I love tower defence games. My fascination with them started with the Android game Sentinel 3 somewhere around 2010, then consolidated with Robo Defence a year later. Things quickly escalated when I moved to Linux exclusively in 2013. Sure, I also love FPS games, but disappointments in that genre have been more than made up for by the abundance of TD games available with Linux support. So I thought I’d give you all a list of some of the best titles out there, some honourable mentions, and outline a few of the titles I’ve yet to try in the hope that you’ll tell me why I should!
The following list is my personal take on the genre in order of excellence but any of the recommended list should be considered must-buys, if you like the genre.
Let’s get this out of the way - yes, these are on Android too but, given the horrific micro-transactions Ironhide implemented on that platform, I consider the Linux versions to be far superior. It’s on Linux that the sublime balance isn’t ruined by the introduction of gems for TNT or Freeze Crystals that you can spam into a wave to save the day. Only on Linux will your tactics win the day, not your grind.
Arguably, the first game is the better of the two. The Kingdom Rush franchise’s unique selling point (USP) is the use of Heroes that help on any given map. In the original game, a Hero always starts the map at Level 1 and is usually Level 10 by the end waves of the same map, resetting back to Level 1 again on the next map. However, in Frontiers, a Hero’s experience is cumulative across maps, taking many runs to level up, awarding stars that can be spent on skills. This is really engaging but, of course, balance suffers a little as a result. Earlier “difficult” maps become significantly less challenging when you revisit with a powerful, leveled-up hero.
But I’m nitpicking. Both games have wonderful sound, graphics and animations, inventive tower options, well structured learning curves, intuitive interfaces and keyboard shortcuts, huge Hero variety and, best of all, satisfying and superbly-balanced gameplay. I consider them the pinnacle of the genre.
I love these games so much, I’ve made a few Youtube series about them. Check them out here: Kingdom Rush and Kingdom Rush Frontiers. I apologise in advance for the accent. I’m honestly trying my best to be articulate.
Frontiers might have taken a leaf out of Defenders Quest's book when it came to that leveling up mechanic, since Defenders Quest’s USP is levelling up your characters (which are also the “towers”) throughout the game. Indeed the whole game feels like a Tower Defence meets RPG mix, allowing some customisation in each character and even the concept of character classes for your “towers”.
DQ was released in 2012, originally using Adobe Air. As you can imagine, this caused Linux no end of grief when Adobe announced its demise during development. Technically, you can still buy Defenders Quest on their website, complete with the Adobe Air requirement and you can probably still mess about with it all and get it working. However, it’s far easier to buy on Steam where the “DX” version is available. This newer version is a full engine rewrite from Air to HaxeFlixel and features updated HD graphics, and various fixes.
It’s worth noting that Level Up Labs’s lead developer Lars Doucet, is focal in the HaxeFlixel community, heavily involved in making that open-source game engine better, and often posts incredibly detailed and intelligent articles on his blog. Well worth a read!
The original Sanctum was a four-player co-op FPS Tower Defence. Yep, you read that right, multiple USPs on this one. Its sequel follows the same model but, more importantly, is available on Linux! This is thanks to the awesome Icculus (Ryan C Gordon, whom you can “patreonise” here). Yes, the early port of Sanctum 2 (it’s a UE3 title) was incredibly buggy — I’m not even sure it should have been released in that state given the “fall through the floor and out of the world” bug that plagued so many maps. However, later patches have left the game virtually bug-free, although there are still reports floating around of difficulties with anti-aliasing. Your mileage may vary.
But what a beautiful game to play, especially with friends. And since it’s first person, it’s incredibly engaging. There’s a genuine sense of panic when your strategy falls apart and the critters start eating your core. It’s a tough game, with some limited character progression and an absolutely huge number of diverse towers, weapons and maps. It’s also one of the few TD games on this list that allow you to create mazes with your tower placement. As a result, tactics are paramount and teamwork in multiplayer is essential.
The graphics might put you off this gem but you’re bigger than that, aren’t you? Or maybe that retro-looking scaling and colourful palette reminds you of your AtariST/Amiga days? But, of course, it’s all about the gameplay and balance, and that’s what Dungeon Warfare has in abundance. This game’s USP is undoubtedly the use of push and pull mechanisms, combined with either spiked walls or empty space.
Creating a corridor of push tiles along a yawning chasm is really satisfying - you don’t care how fast or powerful a given unit is if you can just shove it off the ledge and into oblivion. Maps are also designed with useful one-use boulders that can be triggered to roll along a path, Indiana Jones-style, crushing hundreds of enemies along the way.
You might need to revisit a few earlier maps once or twice to afford some of the later upgrades, but the grind here is minimal and the sheer number of enemies the game throws at you makes it one of the most satisfying TD games out there.
Sticking with the traditional mechanics, OTTTD’s USP is probably a combination of multiple Hero units with a psuedo-3D top-down view. The graphics are really superb in this tough TD game and handling two or three heros as mobile towers, along with traditional placement and upgrades, will really keep you on your toes. I was surprised by how many hours I’d sank into this one. There’s a decent variety of heroes at your disposal and you’ll actually enjoy playing earlier maps just to upgrade some of lesser-used characters that become available throughout the campaign.
