Retrospective: Advance Wars
11th Feb 2012 | 14:00
The history of the world is riddled with great double acts. Laurel and Hardy, Alka and Seltzer, Jay Leno and the-guy-who-played-Mr-Miyagi in the classic mismatched buddy movie Collision Course. The best combo of all, though? That has to be a shiny new Game Boy Micro and a copy of Advance Wars. (The Collision Course stars come a very close second, however.)
Obviously, Intelligent Systems' tactical charmer is an evergreen delight whichever way you play it: whether you're sat underneath a well-positioned window with the original unlit GBA in your hands, hunched over the clamshell SP, or even sitting back with the cartridge plugged into the bottom slot of the DS Lite, where it sticks out in a slightly annoying manner. It's on the Micro, though, that the game feels most at home. This is where it truly seems to belong.
The Micro's screen is small but wonderfully bright - after six years, it's still a bit of a marvel - and it's perfect for bringing all those intricate top-down landscapes and colourful commanding officers to life. The combat animations look punchy and slick in reduced form, the backgrounds aren't quite as pixellated as they are on a larger device, and the game's text is tiny but still entirely legible. Best of all, the whole thing fits into a pencil case or the side pouch of a rucksack, and can even live on the end of a keychain, ready for action whenever you want it. It's a pocket-sized portal to a pocket-sized universe - a universe in which one of Nintendo's greatest first-party development teams take war, with all its bloodshed, sorrow, grieving families and wasteful catastrophe, and render it surprisingly cute.
They render it surprisingly tidy, too, dropping you into a turn-based tactical fighting game that's rich in options, but also uncommonly easy to get your head around. Other battle sims may swamp you with complex terminology and bizarre rule-sets from the moment you press the start button, but Advance Wars understands the strategic value of keeping things simple. Intelligent Systems almost always offer you the most basic of combat objectives - crush the enemy, capture their HQ - and they divide their battlefields into friendly pixellated tiles, each tiny square housing a particular type of terrain.
There are rivers and oceans, there are forests, glades and mountains, and there are cities, bases, docks and airports. All of them come with their own strategic strengths and weaknesses, but these strengths and weaknesses are always straightforward and logical. Hiking through mountains? That's going to slow you down. Fighting an entrenched enemy while you're stuck out in the open? Probably not a good idea.
To wage war across these neatly arranged maps, you're kitted out with a selection of dinky little units. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses too, and this is where the fierce, beating heart of Advance Wars can be found. Drawing on the entire 20th century for design inspiration, your disparate weapons, troops and vehicles are united by the fact that they all look chunky, well-used and endlessly capable, like the plastic pieces you might find lurking in a box belonging to the world's greatest board game.
You'll want to try them out the moment you lay eyes on them, and as soon as you do, you'll discover that they sound just as good as they look. They move around the map powered by chugging engines and squealing jets, accompanied by a satisfying and percussive mixture of pops and clicks as you drag arrows, select destinations and send your forces off to fight the enemy, capture cities or simply lie in wait, ready to execute the perfect ambush.
With so many different troops, tanks, planes, subs and boats at your disposal, the game - at least for the first few hours of its massive, branching campaign - largely revolves around learning how to use all of your bits and pieces. Luckily, it's brilliant fun: a mixture of easy victories followed by sharp surprises as Advance Wars' true complexities begin to emerge. The victories often give way to the surprises, in fact. Light tanks seem invincible the first time you send them up against enemy infantry, for example, but they're swiftly chewed to pieces when a foe's medium tanks arrive.
Elsewhere, artillery's good for long-distance combat and can seem like a no-lose scenario when you get your initial shipment. Quickly, though, you'll realise these game-changing units can't move and shoot in the same turn. A few hours later, you'll discover that battle helicopters, which are devastating against ground forces, come apart like flimsy Christmas ornaments under fire from jets; and while submarines are capable of sneaky torpedo launches, they don't half eat through fuel reserves.
