Format: Coin-Op/Amiga Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up Released: 1980/1994 Developer: Williams/Ratsoft
Sadly, I’ve never played the original Defender arcade machine, although with the current growth of the retro game scene, it’s surely only a matter of time before I come across it at some sort of retro-themed club night. However, I did play the Amiga shareware conversion a helluva lot, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here.
There may well have been more than one shareware version of Defender, but after scouring t’interweb, I’m fairly sure that the one I had was developed by Ratsoft (thanks lemonamiga.com). Having never played the arcade original, I’m not in a position to comment of the quality of the Amiga conversion, but as far as I’m concerned it’s bloody brilliant. Interestingly, according to Retro Gamer and Edge (via Wikipedia), “most official and unofficial ports [of Defender] failed to accurately emulate the arcade’s gameplay”. If that’s the case, I’m obviously in for a real treat when I finally play the original arcade machine, because to my mind the Amiga version was nigh-on perfect.
Unlike many eighties arcade games, Defender has really stood the test of time. The lightning-fast gameplay is incredibly frenetic and tense, and the controls are amazingly responsive (which is in stark contrast to the woolly controls of one of its contemporaries, Space Invaders). The scrolling and collision detection are both spot on, so however difficult the gameplay gets (and it gets very difficult indeed), you can never blame the game for an unfair death.
Speaking of difficulty, this has to be one of the hardest but most rewarding games out there. It’s difficult because the secret to success is aiming and shooting at enemies on the main screen while simultaneously keeping one eye on the top radar screen – a very difficult task unless you happen to have eyes that swivel independently of each other. Still, keeping an eye (or at least part of an eye) on the radar is the only way you’ll have a chance of avoiding any aliens lurking off-screen once your ship gets up to full speed, unless you have Tron-like reflexes. Likewise, the radar screen helps you to find and rush to the aid of humans who are being abducted, and one of the most rewarding (and challenging) aspects of the game is shooting a fleeing alien out of mid-air (being careful to avoid hitting its human cargo), then deftly catching the falling human and returning him/her to terra firma.
More often than not, your little rescue mission ends with you missing the alien entirely and destroying the innocent human instead, or shooting the alien but failing to catch the human before they plummet to their death, which is why it’s so damn satisfying when you’re successful. It’s a brilliant mechanic that’s endlessly entertaining, and despite my general awfulness at this game, it was enough of a carrot to keep me playing and replaying for hours at a time.
Lastly, I have to mention an excellent Defender spin-off called Guardian, which was one of the very few games that was exclusive to the Amiga 1200 and the ill-fated CD32. Guardian did an absolutely amazing job of replicating the mechanics of Defender in 3D, and it’s just a shame that it was released so late in the Amiga’s lifespan (it was rated as the third best game on the Amiga in the penultimate issue of Amiga Power in 1996). The makers, Acid Software, were also behind the fantastic Super Skidmarks, but as far as I can gather, they were sucked up by some kind of black hole that emanated from Commodore’s HQ at around the time the Amiga imploded, and no-one’s heard of them since. Shame.
Anyway, here’s a clip of Defender in action – this is from the coin-op, but it’s pretty much identical to the Amiga version (make sure to have the sound turned up to fully appreciate the bombastic SFX).
(Screenshots from http://www.lemonamiga.com)