Genre Awards: Turn-Based Strategy

In my last post, I started my series of “Genre Awards,” where I herald the all-time best games in various genres. My first awards went to my picks for the best fighting games. I went back and played a couple hours of Street Fighter Alpha 3 after writing that, by the way.
That genre represented the brawn; this is the brains. I’ve been a fan of turn-based strategy games for a very long time. RTS can suck it as far as I’m concerned, but getting to plot out your moves in as much time as you want for maximum benefit really resonates with me. It’s an extension of chess and checkers. One of my favorite early gaming memories was playing Tunnels of Doom on the family Texas Instruments computer. On almost every console, there has been a tactical killer app: Military Madness on TurboGrafx, Shining Force on Genesis, Fire Emblem on GBA. Speaking of Fire Emblem, a new installment just released on 3DS, Fire Emblem: Awakening – which is testing my no-game-buying vow something fierce. Here are my personal overall picks for the 3 Best Turn-Based Strategy Games!

BRONZE: King’s Bounty: A Conqueror’s Quest (1991, EA, Genesis)
I was still a tactical n00b when I grabbed this game from the packed shelves at Sunset Video. I took it home, and was thrust into a world full of minions and monsters, large areas to explore, and the equivalent of digital dodgeball: my team of dudes on one side, the enemy’s squads on the other. I rented that game many more times, until I finally talked the proprietor into selling it to me. I still have it.
Usually, I don’t like when these kind of games give you disposable units that don’t level up (see Advance Wars). However, in King’s Bounty, you’re free to recruit as many Dragons, Druids, or Orcs as are available. Whether they listen to your commands is another matter. Have your Ghosts lay waste to a bunch of Peasants – their numbers go up one for each kill – and they may mutiny against you.
The overworld aspects were sweet, too. Every game has randomized treasure placement, and the overall quest has a different location every time you play. It’s those type of replay elements that made it so great for me. I know that it was on Apple and PC first, and few realize 3DO’s PS2 game, Heroes of Might & Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff was literally the same game as King’s Bounty, but given a fresh coat of paint. Additionally, King’s Bounty: The Legend is in my collection; I just haven’t bothered to install it on my PC. It’s going to be tough to topple the 16-bit classic.

SILVER: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012, 2K Games, Xbox 360)
If you’ve read this blog much, you aren’t surprised to see XCOM make the list – though you may be surprised to see it didn’t take the gold. After all, I declared it my Game of the Year for 2012.
Because I’ve extolled its virtues so much, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say this is an amazing strategy game which gives you a lot of ways to play, an emotional connection to your soldiers, and a perfect balance of gameplay. Also, I recommend reading Polygon’s excellent story on one designer’s quest to revitalize this franchise. I really need to check out the early XCOM games – which, of course, I own thanks to a couldn’t-pass-up bundle for like $5.

GOLD: Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003, Atlus, PlayStation 2)
This game was placed upon my desk very near the end of my 4-year career at Game Informer magazine. It was easily one of the best games I ever got to review in that mag’s pages. I wanted to give it a 9 – it definitely deserved it – but my editor-in-chief told me a game with that poor of graphics could not score so high. I wonder if he ever played it.
Anyway, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is hilarious. A child demon overlord wakes up and finds his father dead and his kingdom made up of slackers. He’s pissed! His one remaining vassal is only out for herself, a meek angel is out to kill him, and nobody takes him seriously. The writing and voice-acting is top-notch – a feather in the cap of niche-game importer extraordinaire, Atlus.
But this isn’t Best Story, is it? The gameplay here is so good, I struggle to accurately describe it. Everyone and everything has depth and can be upgraded. Heck, every item has a 100-floor dungeon inside of it, should you feel so inclined. You can throw minions for better positioning, gang-up attacks are awesome, and new elements are constantly rolled out.
I played over 100 hours of Disgaea. That’s more than I played every other NIS-developed strategy game combined – including Disgaea 2 and Disgaea 3. So yeah, I think it was worthy of a 9 out of 10.


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