Defender, an arcade video game by Williams 1980

On the Defense

Defender and Vid Kidz - Brightly Coloured and Extremely Loud

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Williams 1980

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.

Screenshot from Stargate, an arcade video game by Vid Kidz/Williams 1981

Stargate, Defender sequel

 

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.

1984 image of Eugene Jarvis, video game designer

Eugene Jarvis with Blaster graphics, 1984

 

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.

Robotron X, a console video game by Midway

Robotron given the 3D treatment, 1997

 

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.

Ad for video game company Williams Entertainment

Ad for video games by Williams Entertainment, 1996

 

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. logo_stop

Ad for Robotron X, a 1996 video game by Williams Entertainment

1996 ad for Robotron X, Williams Entertainment

 

 


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/

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