Video games have always thrived on the concept of making war fun. Not glamorizing it as such, but by glossing over the more inconveniently gruesome, political and mentally scarring aspects of conflict. They instead turn it into a competitive or collaborative entertainment experience, with just about enough realism and storytelling credentials to make you question the morality of what you are doing. It’s a mix that has served mega franchises such as Call of Duty very well indeed.
Yet back in 2002 Nintendo brought us a game series that focused on expert strategizing over outright shooting action. Where you took control over entire armies for turn based battles featuring tanks, infantry, warships and fighter planes all jostling for optimum position on the grid based battlefield. And when you successfully blasted a bomber out of the sky to its doom, or blew away swathes of infantry with a hail of bullets, you were treated to a quick animation of your excited, anime-styled commanding officer celebrating gleefully, seemingly not phased in the slightest by the carnage they have wrought. Never before had war been so colourful, light-hearted and…well fun.
The Advance Wars series gets away with it for a variety of very good reasons. Firstly because it is so cartoony and anime influenced that it almost feels like it’s battles consisting of the kind of violence seen in a Looney Tunes short. Secondly, because the personalities of the Commanding Officers are the narrative driving force, so you feel that you are pitting their wits against the enemy, instead of armies of hundreds of misguided goons . The stories make it quite clear who the bad guys and the good guys are (because the bad guys dress in black and have Darth Vader-esque uniforms and stuff) so you know who deserves to get the stuffing knocked out of them.
But it mostly gets away with it by being a damn good slice of strategy gaming. Each player (between 2-4 of them) takes control over one army, and has one turn to inflict as much damage against their opponents as possible. You pick a unit, move it however many grids you are able and then if an enemy is in range you can blast it, whittling down its health until it is destroyed. Then that unit cannot move again until your next turn. Once you’ve moved all your forces or have no more funds remaining to buy fresh troops then your turn ends, and it’s now your opponent’s chance to strike back. Games are like a complex game of chess, and can range from small skirmishes between two players, or an epic fight between four commanders all bombing the heck out of each other.
There are a huge variety of units you could produce and command, from cheap cannon fodder infantry to massive, screen-filling tanks. Each team have their own unique attributes, such as being able to strike from a distance or becoming specialized to take down specific unit types. Battles rely on a well-balanced ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ formula, and victory depends on whether you can move your forces into the best position, to fully exploit the weaknesses in your opponents arsenal.
To add another layer to the already healthy mixture, each commanding officer has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Taking the three main characters from the first game, for instance, you have Andy as the all-rounder, Max as the proponent of sheer brute force, and Sami as the infantry and base capturing specialist. Each CO has their own special power which could be charged up throughout the battle and unleashed at a point of your choosing. These powers range from healing your units to even getting a second turn. They are capable of changing a battle on its head if used properly. Although that didn’t make them easy games, no chance. Gamers still have nightmares about the fiendish final climatic battle in the original game.
During the early days of the Game Boy Advance, Advance Wars was among its most popular titles. It was a game perfectly designed for the portable market, with the top down perspective befitting the GBA hardware. Players loved being able to engage in epic battles during long train or plane journeys. It spawned three sequels, two being direct follow ups to the first with new units and COs, the fourth being a darker, grittier reboot.
And it was after this point that the series was put on hiatus by Nintendo. The reason seemingly was simple. It didn’t sell enough. Nintendo were initially quite skeptical about bringing the series (originally called Famicom Wars) to the western markets in the first place. They didn’t believe there was enough demand for turn based battlers outside of Japan. But after what was an admittedly weak launch window for the GBA, it stood out as a gem and western gamers responded with enthusiasm. But subsequent installments failed to ignite the same levels of interest, and after the fourth entry flopped, Nintendo decided to move developers, Intelligent Systems onto other, more lucrative projects (AKA the Paper Mario series).
There were other reasons. The third installment, Dual Strike on the DS, introduced the dual CO mechanic and fancy, sci-fi inspired units that basically wrecked the balance. The developers went back to basics with Dark Conflict (or Days of Ruin depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from), stripping back CO powers, cutting many of the uber-powerful units, and starting again with an all new cast and setting. This didn’t really sit well with fans of the series. For one thing, the post-apocalyptic plot was nonsensical and took itself too seriously (though the subplot involving a disease caused by parasitic plants was fairly creepy), so the charm of the original games was lost. And while the refocused emphasis on balanced strategy was welcome, popular features such as Battle Room were dropped. The game released to a lukewarm response as a result, and consequently Nintendo decided to subject the series to a long, agonizing sleep.
Is there hope for the series to make a triumphant return? Well Intelligent Systems recently feared that their flagship strategy series, Fire Emblem, was going to be placed on hiatus as well. But they managed to turn Fire Emblem: Awakening into the highest selling installment in the series’ history. With the recent Codename: STEAM (lamentably) crashing spectacularly at retail, and Fire Emblem: Fates on the verge of being released in western markets following a strong showing in Japan, maybe the time is right for Intelligent Systems to revive the Advance Wars series?
We can certainly hope so, because it filled a niche that is not often covered by mainstream gaming. It had a unique art style and gameplay that hasn’t really been replicated since, certainly not by any non-indie developers. And it’s not like Nintendo have completely forgotten about it, with recent releases on the Wii U Virtual Console of games 1 and 2. We can only hope they do decide to bring it back someday, because rarely has having control over an army been so mind bending, intelligent, ingenious and above all, 100% more enjoyable than an actual war.