And yet, it doesn’t feel all that unfair. I found that Defender is very generous with awarding extra lives, and most of my deaths were due being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff happening, or to my own carelessness.
The controls and gameplay are complex for an arcade game of this period. A two-direction joystick controls your altitude, and two buttons are used to thrust or reverse direction. Like Asteroids, you are carried by inertia even when you aren’t thrusting, and although you can reverse direction instantly, this does not cancel out your momentum. You can therefore fly backwards by releasing thrust and reversing, which is often a useful battle tactic. Two more buttons are for your weapons; you have bullets that can (and must) be spammed and leave a laser-like trails streaking across the screen, and you have a limited supply of smart bombs which destroy everything on the screen (usually), and sometimes the carnage continues off-screen as well. Finally, you have a hyperspace button for getting you out of a jam, which just like Asteroids, randomly teleports you to another part of the screen, and will kill you outright about what feels like 25% of the time, which is better odds than in Asteroids.
An attract mode shows you a diorama of the aliens you’ll face.
- Lander –Green space invaders, who spawn in waves, move slowly (relative to the other aliens) and aimlessly, and fire slow moving bullets at you when they see you, but don’t really pursue you. They’re the only threat to the colonists walking on the surface, except for your own errant shots. They will randomly swoop down at colonists on the surface, and carry them up into space rather quickly. It’s almost futile to try to react to this unless they happen to be very close when it happens, but if you destroy the lander, it will drop the colonist, and you can get 250 points for picking it up, and another 250 for dropping it back on the surface. Crashing into the surface is impossible, thankfully. But if the lander carries the colonist all the way to the top of the screen, the colonist dies and the lander becomes a…
- Mutant –Faster, more erratic and aggressive landers who ignore colonists and target you while dodging your shots.
- Baiter – Bullet-firing UFO’s who spawn one at a time and relentlessly target you once the waves of landers are done. They don’t appear at first, but once fewer than four aliens remain, they’ll start appearing every five seconds or so. They may also start spawning if you’re too far away from the action for too long. They’re faster than you, but have trouble reversing direction, making it ideal to let them overtake you and then hit them as they slow down to reverse. Their narrow profile makes hitting them quite difficult. You do not need to kill all of the baiters to end the round.
- Bomber – Not that big of a threat, they just float around in slow, predictable patterns and drop space mines that usually aren’t too hard to just weave around. It’s very tempting to take them out as targets of opportunity, but landers can kill off your colonists if your attention is divided. I prefer to save them for last, because thanks to the baiters, I want the mop-up phase to end as quickly as possible.
- Pod – Harmless unless you crash into them. But you must kill them to end the round, and when you do, they release a horde of swarmers. Using smart bombs on pods sometimes destroy the swarmers and scores huge points, but not always.
- Swarmers – I hate these guys. They swarm, are really hard to hit, and fire shots in big, chaotic clusters. And they don’t count toward the limit for spawning baiters. Ugh…
My best attempt got over 86,000 points, hardly a world record, but it surpasses Eugene Jarvis’ own high score during development.
My strategy was to target the landers first. They’re probably the easiest to kill, and any lander you spare could kill a colonist when you aren’t paying attention and become a mutant. I’d use smart bombs on clusters of pods, and on landers in the process of abducting colonists who were too high up for me to reach in time, sometimes both at once. After the landers were finished and I’d taken care of any mutants, I’d go after remaining pods and try to deal with the swarms before the baiters started spawning (I was not always successful), and finally kill the bombers. It took me awhile, but I eventually got the hang of using hyperspace in emergencies, which certainly contributed to my longevity.
Around the 60,000 point mark, I clearly felt my concentration starting to wane, and made dumb mistakes like pressing the hyperspace button when I meant to press something else, and forgetting to check the scanner, but I still managed to hang around for another two rounds. The game is, as I mentioned, generous with extra lives, awarding one every 10,000 points, which can be easily achieved every round.
But eventually, the landers nabbed my last few colonists, seemingly all at once. When this happens, the planet is destroyed in a spectacular display of particle effects, and then the landers all become mutants. I was overwhelmed, and lost the last of my lives. Game over.