What I Think I Like

I love strategy games. At least that’s what I tell myself. One of the first games I was ever seriously addicted to was this FORTRAN monstrosity called EMPIRE that ran on a VT100 terminal on your neighborhood Vax in the late 70s. I remember wasting away many afternoons in the terminal room conquering the world with my armies and boats and aircraft. This game was classic turn-based strategy. You give orders to your dozens of units. The computer moves his dozens of units. Eventually, one side is out of units and loses.

Later on, I played Strategic Conquest which was EMPIRE reborn on the Mac with cute little icons and funny sound effects. Exactly the same game though. These days, this type of tactical game is nearly impossible for me to resist. I bought a GBA for almost the sole purpose of playing Advance Wars. Of course, Advance Wars is also on the DS, along with a turn-based version of Age of Empires. Then there are the all of the great Japanese tactical RPGs: Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Phantom Brave and on and on.

My gaming life is apparently filled with an overwhelming buffet of different strategy games. I could sit on my couch and move units 247 for the rest of my life and probably not finish them all. I could, but for one problem. The truth is, I can barely play them at all.

Let’s take Disgaea as an illustrative example. I’ve had this game for about two years. So far, I’ve worked my way through the first four missions a couple of times. Here is what happens when I decide I want to play the game again:

1. Find the disk.

2. Stare at the idle PS2 and consider what I’m going to do.

3. Remember that the game is a byzantine combination of combat missions, RPG spreadsheet processing, weird combat mechanics that I can’t remember, and that slightly grating anime-style art and writing (the penguins say “d00d” and explode when you throw them).

4. As I consider booting the disk, I can feel the residual energy slowly leak out of my brain, leaving me unable to deal with any game that requires more thought that “X-button! now!”

5. Once in a while, I put the disk in and remember just enough of the game (using the walkthrough) to play the next map once or twice.

6. Then I put the disk back and play Madden or Final Fantasy for a few months.

Just last month, I thought about playing Disgaea and instead I decided to see how many rushing yards you can gain with a single running back in one season. It turns out if you work at it, you can get at least 3,500 yards with one player. What you do is trick the defense into a Nickel formation, and then lock it there by going hurry-up. You can then run at will for as long as you need to. Anyway, when I got tired of that, I ran my FF12 people around some and let them fight by themselves, which was less work than moving the weird exploding penguins around the battle map.

Soon after picking up Disgaea and not playing it much, I bought Phantom Brave, which was developed by the same company. I can’t remember if have even cut the shrink wrap off of that game.

I have the same relationship with my portable strategy games, even though the hand-helds should be perfect for the genre. Start a map, play a few turns, sleep the machine, repeat. I was told that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was a great game, but the half-hour opening cut scene sort of put me off of it. I might have played one or two of the opening missions, but then I sort of lost the rhythm. Same with Fire Emblem. I think I own both of GBA Fire Emblem games, and I have thought about buying the Gamecube version. It would be a great thing to go with Disgaea!

The one almost-exception to my general rule about strategy games is Advance Wars. Here I have actually made decent progress through every entry in the series. I think I’ve played about half of the story mode of each. In other words, I played through most of the easy maps but quit once the game got more complicated. By this measure, it should be clear that Advance Wars is by far the best strategy game on the planet. I’ve played an order of magnitude more of it than any of the dozen or so others I’ve tried.

I think I buy tactical and strategy games in an effort to convince myself that my interest in video games is not purely driven by an infantile need for escapism. In other words, I think they are good for me the same way serious books or music are good for me. The difference is, I actually read… well, I actually do listen to…, well, I used to anyway.

For better or worse, the truth is just the opposite. My interest in video games is almost completely about an infantile need for escapism. What is the point of a good game if you are not being the hero, or shooting the bad guys, or swinging that huge sword mindlessly in the air. Games are not the place where I want to be exercising my higher brain function. I’m willing to read some text to avoid horrible voice-work. But that’s about as far as I’ll take it.

I like dumb games for dumb people. I’m a dumb gamer.

Still, maybe tonight I’ll play a couple maps of Disgaea. I’m just starting to get the hang of the combat system and am really starting to groove on some of its more unique and flexible features.