Time Extend: Advance Wars
It’s been ten years since Nintendo’s Advance Wars series first appeared on western handhelds, and since then, the inexhaustible turn-based strategy franchise has undergone enough cosmetic surgery to rival Castlevania. The second Game Boy Advance instalment, Black Hole Rising, gave us secret labs and Neotanks, missile silos and pipelines. Dual Strike offered a very literal interpretation of the DS hardware, with air and ground fronts confusingly segregated between the two screens. Dark Conflict (aka Days Of Ruin) introduced useful new units such as the bike and the flare, as well as a much grimmer world. Multiplayer and light RPG elements evolved. All these variations helped keep the series fresh, but the first GBA outing still reigns supreme for its elegant balance and depth.
In Advance Wars, a candy shell masks a highly sophisticated chassis. On tile-based maps, you square off against rival forces, striving for annihilation or some other specified objective. But with a seamlessly interlocked array of variables at play, brute force won’t get you very far. Units’ strengths and weaknesses are daisychained together in rock-paper-scissors-like oppositions, which are further complicated by commanding officers’ automatic buffs. Your army’s attacking power declines with its health, so vying for the first strike is almost mandatory. Environmental factors like forests, mountains and mists affect visibility, defence and movement range, and your COs build up special powers that can turn the tide of battle in an instant. Weaving all these factors into devastating sorties or shrewd parries stands to this day as one of gaming’s most satisfying operations.
Each mission also has arcane medals and rankings to achieve – good luck figuring out the difference between ‘Jade Steed’ and ‘Opal Wolf’ for each of the three COs, who all get unique map layouts, scenarios and objectives, justifying at least three playthroughs of the campaign mode. You often find yourself slowly building your force on the perimeter of the enemy’s range, but the game continually serves up fresh, varied scenarios. Sometimes the cautious route is impossible, and you have to just kamikaze in. But you learn to persevere even when things look hopeless, because the maps are carefully designed to be winnable, with care, in the most dire of straits.
Sometimes you’re granted factories to spam units, and sometimes you have a limited force to work with. One map might charge you to protect a certain unit until it reaches a destination, while another requires you to capture a majority of cities before your enemy. Next, you have to capture the enemy’s HQ, or simply survive until reinforcements show up. A lot of your total playtime goes into replays, as you slowly unfold the perfect strategy for a given map: which CO is best, how the AI responds to different stimuli, what’s hidden in the obscuring fog of war, and which portions of the map are crucial to control early. If that wasn’t enough, there are huge sets of graded tutorial missions and high-level war room challenges for you to conquer. The content is abundant as to seem virtually endless – and then you can make your own maps.