by Robert A. Jung
Atari Corp., for the Atari Jaguar
Of the game developers writing for the Atari Jaguar, the most high-profile is unarguably Jeff Minter of Llamasoft. Previously renown for his frantic action games on the Commodore 64, his first Jaguar title, Tempest 2000, astonished gamers everywhere and literally sold numerous consoles for Atari. After developing the Virtual Light Machine music lightsynth for the Jaguar CD player, Jeff returns with another updated arcade classic, Defender 2000.
As with Tempest 2000, Defender 2000 provides three games, all with one inspirational source. "Defender Classic" is a reproduction of the original Williams Defender arcade game; the player flies a spaceship across a horizontally-scrolling landscape, protecting humanoids on a planet from alien kidnappers. "Defender Plus" is an enhanced version of the game, with new enemies to fight and more powerful weapons to destroy them. Finally, "Defender 2000" features still more enemies, 100 levels of play, power-up icons, bonus stages, and even more ways to wreak havoc against the attackers. All games support two players with alternating turns, and "Defender 2000" allows expert players to skip the early stages and start on higher levels.
Paradoxically, Defender 2000 is a wonderful action game that is sure to receive a lot of criticism. After the phenomenal success of Tempest 2000, many gamers had raised their expectations for Llamasoft's next effort. And while Defender 2000 is amazing, it isn't flawless; some folks are sure to be disappointed when this game fails to meet every exalted expectation. Tempest 2000 is, quite simply, a tough act to follow.
Comparisons aside, Defender 2000 offers three distinctive games in one package. "Defender Classic" is a very close reproduction of the arcade title. It isn't a perfect copy -- the difficulty starts off somewhat easier, and there are minor aesthetic differences between the two -- but it does capture all of the uncomplicated thrills of the Williams classic. "Defender Plus" is a logical outgrowth of "Classic," keeping the taste of the original while building on the difficulty. Aliens appear more frequently and attack more aggressively, while score thresholds are raised to higher levels. This is offset by the player's improved firepower and (optional) computer-controlled drones, and the result is an expanded game that clearly builds on Defender's foundation.
Finally, there's "Defender 2000," sure to be the most divisive mode in the cartridge. This is Defender merged with Raiden and drenched in adrenaline; survival is dependent largely on getting power-ups and proper planning. It's almost guaranteed to intimidate newcomers -- the ship reaches MACH 3 at a touch, and a typical level has over a hundred enemies active simultaneously. Success comes with mastery of the ship and a resistance to panic. The game helps by increasing the difficulty very gradually; the first twenty levels are considered tame, and a score of less than two million(!) earns only insults. The feel of the game is fairly divergent from the original game, which will estrange players: purists will scorn the change in feel, but earnest action fans will love its manic frenzy. In the end, the only crime of "Defender 2000" is that it tries to be different, as underneath the name is a monstrously addictive marathon of mayhem.
In other areas, Defender 2000's flaws are merely picked nits. Controls are wonderfully responsive, with most features right at the player's fingertips, but there's no option to reconfigure button assignments. The three game modes offer a simple form of setting difficulty, but an option to adjust it would have been welcome. The manual is a major blemish, however, with many major omissions and errors. Among the most notable omissions are the Hyperspace control for "Classic" and "Plus" modes (press a numeric key in the right keypad column), and the lack of pictures identifying game objects and enemies. The player can learn about these with experience, but he shouldn't have to.
The graphics in Defender 2000 are as varied as the game modes. "Classic" comes very close to the original visuals, but there are differences -- some aliens are slightly larger or smaller, for instance, and there are a few enhancements that came from Williams' Stargate sequel. "Plus" features an eclectic combination of rendered sprites and psychedelic visuals. However, some players may have a hard time spotting dark-colored enemies against the pulsating, shimmering backgrounds. "Defender 2000" is the most visually complex of the three games, with rendered sprites, detailed backgrounds, and multiple levels of parallax scrolling. But the sprites are rather large, and it's easy to get a mild sense of claustrophobia when the screen is thick with ships and landers and mines. To the game's credit, multi-directional scrolling is always smooth and clean, and there's a lot of special effects sprinkled throughout.
The sound effects are a running tribute to the original Defender game. "Classic" and "Plus" modes closely copy the abstract sounds of the arcade, and they suit both games well, but the lack of in-game music might upset some players. True devotees will notice some minor differences in a few sound effects, but for the most part it's an aural nostalgic trip. "2000" mode is where most of the sound changes have been made, mixing the original effects with digitized voices, new sounds, and other special effects. The different levels are accompanied by a series of "light" techno tunes, all clearly rendered and fairly complex. They add to the game's fast pace without being overly distracting, though a few tracks are rather subdued.
While it's not perfect, in the end Defender 2000 is a great action-packed title that will keep most players engaged for a long time. Its few flaws are relatively trivial; taken on its own merits, this cartridge is an engrossing experience that offers something for both older purists and young gunrunners. With fast, fluid graphics, crisp sounds, heady music, precise controls and lots and lots of warfare, Defender 2000 is recommended for devoted action gamers everywhere.