A Defender restoration project.
I still remember my first ever game of Defender. It’s 1981, I’m 10 and I’m playing games like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man at the local sports center. These games are great but Defender is a stone cold classic of hard core gaming. The other games had a claustrophobic atmosphere, you’re trapped in a maze, the invaders are pressing down on you, the asteroids are closing in from all sides but Defender, ZZOOP, you materialise above the mountains and launch yourself forward, skimming over the surface of the world at blistering speed. Freedom, exhilaration, and BOOM, you smash straight into a Lander, burning fragments of colour explode, screaming to all four corners of the universe. You’re dead and it’s your own damned fault. Defender is a brutally hard game.
This is how that first game went:
ZZOOP … BOOM!
ZZOOP …. BOOM!!
ZZOOP ….. BOOM!!!
Oh, perhaps I’ll leave this game to the bigger boys.
Seriously, even the control panel is mounted a good 2 inches higher than all the other arcade games. That should have been a clue.
Arcade game collecting and restoration has unfortunately become a bit of an expensive game of late. The days of this being about playing with junk everyone else wants rid off are gone, but I was lucky enough to pick up a few cabs before the prices went nuts. But if you’re lucky and willing to take on a project, maybe there are still a few rough cabs out there to grab. I managed to get a Defender cab for £80 many years ago. It was a gutted Jamma cab but I put it back together and played it for several years. Just before “THE COVID TIMES” I traded that cab with another arcade collector for some cool stuff including another gutted project Defender cab. This is the cab we’re going to talk about.
So what condition was this cab in? Well in 1980, Defender was hot stuff, but by 81 or 82, players were looking for a new thrill and rather than throw out a perfectly good cabinet and monitor, the practice was to convert the cab to run another game. Many of these games did not stand the test of time and are not considered the masterpieces that Defender is. Ultimately most of these cabs were converted to “Jamma”. Jamma in an industry standard that lets you plug in and swap game PCBs easily without having to modify the control panel, power supply and wiring. Sadly in meant the original control panels, electronics and marquees were often junked. This is the condition that my new Defender cab was in.
So lets look at what we needed to do.
Marquee, Fortunately the original marquee and monitor bezel art have survived on this cab. That’s nice. The bezel has had someone’s initials carved into it, Meh, I can live with that. I’m not into restoring cabs to make them look like new. I’m happy if they run and look like they did in the arcade. A few battle scars are fine.
Control panel, Bit of a mess. The original wooden panel was in there but it had been drilled to bits to add additional buttons and joysticks making it comply to the dreaded Jamma standard.
Wiring, completely gone. It had been mangled and cut up to such an extent that virtually nothing but a couple of connectors remained of the original.
Power Supply, mostly gone. The power supply in a Defender arcade game consists of a large transformer that provides electrical isolation for the monitor and supplies several other AC voltages for the analogue power supply and coin door. Transformer brick present and correct. Power supply board gone and replaced with a Jamma switch mode power supply.
Game electronics. Gone. Williams, the company that made Defender had a long tradition of building pinball machines. Defender was the first arcade video game they put together but they carried over some of the pinball legacy. You find similar hardware in both and it does give Williams video games of the time a rather unusual layout with separate PCBs, all performing very specific functions, all plugged together with ribbon cables. So I’m going to have to dig around to get a set of those, and the big metal plate they mount on, that was missing too.
Finally the lovely Electrohome GO7, 19” Cathode Ray Tube monitor. I have half of one of those 🙂 So another thing that’s happening to many classic cabs is the monitors are being replaced. Because they can be tricky to repair, people are increasingly substituting a modern flat screen LCD module. These people are monster. They should be hunted down and made to pay for their crimes.(ok, maybe not, I can understand people just want a game that plays but it does hurt our hearts, some of us, when we see these beautiful pieces of curved analogue glass. phosphor and magic replaced with a flat soulless LCD screen). I’ve got the tube but the chassis, the PCB with all the electronics on it is gone, replaced with a more modern (1990s?) chassis. I’ve got no idea if it works and I’m not testing it right now because the wiring looked like someone had dumped a plate of spaghetti down the back of my machine.
The project sat neglected for a year or two but last summer, I decided it was time. Defender would live again.
I just emptied the cab. Apart from the marquee light fittings, everything came out. I was going to get this thing running on the bench before putting it all back in the box. Much easier to work that way.
Control panel first. I bought a set of leaf buttons in the correct colours (so many buttons, one of the other things that made Defender such an intimidating game back in the day), a reproduction perspex control panel with all the original Defender art on it, and a reproduction of the 2 way Defender joystick. It probably would have been simpler just to remake the wooden control panel but even though it was mangled, I just like having the original part in there if I possibly can. So I filled and sanded all the offending holes and assembled a new control panel. Looks and feels great. There is one thing that annoys me a bit, the plastic trim should have a leather finish on it but because the perspex panel is a little thicker than the original sticker, I couldn’t find leather effect t-molding wide enough to cover it, so a plain piece is in there. It’s a small defect. I can live with it.