Even here, most of the game's rules are straightforward - mechanised troops are clearly going to be more effective than normal squaddies, and it's obvious that lumbering bombers are going to be easy pickings for fighter planes. But there's plenty of depth waiting for you once you start to explore the various ways in which your separate tools can be brought together in battle - and the multiple uses you can sometimes wring from a single unit.
Take APCs. They can transport troops across the map far faster than you could ever move them on foot, but they can also resupply units if placed next to them, encouraging you to leave them hanging around near friendly artillery after they've dropped off their cargo. Cities, meanwhile, will give you a defence boost if you're fighting when hunkered down within them, but if captured will also start to bring you additional revenue each turn, allowing you to build increasingly expensive units. They'll even resupply any troops positioned there, making them natural hot spots when the lead starts to fly.
Slowly, as your understanding of units and terrain start to mesh, the brilliance of the Advance Wars template slides into place. You'll begin to see how wonderfully race-tuned the battle maps are, allowing for a quick churn of combat while ensuring there's plenty of room for testing out different approaches. You'll realise that firepower by itself will never be enough to ensure victory. You'll come to understand that no single unit will be perfect for every case. To succeed, you truly have to think like a commanding officer. Placement becomes important. Timing becomes important. Planning ahead becomes really important, as does knowing when to retreat, when to regroup and when - ugh! - to restart.
On paper, it can sound elegant but rather cold: a game that only lateral-thinking military geniuses and clear-headed number-crunchers can truly appreciate. In reality, Advance Wars is so brilliantly accommodating that it will find a way to cater to you however you choose to play. It allows the most impatient of COs to wing their way past tricky challenges at speed as long as they're efficient, daring and not too clumsy, and it's capable of slowing its pace to a crawl if others want to micro-manage and advance cautiously through even the simplest of maps. As long as you're bringing some kind of battle plan with you, Advance Wars will throw enemies your way in arrangements that will be fun to fight against, and, even if that fails to grab your interest initially, Intelligent Systems aren't ashamed to tempt you into playing just one more mission by laying on some good old human drama.
On the battlefield, Advance Wars is Nintendo's take on chess. In the cutscenes, however, it's more like Dallas, or Dynasty, or one of those weird Mexican soaps where everybody's either a billionaire or a werewolf. The campaign tells the story of a pre-emptive war of feints and tricky sleights that's the match of anything in the history books. Enemies are introduced only to transform into allies, while villains are unmasked as puppets, and the puppeteer himself only emerges late in the day. It should be confusing and nonsensical - and it is at times - but it's also colourful, characterful and filled with moments of warm-hearted wit.
Best of all, it's about people rather than mere nations, with the various commanding officers you encounter along the way defined by their personalities as much as their special powers. Max may be able to boost your units' offensive abilities if you take him into battle, but he's also just beefy, tough and generally reassuring to have around when things start to get nasty. Grit, meanwhile, an Orange Star defector to Blue Moon, is laid back and canny, and you'd notice that about him even if his units weren't unnaturally weak in a close fight and freakishly powerful when pelting you from a safe distance.
No matter how the plot twists and turns, you can be sure that you'll meet new people every few missions. You'll forge friendships as much as allegiances, and it's a delight to sound out weaknesses in an enemy's psyche during a cutscene, and then exploit that weakness on the battlefield. In this world, to steal from F Scott Fitzgerald, action is character.
A decade after release, Advance Wars is still an unmissable game, in other words - a fact that makes it all the more astonishing that western audiences very nearly lost out on the opportunity to play it in the first place. Back in Japan, Intelligent Systems' GBA debut was part of a noble line of strategy titles reaching all the way back to 1988 and the first Famicom system. The series was known - rather unimaginatively - as Famicom Wars, and it initially told the story of two nations, Orange Star (originally Red Star) and Blue Moon, locked in a constant battle for territorial supremacy. It was considered a little too slow and complicated for western tastes, and so it never made it across the ocean.
