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 to present to buyers. 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, of one pixel in thickness, abstracting 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
After a year of development, gameplay for Defender has 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, clocking hours of overtime, including Williams pinball masters like Larry DeMar. Also helping out is Sam Dicker, responsible for the memorable sound effects heard throughout the game. With 12 hours to go before the game debuts on the show floor, Jarvis and his team realize they have forgotten to program an attract mode, used to entice gamers in the arcades while the machine is otherwise idle. 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…Midway’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”. Graphically, the game is astounding for 1980; Williams touts Defender as having more than 80,000 individually controlled video elements, each with a possible 256 different colours. 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 and winner of its own award: the 1982 “Arkie” in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category, from Electronic Games magazine.