Without actually realising it, my first dalliance with well-known both-ways horizontal scrolling arcade shoot and rescue ‘em-up Defender wasn’t Defender at all, but Drop Zone on Commodore 64, a port of the 1984 Atari 8-bit game. And I didn’t even play that – I was just blown away by a couple of screenshots on an advert in the April 1985 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine – yes, a full four years after Defender!
Anyway, with its jet-packed spaceman and realistic (and classic C64) brown, crater-ridden planet, it looked absolutely stunning, but that was about as far as I got with it for the most part of another four decades. I didn’t even know it was a clone of something else, which was also exactly the case when I got my mitts on another Defender clone by the name of Andes Attack for the VIC-20 at around the exactly the same time.
What I did know was that it was by that llama guy who was everywhere in early 1985 with his camel games, Jeff Minter, and I also liked his Gridrunner on VIC-20 a lot… Gridrunner wasn’t quite a clone, but was very much inspired by what ended up being Minter’s Centipede on the ZX81, where he’d had to take some gameplay liberties to cram it onto there, though he’d also never actually played the original when he did it either! It ended up playing as much like Space Invaders as it did Centipede, but when the VIC-20 was later awash with as many variants of actual Centipede as it was Scramble and Kong clones, and with Atari on the warpath about it, Minter looked back it his old concept, made it more sci-fi than back garden, and added the peril of two sporadic horizontally and vertically coordinated lasers to the Tron-like play grid, where you were shooting at a descending chain of alien pod things. And even though Gridrunner had been around since 1982, since whenever I’d picked it up at some point in 1984, it was still one of the best games you could get for the unexpanded VIC-20!
There was more to Jeff Minter than llamas. There were moose and goats, sheep and centipedes, space giraffes and, of course, mutant camels too. There were also psychedelic lawnmowers, distressed minotaurs and rat-men. And there was his somewhat disturbing but unforgettable appearance as occult superstar Baphomet, the Goat of Mendes, on the cover of Big M magazine in February 1985! But Andes Attack, actually the very first game out of his company Llamasoft in 1982, was definitely about llamas!
Where in Defender you are patrolling a left and right horizontally scrolling planet-scape in your spaceship trying to stop aliens kidnapping your stranded astronauts and turning them into mutants (but not mutant camels), in Andes Attack you’re patrolling the Andes mountains in your Ramjet fighter, where the aliens are after the llamas that are dotted around the surface and demand your protection. You either need to get the aliens before they get to the llamas, or if they manage to grab one, you need to shoot the alien before it gets it to the top of the screen where they will both turn into a nastier alien thing that’s going to hunt you down and ram you out of the sky.
Once you’ve got rid of all of the aliens and mopped up any mutations, you’ll be awarded bonuses for the surviving llamas before moving onto the next stage, which is going to have more aliens and eventually airborne mines all about the place too, which is going to make all those fancy left and right turning shenanigans all the more difficult. If you’re feeling masochistic, you can set your starting skill level from the default zero up to nine on the title screen too, which is going to increase all that alien action from the outset.
Minter himself always seems quite down on Andes Attack in interviews, like he’d prefer the Llamasoft story to start with their big hit (especially in the US) Gridrunner. On his own website, he tells us that “Andes Attack was a relatively crude character-mode Defender-ish game for the Vic-20. It arose out of some ‘virtual screen’ routines I had written, which allowed one to designate a big screen as large as memory allowed, and then pan around it with the joystick. I liked Defender, which was a scrolling game, so it seemed natural to use my scroll routines to make a Defender game. Despite being well buggy (bits of mountain range had an alarming habit of appearing in mid-air for no good reason) Andes Attack sold fairly well, probably just because the other software around in the UK at that time was utterly, utterly crap.”
Apart from the VIC-20’s pretty much arcade-perfect port of Asteroids-inspired shooter Omega Race, and definitely Gorf and Pirate Cove Adventure, if we’re talking 1982 he’s probably not that far wrong in terms of software library. But why so down on the best version of Defender that ever existed? Okay, I have now actually played original Defender and it’s by no means my favourite game ever, but apart from The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack is my favourite VIC-20 game ever!
Graphically, it looks like Defender, and not just in screenshots either – as well as balancing peril, Defender is all about speed, and amazingly those Minter scroll routines manage to capture that even if the ship isn’t quite as zippy and there is a bit of artefacting on the mountains and the star field. His rogue mountain pieces really aren’t a problem though! Everything is colourful, you and the aliens are really well defined, and the llamas are simple but happily obvious as you’re gadding about the mountains. You’ve got some nice explosions and that huge laser trail that you could end up leaving all over the screen is still a treat to mess around with.
Manoeuvring mid-turn as you’re changing direction still looks and feels like the Defender one, and as ridiculous as it may sound today, that manoeuvre was a really impressive big deal on a VIC-20 in 1982 and still in 1985! Unless you’re ramping up the skill level, you’ve got a really well balanced difficultly too, not quite as punishing as its source material, but by the time you’re three or four levels in, almost as frantic, by which point it’s become a real tactical balance of shooting aliens and saving llamas for the best possible score. And it’s immediacy means that score is going to quickly become all encompassing, and the reason why you’ll genuinely struggle to stop playing, and why you’ll then be back the next day – this is properly old-school addictive, and I’m talking today and not mid-eighties!
If I’m picking hairs, now and again you are going to see your laser going straight through an alien without registering a kill, and if it then flies straight into you as you’re turning for another go you won’t be happy! It is also a bit simpler than Defender, but forgivably so as we’re talking VIC-20 versions, in that you can let a llama float back down to the ground of its own accord if you’ve just shot it out of the grasp of an alien, where in the original a large part of managing the peril was in catching the astronaut and bringing them down safely. You don’t miss it when you know it’s not there though. Speaking of which, Defender was quite dense on the sci-fi blips and swooshes, and whilst this is much less dense in the sound department – again, completely understandably – it is none the less doing a fantastic job at getting enough of the sound that unless you’re comparing them alongside each other, it’s doing a pretty convincing version of Defender!
Defender might be one of the great arcade games, but Andes Attack is one of the great VIC-20 games. No matter what Jeff Minter thinks! The timeless, endlessly compelling concept it’s built around might not be his, but the scrolling routines and all those other lines of code certainly are. Just like the llamas!