In 1979, arcades were just beginning their boom. Accompanying the traditional pinball machines were increasing amounts of electronic game cabinets. Williams Electronics, at the time a pinball game developer, saw an opportunity to branch out and become part of this new electronic gaming craze. In 1980, the company released Defender, and began to leave its mark on the video game industry.
Defender was developed by a small team at Williams, led by Chicago great Eugene Jarvis. The team was influenced by popular games of the period such as Space Invaders and Asteroids. Defender took several forms before its final release, beginning as something of a Space Invaders clone. At release though, Defender’s graphics and audio were praised for their fidelity, and its gameplay proved to be innovative and fun.
Defender wasn’t just good looking and fun though, it was also difficult. Regarded as one of the most difficult games of all time, novices would often times lose within just a few seconds of playing. Although the game was punishingly difficult, its design was also elegant, and presented players with the tools to eventually excel (with enough patience and skill).
Innovative features like a mini-map, and both left and right wrap scrolling allowed players to create on-the-fly strategies as to the best way to attack aliens and simultaneously rescue astronauts. Features like the mini-map would become so enmeshed in modern game design, that it’s almost impossible to fathom today’s games without them.
With its challenging gameplay and superior audio and visuals, it’s no surprise that Defender was an instant hit in arcades. Selling over fifty-five thousand units, it was Williams best seller to-date. The game has been ported to several platforms and its influence can be felt in nearly every modern video game.
Proof-reading my work, it occurred to me that the word innovative appears a lot in this piece. I looked it over several times, trying to figure out what else to say. The thing is, innovative really is the perfect word for Defender. There is so much about the game that not only sets it apart from other games of the time, but also prove to be valuable in the progression of video games as an entire medium. There are many great games that have been created here in Chicago, by talented individuals of all manner, but few stand as tall as Defender. Few can claim to have innovated the way Defender did.