Defender: Introduction

Defender: Introduction

My first impression of the game of Defender was probably typical.  I had stopped at Arnold’s, an arcade in Seattle’s University District, to play a few games of Radarscope and Berzerk, the only video games I could stand (or understand) at the time.  While my friend and I played Radarscope, I noticed several University of Washington techno-twits crowded around a new game that one of them was playing.  After finishing our game (it was a good game for me and lasted perhaps two minutes), we walked over to see what they were so excited about. After watching for several minutes, I still didn’t know.

The machine itself looked like many other video games I had seen.  It had a colorful TV screen at about a twelve year old’s eye level, and a small ledge below the screen supporting a lever and a few buttons.  The player was frantically pushing and slapping at those buttons, breathing hard the whole time and occasionally darting a free hand up to brush his sweaty hair out of his eyes.  I decided, from the player’s wide eyes and look of intense, almost painful, concentration, as well as the steady stream of advice from his friends (“swarmers behind you”, “kill the mutant”, baiter coming”, “nuke the pods”) that this game wasn’t for me – I liked to think that I played video games to relax and have fun.

The TV screen that showed what was happening in the game only added to its hectic impression.  There were dozens of brightly colored and strangely shaped objects flying around the screen, including a small white spaceship.  From my experience with other video games, I assumed that the player was trying to control that spaceship.  When the ship collided with another object on the screen, there would be a loud explosion, with the ship bursting into a hundred pieces.  Just when I thought I had figured out the object of the game – to avoid all of the objects on the screen – the ship ran into a small white rectangle, and instead of an explosion, a little number flashed on the screen near the ship.  As the ship flew away from this encounter, the white rectangle hung from its belly.  As if that wasn’t confusing enough, occasionally the ship would fly right through what appeared to be the mountains.  To top it all off, there was a constant barrage of squealing, buzzing, whistling sounds coming from a small speaker above the playing screen.  Just above that speaker was a bright red and yellow sign proudly proclaiming that game’s name: Defender.

That was my first impression of the game of Defender, in March of 1981.  And although it may have been a typical first impression, my involvement with the game since then has been anything but typical.  Two months after deciding never to play the game, I was playing Defender up to ten hours a day.  Two months later, my average game was over an hour in length and I was practicing for a regional Defender contest.  Two months after that, I had won the contest’s $1000 first prize, and was able to play as long as I cared to on every quarter (24 hours on one occasion).

In those first six months, I spent hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours playing and studying the game of Defender, and I met other Defender players around the Seattle area who had also spent all of their free time and money on the game.   Some of these players were very good, some were stuck in a rut, playing again and again every day without improving, but there was one thing that they all had in common: regardless of their degree of success in the game, they were obsessed with it.  Defender, because of its complexity, can remain challenging and enjoyable to a player far longer than any other video game.

Many of the players I saw remained challenged by the game of Defender for a very negative reason: they were not getting any better.  The problem seemed to be a lack of information; many Defender players assume that they already know everything about the game, and further progress is just a matter of practice.  This is seldom true.  There is so much to learn about the game of Defender that any single player can have gaping holes in his understanding that will go unfilled until he is exposed to the ideas of many other players.

This was never more obvious to me than one day when I saw two young men playing the Defender machine at a sandwich shop where I had stopped for lunch.  One of them was showing the other how to play.

“Now, you just fly real low here and shoot these white things before they get you”, he explained.  The “white things” he was shooting were the men that the Defender player is supposed to be defending; the loss of all ten of those men causes the game to go into free space, a much more difficult situation than regular play.

The player quickly shot down all of his own men, carefully dodging his real opponents.  Just as he shot the last one, sending the game into free space and plunging his ship into a sea of deadly mutants (with a total score of 0 points), he clenched his teeth and began firing rapidly, muttering to his friend, “That first attack wave isn’t too bad, but after you finish it the game gets pretty fucking hard!”

