Led by gameplay that is astonishingly complex but presented in a way that is accessible and charming, Advance Wars is a masterpiece of game design
Advance Wars was not Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ first venture into the world of tactical warfare. Before the game’s release on the Game Boy Advance, the two companies had already joined forces in three titles of the kind: Famicom Wars, Super Famicom Wars, and Game Boy Wars, which – as their titles indicate – could be played on the NES, SNES, and Game Boy, respectively. Advance Wars was, however, a debut of sorts, as never had the franchise been released out of Japanese borders given Nintendo felt the series’ complexity would not be universally accepted by American gamers. Wisely, due to the existing cultural differences between both gaming markets, developers understood that taking a leap towards the West could only be done successfully if sensible changes were implemented. As it turns out, much of the greatness of Advance Wars comes from that precious insight.
The first big shift, one that is supported by much stronger hardware, is aesthetic. Advance Wars abandons the somewhat straightforward visuals of its predecessors and goes for a full-blown cartoonish approach. Nell, Orange Star’s senior commanding officer, and her three pupils – Andy, Max, and Sami – could have been extracted right out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The same goes for their adversaries of neighboring countries, which start a war by accusing Orange Star of invading their territory, therefore launching attacks on that nation, which in turn denies any involvement with the reported strikes.
Such a colorful and light-hearted visual tone permeates not only the title’s general presentation, maps, and deployed units and vehicles, but also the dialogues that power its narrative. Although the plot’s development has some issues related to depth, as some of its twists and turns could have been better explained, all of the battles – and the occurrences that are reported during the interval between them – are carried by well-written dialogue and a good deal of banter between the characters. It is not uncommon for opposing officers or friendly generals to tease one another in the midst of combat, even if they acknowledge the graveness of the situation, hence alleviating the tension and conjuring an atmosphere that is amusing despite the fact there are tanks blowing up and soldiers being killed by the minute.
Advance Wars’ second appeal-widening action, and certainly the most important one, is how it does not move away from its built-in complexity: it actually runs straight into it. There is no dumbing down or simplification going on; in spite of its child-friendly look, the game is packed to the brim with strategic nuances and alternatives that must absolutely be understood if players want to succeed. The trick is that the game carefully explains all of them in tutorial missions of growing intricacy that need to be cleared – at least the last one of them – before gamers can set out to defend Orange Star and prove its innocence.
Through them, players will learn about the different kinds of ground, naval, and air units they will come across during battles: their weaknesses, strengths, and what can be done with them. They will understand how anti-air units make bombers and fighters seem like they are made out of paper; how units with long-range shooting can be easily destroyed if left unprotected; how tanks and fast-moving reckon units easily do away with soldier platoons; how infantry can move effectively through mountains and forests while other vehicles suffer on that kind of terrain and are best-served being deployed on the road or plains; how to manage the fuel and ammo of motorized units; how submarines can dive to avoid detection by other vessels; how to use defenseless transport helicopters, ships, and tanks to take parts of the army across the map and surprise the enemy; how leaving units in a conquered town heals them and improves their defense; how damaged platoons can be joined to form a healthier one; and a whole lot more.
It is a lot to take in, but Advance Wars turns what could be a turbulent ride into a smooth trip. The eighteen missions that make up the central campaign form a curve of difficulty and complexity that achieves great heights by going up slowly and steadily. Moreover, at any time during the battle, while players face enemies and take turns moving the components of their army in grid-like fashion through the field while thinking and calculating what the best possible position for each unit is, whether to focus on attacking or defending, and choosing which units to deploy, all that information is readily available to be consulted.
Selecting any unit, friendly or not, will show their range of movement and fire. Moving the cursor through the pieces of the terrain will display the added protection that each one provides, with mountains, conquered cities, reefs, and forests being quite effective in that regard. Selecting to fire will, before the attack is activated, display the likely damage that will be inflicted on the enemy. Additionally, menus with brief – but complete – descriptions of the behavior of each unit can be quickly accessed. In other words, Advance Wars certainly challenges players with the war scenarios it puts together and with the amount of details that need to be remembered to achieve success, but it gives gamers more than enough tools to support the achievement of their goals.
Most of the campaign missions are beaten by doing one of the following: either destroying the entirety of the rival army or conquering their base, whichever is achieved first. Nevertheless, the game hands out enough variety via the situations it puts players in. Sometimes, only a limited number of units is available, and gamers need to figure out how to properly employ them; on other occasions, factories, ports, and airports can be conquered, and with each property yielding some cash and allowing players to construct new units, battles become a struggle for resources and territory, as both sides can summon new platoons and vehicles at will as long as they can pay for them.
To top it off, some missions are affected by fog of war, in which it is only possible to see what lies in each portion of the map if the army has a unit deployed nearby and that turns forests and reefs into useful covers that are only blown if the rival army positions a unit right next to them. Therefore, such setup adds a hide-and-seek component and a considerable extra layer of strategy to a few battles .
With so many elements surrounding its gameplay, Advance Wars’ level of balance is perhaps its most impressive feature. Among its eighteen units, there is not a single one that is universally overpowering; all of them can be brought down one way or another. Likewise, none of its maps invalidate the use of a certain unit, even if, in some situations, only a few strategic options are viable. The balance gets even more astounding when one considers that each commanding officer that can be selected to lead the army has different characteristics – with Max, for example, being excellent in direct combat but poor in long-distance shooting – and a unique CO Power – such as Andy’s ability to fix all his units – that can be activated when its meter has been filled by the destruction of enemy platoons.
The fine-tuned equilibrium of all the game’s elements is accompanied by a blinding amount of content. Besides the campaign, Advance Wars has a fantastic multiplayer filled with maps, configuration possibilities, and the option to play by sharing one system or with each player using their own Game Boy Advance and cartridge; an easy-to-use yet incredibly complete map creator; purchasable maps; commanding officers that are unlocked by the meeting of certain conditions; and a War Room with more than twenty engaging extra missions where players and CPU start with zero units deployed and need to slowly conquer terrain, acquire resources, and build an army. The fact that gamers’ performances on both campaign and War Room missions are graded according to speed, units defeated, and units lost is just the icing on the cake and the ultimate challenge to those who aim for perfection.
Although it is technically simple, with its visual presentation lacking any considerable fireworks and its limited number of short songs quickly becoming repetitive, Advance Wars is a masterpiece of game design. It is a strategy title that absolutely excels in all areas that truly matter, offering gameplay that is astonishingly complex presented in a way that is accessible and charming. Given its sheer amount of missions, maps, units, and commanding officers, it is hard to fathom the degree of effort that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems put into making everything the title offers be as balanced as it is. However, even in the face of so many eye-popping victories, which are rarely found in such a cohesive conjunction in a single game, its greatest achievement is how it seamlessly brought a new franchise to new territory with so much quality and personality that the results could not have been different from absolute success and millions of enamored fans.