1980 was the Year of the Video Game. Sure, Pong was already over seven years old by then, and the industry had already been more than established with hits like Asteroids, Space Invaders and Galaxian. But 1980 saw not only the birth of several legendary titles, but also the establishment of several legendary companies. Nintendo rose to dominance thanks to the success of Donkey Kong. Pac-Man proved Namco wasn't just a one-hit wonder with Galaxian. Berzerk put Chicago-based Stern Electronics on the map. Also in Chicago, Williams Electronics came up with a little game called Defender.
At the beginning of 1980, Williams was a respected pinball manufacturer, and counted a man named Eugene Jarvis among their pinball developers. When the company decided pinball alone wouldn't carry them into the future, Jarvis was selected to create Williams's first video arcade game. Jarvis had spent time at Atari before joining Williams, but he had never before worked on a video game. After a few months of tinkering, he decided he had the perfect name: Defender. He still needed a game.
More time went by, and eventually Jarvis had something else: astronauts, and a landscape for them to walk around on. A complete game was still nowhere to be seen, and with 1980's Amusement Machine Operators of America convention coming up soon, Williams management made clear to Jarvis it was high time he create an actual game to go with those little astronauts and that Defender name. Jarvis went back to the drawing board and began working on the enemies that would antagonize the player as well as those astronauts. "Landers" and "Bombers" soon appeared, and at that point so did a game. But Jarvis wasn't happy with his creation, feeling it didn't inspire enough panic in players. Then, "Mutants" appeared, and with them a reason to protect the astronauts on the ground. Now Jarvis had a real game to show his bosses, and with the addition of "Swarmers" and "Baiters," Defender was complete.
Except, it wasn't. The night before the AMOA convention, Williams had new Defender arcade cabinets set up for the show, ready to demonstrate their new hardware capable of some of the most advanced graphics and sound effects of the day. What they didn't have was a playable game programmed onto microchips and plugged into that hardware. Jarvis and his team were still working on bug fixes and improvements almost literally to the last minute, and Defender didn't even have an attract mode until hours before the convention. That morning finally saw the first batch of Defender microchips, and the first Defender arcade cabinets came to life, just in time for the convention to begin.
Coincidentally, 1980's AMOA convention was also the first time American arcade owners got to see Pac-Man. Their reaction to Defender was very similar to that of Pac-Man: indifference. Defender was too hard, they decided, and too baffling with its control panel full of buttons and a joystick that only went up and down. Defender would fail, they were certain, and so would Pac-Man.
After the convention, Jarvis continued polishing the game, adding more levels of alien attack in the off chance someone might get good enough to make it past the original last level, Level 5. Then came time to see what the game would do in actual arcades with actual players. Predictably, the game's difficulty had players cursing as their quarters turned into mere seconds of playtime. Unpredictably, the challenge made those same players pump even more quarters into the game, determined to master the controls and solve the enigma of Defender. As 1980 came to an end, Defender was a bona-fide hit (so was Pac-Man, incidentally), and Williams was in the video game business to stay.
Since then, Defender has been ported to many different home consoles, and has inspired several sequels. Among those, Stargate has enjoyed a legacy almost as enduring as the original's. Jarvis meanwhile has gone on to create several other arcade hits, including Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV. Defender, however, will always be both his and Williams's crowning achievement.