The graphics are lovely and there’s some truly wacky enemies to take down, including Octopus bikers and (Sharknado-inspired?) half-shark airships. Even better, or worse depending on how you look at it, the ground slowly turns to sludge as the gibs of your kills clutter the battlefield. Very over-the-top and all the better for it.
Revenge of the Titans [Steam]
Puppy Games’s take on TD is really unusual. There’s no grid here; you just place the towers where you think the critters (“Titans”), will appear. Crucially, though, the Titans will also attack your towers if you place them too close to their route. My original attempts to create a maze fell apart quickly when I realised that the Titans are too clever to wander along a set route — they just attack your wall and tear a hole in it to get to your towers! Another USP is that cash is carried forward — if you can spare cash throughout the waves and use the minimal amount to succeed, you’ll find the latter waves easier since you’ll start with more funds.
Despite its overall excellence, however, it’s that last point which is also its greatest weakness. I’ve played three or four attempts at completing Revenge of the Titans and each time poor early choices have left me woefully under-prepared in the late game, which can be a bit disheartening after pouring hours into earlier levels. However, I love the tech tree which allows for completely different play styles, where you can focus on lasers, ballistics, or explosive armaments.
There’s no grind as such, but the lack of intel on routes on any given level means that you’ll tend to start a game, get a feel for where the enemies are routing through, then restart the level so that you can plan properly. That’s a bit frustrating, but hardly a game-breaker.
Without a doubt, the polish, atmosphere and research tree are all very engaging and if you haven’t tried this title, it’s definitely worth checking out.
As I said, I play a lot of Tower Defence. Here are a few titles that you might want to check out, but don't quite make my "must-buy" list above. These titles are often superb, but might have one flaw I found offputting, or perhaps I was trying them on the wrong day and they just didn't click for some reason. They may click for you, though, so here they are.
Interesting TD concept, with towers that are positioned in firing arcs across the edges of your space ship. Great presentation and pretty graphics, but the main issue is having to know where the bulk of the enemies will be — whole runs are wasted if you leave a gap in your defences and that’s where the bulk of the enemies end up appearing, requiring a frustrating amount of replay. The bosses are nails too!
I love PixelJunk games and their take on TD is cartoony and a lot of fun. This is one I’ll end up going back to eventually.
Beautiful graphics, wonderful balance and decent voice acting. This would make my recommended list but the last time I went to (re-)play it, it wouldn’t start. I didn’t get to the bottom of whether the whole Linux build is dead, or if it was just because I using my laptop, and hence Mesa [BTRE's note: I tried it just before publishing this article with Mesa 17.2.5 and an AMD card, seems to work just fine]. Definitely worth a purchase and you’ll get the option to refund if it doesn’t work out.
Defend Your Life [Steam]
I played a few hours of this one and enjoyed it but something about it just didn’t quite click and I didn’t go back when I stopped playing. It’ll be one to revisit in the future.
Alien Robot Monsters [Steam]
I actually loved this one and the only reason I didn’t play a whole lot more of it is the complexity of the towers. I often wanted a specific type of tower, but couldn’t for the life of me remember which combination of previous towers I had to purchase in order to get there. If only the upgrade trees were a bit more intuitive, I’d have spent 70 hours in this one, rather than just 7. If you're willing to give it a try, don't miss this Steam Forum article, (translated from German) for a tower guide.
Yet to Try
Honestly, it's probably just a matter of time. I know, I know. I'll get help eventually. But until then, I'm casting my eye over these titles to see where my next TD hit will be coming from.
Tumbleweed Express [Steam]
This looks interesting, pretty graphics, and could be something like Space Run, but hopefully without the restrictive firing arcs.
Winged Sakura: Mindy’s Arc [Steam]
Apparently completely unlike any previous Winged Sakura game! Maybe it's not racy enough? But since I’m not particularly familiar with them anyway, I’m going to ignore the negative reviews which are fixated on this fact and focus on the gameplay, which sounds like it’s right up my street!
Defense Zone 1, 2 & 3 HD [Steam]
These are extremely cheap WWII TD games and tend to get good reviews. Hard to believe I haven’t spent the equivalent of half a pint of lager to pick them up, but I’ll likely do so eventually, particulary given the beautiful graphics.
Zombie Defence [Steam]
It’s free! It gets great reviews! Why haven’t I played this yet??
Looks very pretty, reasonably cheap, deep customisation and generally good reviews. I'll be checking this out for sure.
Apologies to GOG advocates for the poor showing! At least there's three of my top seven available, but it's super disappointing to see two other titles being sold on GOG, which have Linux builds elsewhere, but not available for Linux for whatever reason. Hopefully that changes, but given the age of some of these titles, I wouldn't hold my breath!
Any others I’ve missed? Any in my “Yet to Try” list that I should be ashamed of for not playing? If so, please let me know.