A Love Letter to Strategy Games

As you’ve probably guessed by now, most of the the formative video games from my childhood were from Sony and Nintendo. I spent many youthful hours in front of the PlayStation, gliding across canyons as Spyro the Dragon and falling down pits as Crash Bandicoot. On the Game Boy I traveled to magnificent foreign lands like Kanto in Pokemon Yellow Version and Koholint Island in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

However, that’s not the complete story. The PC was the third pillar of my childhood games. And it was thanks to the PC that I learned about one of my favorite genres: Strategy games.

I actually played a lot of PC games on my family’s Macintosh computers. Shareware discs like Myth II: Soulblighter showed me that there were more types of games than just Mascot Platformers and RPGs.

When it came to PCs, my parents always bought Macintoshes. Apple was practically another member of the family. I remember watching my brother play Lode Runner on the black-and-white display of those models from the late 1980s, the blocky ones with the floppy disk drive on the front, like a Picasso mouth. Later we got a Macintosh LC model (I believe) with a CD-ROM drive. Finally my family got one of those colorful iMac’s from the Y2K era, with the translucent shell and everything. Macs weren’t exactly known as gaming powerhouses. Most of the time we played educational games like Carmen Sandiego: Junior Detective, Yukon Trail, and Wiggleworks. In fact, I owe some of these educational games a lot of credit for shaping my interests later in life. 3D Atlas ’94 opened my eyes to the world outside of my sleepy Indianapolis suburb (and later Phoenix suburb), and created a lasting love for geography. Chuck Jones’ Peter and the Wolf sparked my interest in orchestral music. Nine Worlds ignited my passion for astronomy and space exploration. Since we didn’t own a game console at the time, we made the most of what we had on these Macs. Occasionally we got something more “video gamey,” like Star Fighter, A-10 Attack!, and Power Pete. We briefly played Shareware for Warlords 2 and Myth II: Soulblighter that provided a peek at the joy of Strategy games. But it wasn’t until the Y2K era that my brother and I took a deep dive into the genre.

Starcraft is and always will be one of my favorite games. I can easily forget that time exists when I play it.

Changing My Life In Real Time

My brother and I often visited our neighbor’s house down the street. That family had two kids that thankfully matched us in age. On top of that, they were nice to us, and they invited us over to play in their den. This den was a hub of 4 computers all connected together. To my eyes, it looked like a secret lab of fun. Out of all of their computer games, the brooding SciFi game called Starcraft stuck out the most.

I’d never seen anything like it. You issue commands to various units, gather and spend resources, build up a base with defenses, and then strike at the enemy with an army that you raised yourself. I could hardly tear myself away from it. Every moment was filled with decisions to make — which units to train, which upgrades to get, and all of it had to be made on the fly. I had never wanted a Windows PC more badly than when I played Starcraft.

To my surprise, we found a copy of Starcraft for iMac. It came in a massive boxed set with the Brood War expansion along with this large book detailing the lore of the game. I was fascinated by the grim SciFi premise. The Zerg race were terrifying with their grotesque bodies and bizarre hive mind, while the Protoss impressed me with their Jedi-like technology. Each faction had their own strengths and weaknesses, and each had their own play style. Our bubbly iMac soon became the scene of dozens of grisly campaigns with space marines, zealots, and zerglings all falling in battle. Starcraft became the reason why my parents created a hard rule that no M-rated games were allowed, and we couldn’t buy any more T-rated games until we were older.

Starcraft may have been my first introduction, but it was Command & Conquer that cemented my love for Strategy games.

And then we visited my cousins in Ohio for the summer, who had a Windows PC of their own. They didn’t own Starcraft, but they did own another Real-Time Strategy game that my brother and I both fell in love with just as much: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.

Set in an alternate history timeline, this game puts players in a world in which the Cold War turned hot, but without nuclear weapons (well, mostly). Similar to Starcraft, the object was to gather resources, build up an imposing base, and then wipe out the enemy with your army. If I remember right, the objectives were much more varied when compared to Starcraft, but I still had a soft spot for Starcraft’s SciFi story and catchy soundtrack. I didn’t get to play Red Alert 2 for very long, but that didn’t stop it from leaving a lasting impression on me. I needed to play more games like these.

When I was a teenager, Pikmin felt like it came out of the blue. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why I liked its Strategy elements so much.

By the time we got our GameCube, I was in just the right headspace to play Pikmin. At the time, it looked so different than any game I had ever seen before — I never even thought of it as a Real-Time Strategy game. In hindsight, though, it’s obvious to see the genre connection and why I loved the game so much. The best part about Pikmin was that it was much more approachable than the Strategy games on PC. Mutitasking wasn’t as overwhelming, and it wasn’t as discouraging when you encountered setbacks. Starcraft and Command & Conquer were much more difficult (that is, until I discovered the cheat codes). Pikmin helped me take a step back and master the basics of the genre.