Control panel done, on to the power supply. I’ve got the transformer. Missing the linear power supply, should I try and acquire one of those? Well yes, if I get one I will probably install it but right now, well, there is a danger here. The original power supplies are 40 years old. If you have one you need to rebuild it because if it fails, and it will fail, It will shoot some catastrophic voltages over your very expensive and difficult to repair or replace game logic PCBs. Now, remember that Jamma power supply I mentioned earlier? That’ll do. I picked out a few other voltages from the transformer to run the coin door lock-outs and lights, added a great big capacitors to the 5 volts .. for reasons, and I should have a working approximation of a Defender power Supply.
The Game logic PCBs. These consist of a main board containing the processor and RAM, a board with the ROMs. A dedicated sound board, straight out of a pinball machine and capable of producing a very early and crude form of sound samples, sounds GREAT, and finally the “widget” board, an interface board that handles the control panel inputs. Now, if you’ve owned a cab for a while, you don’t pass on the opportunity to acquire spare parts and PCBs and luckily I had a set of working Defender board in the stash. I’m a bit like Smaug, sprawling on top of a mountain of arcade components and spares. Another collector answered my appeal for an original Defender logic board mounting plate and all the PCBs were installed. All ready to go, just need to wire it up, Easy.
The wiring loom, did I say easy? 😮 This is the most tedious and yet most critical bit. Get this wrong and you can kill a lot of rather expensive kit pretty quick. The wiring in this cab was…. have you seen Terry Giliam’s Brazil? So I just started from scratch. There is a chap who sells rather nice reproduction wiring looms for various games and I almost bought one of those, but I decided, it was a bit pricey and it’s just wires, I can do that. By the time I’d bought all the wire and connectors I was beginning to think, maybe not so expensive? And once I built the thing, his product was looking like a bargain to be honest. But I built it myself. You do the power first. Then you check it … and you check it again … you check it a few more times, Then the terror moment. You plug it in. FINGERS CROSSED. No smoke, no popping sounds, it’s looking good, all the PCB test lights light up as they should and it looks like all systems are go! Quick, scrabble around for a speaker! Yup, plug in a speaker and it’s all sounding good, Boot sound. Coin up sounds, Game sounds? It’s running. All I have to do is check the monitor!
It’s summer, 2022. In fact it’s the hottest day on record in Scotland EVER! Yes, I pick that day to drag my Defender cab out, remove the 19” monitor, and carry it down the stairs and out to my garage. The older I get the heavier these things become. I’ve tidied up the wiring on the monitor, I’ve secured the replacement chassis. It was originally just lying randomly at the bottom of the monitor with a piece of polystyrene food packaging acting as the insulator between the high voltage board and the metal monitor casing. Power supply, game PCBs, control panel, monitor and speaker all connected up. I plug it in … and … it works! I was really worried about that monitor but not only does it work but it’s bright and sharp, it’s probably the most beautiful monitor I have! Woo-hoo,
There’s no coin door yet so I ground one of the wires destined to connect to the coin mech, the game coins up and I hit start … nope, won’t start, no game inputs, dash into the house, find a second interface board and swap it in, power, coin, start, YES we are playing DEFENDER! That’s the rest of my day, sitting in my garage playing Defender on a disembodied arcade machine.
The nervous system of my Defender cab sat in the garage for a few more days as I dreaded the prospect of carrying that monitor back up the stairs to reunite it with its body but I eventually mustered up the energy and all the components were mounted in place and reconnected. Thank goodness I fitted furniture gliders to the bottom of the cab. It was brutal moving the thing around before that, now it glides around gracefully, like a ball room dancer…. or a Dalek.
It all got put back together, tested, the back door replaced and the machine pushed back against the wall. It’s complete! It’s Defender, I can play one of my 4 all time favourites once again. Coin up, 1 player game, ZZOOP, BOOM. ZZOOP, BOOM. ZZOOP, BOOM, yes I still suck at this game, but I love it.
The job was and still is not entirely complete. It took me a month or two to revisit the project and get the coin door sorted out. That was a project on its own but I have to have the coin door lights up and running and also the coin lock out mechanism. That mechanism is completely redundant if it’s a home machine, I’m not going to throw a wobbly if I put a coin in and the game doesn’t work (that’s what the coin lock out mechanism does, locks the coin shoots if the machine isn’t operating) but I like the CLUNK sound as the machine powers up so I needed it running.
Most arcade machines can be placed on “FREE PLAY” but there’s something about the ceremony of coining up an arcade game that I love and feel is a vital part of the experience. I keep a big tub of old 10 pence and 50 pence pieces with my arcade games for this purpose (and a roll of American quarters for my Joust cab).
My coin door is still short a few parts (if anyone has the coin actuator pins for a Williams coin door, do give me a shout) but it’s pretty much all done. Time to work on my Defender game and sort out the non functional Joust cocktail I also snagged in trade for my previous Defender. I’ve got to get some gliders under that sucker. It is impossible to move.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in possession of a project Williams arcade game like Defender, Stargate, Robotron, Joust, Sinistar, Bubbles or Blaster, and need some help with it, I highly recommend the WILLIAMS DEFENDER PLAYERS UNITE Facebook group. There area loads of friendly people there with resources and expert knowledge they are always happy to share.
If you’d like to follow my retro arcade game or Art projects please check out my web page:
Zzoop … Boom!