Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Milestones : Defender

A joystick and a button. That was all we needed in those early days. The joystick moved your ship or character and the button fired or jumped. A few games went outside that paradigm, adding a button for other features such as a pointlessly risky hyperspace jump (I'm looking at you Asteroids), or replaced the joystick with a slick trakball or paddle, but for the most part the joystick and button served our needs.

Which even at the time seemed silly to us. I mean, it's a spaceship, and the few spaceship interiors we had seen either in reality or fiction all had huge control bridges with banks of consoles on them. Even single-person fighters we had seen in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica had more than a joystick and a button.

So then Defender appeared. Here's how it appeared to me, on a Saturday night in my rural Ohio hometown.

My friends Andy and Barry were staying overnight in my basement, as we did frequently in those days, to of course gorge ourselves on videogames and snacks. We had Barry's Atari all hooked up, and it was time for a snack run. Andy and I took up that charge, leaving Barry there engrossed in Riddle of the Sphynx.

At Lawson's, a nearby convenience store, there was always one arcade game, and we knew what it was because we were there frequently. Tonight, as we gathered up the snacks, Andy and I noticed that a new game was there, making strange new sounds. This was Defender.

We just stared at the controls and the attract mode (alternating the title screen, the onscreen play demo and the high score chart)for a minute and took it all in. In the middle of the control panel were two buttons, used to select either a one-player game or a two-player one, which was pretty standard at the time.

To the left was the familiar joystick, but it only moved the side-scrolling ship up and down. To the right of the joystick and a little bit down the panel was a strange "reverse" button, which flipped the orientation of the ship from left to right and back again. So these functions would be done with the left hand. I was immediately skeptical of the reverse button.

On the far right side was the good old "fire" button, and to the immediate left of that a "thrust" button. So now we had a joystick and two buttons involved in steering the ship instead of just the joystick handling all of those functions. My closed-minded cynicism grew.

But wait, there's more. To the left and a little bit down from the thrust button was a strange new green button labeled "smart bomb". And way out there in the middle of the control panel, far from either hand, and below the aforementioned player select buttons, was the good old "hyperspace" button, again only recommended if you're about to die, as it will most likely destroy your ship if you use it.

We turned our attention to the screen. It looked incredible. Mountains scrolled by the fast-moving ship, aliens were plucking people off the planet, the ship was shooting the aliens and rescuing them before they hit the ground, there was an incredibly detailed and functionally useful radar screen, and the sound effects which had moments ago gotten our attention from across the store were a symphony of digital carnage.

I put the first quarter in. I died pretty quickly. Andy tried a game. He died pretty quickly. We put down our munchies and went to the counter for more quarters. Our previous doubts about the ship movement controls were the first to go, as we grew accustomed to the tight responsiveness of the reverse button. Andy was the first to pull a quick reverse and fire after flying past an alien ship, which was quite satisfying, as the maneuver seemed to leave the alien ship momentarily confused. I was the first to lose all the humanoids and see the world blow up and the game go crazy. We both figured out almost immediately to be very conservative with our limited supply of smart bombs.

Hours later, we returned to my basement with our munchies, no change left save for a few pennies. Barry had dozed off. We told him about Defender the next day. This title had dragged us out of our primitive control schemes kicking and screaming, demanding with its hardcore difficulty that we adapt to the future of gaming, a challenge we have gladly accepted ever since.

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