game hews closely to its Berzerkian roots, with the player navigating a huge underground environment with corridors and a central controlling station. Once Jarvis realizes the kind of time it would take to realize this vision, the idea is pared down to something more reasonable. In the finished product, players are placed in the centre of an open, barren arena, surrounded by a multitude of enemies who quickly begin swarming towards him. And in the fine tradition of loud Williams games, Robotron sports lots of cabinet shaking sound effects, in an attempt to get the player sweating in a Pavlovian response to the noisy mayhem. Visually, the game moves extremely fast, and many in the hardware team and their revolutionary bit blitter graphics technology eventually end up in the Amiga computer project. Upon release, Williams sells 19,000 Robotron units, a good showing considering its departure from the Defender formula.
Breakup and NARC Raids
The next Vid Kidz release, Blaster (1983), is a huge flop. Only 500 machines are produced due to its expensive 3D graphics hardware, housed inside a practically indestructible Duramold plastic cabinet. The team drifts apart as DeMar moves back into pinball, and along with Pat Lawlor goes on to design the Addams Family game in 1992 for Williams, which becomes the best-selling pinball game up to that point. Jarvis goes back to school, getting his masters degree from Stanford University in 1986. Williams has other hits outside of the Vid Kidz team, including Joust (1982) by John Newcomer and Bill Pfutzenreuter, and classic 1982 speech synthesis game Sinistar. Sinistar’s design is led by Sam Dicker, he of the great Defender sound effects, and the game includes some startling voice synthesized taunting from the evil title character. Also on board for Sinistar is R.J. Mical, who would later help develop the groundbreaking Amiga computer project for Commodore.
Upon graduation from Stanford Jarvis returns to Williams, develops the Z-Unit videogame system, and a game to go with it called NARC (1989), which heralds Williams’ return to the videogame market after a prolonged absence. A blatant anti-drug tirade, the game takes a more liberal stance against video game violence as the player-controlled narcotics officer strolls down the street mowing down suspected drug pushers, with a carefully placed bazooka shot sending a shower of bloody limbs and burning bodies into the air. All this mayhem is personalized via the use of digitized actors for the game characters, a pioneering process that Midway would utilize to notorious effect a few years later in their game Mortal Kombat and various sequels. In 1990 comes Smash TV, little more than a technically enhanced Robotron, and High Impact Football in 1991.
Under the umbrella of the WMS Industries holding company, formed in 1985, Williams Electronics enters the slot machine business in 1992. After the purchase of Tradewest in 1994, this video game development company is renamed Williams Entertainment, Inc, responsible for the development and distribution of console and computer video games. The company helps spur on a trend of 3D adaptations of classic arcade games to 90’s consoles when it releases Robotron X for the PlayStation and N64 in the later part of the decade. Having absorbed Midway in 1988, the game is released by Williams under the Midway label. With the graphics given the 3D treatment, the frenetic action and full view of the playfield enjoyed in the original arcade game suffers, and the console update fails to quicken the pulse of many gamers. Time-Warner Interactive, the owner of Atari Games, is purchased by WMS on March 29, 1996, at a reported price of $25 million. Midway is spun off to shareholders in 1998, continuing as an independently owned and operated company. WMS eventually both shuts down Atari Games and leaves the waning pinball market in 1999.
Eugene Jarvis’ later efforts include the best-selling Cruis’n racing games he creates for Midway. Cruis’n USA is released in 1994 and Cruis’n World in 1996. Both are also big successes in the arcade, as well as ports to Nintendo’s N64 home console. Jarvis is one of the very few game creators from the golden arcade days still producing today, founding the Raw Thrills label in 2001, and still enjoying great success to boot.
Sources (inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Webb, Marcus. “Breaking: Arcadia.” Next Generation, June 1996, p. 26. The purchase [of Time Warner/Atari Games] was completed March 29… Reliable sources put the buying price around $25 million.
“The Mechanics: Mortal Kombat II.” Video Games: The Ultimate Gaming Magazine, Feb. 1994, pp. 14–15. John (Tobias) and Ed (Boon) used Midway’s Digitized Graphics Technology to graphically render characters onto the video screen. Midway pioneered this technology beginning with NARC in the late ’80s.
Lewis, Jim. “The Game Makers.” Enter Feb. 1984: 37-41. Enter Magazine Number 04. Internet Archive. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. Image of Eugene Jarvis, photo by Marc Pokempner; Image of Sam Dicker, photo by Ed Kasha
Kelly, Christina, and Jane King. “Will Robots Take Over the World?” Editorial. K-Power May 1984: 23. K-Power Magazine Issue 4. Internet Archive. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. Image of Eugene Jarvis, photo by Martha Leonard/Picture GroupVideogaming and Computergaming Illustrated, “Arcadia: Video Valhalla” by Richard Meyers, pgs. 33-36, Dec 1983. “Just as the company [Atari] was getting its wind up, they made the mistake of releasing four pinball machines that were devilishly clever, sumptuously designed, and about as dependable as a fourteen year old Pinto station wagon.” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sep 18 2015.
Video Games, “Coin-Op Shop – AOE Report: Showdown in Chi-town”, by Steve Bloom, Vol. 1 Num. 1, Aug 1982
The Arcade Flyer Archive – www.arcadeflyers.com/?page=home
JoyStik, “Blaster”, pg. 33, Vol. 2 Num. 3, Dec. 1983
Atari Age, “New Action Games!”, pg. 9, Vol. 1 Num. 1 (relaunch), May/Jun. 1982
WMS Gaming – www.wms.com
Video Games, “Zen & the Art of Donkey Kong”, by Mark Jacobson, pgs. 30 – 33, Vol. 1 Num. 4, Jan 1983
MobyGames, ‘Williams Entertainment Inc.’ www.mobygames.com/company/williams-entertainment-inc
Robotron: 2084 – http://home1.gte.net/eschonni/r2084/
Sound Library (click to open)
Defender startup sound
Defender ship materializing sound
dDefender lander pickup sound
Defender free man sound
Robotron enforcer sound
Robotron brainwave sound
Robotron grunt sound
Robotron gunfire sound
Robotron warping sound
Sinistar Aaaarggghhh! sample
Sinistar Beware, coward! sample
Sinistar Beware, I live.. sample
Sinistar I am Sinistar sample
Sinistar Run, coward! sample
Sinistar Run run run! sample