The intent of this book is to make you a better Defender player.  Whether you’re completely new to the game or you’ve been playing every day for a year, there’s plenty of information here to help you improve.  These ideas, however, must be practiced many times before they will be reflected in your score.  Good Defender playing is never the result of shortcuts, but that’s part of Defender’s appeal – video game players, bored with repetitive pattern games, have found in Defender a truly honest game, where the final score is always a reflection of the player’s skill, knowledge, and practice.  (Well, the machine’s settings also affect your score, but we’ll look at that later.)

The best way to derive the full benefit of the ideas contained in this book is to practice them perfectly, over and over.  Since perfect practice is, in the real world, an unattainable goal, most of your practice while learning these ideas should be mental, away from the game.  Once you can mentally recall all of the details of a particular move quickly and flawlessly, the step to real-life performance (if such a phrase may be used in reference to video games) is a small one.

Chapter 1 is a short and simple beginners’ course in playing Defender, and Chapter 2 is a discussion of the controls used.

Every game of Defender presents new and unique challenges, but there are certain situations that come up very often.  These situations are the subject of Chapters 3 through 7, which explain the behavior of the game’s opponents: landers, mutants, swarmers, bombers, and baiters.  Each chapter describes the behavior of a particular opponent and then gives specific advice about how to take advantage of that behavior.  The solutions given are not the only ones that work, but they are the techniques used by most successful Defender players.

Chapter 8 describes when and how to catch falling men and set them down. Catching falling men is difficult for beginning players, and even an experienced player can have trouble trying to catch a falling man when many opponents are on the screen.  Chapter 8 has an added section on catching men when there are swarmers on the screen, a particularly dangerous maneuver for all players.

Chapters 9 and 10 both assume that you have mastered all of the maneuvers described in earlier chapters.  Chapter 9 explains how to deal effectively with free space, the biggest challenge in the game of Defender.  Chapter 10 covers strategies for getting through the higher attack waves.  Both of these chapters give you several different approaches to choose from; individual limits and abilities will determine which one should be used.

Chapter 11 is a collection of tips and observations that are not easily classified.  Some of the tricks in Chapter 11 might not help you get a higher score, but they’re so much fun that I included them anyway.  There is also a section on very long games (over 1,000,000 points) that will be useful when you decide to set the world record, as all Defender players eventually do.

NOTE: Chapters 12 and 13 have not been transcribed and are not yet online here.

Like The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, Defender has spawned a sequel.  Stargate has roughly the same concept and controls as Defender, with a handful of new opponents and special features thrown in.  It appeals mostly to experienced Defender players, although Stargate is actually a little easier than Defender for beginners.  Chapter 12 covers the differences between Stargate and Defender.

The next and last chapter is not specifically about playing Defender, but the ideas covered in it are important to anyone who wants to play to the best of his individual abilities.  Chapter 13 is a discussion of the psychology of consistent and successful video game playing.  Many players are capable of much better playing than they realize, and it is my hope that Chapter 13 will help these players to achieve their full potential.

Before you plunge headlong into the world of playing Defender, I should warn you that good Defender playing is intense.  Not only is the game itself intense, with its fast and overwhelming action, but the lifestyle of a hard-core Defender player is often equally intense – if you have a rampant imagination, you’ll catch yourself living the game as well as playing it.

When I first learned the swarmer follow move (described in Chapter 5), I used to practice it while riding my motorcycle.  I would follow the white bumps between lanes of the road, mowing them down by fluttering my right hand against the handlebar.  One night, while leading my brother in the car behind me to the Spot Tavern in South Seattle to practice Defender, I was so busy shooting swarmers on the road that I missed the break in the curb while turning into the parking lot, and bounced over the sidewalk at 25 mph.

The motorcycle skidded to a stop at the front door, with me miraculously still on top.  My shins and hands were bleeding where they had dragged across the footpegs and mirrors, but I just walked inside to the Defender machine and put down a quarter.  When it came my turn to play, the blood on my hands had dried enough that I could get a firm grip on the controls, so I pushed the start button and roared into the world of Defender. By wave 2, when I shot the first swarmers of the game, I had completely forgotten my injuries.