“Save the humanoids!”
Williams’ “Defender” is one of those iconic golden era arcade titles that everyone has either played or at least heard of. It’s a hall of famer without question and the arcade cabinet was one of those “have to see if to believe it” games with its crisp raster graphics, awesome sound effects and multiple buttons used to control your ship and weapons. It was also an extremely intimidating and difficult game and watching someone that was very proficient at it was an event that kids would gather around to witness. Unfortunately, I was never one of those ultra proficient “Defender” players and I didn’t like using my quarters on a game that I couldn’t get the hang of. Once I started playing the old classics on my Atari home consoles in the late 90s and early 2000s, “Defender” was one of the games I knew I needed to own since I didn’t spend a lot of time playing the arcade version.
The Atari 2600 version of “Defender” was the first one I played and it was fun enough but it was missing much of what made the arcade title so unique. Thankfully, the Atari 5200 version is what most fans think of in terms of looks, sounds and gameplay. “Defender” on the 5200 has that raster graphics look to it, which provides a very clean appearance that is absolutely necessary for game screens that can get very busy. The sounds of your missiles firing into the atmosphere, the explosions of enemies and cries for help from the humanoids are all very reminiscent of the arcade title. You’ll swear you were in a 1981 arcade while playing this version!
For those unfamiliar with “Defender’s” gameplay, your planet is being invaded by aliens who’s mission is to destroy it after they kidnap the entire humanoid race living in cities on the planet’s surface and turn them all into mutants. Your job is to defend the cities/humanoids while destroying as many aliens as possible. Aliens will lift humanoids off the ground, who will notify you by crying out for help. As the aliens along with the captured humanoid climb up towards the top of the screen, you have an opportunity to destroy the alien landers or the the alien lander and the humanoid it has captured. This is not the ideal outcome but it’s better than letting it turn into a mutant! If you choose not to blast the humanoids, you can let them fall back to the planet’s surface where they will either live or die depending on how far they fall. You can also rescue the falling humanoid and return them to the surface for bonus points. If the aliens turn the humanoid into a mutant, it will then relentlessly attack you. If all humanoids during that wave are turned into mutants, the planet is destroyed and you can only attack aliens in a survival mode. Survive long enough and the cities will be rebuilt.
There are a multitude of aliens besides the “landers” and “mutants”, each with different names and tactics such as “bombers”, who can leave mines for you to avoid, “baiters” (these guys are tough and fast!), and “pods” that when blasted, release a number of small and annoying “swarmers” that will then chase after you. Luckily, you have more than just your standard missiles to defend yourself, most notably a limited number of smart bombs that clear the entire screen as well as a hyperspace option which will remove you from a sticky situation, hopefully without putting you into a different one.
The standard 5200 controller is very effective in playing “Defender” as most of your time will be spent moving horizontally along the bottom third of the screen blasting landers and rescuing humanoids. You can move either right or left as the screen wraps around and utilizing the radar screen at the top is key to lining your ship up on the correct vertical plane as your enemies as well as figuring out the fastest direction to go to save the kidnapped person. The two side buttons are used for missiles and smart bombs and the keypad is used for hyperspace. I’m thankful that they allow any keypad button to be used for hyperspace as it would be very difficult to ensure you hit one specific button in a tight situation where you would need to use hyperspace in the first place.
“Defender” for the Atari 5200 isn’t much easier than the arcade but providing three levels of difficulty was a wise move. The screen does get cluttered at times with debris from exploding enemies, missile fire from your blaster as well as enemy fire, and waves of aliens in various shapes and forms. Once you get used to identifying what can hurt you and what cannot, “Defender” is a very playable and fun title on the 5200. This is the version of “Defender” that made me appreciate what this game was all about and what it offered.
Currently in my collection: game, manual, overlay