Smith: Taking Turns

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

I’ve been in love with turn-based strategy games since the early 1990s.

I just didn’t know they were called that, not until “Final Fantasy Tactics” re-energized the genre in 1998.

My introduction to the genre was the obscure and overly difficult “Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday” for the Sega Genesis. I tried the genre again with the “Shining Force” games, also for the Sega Genesis, and that time, it stuck.

The premise revolves around the idea of small, military skirmishes with a dozen or fewer soldiers on each side. Each character is given a turn to move and attack on a grid-based environment until one side no longer exists, much like a board game. And just like the stationary character pieces on a game board, opposing forces can be sitting just feet away from each other, waiting for their turn to attack.

Over the summer, three of the best games in the genre were released in rapid succession, and I’ve lost at least 100 hours of my life play testing them for this column. If you never tried the genre, I suggest you start with the best of the bunch — “Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.” It’s surprisingly deep, yet simple enough in presentation to teach beginners about the subtleties of the genre.

“Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle” Rated “E” for Everyone.

I arranged part of my recent vacation around this game, and for good reason.

The fun-loving Mario—a perpetually unemployed plumber best known from the “Super Mario Bros.” franchise finally has a gun. If the guns looked realistic and the bullets actually killed enemies (they get knocked unconscious), that would be a problem—especially in today’s climate. Instead, it may be the cutest, most juxtaposed image I’ve seen in a video game.

The necessities of the genre require weapons, either melee or ranged. Mario has both — a giant hammer that squashes the adorable baddies into the ground, and a futuristic pistol that looks like a child’s toy and shoots honey and ink, in addition to (rubber?) bullets. Other mainstay characters such as Mario’s brother Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi join along for the ride, each with their own unique weapons and skill sets.

Believe it or not, Princess Peach carries an overly large shotgun. The pinkest, most non-threatening shotgun imaginable.

It’s a welcome, light-hearted take on a genre filled with serious “war is hell” titles, but the strategy behind each battle is detailed enough to challenge the hardiest gaming veterans. The game also innovates the genre in several ways, such as the ability to cover large distances by vaulting off of other characters.

Each battle is connected through a colorful, gorgeous overworld packed with goodies and light puzzle-solving. The rabbids (overly excited, anthropomorphic rabbits that act like gremlins) are surprisingly fleshed out as well. Since they dress up like your team members and emulate their performance in battle, they’re also quite useful — in addition to being hilarious.

The graphics are gorgeous, the music and sound design is spot-on and the multi-tier boss battles are simply astounding. I was expecting a good game. Instead, I got what may be the best game of the year.

If all this sounds like gobbledygook but you’re a fan of Mario, give it a shot anyway. It will be unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Four out of Four Stars

“XCOM 2: War of the Chosen” Rated “T” for Teen. *Must own a copy of “XCOM 2” to play

While far too many game publishers are trying to nickel and dime consumers with meaningless micro-transactions, “XCOM 2: War of the Chosen” is so large and detailed, you might as well call it “XCOM 3.”

Considering this is an expansion of one the best games of 2016, that’s very good news. It works just like “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle,” only with more characters, an in-depth management system and an entirely different premise — resistance factions fighting an alien occupation force.

I was so excited about this expansion that I circumvented my PC version of “XCOM 2” and bought it again for my PlayStation 4. I blazed through the campaign in a record three weeks, hoping the “War of the Chosen” expansion would be different enough to encourage a third play-through.

I needn’t have worried. The expansion is far more cinematic than the original, packed with all new missions, environments and character classes. The only previous game expansion that can compare is “The Blood and Wine” add-on for “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” which also felt like an entirely new game.

While I encourage gamers to try genres outside their comfort zone, “XCOM 2” is a bit complicated for a beginner. Finish “Mario + Rabbids,” and you’ll be plenty ready.

Four out of Four Stars

“Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia” Rated “T” for Teen

The “Fire Emblem” series helped pioneer the turn-based strategy genre in 1990, and there’s been more than a dozen games since then.

I’ve played around with a few of the more recent “Fire Emblem” games over the years, and while I admired them, nothing really grabbed me. Not until “Shadows of Valentia.”

A medieval fairy tale with the playful heart of an anime and the coldly realistic tone of “Games of Thrones,” this latest entry is actually a remake of the 1992 Nintendo game “Fire Emblem Gaiden.” Don’t worry — I’d never heard of it, either.

Whatever its origins, “Fire Emblem Echoes” is a near perfect example of melee-based strategy done right. It’s also in full 3D, which gives surprising definition to the top-down perspective. Sadly, that’s a rarity for new 3DS games these days.

I wish I had more room to gush, but I really don’t need it. Handheld games, or strategy games in general, don’t get much better than this.

Four out of Four Stars