Missing in Action: On the defense (tower defense and otherwise)

Shaggy December 17, 2009 7

It has been a while since I last wrote a “Missing In Action” article, where I cover a style of game that at one point in history was popular or common to find in arcades, covering the history of said titles. If you haven’t read those here are the links: Space Combat games, Puzzle Games, Scrolling Fighters, Tanks, Planes, Mechs and more,and Adventure/RPG games.

At my own arcade, I have a small network of PCs setup for gamers who might enjoy that side of gaming. Lately as I have been watching what people play on that network, I have noticed a trend in people playing a genre of games known as Tower Defense. It’s interesting to see how these kinds of games have been increasing in popularity recently, not just with browser games (where I see most of these titles being played) but also in standard releases with games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders, Plants Vs. Zombies,  or the South Park tower defense game which won an award at the SpikeTV VGAs. I have read that this idea as a genre has been inspired by a particular game mode in Warcraft 3, where hordes of enemies follow along a certain path and the player has to strategically place defense towers that will blast the hordes away as they follow a path to a particular objective. It’s a relatively simple idea, especially when it comes to RTS games and it’s one that has some roots in a few arcade titles (believe it or not).

It is true that in the arcade world we haven’t seen many games which follow a formula exactly like the one used in many TD titles I have seen (only Rampart would fit that bill and it would honestly be the first real tower defense game, prior to Warcraft 3) but there have been a number of popular coin-op titles which deal with defense concepts that could be seen as important influences in the popular tower defense genre today. I personally feel that tower defense games could be adapted into coin-op arcade gaming, given the right idea and I will get into that, after we take a look at some of the history behind the genre we are looking at, which you can jump into at the link below.

In the history of gaming Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) may not be looked upon as much of a defense game but the idea of keeping hordes of enemies from reaching a certain point on screen is certainly an integral part of SI that would set the stage for shooting games of all kinds that would come afterwards and it’s the same basic concept found in tower defense games today where the enemies attempt to reach a certain area of the screen and when they do it results in a game over screen.

It was in 1980 that shooters evolved into what would become defensive games, with most of these games becoming well-known classics that are celebrated even today. The first game to discuss here is  obviously one that carries the name of our subject – Defender by Midway. In Defender you piloted a powerful spaceship whose job it was to protect the humanoids on the planet surface below from the invading aliens who would swoop down from the skies and capture the humans. While the concept has less to do with the kind of defending seen in tower defense games today, it was still important for a number of reasons, from it’s fresh concept, graphics (scrolling the way it did, the color and with all the pixel shatter) to it’s insane difficulty. Defender reportedly has earned more than one billion dollars in it’s lifetime, making it one of the highest grossing games of all time. It also has a harder sequel called Stargate, which adds the element of jumpgates among other things to spice up the mechanics.

Another defense game that would come along in 1980 which would fit a little more into the tower defense mold is Missile Command by Atari. You had three turrets that were already in place over six cities which you need to defend from constant nuclear attack by using the trackball controller. As each wave passes, the game gets harder, with faster missiles, bombers and other objects that fall out of the sky to wreak havoc on your territory. The constant bombardment you face in Missile Command fits nicely into the bombardment of enemies seen in tower defense games, even though MC lacks the RTS element. Atari did create a two-player version of MC called Missile Command II but it was never released.

One often overlooked defensive game that is a blast to play is Cinematronics’ Rip-Off (1980). This is billed as the first co-op video game ever released where two players work together in tanks to defend their fuel pods at the center of the screen from thieves who come at you in waves from any area on the screen. Defending the pods can become a difficult task if you don’t work together (this also makes it a very difficult single player game) which makes for an excellent dynamic that we are seeing more of today in titles like Let’s Go Jungle and Dead Storm Pirates. I will probably write about co-operative arcade titles in my next MIA article. Here is Rip Off in action.

A defensive multiplayer game that is popular among fans of the classics is Warlords by Atari. Here you defend a castle with a shield from fast moving fireballs that are spit out by a dragon. This is more of an enhancement of the Breakout concept than anything that fits into the kind of defense games we’re talking about but it’s still worth noting as it’s an insanely fun four player game and if anything would be worth remaking for arcades, Warlords would have my vote.

