I’m a huge fan of the various games in the tower defense genre that have made their way to the iPhone ver the past couple of years. Plants vs. Zombies is a perennial favorite when I have some time to kill and the renowned geoDefense is always a safe bet.

Now the creator of geoDefense, David Whatley, has released his latest tower defense game, Tiny Heroes [$0.99, App Store], and it carries on the tradition well. It’s a fantastic mixture of the standard tropes of the genre with twist that puts you in charge of the villains inhabiting the dungeon, rather than the heroes. This may sound familiar to the classic Dungeon Keeper series and it does share a lot of the same vibe. Humor and a sense of fun are injected throughout and Tiny heroes never takes itself too seriously.

You’re offered a variety of defenses to help you protect the treasure hidden in your dungeons from the heroes who would snatch, including creatures, machines and direct spells. One of the things that will strike you right off is the artwork, which is absolutely beautiful. Each of the defenses have been carefully drawn and animated in a way that gives them life in all dimensions, even though they are just cartoon sprites.

Screen shot 2011 09 16 at 4.58.54 PM 520x345 Tiny Heroes is a beautiful tower defense iPhone game with a Dungeon Keeper vibe

None of the items that you place feel like static items. They breathe, patrol, fire creak and otherwise inhabit your dungeon. There are ballistas and barriers, living walls that explode in paralyzing gas, beams of force that shoot down from the heavens, the classic floor spikes and wall saws. The progression of defenses that you work through is a large portion of the joy. Seeing each new beautiful tool of destruction and figuring out how it works is such fun.

As you work your way through the game you’ll have to protect your hoard from increasingly powerful heroes that are divided into the classic genres of thieves, knights, mages and archers. As the epic versions of each of these begin to march you’ll have a harder and harder time keeping them from smashing their way through. It presents a tougher puzzle than the early levels will have you believe and you’ll have to play with the various defenses to find ones that work well in each dungeon.

If some dungeons prove too difficult for you, the creators even have a mini tutorial section on their site, along with forums where you can ask other players, or even the developers for hints and walkthroughs.

Screen shot 2011 09 16 at 4.58.44 PM 520x345 Tiny Heroes is a beautiful tower defense iPhone game with a Dungeon Keeper vibe

The sound design is great for all of the defenses and effects, although there is no background music during the levels. This isn’t a huge deal for me as I traditionally listen to my own music while playing games, but it may bother some. There is also some quirkiness to hero pathing which can lead to them being a bit unpredictable or seem a little silly in how they attack your defenses, but this is generally a minor issue.

The gameplay is varied and, while it starts off easy, grows quite tough near the end of each level pack. The balance is good though and you’ll always feel like victory is within your grasp if you just get the recipe right. The learning curve is appropriate and after a while you’ll be managing mana and staggering defenses with the best of them.

There are also challenge levels interspersed throughout which will put a bit of a spin on the standard levels and offer up a bit more brain ache.

I also really loved the way that the game handles achievements. It doles them out fairly regularly for doing the things that you’ll naturally do, but doesn’t stop at just patting you on the back. You’ll get bonus defenses for use in the game that you wouldn’t get otherwise for conquering certain groups of achievements. This is a nice step up from just getting an achievement for the sake of it.

Screen shot 2011 09 16 at 4.58.31 PM 520x344 Tiny Heroes is a beautiful tower defense iPhone game with a Dungeon Keeper vibe

There is a pack of defenses that you can purchase as well, although you probably don’t need to. There’s two full dungeons of roughly 30 levels each to keep you busy and Simutronics has already delivered a free 6-mission expansion pack.

The quality of this game is top notch, every detail feels lovingly attended to and the small team at Simutronics, including Whatley, has pulled off a minor masterpiece with this little gem. I really can’t put it down and I’m loathe to finish it off as of yet, but there is a new dungeon on the horizon so I should be ok for a while. If you’re a fan of the defense genre at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up Tiny Heroes, and now is a great time as it’s on sale at $0.99 for the weekend.