Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Road to the Defender World Record

When I saw King of Kong, I had the pleasure to view it at the best movie theater in the universe, the Alamo Drafthouse. They had gotten an approved Donkey Kong machine for Steve to play and make another attempt at the DK world record, and brought Walter Day from Twin Galaxies down to officiate it.

After the movie (before Steve jumped on the machine), Walter gave away copies of his world record book to a few members in the audience. After he handed the last one out, I went up and introduced myself as a person that wanted to set a new Defender world record. I told him that I had played in a Texas State Video Game Tournament in 1982 and won the Defender State Championship. He said "you're Billy Cain!" That blew my mind. He then said "you're from Freeport, Texas." My mind was again blown. He said that the tournament was a sidebar in his book and pulled out his copy and opened it to the page. While he handed me the book, he called out to the people in the theater that they needed to some down and get my autograph. Are you kidding me?!? That was the coolest thing evah!!

That watered and fertilized that original seed of an idea to break the record. Since then, I have emailed back and forth with Walter, trying to learn all about the best way to plan, prepare, etc. for a challenge that I really wanted to go for. After looking at the scores online (~79 million for marathon and ~450k for Tournament Settings), I thought I would have to go for the marathon... who even knows what Tournament Settings are? Well, after talking to Walter for a while, he is convinced (along with the rest fo the crew, I guess) that the Tournament Settings record is the real one to beat, as it really levels the playing field.

So, here are Tournament Settings:
- 5 Ships
- 5 Smart Bombs

That's it. Good luck.

Didn't sound too tough to me to be honest, because when I was a kid, I could roll the score (1 million) on my first ship. In fact, the guys I played with all the time could all do that when they tried. Yes, we wasted a LOT of time in the arcades. Wow. I can't even explain it.

When I won the Defender competition in '82, the Southland Corporation (7-11, really) promised that the winner would get a Defender machine! Well, by the time the contest had been completed - Williams had stopped making Defender machines, so they couldn't get me a new one. I talked to the head of the promotions department and let them know that the sequel for Defender had just come out and they could probably get one of those and it would be cool with me. They bought it! The coolest day ever was when a 7-11 truck rolled up to my house with a huge cardboard box on the back. The guy let me cut it open and it was a brand-new Stargate Defender machine with not even a single scratch on it. Man it SMELLED great!!

Speaking of which, I can still remember the smell of a new Defender and a new Stargate. I'm sure it was carcinogenic, like everything else we all like, but it just smelled like freedom to me.

My friends and I just pounded that machine to death. We got bored with playing regularly, so we'd cover up the radar and play that way. We would cover up the screen and only use the radar. Then we'd play any other way we could imagine. One person's left hand, the other person's right hand - screaming out where to go, what to do... all that stuff. It was pretty ridiculous.

But back to Defender, since that is really what this is about. I played at a corner store called Girouards, which was owned by a couple of older brothers named Bobby and Sagness. Bobby was laid back and liked running the store, but Sagness was super excited about video games. More about that later, I'm sure. Sagness would challenge all the kids to beat their high scores by a certain number and then he'd give them more quarters. In fact, when my friends and I were starting to get good, he'd give us a roll of quarters if we hit new records. After a while, I'm sure I was coming out cashflow positive, but it didn't matter to Sagness.

I developed a style of play that was ridiculously fast. That was how I won the contest - you had to make as many points as you could in 10 minutes, and in three rounds of that - they'd add up your scores and that was it. I smoked the other competitors because I had two things going for me 1) I was really fast and 2) I didn't let the humanoids die. Those bonuses just get bigger and bigger as the waves go by, and the others were just letting those bonuses go by the wayside.

Enough of the wayback machine.

This Christmas, I got the bug to go ahead and go for this record. Big time. So Jacque says that we should take a trip up to Iowa and go do the record in person. I liked the idea, but I thought I should do some practice first... I hadn't played Defender since my machine's monitor went out about 7 years ago and even then I just tinkered with it... So I am very rusty.

This Monday, my wife had S&B Amusements (for Christmas) come by to take the machines (both were not displaying the game on their monitors) in for repairs. Turned out the Stargate had a blown fuse and had some other smaller issue so that one was fixed on the spot. Nice. The Defender needed a little more love than that so it went to the shop. Monday night, I played a few games of Stargate to get my hands used to it and I was surprised to find out that either the machine's difficulty was set really high (I used to do that to make it 'interesting') or I just sucked after all this downtime. I played a few games and my scores were in the 500-700k range. I mean I was really trying and I was getting my ass handed to me. Well, I wasn't playing life or death Stargate, but I was surprised.

Last night, I didn't play any because I was going to wait until the Defender showed up. Today, it arrived while I was at work. That didn't affect my mannerisms one bit! NOT! I finally got home at around 9pm and the kids drug me out to the machine and made me play it. They are very excited about their dad setting this record. I think the novelty will wear off pretty soon, though.

I set the machine to 5 ships and no bonuses (Tournament Mode) and pressed One Player. I just love that machine and I love that game. The first game I think I racked up 30k. I immediately realized that I needed to change my tactics completely in order to tackle a 450k game with only 5 Smart Bombs. Should I open the Pods immediately or should I wait until the end of the wave? Should that even affect my thinking? I mean 4 Pods' worth of Swarmers floating around everywhere? Hmm... maybe that'll affect the framerate so I can get more done before the fracking Baiters come out and diagonally screw up everything. I played another 5 games or so, ending with a ~75k score and calling it a night.

While playing, I noticed that I am going to have some physical pain as I go through this. My left index finger is feeling bruised, and my right hand's carpal tunnel crud is starting to bark at me. The trouble is that I have all the muscle memory and the thoughts to go with it, but those muscles / tendons / etc. are just way older and out of shape from all these years of neglect. I think I really quit playing Defender in '84, when I discovered cars and other things. I took my machines with me when I moved to Austin and they just never got the love they deserved. Sometimes I'd take them to where I worked for a while, but mostly they have been gathering dust. :(

The kids had played them when they were really young (had them fixed after a fire in the garage), but then both went out and I didn't want to spend the bucks on 'em - I had kids to feed! :)

I know the kids are going to see all of this as a novelty for a while, but my son's already scoring in the near 10k range on Stargate, and always tells me if he got a new record where he got to put in his initials. I think I may have some competition.

I hope to update this regularly because I think it will be cool to share here. If you write, I'll try to respond to everything!

Thanks for reading!


  1. Should have been in the back of FullSail building 3C when you were here! We have a Stargate machine set up!

  2. I believe I set the record on that Stargate machine as well. The text should say something like "FULL SAIL ROCKS" on the #1 score. They set that machine to full tilt and all I had was a few minutes between the talks... Is it still there? :)

  3. I posted screens of the high scores as of tonight. I didn't have the keys so I couldn't check/change the settings. They were with the Defender's keys. :(

    All the pics I take during this journey will be here:

    I hope this is as entertaining for you as this has been so far for me!

  4. Wow, awesome story. GL with your attempt at the record. I will for sure be following this.

  5. Go get 'em Billy! I remember the first time I came to your house and you showed me those cabinets. Stargate was still working then so you showed me how bad I was sucking at it.

    I've got this on my RSS now, so update!

    -Patrick Rogers

  6. Dang- now I'm regretting not playing more defender/stargate at the rehearsal place when I had the chance. Stupid music.