Classic Retro Video Game Reviews

Atari Defender -Atari 2600
Retro Gaming Review

Atari 2600 VCS console Classic Retro Gaming Video Game ReviewDefender for Atari 2600 Classic Retro Gaming Video Game Review
Title: Defender
Manufacturer: Atari
Platform: Atari 2600
Release Date: 1981
Part #: CX2609
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
ESRB Rating: N/A

Rating: Atari Defender Classic Retro Video Game Review Rating
Atari Defender Screenshot:
Atari Defender for Atari 2600 screenshot Classic Retro Gaming Video Game Review

Defender for the Atari 2600 brought a beloved arcade shooter into living rooms. It's arcade status was legendary, so it's port to a home system generated a lot of excitement. But, it would soon become one of the more contested releases as well. With limited memory and few joystick options, there was a lot of input to mesh with the single fire button of the Atari 2600. There were slow downs and almos unbelievable screen flicker.

The key to unlocking the insane joy, in a home-ported game full of screen-flickering, is to revisit the era - the glorious 80s! Defender came to arcades with a wide set of controls and allowed players to roam the galaxy on a horizontal scroll. Suddenly you didn't feel confined to a single screen and the action was manic. It was almost as much fun to watch others play as you waited your turn at the controls. Playing Defender was an amazing experience at the Electric Playhouse in Mount Kisco, NY. Even though the 2600 version paled in comparison to most arcade-to-home console ports, being able to play Defender non-stop, any time I wanted, was beyond my wildest dreams... at the time ;)

When you look at the arcade controls for Defender you'll see more than the usual amount of buttons. There were buttons for reversing direction, firing, smart bombs, hyperspace and thrust. The joystick only controlled the vertical motion of the ship. So, how do you get all that into a single button controller? Carefully :)

People tend to forget that much of Defender's challenge in arcades was the large number of things to keep track of and do. Between the joystick, 5 buttons and radar screen, the arcade version expected a lot of it's players. Arcades were littered with bottom-shooters horizontally traversing the screen while the player's finger weighed heavily on the fire button. Defender's brave ship could roam the entire screen, travel either direction, detonate various weapons and had a radar screen to detect approaching enemies. I routinely confused the buttons and would accidentally thrust into an enemy I meant to fire on. A lot of Defender's appeal came from it's uniqueness and difficulty - it wasn't for the faint of heart!

Bringing Defender to the Atari 2600 was a grand feat that went unappreciated by many home gamers.

Defender's Story Arc

Earth's "friendship" signal, beamed into deep space, has a respondent. Unfortunately, Earth's search for life beyond its solar system garnered the attention of aliens who are now attacking. Aboard the Universal Space Ship Defender, your mission is to defend Earth and it's Humanoids who are the favored target of the alien onslaught. Once captured, Humanoids are transformed into Mutants programmed to destroy the cities of Earth and take over. Screw that! Your job was to destroy all aliens, particularly those abducting humanoids, and return the Humanoids to the cities below.

Defender's Game Play

Armed with 3 lives, 3 smart bombs and endless Laser Missiles, you keep an eye on the radar screen to see which enemy to blast first. Every 10,00 points you'll be awarded another ship (life) and another smart bomb. Each wave ended only when you cleared the zone of all enemies at which point the wave number would appear on the screen. Sometimes the screen would be so infested with aliens that a smart bomb was the best way to survive. Other times Hyperspace may be the escape of choice, although it won't guarantee warping you to a safer area - it just got ou out of the current mess.

Deploying smart bombs or entering hyperspace seemed awkward in the face of battle when you were either trying to clear the screen or get the Hell outta there. Both actions necessitated moving your ship off the top or bottom of the screen and pressing the fire button. Although counterintuitive to fast paced action, this provided a programatic cue for the 2600's single fire button to do more than one thing. Considering the limited parameters of the 2600 and the complexity of the Arcade version of Defender, I'm glad the included both smart bombs and hyperspace. This could have been a simple single weapon game.

The radar screen was a big help in the arcade. On the 2600 version of Defender, it didn't give you as much detail. For me it was a quick glance to determine if a lot of enemies were approaching or not as many. The lack of visual detail is obviously more noticeable in smaller areas of the screen, like the radar screen area. The dots can be helpful, but can also be more of a distraction than benefit. See, there's still a lot to keep track of even on this simplified home version. Not so simple, right?

