Strategy games cover quite a gamut, from turn-based military tactics to real-time strategy and even variations on the classic run 'n gun genre. Rather than get too hung up on an exact definition, though, I think it's much easier to recognize this genre by its strong emphasis on resource management. Whether you're carefully allocating money as you build a city, engaging in productive international trade, or carefully deploying the right solider—hopefully with the right weapon—to accomplish a given objective, you're probably playing a strategy game.
In this brilliant and innovative title, you alternate between side-scrolling hack-and-slash platformer levels and simulation city building ones where you protect townsfolk in shoot 'em up fashion by slaying monsters with arrow's from your flying angel's bow. Once you've directed townsfolk to destroy all the monster lairs, you can fly in your sky palace to the next area where you platform your way through another side-scrolling level to open up the next city building section, and the cycle repeats. Obviously, the graphics—as with most strategy games—are nothing to rave about. The music, however, is phenomenally good, composed by the incredible Yuzo Koshiro.
At the start of each game, you choose one of six historical periods, one of four nationalities, one of five special abilities, and one of four difficulty levels. Pirates has near infinite replay value thanks to the myriad different combinations. The music is much better than New Horizons, and gameplay moves at a faster pace in general, with more emphasis on action than exploring towns and micro managing your ship inventory. Still one of the greatest Pirate games ever created.
Developer: High Score Productions / Gremlin Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 1993 / 1995
There's a lot of shoot 'em up in this one, but good luck getting far in your missions without planning your attack in advance and carefully regulating your use of ammo. While you primarily fly a Comanche attack helicopter, you'll also get to pilot a motorbike, hovercraft, and F-117 Nighthawk. You also get to choose your co-pilot, whose skills affect your chain gun speed and winch speed for picking up equipment and hostages. Incredible depth for such an action-packed RTS game.
It's amazing how sometimes a developer can get so much right with the first release of a game. The Wars series has since appeared on nearly every Nintendo system, most recently as the excellent Advance Wars series for the DS. Even on the DS, the gameplay pioneered by Famicom Wars remains remarkably intact: capture cities to gain additional funds, spend your funds to build units, deploy them in the best tactical manner possible, and win by either eradicating all enemy units or capturing the enemy's headquarters. You can play versus a friend or go through a campaign against the computer; for the latter you even get to set the AI's IQ. It's no wonder this developer is known as Intelligent Systems. A brilliant tactical military game.
Dune (known in Europe as Dune II) created the template for the real-time build/grow/conquer strategy games—like Warcraft—that would follow, yet few people today recall its significance. In Dune you face fog of war, sandworm attacks, and by you can even build the special units of other houses by capturing their structures. What are you waiting for? Choose a house (Atreides, Harkonnen, or Ordos) and try to gain control of this treacherous desert planet.
Make the best use of the terrain, capture factories to gain more units, and try to take over the enemy's headquarters while defending your own. It's that simple, and brilliant. No need to waste time creating new buildings or upgrading units—this game is elegantly focused on optimal positioning. Don't be fooled into thinking it's easy, though. Even if you manage to finish all 32 stages, there's a code that lets you play as the enemy. An incredible amount of gameplay on one HuCard.
You won't find any other blend of farm simulation and role playing game in the list. This one stands in a unique space of its own. Everything is structured around seasons and time, which fundamentally shape your life as you go about farming with tools, caring for animals, and even getting married. To add some spice to the complexities of managing your farm and love life, there are also special events like festivals (mini-games and dancing with girls) and disasters (hurricanes and earthquakes). You'd be shocked how such a non-game title draws you in with its attention to detail and excellent character animations. You'll have more fun with farm chores than ever before!
While most people cite Dune II as defining the real-time strategy genre, Herzog Zwei actually pioneered this turf three years earlier. Rather than move a mouse around the screen, you pilot a flying mech—so much cooler—that can not only fight but also transport units, and give them orders. Use infantry to capture outposts, or dispatch SAM missile batteries to contend with the opposing mech. Multiplayer split-screen head-to-head play makes this brilliant game even better.
That a Koei game appears in this list should be no surprise. Everyone loves pirates, but the gameplay goes so much deeper than just plundering victims on the high seas. You start off by choosing one of six different characters, each with his or her own storyline, from finding the lost Atlantis continent, to creating a map of the entire world. Of course, classic piracy is always an option, too. In the course of each adventure, you can trade goods on the international market, invest in ports, hire new crew members, and control a fleet of ships. With your career unfolding over not only hours by years, this is easily one of the deepest 16-bit games ever made.
With its Catch-22 humor and four-player support, this real-time tactics game occupies a special spot on the list. The goal is simple—annihilate the enemy—yet there's a surprising amount of gameplay depth. There are five different classes of soldiers, each level allows you to choose from four different squads, and one is an elite commando team that features an alternative control scheme. You can even learn tactics in boot camp and achieve special bonus objectives on levels.
It looks so simple, so primitive. Or is it? Gain Ground burst onto the arcade scene in 1988, and the home console ports were quite good, especially the PCE CD version, which features a CD-quality soundtrack. It was the gameplay, though, that really set the standard. You're faced with what appears to be a straightforward array of enemies in each stage. But what character do you choose for the fight? Is shooting as a righty or a south paw more advantageous. What about your speed of movement or your special attack? Do you have a weapon that arcs in the air to hit higher targets. Can you rush through the level or spend the time to fight each enemy head-to-head. All of these questions are exactly why this excellent title falls into this genre.
You might be skeptical about control, since this port doesn't offer support for the SNES mouse, but thanks to good use of the left and right buttons to quickly jump between the map and buttons this pioneering city building simulator plays surprisingly well with the SNES pad. You'll also find extra features not seen in other ports, like the ability to gain special buildings as a reward (later seen in SimCity 2000) and to deliberately trigger your own disasters (like a Bowser attack). Play well, and you even get rewarded with a Mario statue. All in all, a fantastic port of Will Wright's classic, and it would be higher on the list if it wasn't already available on a million other platforms.