Version tested: Wii
When Mario popped from 2D to 3D it was as if we had previously only seen him through a glass darkly, but now could see him in full. Sure, his pixel moustache was at last rendered in polygons, offering us a more vivid portrait of the plumber than we'd yet known. But far more than that, the added dimension gave Miyamoto's venerable mechanics room to flex and unfurl, revealing their full, unrestrained potential for the very first time. Never before had we experienced the platform game in such terms, and never again could it be the same again.
The real-time strategy genre, by contrast, has never enjoyed the sort of epiphany that platformers underwent with the release of Mario 64. Ever since Herzog Zwei, they've always been viewed from a top-down perspective, units moving to and fro over a map in a race to dominate the opposing force. As a result, the transition from sprite to polygon was irrelevant to the genre's underlying systems, which have remained largely constant from hardware generation to generation.
As such, Swords & Soldiers, a side-scrolling RTS game, is a regression back to a formative period that never was, imagining what the genre might have looked like had it started life as Super Mario Bros. Viewed sideways on, its mechanics have been necessarily compressed and flattened to focus only on the core elements of the modern RTS title. That's not to say the game is regressive or overly simplistic. Ronimo Games, the Dutch studio best known for the freeware version of de Blob, press the game's nose hard against the boundaries they've imposed for it, extrapolating on their core ideas in interesting, creative ways over the game's 30 core missions. But it's a focused game, one that trims the fat from the form to present a familiar yet novel experience quite unlike any other.
That said, at its heart, Swords and Soldiers' core is wholly orthodox: you mine resources in order to fund your army, whose job it is to vanquish whichever foe is set before you. Unusually, however, you don't position your units. Rather units arrive on screen and, depending on their type, automatically toddle off to collect gold, or begin an inexorable march to the right of the screen. They continue with dogged determination until they encounter an enemy foe, at which point they automatically start attacking. If victorious, they continue on their merry way, but if defeated, they crumple dead to be replaced by the next soldier you've already lined up. In this way, the game has more in common with Lemmings than Command & Conquer: units follow preset paths and AI routines, which you can do little to interfere with directly.
There are three factions in the game - Vikings, the Aztecs and the Chinese - each of which offers only a handful of different units to work with. Some units are close-combat warriors, while others throw axes or spears from a distance. As you progress you'll be able to deploy some structures but these can only be constructed in predetermined locations.