While there are plenty of criticisms you can level at their games from a modern perspective, one thing you can’t accuse Midway Games West and its predecessor Atari Games of being is complacent. The company consistently put out some of the most creative and interesting arcade games to ever exist — many with a focus on experiences that were enjoyable for both solo players and groups of friends.
Rampart, originally released in 1990, is a great example of this. Blending elements of shoot ’em up and puzzle game, it offers a compelling yet (some might argue overly) challenging experience that was quite unlike anything else that was around at the time — and which we haven’t really seen much like ever since.
In Rampart, you take command of a military commander in medieval times. You begin each game with a single castle keep surrounded by walls, and are given the opportunity to fill your territory inside the walls with cannons. Once this is done, battle begins; in single-player, you compete against fleets of incoming ships approaching from the sea, while in two- or three-player mode you compete against other players’ castles on the same screen.
Battle lasts for a set amount of time, at which point a cease fire is called and rebuilding begins. During this time limited section, you are presented with puzzle pieces that can be used to repair your castle walls, and must place them down on the map with the ultimate aim of completely surrounding at least one keep before time expires.
Early in the game, the puzzle pieces are small and simple, consisting of one or two blocks, but as the game progresses you’ll start seeing pieces made up of four or five blocks — inevitably in awkward shapes. Usually the best strategy is not to worry about keeping your wall “tidy” — just fill in the gaps as quickly as possible, and attempt to expand your territory with any remaining time.
Succeed at this section and you get to place some more cannons — with more provided if you successfully captured additional keeps — and the cycle then repeats. Single-player proceeds through a series of levels where the aim is to deplete the enemy fleet sufficiently for the area to be considered successfully defended.
Two- or three-player matches, meanwhile, allow combatants to continue up to three times — each time with slightly more powerful cannons. If they are defeated again, that player is then eliminated, and the last player standing wins. Alternatively, if all players remain in for a set number of rounds, eventually a “Final Battle” is declared, at which point a winner is determined by score if everyone is still in contention.
Rampart is a highly enjoyable game that is challenging in single player, and highly competitive in multiplayer. The single player is a little too difficult, to be honest, even on its lowest difficulty setting, but the game really shines with three players in particular. The cramped map means that players are constantly jostling for territory, and inevitably you’ll find yourself breaking and forming alliances at a moment’s notice as a match proceeds.
Where Rampart stumbles a little is in the consistency of its controls, particularly on home conversions of the arcade machine such as the one found in Midway Arcade Treasures on PS2, Xbox and GameCube. The aiming controls for the battle sections are fine, but the building controls are sluggish to respond, making it easy to accidentally overshoot the position you want to put a piece — not ideal when you’re up against a very strict time limit!
Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the original arcade machine made use of a trackball control rather than a conventional joystick, but this doesn’t really explain how the battle controls can work so smoothly while the rebuilding and cannon placement controls are so clunky. It’s something you can adjust to with repeated play, but from a modern perspective it’s easy to see modern players bouncing off the game for this reason.
Which would be a great shame, because Rampart remains an excellent game, particularly if you have friends over to enjoy it together. Speaking from a personal perspective, the Midway Arcade Treasures release used to be a fixture at gaming nights with friends — remember those? — and because we’d all long become accustomed to the clunky controls after repeated play sessions, everyone was on an equal playing field, making for some thrilling battles.
There was actually a PlayStation 3 version with online multiplayer back in 2007, but this version is no longer available for purchase, sadly — and with all Midway’s properties in the hands of Time Warner right now, who knows if and when we’ll ever see them again on more recent platforms?
Rampart’s legacy persists, however, thanks to how it is an obvious precursor to today’s popular tower defence genre. While you tend to take more of a “passive” approach in today’s tower defence games, typically setting up defences which act automatically rather than requiring you to aim and fire them yourselves, the cycle of “build, defend, repair” found in most games of this type is right out of Rampart.
If you want to play Rampart today, you have a lot of choices even without the game being easily accessible on modern platforms. The game was widely ported to many 8- and 16-bit consoles and home computers including SNES, Master System, Mega Drive, Atari Lynx, MS-DOS PC, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, Game Boy, Game Boy Colour and NES. It’s worth noting that many of these ports added “home-friendly” options such as difficulty settings and alternative stages to play.
If you want the pure arcade experience, your best bet is nabbing the first Midway Arcade Treasures compilation for original Xbox (note that this version is not compatible with later generation Xboxes), PlayStation 2 or Nintendo GameCube. You can also find it on the Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play compilation for PlayStation Portable — though the latter is a little trickier to play with friends due to everyone needing a PSP and a copy of the game!
Screenshots from the Xbox version of Midway Arcade Treasures.