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A group of, usually similar, enemy entities that must be avoided or completely destroyed as they approach the player. Each group of enemy entities, separated by some pause, is considered a wave.

A wave is a particular form of challenge segmentation, generally observed in games that require quick reflexes and good hand-eye coordination. One of the defining aspects of the wave is that the player’s inaction will result in the premature end of the game (game over). Segmentation with waves is primarily used to increase the tension of the gameplay. Classic examples of segmentation using waves include Space Invaders and Missile Command. The former was described by S. Iwata as a game where “A little neglect may breed great tension” (Kent) while in the latter “you were only postponing the inevitable. This war was hell, and it was never long before you died in a blaze of glory.”(Sellers)

Some questions that may help establish whether we have come across an instance of a wave, and in what degree if answered positively:

  • Does the player have to face a group of enemy entities?
  • Are these entities identifiable as being of the same type, e.g. they look exactly the same, or they behave identically?
  • Is there a pause between the appearance of one group of enemies and the next?


Strong Examples


This game is a canonical example of wave. In Galaxian the player has to face a set of spaceships that appear in formation on the upper half of the screen. Occasionally they will fly out of the formation to attack the player’s spaceship. Once one set of enemies has been cleared, a new one will appear filling the top half of the screen.

Typing of the Dead

This game typically takes the player “on rails” through the gameworld. The player has to kill off the hordes of zombies one at a time. The player has to type the word/phrase/sentence displayed on the screen before the zombi attacks her (i.e. there is a time limit to write the world). If the player fails to write the text correctly and on time, the life points will be diminished until the game is over.

Gears of War

The levels progress but each area you enter has a stop to it where you are attacked by waves of enemies popping out of the ground, running toward you or you are charging them. They come in groups and you must fight off the wave to progress forward in the game.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

One of the key challenges of this game is the "Gang War" challenge in which the player must instigate a turf battle in order to take over territory in the fictional, Los Angeles-inspired city of Los Santos. In each battle, the player must defeat three (3) waves of enemy gang members, identified by the gang colors they wear, to win more territory. After each wave, a message appears onscreen to tell the player which wave has been defeated, and a few seconds pass before the next wave appears, usually better armed than the first.

Total Carnage

One or more players must battle their way through an area by killing literally hundreds of enemies coming at them in waves every few seconds. In order to reach the end of an area, players must either evade or destroy each wave of enemies.

Weak Examples

Golden Axe

As a canonical Beat ‘em up, enemies appear in groups, which the player(s) will have to beat in order to advance and face the next wave. However, the sense of wave is weakened because the player(s) can opt to stay and not move to the next segment—the urgency to react or else you die that is inherent in wave challenges is missing. This urgency is rehearsed by a flashing signs, prompting the player “Go! →” to the next segment. Therefore Golden Axe (and all Beat ’em ups following this model, e.g. Double Dragon, River City Ransom) present weak examples of waves.

Kingdom Hearts 2

As the player explores a field that is infested with enemies, the enemies will appear in small groups as the player moves the avatar (Sora) into the range of an area where a group of enemies is programmed to appear. Since the player has the freedom to stay in one place if they choose, and not have to constantly move to avoid enemies, this takes the urgency of evasion down substantially and the player doesn't have the sense of needing to "keep on their toes".


Players, computer or human, usually create groups of units to attack the other player’s base. To the defending player it is like a wave: It is a group of enemy entities, they often contain many of the same units, and there is a pause in between attacks were the other player needs to create new units to attack with.


When a player is killed in battlefield they rejoin the battle at a spawn point selected for by the player. The respawn timer is continuous with people respawning as the repeating 15 second timer reaches 0. As a result in multi-player matches many killed players will select the most advantageous spawn point, appearing simultaneously and often converging on the same or similar point (the direction of the nearest enemy force). This example therefore satisfies a number of the requirements for being a wave when viewed from the perspective of a player on the opposing team:

  • The player will have to face a group of enemy entities – Players on the opposing team respawning within a relatively close distance to one another
  • There is a pause between one group of enemies and the next – The respawn timer creates time between player entities appearing
  • The enemies are identifiable as being of the same type – The enemies appear similar to the player, though they are not identical due to the variation in the weapon they carry. In some situations with the opposition all choosing the same kit (this is possible although exceptionally rare) this criteria would be satisfied.

Relations with other elements of the Ontology



Galaxian. Namco (1979) Midway: Arcade

Typing of the Dead. Smilebit (2000) Sega: Dreamcast

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Videogames. Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 2001.

Sellers, John. Arcade Fever: The Fan's Guide to the Golden Age of Videogames. London: Running Press, 2001.