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.
Japanese gamers have been playing the Wars series since 1988. As we reported in our Making Of feature, it was initially deemed too slow-paced for western gamers, and its eventual success in the west paved the way for the import of Fire Emblem. But with Advance Wars, the tables were turned. It happened to come out in the US just a day before the attacks of September 11, 2001, which caused it to be delayed in Europe and Japan. At that fraught time, the eternally chipper struggle between the nations of Orange Star, Blue Moon and Black Hole must have seemed like the most tacky sort of frivolity. But it’s hard to imagine that Advance Wars could traumatise anyone, as it evokes the actual horrors of warfare only a little more strongly than chess. With the thinnest, most utilitarian veneer of storytelling between the player and the internal mathematics, the purity of the tactics and the tempo of the gameplay are barely mediated by the imagination. What story there is provides a crucial ambient charm.
Advance Wars suits the GBA hardware nicely, though the screen’s peculiar, dim depth still makes you feel like you’re playing while losing blood from a head wound. The green grasses and blue rivers pop off the screen, and jellybean-coloured units bounce merrily at the knees like Steamboat Willie as they blithely await their anonymous dooms (this does not exclude the tanks and artillery units, which look as chunky and huggable as Tonka toys). The visuals are purely representational, like a tabletop-RPG grid. The soldier sprites are the same height as the buildings, which they jump up and down on to capture. For all the carnage and desperate rivalry, the mood is maniacally upbeat. The first mission is called ‘It’s War!’ But the jiggling font and jaunty music – funk bass, hair-metal guitar squeals and J-pop synths – suggest something more along the lines of ‘It’s Pie!’ The COs engage in pitched battles with each other, then catch up on old times as if sipping tea after dinner.
Because of the untranslated earlier games, Advance Wars seems to begin in the middle, with allusions to established character relationships that are meaningless to westerners. We’re plunged neck-deep into the saga of Nell, a tutorial puppet who offers advice via ‘transceiver’, and Orange Star COs Andy, Max and Sami, who are at odds with the rival states of Blue Moon and, later, Black Hole. (Can you guess which nation is truly “the evil one”?) The player controls all three COs, one at a time, as a mysterious ‘advisor’ called Spite, whose role within the context of the narrative mystifies utterly. It’s unclear why we couldn’t have just played as the COs, eliminating this shady middleman. Then again, metagame layering is par for the course here.
Unlike similar franchises such as Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, in which your fighters have distinct backstories and vanish forever when they die, Advance Wars features easily replaceable and interchangeable troops. That’s why it’s more like chess than a war sim: the moral element is absent. When you have an infantry unit with one health point, no personality, no name and a nearby factory to crank out another, there’s no reason not to use it as a human sacrifice, drawing the heavy tanks into the range of your rockets. The disjunction between the affirmative children’s-story tone and lethal military battles is mindboggling if you make yourself think about it – but thanks to the engrossing strategy, we seldom do. As endless fodder is ground to dust under tank treads, the COs seem as oblivious to the human toll as we are.
With the theatre of war stripped down to tactical abstraction, the joy and despair of battle plays out only via talking heads. The interactions between the tweenaged warlords are little more than capsules which deliver scenario info and hints, sketchily fleshed out with cajoling, teasing, flirting, and generally motivational banter. Whether or not the dialogue makes narrative sense seems to have been a secondary concern. “What’s an airport again?” the battle-hardened mechanic Andy asks Sami, well into the game.
Described as a ‘brash and energetic boy wonder’, Andy wears orange shorts and looks about 12; anime-eyed and cow-licked. When his troops attack, he grins and flashes a peace sign. When they take fire, a bead of sweat appears on his temple. And when they die, vanishing in puffs of smoke, he blinks back tears for a moment, but quickly recovers. “I win!” he crows over the smouldering wreckage, tears and sacrifices all forgotten.
All of the COs are like this; colourful bundles of stats loosely tied to instructive character types. The game characterises Japanese-styled commander Kanbei, for instance, as stupidly rash for the sake of broad comedy and sneaky tutelage. His daughter Sonja – dressed, for some reason, in western military garb – warns him that an isolated base on an island is tactically useless. Of course, he hears something like “BASE GOOD” and rushes in to capture it, getting handily routed by Andy as he does so. “By my sword! That was a useless base!” he cries after the mission, just to make sure you got the point.
We are coming to the point at which gaming is a great medium for storytelling. But Advance Wars reminds us that gaming is a great medium for gaming, an experience we can’t get anywhere else. This is why Dark Conflict seems like a cautionary tale against trying to insert narrative complexity where it doesn’t belong. That latest Wars game is still fun, but its murkily coloured post-apocalyptic setting; its murderous anarchists and insane tyrants; its endless ‘gritty’ dialogue and preachy morality don’t feel like Advance Wars, and the lighthearted storylines that seemed so ridiculous are sorely missed in hindsight. It would be great to see Intelligent Systems keep thoughtfully expanding the core gameplay, but revert to a more classic-Nintendo style of joyful storytelling that stays out of the way.
In Advance Wars, it’s not just the storyline that fades from awareness. As you get better and better at the series, the mechanics themselves seem to recede as well, and you fall into a deep intuitive flow. It’s almost like learning to play a piece of music, with the same sense of satisfaction when it comes together in a symphonic manoeuvre. The screen is a complex rhythm machine, units bouncing in complex syncopation. The bells and chings and the pitter-patter of tiny expendable feet that accompany each input reinforce the feeling of playing an instrument, where muscle memory takes over. Think, move, press A, press the left shoulder button to switch units, repeat as necessary. Then a quick A-Up-A to end your turn, no longer reading the menu, the motion as automatic as touching a guitar chord. It’s the kind of game that makes you concentrate so deeply you come out the other side of thinking, and into a hypnotic gameplay loop with design principles that, more than 20 years in, show precious little need for reconstruction.