The first game was a big hit locally, however, taking the turn-based fighting of JRPGs and broadening the scope, unleashing players on massive campaigns across multiple maps, and allowing them to command entire armies instead of a handful of party members. Sequels followed, and with them a history of tweaks and refinements was written as the series switched, briefly, from square-based levels to hex-based levels and then back again, and threw in new enemies and units. It even dabbled with the ability to level-up units throughout the game - an idea that would come to define the series' brilliant fantasy sibling, Fire Emblem.
With instalments on the Famicon and Super Famicom, and outings on handheld consoles (where development duties were briefly handled by Hudson Soft), Japanese Nintendo fans were onto a great thing. They alone knew of a franchise that was every bit as ingenious and personable as Super Mario, but that traded the plumber's focus on twitch-skills and freewheeling exploration for something more tactical. Canny westerners were left to import and translate. Most of us, though, remained entirely ignorant of all the fun we were missing out on.
Advance Wars changed all that. As a kind of experiment, Nintendo let the game break free of Japan and reach a global audience, allowing wannabe COs all around the world to take on the mysterious Black Hole army, while simultaneously playing an important role in a wider - and more significant - battle. It was a battle in which Nintendo itself would come to realise that gamers in Europe and America had the patience to handle dense systems and turn-based fighting mechanics if they came with decent tutorials and were delivered with this sort of energy and precision.
Happily, despite a delay in the European launch on account of the 9/11 attacks, western GBA owners' brains didn't seize up as they tried to get to grips with Intelligent Systems' intelligent systems. Nobody got headaches or fainted at the complexity of it all, and nobody got bored and gave up either. Instead, players embraced the myriad intricacies, raced through the campaign, and even took the battle to their friends - just as long as they could remember where they'd put their link cables.
It was a turning point, and every time since 2001 that Nintendo have taken a risk on a European release for a quirky Japanese classic, you can quietly thank Andy, Max, Sami and the rest of the Orange Star army for the pleasure.
Many have tried to replicate Advance Wars' peculiarly compact strain of brilliance. The PSP got Field Commander, a shameful (if competent) piece of theft, lacking Intelligent Systems' graphical charisma and skills with map design, while iOS and Android are always overflowing with wonky clones. None come close to matching the GBA original, but that's hardly surprising. Intelligent Systems haven't been able to improve on Advance Wars either.
WAR NEVER CHANGES
Sequels tend to come with a handful of additional units and a sprinkling of new ideas. On the GBA, Black Hole Rising broke its maps up with huge pipelines that were impossible to traverse. As far as new terrain types are concerned, pipes aren't classics, making the pinch points and bottlenecks of a map a little too artificial, but they at least paved the way for Piperunners - zippy little turret units that popped up in Dual Strike, the DS's first Advance Wars game, where they rushed around a handful of levels making trouble for everyone, and were then never seen again.
Dual Strike also offered a range of new modes alongside its campaign, and one of them, called Combat, is genuinely nuts: a real-time battler that feels like a bizarre, top-down shooter. After that, Dark Conflict, the most recent game in the series, dropped classic characters and armies in favour of a new post-apocalyptic setting. Visually without charm, it still offers veterans a range of smart new levels, and has the addition of online multiplayer too.
Advance Wars remains the series' high point, though: it has the best characters, the best missions, and a lovely campaign filled with choice. It offers a propulsive rhythm to its combat that an Advance Wars designer named Makoto Shimojo once put down to the fact that the development team had been drawn from fans of music games, racing games and brawlers as much as battle sims. The balance of the game's basic units is near-perfect in a way that can only be the result of developer obsession and ceaseless iteration.
Obsession is something of a theme when it comes to Advance Wars, actually, with the game's devoted fan-base responding to equally zealous developers: developers who have determinedly battled with terrain layouts and weapon attributes until you can play the 20-odd levels of the campaign over and over again and still find things that surprise and confound you. It's quietly sobering to think that a game so outwardly cheerful is only as accessible and as rich as this because its makers have taken real pains to make it so. Perhaps it's also inevitable. Brilliance of the order of Advance Wars always comes at a price, and - getting back to those truly great double acts - victory never shows up on the battlefield without a little sacrifice leading the way.
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