Finishing up our look at defense games from 1980 itself is Midway’s Space Zap. This is a reflex based defense game with your starbase occupying the center of the screen and attacking enemies coming from the four cardinal directions. You move your turret with one set of buttons and fire with another, large button. Space Zap keeps you on your toes in later waves as it builds up to fast moving waves of attackers – the only problem with the game being it’s lack of depth which is why it’s a game forgot by time.

Right before the game crash in the US in 1982, Atari again tried out a defensive game, Liberator. This took Missile Command’s idea and reversed it, with you becoming the person to bomb hostile alien planets from your ship in orbit. Despite the reversal in style, there is still a crucial element of defending your own turrets from attack – once all four turrets are destroyed, it’s game over.

Aztarac (1983)is also a little known color vector game from Centuri that involved defending several starbases from oncoming hordes of spaceships. The graphics on this one are spectacular for a vector game and the play can be frantic but unfortunately it’s rather hard to find these in working condition (or find them at all).

Getting a little closer to the idea of today’s tower defense games is the notable albeit mostly forgotten 1983 Stern game called Mazer Blazer. The playfield was a maze with a base at the center that the player needed to defend from creatures who would infiltrate the maze and head straight for the center. The player could slow them down by hitting freeze fields which would temporarily stop the creatures in their tracks. Eliminating enemies worked like a light-gun shooter, with the player controlling an unusual two-handle mounted gun. Here’s Mazer Blazer on Starcade

Another game that would combine defense elements into a light-gun shooter was Crossbow (Exidy, 1983). You must protect your venturing friends who cross from one-side of the screen to the other over different types of terrain. A number of  enemies will attack them as they slowly make their way across and it’s your job to keep anything from reaching them. This element of defense along with a sweet crossbow controller made for an interesting game that still stands out from many light-gun games even today.

Sega produced a Missile Command-like offering in 1987 with SDI-Strategic Defense Initiative. The game was split into two rounds, the Offensive Half and the Defensive Half. Naturally the Defensive Half is much like Missile Command, the Offensive Half you must eliminate all enemies on the screen. In a little bit of a change from MC this controls with both a joystick and trackball and it also features two players on one cabinet.

Jumping forward a few more years, a game that truly played a part in defining tower defense  was Rampart, by Atari Games (1990). Rampart was a three player game which was split into three modes – construction, turret placement and battle. In the construction mode you get wall pieces shaped like tetris blocks to which you place around set towers. As long as you create an enclosed fortress, you move onto the next round, which is placing cannons inside of your castle. Once that round is complete, then the battle begins. You have to destroy the ships in the harbor before they make landfall. If the ships manage to make it to shore, they begin unloading the “peons” who will charge towards your castle and burn it down if they can get inside. As your castle is bound to take damage in each attack, you rebuild it and expand in the next round. If you are unable to complete construction on your castle during the building phase, you lose your turn.

Because of these aspects, Rampart was like a tower defense title, replete with RTS elements found in such titles today. One other great thing about the game was it allowed for up to three players to play against each other with some home ports allowing for co-op play.


Since Rampart came along, the only other defense games I could manage to find would be titles like BeachHead 2000, Air Raid, Paradise Lost and most recently Top Gunner(InJoy’s booth at IAAPA 09), all of which involve defense from a fixed turret, so effectively that one style of game seems to fit the current mood. As anecdotal evidence behind the interest in these style of games, when my Tsumo motion cabinet was working, Air Raid was one of the most played games in the unit. We also know that for a time Paradise Lost Deluxe did really well in certain locations. If something new came out along these lines I personally would prefer something along the lines of a space combat shooter  (come to think of it, I guess Galaxian 3 would fit into this as well and thus the much newer Trans-Force) but that’s just me. One problem I find with most of these games is that you aren’t trying to stop attackers from reaching a certain point, you just fight waves of enemies and hope you don’t get hit. Had they given a concrete objective to protect, each one of these games would be more exciting (especially Paradise Lost).


