Strategy & Simulation
On many accounts, Advance Wars is the best title for the GBA — period. The turn-based strategy title has long been heralded for its incredibly-balanced battle system, its fitting visual panache and the deep level of mechanics it offers right from the get-go. With Advance Wars, players take on the role of a military strategist overseeing the Orange Star Army, engaging in 30 storyline missions spread across the four nations of the war-torn continent of Alara. Players take turns moving manga-styled units on a chess-like grid within their movement range, whether they be nimble-footed infantry or burgeoning bombers, while claiming strategic points, combating enemies forces and merging troops along the way. Although most of the gameplay will have you peering over a no-frills tactical map, the coupled in-game dialogue and gorgeously-developed animated cutscenes depicting unit-to-unit confrontation help break up any reservations you may have regarding the title’s lack of vision.
The above paragraph only touches on Advance Wars. Aside from the single-player campaign mode, the title also features superb hodgepodge of additional content in the form of assorted game modes, a bustling map creator and more than 150 built-in maps on which to lambaste your enemies. Bonus features are unlocked via AW coins — rewards earned based on the grade you receive from single-player skirmishes — while multi-cartridge link modes only fuel the title’s last appeal. The game title may be nondescript, but there’s no denying it truly is a, ahem, advanced title.
Probably like most 24-year-old gamers, you’d think I’d have a difficult time recommending a title based on the Neverending Story given its bludgeoning, adolescent appeal. However, Final Fantasy Tactics represented Square’s triumphant return to the Nintendo platform in almost a decade, showcasing the Japanese developers exquisite knack for turn-based strategy and rollicking storytelling elements. Set in the fantasy-veiled world of Ivalice, the game focuses on a young boy named Marche and a group of his downtrodden friends who, by mistake, discover a magical book that turns their reality into one of swordplay and rampant magic. Gameplay slowly unfolds in isometric fashion as players move individual characters within their respective ranges on a grid-based map, steadily attacking opponents, utilizing foreign items and casting powerful spells throughout the game’s lengthy campaign.
Additionally, a judge presides over all battles, informing players of the dos and don’ts of each mission and penalizing anyone who breaks the law. The five androgynous character races and accompanying player classes are diversely robust, incorporating everything from human illusionists and Viera mages to Bangaa dragoons and Moogle jugglers, giving the title a good deal of experimental and strategic value. Secondary professions abound, as do new abilities and powerful weapons as you progress in the game, but it doesn’t work in the RPG-like fashion in which Square has become known for. All in all, it doesn’t come off as the Neverending Story, but rather a stylistically-cute strategy title with a sufficient story and great gameplay (sans Falkor).
The introduction of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee may have foreshadowed the inevitable coming of the Fire Emblem saga to the English-speaking states, but it wasn’t until the full-length Fire Emblem hit U.S. shelves were audiences truly exposed to one of Japan’s most iconic video-game legacies. Developed by the same folks behind the aforementioned Advance Wars and technically the seventh game in the series, Fire Emblem was a RPG-enriched strategy title with loads of personality and some of the most unforgiving dynamics on the GBA. The story is straightforward, centered on a band of companions seeking to overthrow the forces of evil, yet the dialogue and character development is well-scripted and evocative enough to that you feel the loss when a party member falls. And fall they will. Forever.
With Fire Emblem, you take on the role of a apprentice tactician in a fantasy realm, moving characters amid a grid and attacking opponents whenever you feel so inclined. You amass a large party of distinct characters during your journey, each with their own unique attributes and advantages, but the core of the combat will allows find you wiping out enemies, protecting a character or capturing a fortress among other objectives. It’s challenging, even with the lengthy tutorials, and embellished with top-notch battle animations and simple sprites liken to other titles in the genre. Fire Emblem may read like Advance Wars – and yes there are undeniable similarities between the two – but it’s far more story-driven, with permanent death always weighing on your mind.
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis is not a game for the impatient. Players cannot skip or speed through dialogue and battle animations the way they can in other turn-based strategy titles — meaning you’ll be forced to endure the brunt of it — but luckily it’s also not a title skimping in the character development department either. The storyline and character interactions seem as deep and complex as those lining George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, pivoting on a young knight who is initially dispatches to the island nation of Ovis, only to discover not all is as it seem once trotting down the mult-path storyline. The stylized animations are vibrant and contrast-rich, accompanied by a diverse, atmospheric score fit for any of the title’s predecessors and a lengthy campaign encapsulates nearly 40 hours of gameplay entirely on its own.
The 2D, isometric combat is also as standout, allowing players to traverse and attack opponents on a variety of gridded terrain using up to eight individual characters, each outfitted with their own elemental affinity, class and alignment. Class changing is still integral to the series, yet many require emblems rewarded when players perform various deeds on the battlefield. It’s a nice mechanical addition to an already-sterling battle system, as is the two-player versus mode, but neither are revolutionary. Knight of Lodis may essentially be simplified side story in the grand Ogre Battle universe, but it’s told with such self-assured depth that you can’t help but play the waiting game.
Much likes the music industry, the gaming industry is teeming with what many would consider the “golden oldies” of the 16-bit era. As a reincarnation of the ever-so-popular Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention, Resurrection of the Dark Dragon is one of those titles, beautifully updated and painstakingly expanded for Nintendo’s former handheld. Players assume the role of an amateur, amnesia-struck knight named Max, who reluctantly takes it upon himself to rid Rune of the wicked king Runefaust and the Dark Dragon, encountering all manners of friend and foe along the way. It’s not exactly original at this point, but it’s still delivered excellently, with winsome dialogue and a memorable cast of characters in tow.
Like it’s counterparts, the RPG-seared combat system within Resurrection of the Dark Dragon trumps the story. Players move 12 of 30 available characters amid gridded battlefield while attempting to meet the various victory conditions, leveling up their characters via garnered experience points and upgradeable gear in the process. Additionally, developer Atlus has added a card-collecting dynamic to the game, further encouraging players to explore the world as the cards provide a tide-turning means of summoning additional units and infusing characters with unique abilities among other actions. It’s a lengthy sitting, and though there are other turn-based strategy titles on our list, none them come with as rich a history as this.
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