Holy shit! Check this out...
In 1980 Williams Electronics' Eugene Jarvis brought the 1st side-scrolling shooter, Defender, to arcades. It didn't attract much attention at the 1980 AMOA. Jarvis believed many passersby were intimidated by its complexity. Steve Juraszek from Illinois, played Defender for over
16 and half hours in 1982, though the record's authenticity was questioned. Defender has been referenced in music including the Beastie Boys' song "Body Movin'" on their 1998 album Hello Nasty.

The audible yelp of a Humanoid being abducted is far more useful than a visual glance at the radar. The radar can help determine the best path to finding and rescuing the Humanoid. Like the arcade, you blast the lander and if close enough to the cityscape, the Humanoid lands safely. You can also swoop in and collect him and bring him to the ground with your ship. If all 5 Humanoids are destroyed or mutated, the city blows up and disappears and a Mutant wave ensues.

Defender's Alien Foes

Each wave consists of Landers, Bombers, Swarmers, Baiters, Mutants and Pods. Landers scour the city for humanoids to abduct and mutate. Bombers lay mines which can't be destroyed. When a Pod is destroyed it releases Swarmers who travel in clusters of 4. Baiters show up towards the end of a wave and are very fast. Mutants are transformed Humanoids and are the most dangerous enemy.

Defender's Screen Flicker

Screen flicker is the biggest issue with the 2600's interpretation of Defender. This facet is the only reason I wouldn't rate it higher than I did. Every shot fired causes your ship to momentarily vanish and when more than 1 or 2 aliens appear they all flicker at a manic rate. The flicker is so prominent that our screen shot above only shows one Lander - there were 4 on the screen at capture, but flickering made it impossible to "see" them all. Yikes!

If you're prone to seizures Defender on the Atari 2600 may not be the game for you. Your ship will disappear with every shot, aliens flicker wildly when more than a few appear and this may drive you crazy. OR... you might just enjoy a classic side scrolling shooter that has no equivalent on the 2600. Face it - if you hate Defender, what is the alternative? I can't come up with a suitable replacement.

Difficulty Switch Settings for Defender

The Difficulty Switches function the same for 1 or 2 player games. The "A" postion is harder by making the vertical rise and descent slower making it harder to avoid aliens and rescue Humanoids. The "B" position lets the ship rise and descend quickly. The switches can be used independently to offset a higher skill level of one of the 2 players.

Defender's Game Variations

The 20 game options are split in half as 10 are for a single player and 10 for 2 players. The 10 options are combinations of Humanoid pick up speed, Mutant & Baiter speed and the starting wave (Wave 1, 3 or 5). There are also game selections for getting accustomed to Mutant attacks. This option pits you against a string of Mutants who move in QUICK for the attack.

DIY Defender - the Home Brew Hacks

Others have tried to improve upon Defender by creating their own hacks of the game. Some are quite good, but all suffer many of the same drawbacks (like screen flicker) as the Atari original. We've listed a few below with screenshots.

Several "hacks" came out each with their own take on paring down the non-essentials to make the ultimate Defender for the Atari 2600.

In the end, Defender on the 2600 is a fun game. I'd go so far as to say its a great game, once you get past the flicker and other oddities. As a kid, I sat on the living room floor for hours playing Defender.

In today's world of photo-realistic gaming, 8-bit games may seem ridiculous to some folks. But we don't play 8-bit games today because they're better than PS3 or Xbox games - we play them to relive memories and connect with the fun we had as kids. I love playing the arcade version on my PS2 and GameCube, but I still have a fondness for the fun of the classic 2600 Defender!

Have you played Atari today? :)

Atari 2600 VCS console Classic Retro Gaming Video Game Review
Final Judgement:

Atari Defender

looks OK and plays a little less than OK, but it's fucking Defender! In '81 it was a must-have... now? Not so much. But - it's fucking Defender!! It's not such a bad game and being able to play it at HOME in 1981 was awesome!

I can't rave about this release, but I insist you play it often regardless!

Atari 2600 Defender Gets A Bad Rap

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