So one important question is, would a tower defense game, a genre which is now seeing a period of growth in the other sectors of the gaming world, be viable in an arcade environment? Truthfully I think that every genre can be adapted to fulfill the needs and expectations of coin-op players but in certain cases (such as first person shooters, RPGs and RTS games) adapting these ideas can prove to be a challenge, much more so than something like a racer. Where this particular genre is growing in popularity, the right ideas could translate into games that people will want to play and thus earn. Let’s imagine that if we were to sit down and design one, here are some things that should at the very least be considered.

The ideas used in any arcade TD game is that it can’t be too overly complicated but at the same time it needs to have depth. This is always a challenge to find the correct balance but it is what makes good arcade titles stand out from the bad ones. Rampart did this well as you actively participate in the battle where some TD games I have played it’s more about placing turrets and then sitting back and watching the battle unfold. Placing towers and then watching it all happen might be fun on a PC or console but probably wouldn’t translate terribly well in an arcade environment where the focus is on action so the title would need to involve some level of player interaction during the battle.

The theme of game is something that would vary completely upon whoever designs it. There are many ways it can go but when it comes to the arcade, the more over-the-top and humorous that it is, the better.

Another thing that would make an arcade TD game feasible is a multiplayer design, in particular one based upon co-op play. Co-op play is very popular right now – take a look at the success behind games like Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty: World At War: Nazi Zombies, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and others. I have heard that some arcade developers are noticing this trend and we have already seen some steps to return to that direction with co-op modes in Tank! Tank! Tank!, a greater emphasis on working together in Dead Storm Pirates, a co-op mode in Tetris Giant, or in Hummer Deluxe edition, etc. A co-operative tower defense game at the arcade could not only be fun but it would earn even more.  How many players the game could handle can be split either by multiple controls on one cabinet or via networked cabinets but as a small operator the more players you can squeeze comfortably onto one cabinet, the better. I also believe that a tower defense game would be the perfect candidate to take advantage of a cocktail style cabinet, much like what Subsino has made and shown off at IAAPA.

When I look at tower defense games, like Plants VS. Zombies one thing I notice right off the bat is they aren’t much to look at. Many are one screen affairs where a path is fixed upon which the player can easily select and set their defenses down and usually single screen titles don’t require good visuals to be entertaining. But arcade titles need to stand out and a tower defense arcade game with high definition 3D graphics would turn heads more effectively than something that looks like it could be run in an internet browser window.

Will we ever see an arcade developer tackle this genre? I have no idea to be honest but if none of the major dev house tackle it, I hope that an independent developer will. Perhaps with Adrenaline Amusements TouchFX platform, a coin-op  multi-touch arcade platform capable of running more than one title created for it, this could happen.


  1. editor December 18, 2009 at 12:57 am - Reply

    I like the angle of this topic – though I would say there is a long list of genre that side-stepped (or left fallow) by video amusement.

  2. igo December 18, 2009 at 1:09 am - Reply

    One thing I would like to see a tower defense game is a vs. mode. One player could be the attacker and one could be the defender.

    Mouse intensive games like most tower defense games would work great with a touch screen.

    Oh, I got plants vs. zombies the week it came out. It is a great game. It is so simple but, so addictive. I kind of felt like like it would have been better with a harder difficulty but, the unlockable survival mode adds a nice challenge.

    Oh, Shaggy I would love to see a video of the new indie arcade game you got.

    • Shaggy December 19, 2009 at 12:10 am - Reply

      Agreed, a VS. mode would be very cool to. Co-op or VS. either way I’d be happy.

      Where a touch screen wouldn’t work for mouse style games, I think a trackball would work out just fine too.

      I will be posting a vid of that indie game when I can. Unfortunately it’s delayed at the moment as the monitor we got for it came DOA and we’re waiting for a replacement.

  3. justonemoregame December 18, 2009 at 5:12 am - Reply

    Wow, someone’s got an *impressively* encyclopedic knowledge of arcade history!

    Fascinating topic – and interesting way of exploring it. Nice work.

    • Shaggy December 19, 2009 at 12:10 am - Reply


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