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.

Genre Awards – Fighting Games

Game journalism is full of lists: the best games of the year; the best games on a system; the best games of all time. It’s all been done. I decided to look back and pick the best games in particular genres (action, FPS, extreme sports, etc.). I have put together about 27 genres, and awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze metals to what I think are the best in the category. You are free to disagree – and you likely will. Everyone’s experience and list of games-played is different.
Fighting games are the first genre, because it’s the first one I started thinking about. These usually entail two combatants squaring off one-on-one in an epic battle to empty your opponent’s life bar, and then maybe eat their body and spit out the bones. I’ve always been fascinated by fighting games. They always had great graphics – only needing to put two characters onscreen. They had detailed controls with lots of moves to discover. They have a bit of a cathartic quality, though I’ve never found them anywhere near real martial arts.
I recall playing Street Fighter II: Championship Edition at an arcade during the Wisconsin State Fair. People were huddled around. When I got my chance to play, I chose sumo master E. Honda and basically spammed his hundred-hand slap move repeatedly. I picked up Street Fighter II along with my SNES, and spent countless hours becoming proficient with each person. My girlfriend and I would play Mortal Kombat II on that same SNES, cheat sheet in front of us, to witness all the Fatality moves. The Wisconsin State Fair is also where I later saw Tekken 2, with its realistic moves and beautiful polygonal characters. It spurred me to buy a PlayStation, though Tekken 2 wouldn’t come out for it for several months. Oddly, none of those games I just mentioned made the cut. So, without further ado, here are the 3 Best Fighting Games!

BRONZE: Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001, Nintendo, GameCube)
This is not your typical fighting game. First off, it features cutesy characters known for platforming and kart-racing. Secondly, it’s not one-on-one. It’s a free-for-all of famous faces, all trying to toss each other into the abyss. The 25 characters – Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, Pikachu – each bring their unique personality, though the gameplay is super simple to grasp. This means anyone who’s held a controller can join in on the highly customizable multiplayer and not feel in over their head.
Or, if you’re fighting solo, there’s an extremely varied Adventure mode which always keeps you guessing – thus avoiding the repetitiveness that plagues many fighting games. The extensive stat-tracking will show just how much you played, along with your win/loss record and hit percentages. Another bonus are the little “titles” you’re given after fights, to denote special performances (which I stole for WWE SVR 2009‘s Season mode). Its Wii sequel may have includes some improvements, but Melee hits a sweet spot of advances and nostalgia that make it the best of the series, one of the best GameCube games, and the Bronze winner for the Fighting-Game category. Also, it had a gumball machine with like a million Nintendo-themed trophies in it.

SILVER: Soulcalibur (1999, Namco, Dreamcast)
Starting with Soul Edge (Soul Blade on PlayStation) in 1996, this series was easy to pawn off as Tekken with weapons. After all, both came from Namco. Soulcalibur blew away its muse – and every other fighting game – when it launched with Sega’s Dreamcast. Never before had we seen such beauty and smoothness in a 3D fighting game. I could sit there and watch the characters do their specific katas forever. Maxi was my guy, being a big nunchuk fan. Voldo was dope, too, with his S&M outfits and trident daggers. But whomever you choose, you get both fantasy and realistic moves that were approachable for button-mashers, but deep enough to reward patient players. Mission Mode opened up a variety of tasks and valuable rewards. Maybe you were the man in Arcade Mode, but could you win when poisoned? What if the opponent is invisible – only their weapon showing? What about if you can only cause damage when your opponent is off the ground?
I kind of lost track of the Soulcalibur series over the years. I don’t even own the fifth iteration. Like many fighting franchises, it seemed to only make miniscule advancements from version to version. And I’ve learned that I tend to not play enough of fighting and racing games to get my money’s worth. Evidence: I own the latest Mortal Kombat and it’s still sealed on my shelf. But I digress. Onto…

GOLD: Street Fighter Alpha 3 (1999, Capcom, PlayStation)
Street Fighter is the grand-daddy of fighting games, and Alpha 3 is by far its best showing. Alpha was originally a kind of prequel to Street Fighter II, with the characters being younger and using a slightly softer art style. But Alpha 3 throws basically everything from every previous game into it, along with a ton of new material. I’m talking over 35 characters, three “isms” that alter your playing style, the ability to take on multiple opponents onscreen at once… The list goes on.
Reading the above entries, you can tell I’m a big fan of unique single-player modes. Of course SFA3 has that. World Tour mode gives you new challenges and twists (vs. 2 Sagats?!), all the while awarding you experience and boosts like air guard or resisting dizziness. The boosts really allow you to tailor your character to your play style, and basically ensure everyone’s character – even if outwardly the same – turns out differently. I loved World Tour mode. I’m pretty sure I played all the way through it with a half-dozen fighters – including of course the aforementioned E. Honda.
I also adored Survival mode. Because the game allowed you to fight multiple adversaries at once, these were simply insane and intense. There’s a huge beat-my-score dynamic, which would have been that much better had online leaderboards been around at the time. Oh well. Maybe we’ll see an HD remake of it for download? It’s worth noting I’ve played just about every other port of the game – Dreamcast, PSP, GBA – and they were all well done. Of course, the PSP’s d-pad will give you one hell of a thumb callus. But after causing so much damage to computer enemies, it’s a small price to pay. Street Fighter Alpha 3 is easily my pick for Best Fighting Game. A winner is you!