Advance Wars 2 shouldn’t be as good as it is. At its core, the battle system amounts to a big rock/scissors/paper fight (or maybe more of a rock/scissors/paper/spock/lizard fight). The characters are one-dimensional. And who cares about turn-based strategy games, anyway? Except that the fights are exquisitely balanced, the characters are cartoonishly endearing, and I actually love turn-based strategy (also known as “chess for short attention spans”). But what’s really great about this game is the care taken in making the single-player battles really interesting — even dramatic.

There was one stage in which I had to prevent the enemy from capturing ten of my cities. The disputed territories were all the way on the other side of the map (natch), and my path was blocked by rough terrain and a gauntlet of enemy forces (double-natch). I ended up playing this level three or four times, and noticed something interesting. When I made a mad dash for my cities, the enemy’s invading forces also made a rushed land-grab in response, so that I reached them just as my last city was being captured. When I moved slowly and deliberately, so did the enemy, causing us to meet up, again, just as they were taking the last city. It was as if they were intentionally heightening the tension and leading the battle up to a single, climactic point at which the fight would be won or lost. And it worked perfectly. On my last try, things went just as they did before: I moved swiftly to the northeast corner, and so did the enemy. I was prepared for more frustration as they were sure to capture that tenth city again, just as I was reaching it. Except that this time, I made some slight adjustments, got my artillery in place, got my Super CO Power going, sacrificed some units to punch through the enemy line, and was able to take out the invader with a last battered tank. After that, it was a rout. My rear forces caught up to reinforce my vanguard, the enemy formations were broken, and the rest of the battle was pretty much just mopup.

It’s hardly Richard III, but that kind of narrative arc in just a single level of a video game is impressive, even more so because it’s expressed entirely through gameplay, without a lick of dialog.