Reviewed: December 18, 2006
Released: November 15, 2006
Defender is one of many classic Midway arcade titles from the 80’s (1980 to be exact) that just won’t die…not that it should. Retro gaming seems to come in waves and with Xbox Live Arcade, we can prepare ourselves for a tsunami.
Defender was one of those arcade games that always collected a crowd of spectators and would-be space pilots waiting for their turn to save the galaxy from the evil Manti. Gameplay was simple in concept but incredibly challenging in execution. Designed as a horizontal Space Invaders, you flew your defender ship over a wireframe landscape blasting hordes of aliens bent on destroying the human race. In addition to wiping out the Manti you also had to rescue the occasional human. Often these humans were being captured by the Manti to be used to create more powerful mutant Manti ships. You had to carefully snipe the enemy then catch the falling human before he smacked the ground.
The original Defender pioneered several game concepts that are still used today. It was one of the first games where the screen offered only a small window into a much larger world. It was also one of the first games to use a primitive variation of what we now call “particle effects” to create some impressive explosions. Even more amazing is that this entire game took up less memory than a single icon on your current Window’s desktop.
Defender has been given the XBLA treatment and tossed onto the pile of retro games currently available on the Xbox 360. Considering you can already play this game as part of any number of retro compilations on PSP, console, or even cell phone, plus it was also tucked away as an unlockable bonus in the 2002 Defender remake, it’s pretty hard to justify spending those precious Microsoft Points for yet another copy, unless you are really hard up for 200 achievement points.
Gameplay is true to the original. You pilot your ship at blinding (uncontrollable) speeds left and right and up and down shooting aliens that look like space invaders (or perhaps lunar landers) as they slowly sink toward the wireframe landscape to snatch helpless humans who don’t know when to hide indoors (like during an alien invasion).
Once snatched you’ll need to swoosh in and save the day by shooting the alien before he reaches the top of the screen with the human. If he makes it the alien will then mutate into a much more formidable foe. If you shoot the alien the human it was carrying will plummet to the ground so you must swoosh (lots of swooshing in this game) and catch the human then gently deposit him back on the ground.
Your overall goal is to destroy all the aliens while saving as many humans as possible. If all the humans are captured (or you accidentally shoot them) the planet will blow up and you must finish the battle in space where things get much harder.
The 360 controller is hardly a worthy substitute for that big knobby joystick and quarter-sized buttons of the arcade cabinet. Back then the joystick moved you up and down only and you used buttons to thrust and reverse direction. Now you control your direction and speed with the analog stick (or D-pad), but if you want the pure retro experience you can use the triggers to thrust and reverse.
Defender adds in some multiplayer gameplay but this feature is so weak it should have been left out entirely. You can play online with one other person in either co-op or versus mode, but you never see the other player or what they are doing. You only see the scores changing and each other’s remaining lives, so why does this game suffer from unplayable lag? We’re talking Frogger lag bad. At least you can voice chat while playing, but otherwise, multiplayer has all the interactivity (and lag) of playing chess by mail.
Defender allows you to play in the default graphics mode, which is what they called “updated” but in reality it looks worse than the original. They fill in the landscape and give you some artistic borders to fill in those gaps on your widescreen TV, but I’ll take the classic vector graphics any day. If they had really wanted to “enhance” the graphics they should have redone the entire game using Geometry Wars visuals. Now that would have been an “update”.
Defender had some of the most original sounds of its time. If you walked into a bustling arcade back in the 80’s you could almost always hear the telltale sounds of the Defender machine somewhere on the premises, whether it was the explosive smartbomb or the chain reaction of the planet blowing up. And each laser blast had its signature sound. All of this is perfectly captured and recreated for this Xbox Live refit.
Like most 80’s arcade games, there is no end. You play for high score and bragging rights, and Xbox Live with their leaderboard score system makes this a global affair. If you are good at the game and continually improve you can potentially play this game forever. Will you? Probably not…at least I hope not. There is so much better stuff waiting to be played, both in the XBLA and major releases.
Is it worth $5? Probably not…unless you are really hard up for the achievement points, and earning all 200 in this game ain’t no walk in the park. Many include just finishing levels without losing humans but some are nearly impossible like surviving for 75 seconds without firing a shot. Good luck!
If this were the only way to play Defender I’d say, “Sure, spend the points and buy the game”, but you can probably fill whatever alien-shooting-human-saving craving you might have with the trial download. There are so many other XBLA titles more worthy of your 800 MP. For $5 you can probably find the 2002 PS2 or Xbox remake of Defender in 3D, which is a great game on its own and includes the original defender. Or if you own a PSP, get the Midway Treasures compilation.
Unless you just have to have every gamer score point available or need to dominate all the Xbox Live leaderboards, I’d probably pass on Defender. Then again, I suck at this game so it could be just sour grapes….nahhh…