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Retrospective: Advance Wars

Nintendo Gamer's Christian Donlan recalls GBA's classic reinvention of chess...

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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