Defender: The Last Word


This evening, I’ve checked an item off my to-do list that was over 30 years old: publish Defender book. Check. Done. You can find it here on my website. (It’s about 85% complete — still need to finish transcribing the text of the last two chapters.)

If you weren’t hanging out in bars or arcades in 1981, Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of the Defender phenomenon.

I learned to play Defender at the Spot Tavern (south Renton), on lunch breaks from my job as a Fortran programmer at Boeing’s long-gone Valley Office Park facility. Well, is it a “lunch break” if you show up at noon and close the bar down, playing Defender the whole time? In any event, I played Defender a lot, and was lucky enough to find that I had a bit of aptitude for the game. I won every Defender contest I entered for a couple of years (various prizes up to $1000 cash).

So I did the predictable thing: I quit my job at Boeing (hey, it was interfering with my video game playing!) and spent three months writing the ultimate guide to Defender. I wrote it in WordStar on a Heath H-89 CP/M computer that I had helped my Dad build, and I wrote GW-BASIC programs to generate dot-matrix graphics on an Epson MX-80 for crude artwork to illustrate some of the concepts. I tracked down the designers of Defender, Eugene Jarvis and Larry Demar, and flew to Chicago on the last of my savings to crash on Eugene’s couch and spend a few days getting their feedback on the details.

I then spent a frustrating couple of months trying to sell my manuscript, but in hindsight it was too late for a Defender book. I collected some hilarious rejection letters, such as the one from an acquisition editor at Alfred A. Knopf who had apparently never seen a dot-matrix printout before and assumed the entire text was computer-generated. He lectured me on the need for strong narrative in fiction, closing with “I wonder how fictive is the mind of, say, Steve Jobs?”

My lucky break came when Eugene was interviewed by JoyStik Magazine in Chicago, and he told them they should talk to me. I wound up getting a job as a technical editor (moved to Chicago on a few days notice), and I could expense rolls of quarters – a dream job for a 24 year-old teenager!

After I was working at JoyStik, I edited the chapter on Free Space into a “Winning Edge” column for the magazine, and that’s the only part of the manuscript that’s ever been published. Until today.

Today, many of the remaining Defender enthusiasts are really good, and well beyond the level of player that my book was geared toward. But back when Defender was new, we were all still figuring out its possibilities, and also we were playing coin-operated games that belonged to others, so we couldn’t change the settings. So somebody had to be the first to play for an hour, or a day, at factory settings, and 1981 was a great year for Defender players because all of those records were falling and there were contests going on all over the place.

There was a gunslinger mentality, with players coming in to one another’s hangouts to put up attention-getting scores during off hours, or during prime time if you felt ready for a public duel. And unlike today’s global video gaming culture, playing styles and influences were constrained by the need to physically transport yourself to a particular piece of hardware to compete with others. This resulted in playing-style trends like those mentioned in Chapter 11:

In Seattle, where I play, the top players are very aware of the idea of style in Defender playing. Some players even refer to particular styles of play by the part of town where they originated. East Side players (from Bellevue and Kirkland) have the most compassion for the men on the planet’s surface; they never shoot them intentionally, and catch almost every man that goes up. South End players (from Renton, Kent, and Des Moines) like to shoot baiters – they’ll often wait for a few at the end of a wave. North End players (from Wallingford, Lake City, and the University District) are careful and consistent and they play to win.

My book is in some ways just a record of how a particular group of South End players were approaching the game in those days. If you’re into that sort of thing, enjoy.


1 Comment

  1. Nicolas Greensmith on

    I used to play regularly as a teenager (even with my left arm in a cast at one time). This was in a local arcade mostly and also in the back room of a record store. I was among the happy few who reached the elusive “999,975” score by the technique of scoring “25” for being shot and then trying to stay on that score by losing the last few ships on re-entry from hyperspace. Occasionally this did not work as planned as it was possible to materialize on another shot from a mutant and ending up scoring “0”.

    I came across the game years later on an arcade machine emulator and played on the P.C. using the keys, but the experience was not the same. I found a machine at a seaside amusement arcade one year and ofcourse ponied up the requisite funds for a trip down memory lane, but the experience was short lived as the settings had been “cranked up” and the three hour full-on fun became a few minutes of frantically dealing with mutants and baiters!

    I am glad there are still people enjoying this excellent arcade game and I am thinking of applying to your “closed group” on facebook, but wary that this may put a strain on my already busy diary. Good luck with transcribing the manual and all your other endeavours.


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