If you were gaming back in 1981 and went to see Avengers: Infinity War last weekend, then you might’ve been caught by surprise by a particular easter egg in the movie. Angsty, teen Groot is a marvel to behold on his own, as he rolls his eyes and snaps back at Star-Lord whenever the captain gives him an order, but he’s made twice as enjoyable when he pulls out his Defender handheld game.
In true Guardians of the Galaxy fashion, the new Avengers film pays homage to one of the staples of ’80s culture: the arcade scene. The Defender cabinet was an absolute staple of the era. Released in 1981 by Williams Electronics, the cabinet was quickly followed by a handheld electronic game from Entex. The handheld might actually be the ultimate way to play this arcade space shooter since it featured a speed control knob that allowed newbies to adjust how fast the game scrolled.
Surely, a seasoned Defender player like Groot wouldn’t need to slow the gameplay down, but I did when I ran to my local arcade to try out the game so prominently featured in Infinity War. Unfortunately, I was given no such mercy. Instead, I jumped into a surprisingly fast sidescrolling bullet hell with amazing colors and shocking sound design.
Even as a child of the ’90s, it’s impossible to ignore Defender’s beautiful arcade cabinet, which teases a grand sci-fi setting that, of course, doesn’t translate to what’s actually featured in the game, but it’s enough to build a story around. Certainly, the design of Defender’s starfighter could hook any longtime Battlestar Galactica fans into a fantasy of Cylon-blasting action.
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Defender has obvious influences: Taito’s Space Invaders and Atari’s Asteroids, classic space shooters from the late ‘70s. In fact, Williams originally set out to design a game very similar to Space Invaders’ vertical shooting, but the team felt that it was too derivative. Asteroids’ gameplay was deemed a worthy subject to build on the foundation of Space Invaders to create a game that was faster paced (and more enjoyable) than its influences.
I jumped into a game of Defender and was immediately taken with it. Its best feature is the open-endedness of the map, which covers the starry skies above an unknown planetscape. As you zoom through the level, enemies — bug-like sprites reminiscent of Space Invaders’ baddies — appear in front and, most intriguingly, behind you. Luckily, Defender allows you to reverse the direction of your ship so that you can scroll left and take out the bugs on your six. It’s a simple mechanic we take for granted today but works wonders for a game like Defender, which brings with it a speed more akin to modern bullet hells than its contemporaries.
Defender demands that you switch between left and right at frantic speeds. You have to keep your fingers on the “Reverse” button and on the thrust at all times. The joystick also allows you to move up and down the screen so that you can dodge enemies and laser fire. Enemies most often try to crash into you in suicide runs that become increasingly more difficult to evade. There’s also a handy hyperspace button that can get you out of trouble in a bind (emulating the best Han Solo moments), but a jump can go wrong at random and you lose a life — I find this last bit an interesting little element that adds to the unpredictability of each level. After all, it’s not like you have time to course a jump when there are enemy ships all over the screen.
The easiest way to beat a level is to defeat all the aliens on the map, although later levels also introduce rescue missions, as you rush to save astronauts from the unnamed planet’s surface. Failure to save the astronauts results in the destruction of the planet and the level being populated with a swarm of mutants that you have to survive in order to move on to the next stage. All in all, there’s enough complexity here to keep players invested.
If you grew up in the ’90s or later, you’d have to be forgiven for never having heard of Defender, which never quite made a successful transition to the home console market. In the years after its initial launch, the game was ported to the Apple II computer, several Atari systems, the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, and others. But Defender has never had a meaningful presence on modern consoles. A remake of the game, titled Defender 2000, was released for the Atari Jaguar in 1996, the year that console was discontinued due to low sales. The franchise’s final foray into a console release was the 2002 remake for PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and GBA.
A sequel was born just months after the arrival of Defender. Known as Stargate, this installment added new enemy ships as well as a handy cloaking device that could protect your starfighter for a limited time. While this game had no direct connection to the movie and TV franchise of the same name, it did introduce Stargates to the side-scrolling action, adding an element of time travel that could be used to get through the levels faster.
Strike Force was a 1991 “reimagining” of the game by Midway in an attempt to modernize the title. This game’s biggest contribution to the Defender experience was a two-player mode. Strike Force also featured power-ups and special weapons, which you could pick up from the planet’s surface. You also had the ability to drop commandos onto the ground so that they could rescue astronauts or shoot enemies. Despite the new additions, this modernization from Midway never really made a splash in the arcade scene or on home consoles.
This all brings us back to Groot, whom, despite his nasty teenage attitude, is wise beyond his years. Wise enough to pick up a game well worth your time, even today. I certainly look forward to zapping some more bugs at my local arcade very soon.