3. Defender (Arcade)
"I like to feel I have the fates in my hands and that through my skill or lack thereof I control my fate." Eugene Jarvis
Remember your first ever game of Defender? Remember gaping at the bewildering control panel and making sure there weren’t *too* many people around before you inserted your coin?
Defender comes from an age where designers were under pressure to snaffle a player’s money, gave him a quick and rough seeing-to, before moving on to the next player and his money. But its genius is that it makes the pummelling feel like juuuust enough fun to fuel a sense of outrage.
“Bastard game!”, you think.
“I’ll show it this time…”
And in goes another coin, and Williams have made some more money in the short term. But, most importantly, they’ve bagged a punter for life. Another hapless soul hooked on that beautiful balance between hurt-me masochism and fuck-you fury.
Defender is all about panic. How you either channel it or be overcome by it. From the moment you jab the start button and that synthetic growl kicks in the chaos, they’re out to get you. They *hate* you. It’s do it to them before they do it to you.
It’s a game that thrives on pure, achieve-or-die instinct – probably because it was designed under similar conditions. Only just completed in time for its debut at a 1980 arcade show, at a time when Williams was, according to Jarvis, “just two or three hardware guys, a handful of mechanical designers… the sales and marketing department was an old guy with a phone.”
“We were jazz musicians in those days”, says Euge. “Just riffing on whatever cool new beat came along. Now, game design is all so carefully crafted and orchestrated. You’re not really saving the world any more. Your full-time job is to play your cymbal on the 3,084 th beat of this measure and you’d better be damn happy doing it. If not, there’s four guys waiting to take your place”.
For all its flailing bedlam, Defender is as stripped-down and simple as it gets. There isn’t the faintest pinch of fat on it:
1. Kill everything – quickly.
2. Save whiney humanoids from Landers.
But, as your steaming brain stacks up all those simultaneous snap decisions, the reward is gameplay bursting with elegant little sensory ticks and bite-sized set-pieces: the precision rush of picking off a single Swarmer; the tactile, teaspoon-through-the-coffee-jar-seal bliss of popping a gaggle of Pods with a smart-bomb; nailing a Bomber and being rewarded with that glorious d-d-d-d techno thunk; tear-arsing from one side of the map to another to tag that final Lander, pausing and reversing to zap obsessively tailing Baiters…
Before Defender, videogame enemies were just sterile variations on the spaceship/UFO standard. But these bastards have *personality*: cold and relentless Landers; psychotic Mutants; slippery Bombers; brooding Pods; jittery Swarmers; obnoxious Baiters…
Jarvis has said that a great videogame should be all about creating “a survival story”. And that’s Defender. Apart from the brief between-wave bonus tally, there isn’t a moment when you’re not fighting for your life. And it really *feels* like a fight, because you have to physically and spacially dominate that wonderful control panel.
In full flow, a Defender ace is a marvel of co-ordination and reflexive dexterity: index finger subtlely regulating the Thrust; ring finger hammering the Fire button; right thumb hovering over Smart-Bomb; left hand clunking the sturdy stick up and down, left thumb twitch-tapping Reverse; right hand occasionally abandoning all for a sneaky swipe at Hyperspace... It’s a performance. You ‘play’ both the game inside and the machine itself, like a musical instrument or a mixing/scratching DJ.
Sure, Defender is tough and punishing. But it has the balls not to punish you in soppy, woolly, wrist-slappy ways: reversed controls or tiresome power-downs or unfair and unforeseen death. It grinds you down with unyielding, uncompromising attack; constantly demanding your best, always exploiting the most fleeting concentration lapse. From novice to expert, if you are not absolutely 100% focused on the game, the possibility of humiliation is ever-near. I’ve seen games last barely thirty seconds.
And, when all those humanoids are gone and you’re balancing on the brink of despair, it delivers its greatest punishment. *The* most terrifying “Oh, shit!” moment in videogaming as, with a clatter of angry, strobing detonations, it boots your inept arse out into open space, at the mercy of that baying mass of Mutants.
Look at you, now.
We gave you all those tools, all those buttons.
But you fucked up.
Naturally, honourable mentions to Stargate and all that, but Defender will always be the one for me. Yeah, it’s technically revolutionary for plenty of videogame-history reasons (smart-bombs, stuff going on outside the playfield, particle explosions…) but, most importantly, just as your head knows it’s one of the few true greats, after 25 years, you still feel it in your heart.
And in reverse order...
50 to 40 - Oooh the suspense.
39 to 29 - Wow, if only we had Paul Ross to present.
28 to 18 - Time for a cup of tea in the break?
17 to 6 - Nearly there, so you get just a bit more meat.
5 - Into the legends...
4 - Is this the Bobby Moore to no.1's Paul Gascoigne?
3 - 3-2-1 quipped Ted Rogers. He wasn't wrong.
2 - We argued and agonised for months over this list - we really did.
1 - But of the number one slot, there was never any doubt.
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