Pikmin also helped bridge the gap from PC Strategy games to console Strategy games. Up until this most the Strategy games I had played were Real-Time Strategy (RTS for short), but I soon learned about games of the turn-based variety. And I soon learned to love them as well.

Advance Wars is such a well-designed game and introduced me to a new way to strategize.

Advancing to Turn-Based Strategy and Tactical RPGs

Advance Wars had already stood out to me when I saw it at Target and Wal-Mart. Its box art with a bright red tank and cartoony characters made me curious. It was easy to say yes when a friend offered to let me borrow his copy. Much to my delight, I learned that it was very similar to Starcraft and Pikmin, only everything happened on a turn-by-turn basis. Instead of building up a base from scratch, you had to capture buildings. The balance had shifted — in most of the Strategy games I’d played by that point, it seemed that the games favored you using big expensive units, while the early-game infantry would usually become obsolete. However, in Advance Wars, it was always important to keep a steady stream of infantry ready to capture enemy cities and territories. In hindsight, Starcraft was actually designed better than that, but that just showed how little I knew about the depth of Strategy games. In that way, Advance Wars was another important stepping stone for teaching me to look carefully at all of my units skills and abilities. It was vital to create synergy between units and create a counter to any attack the enemy could throw at you. On top of it all, the cartoon art style was charming, and the rock n’ roll soundtrack pumped out some of the best melodies to ever leave my GBA’s speakers.

My friend offered to lend me Fire Emblem as well, but the permadeath in that game scared me away. I found the renewable units of Advance Wars more forgiving of my many, many mistakes. I found Advance Wars so enjoyable that I showed it to my brother, and he ended up becoming a bigger fan of the series than I did. I really enjoyed the first two Advance Wars games, sure, but I never became as big a fan of them as I did with the Pikmin, Metroid, or Golden Sun series. I never even knew that there were two more sequels released on the DS until I was an adult. I really want to play though them, too, but I just haven’t had the time to do it yet. They are sitting on my backlog, and I can almost hear them tapping their feet for their turn to be played.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance seemed like a much more approachable Strategy RPG than Fire Emblem, and it was. The gameplay was a lot different than Advance Wars, though. In Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, you’re micro-managing a small band of fighters rather than overseeing the machinations of an entire warfront. In Advance Wars, you move all of your units in a single phase, giving the impression of one cohesive force working together. But in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, every unit takes individual turns, and they are mixed in with the enemy units’ movements. You had to be hyper-aware of every individual’s position, strengths, and weaknesses. It was easier for an enemy to disrupt your plans or make you change tactics on the fly. Not only that, but the judgement system changed the rules of every battle, meaning you had to pay attention to almost every conflict. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance taught me useful skills, and it became one of the last Strategy games I played as a teenager.

Playing Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia made me think: “Why in the world did I sleep on this series for so long?”

As the years wore on, and I started getting back into video games, I got the itch to play something like Advance Wars. Something in my brain just loves seeing units on a board with a list of commands at my fingertips. In 2017 I noticed that the indie game Wargroove was in development during a Nintendo Switch showcase, and it aimed to be a spiritual successor with a fantasy setting. I liked the look of it. However, I was feeling too impatient to wait for that to come out. I saw that there was a new Fire Emblem game released on the 3DS called Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. As an adult, I felt I could finally overcome my younger hesitations. I could handle this permadeath mechanic, right? So I finally gave Fire Emblem a shot.

I’m so glad that I did. Fire Emblem blends the strategy that I love about the Advance Wars series with more personal, character-driven stories and compelling RPG systems. I quickly went back to play Fire Emblem Awakening, and I still couldn’t get enough. A new friend that I had made as an adult lent me his copies of Fire Emblem as well as Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. At one point, I’d dreaded these games; now I embraced them. I’ve really enjoyed doing the History of the Emblem series this past year, as it gave me an excuse to play through older entries. I still need to finish that, by the way.

Forward March

Speaking of finishing things, I’ve acquired many Strategy games on my backlog that I do intend to play some day. Now that I have a proper gaming PC, I’m ready to tackle Into the Breach, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Command & Conquer Remastered. On the 3DS I still have Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. as well as the Fire Emblem Fates duology to complete. On the Nintendo Switch I still have Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Triangle Strategy, and Valkyria Chronicles 4. I definitely have my work cut out for me.

This year is looking to be a solid year for new Strategy games for me as well. I’ll be diving into a remaster of Vanillaware’s PS2 classic: GrimGrimoire Oncemore, as well as Advance Wars 1+2 Reboot Camp (it’s about time, Nintendo!), and finally, of course, Pikmin 4. I’m going to eat well these next few months.

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