Original Release Date: 2001
The game boy advance library has aged remarkably well. Before then, most handheld systems were not very powerful, and couldn’t hold a candle to home consoles. As a result, there was a limit to what most games for handhelds could do, and they tended to be little more than glorified time wasters that couldn’t match the depth of their home console counterparts.
The game boy advance did a lot to change this, and showed the true potential of handheld gaming. While it was still not as powerful as home consoles, it was powerful enough to allow for deep and engaging experiences. What the system lacked in power it made up for in elegance. Instead of focusing on graphics or scale, the games could hone in on the mechanics, creating simple but polished experiences, many of which hold up brilliantly even to this day.
One prime example of this is Advance Wars, an early title for the GBA that is considered by many to be one of the greatest strategy games ever made. While I was initially skeptical, playing through it makes it easy to see why it is so highly regarded.
The game is in essence an elaborate variation of chess, with both sides moving units around a map trying to complete an objective while preventing the other team from doing so. Where it truly succeeds is in implementation.
The game manages to nail being both simple and deep, simultaneously intuitive while also providing a meaty challenge. It does this by breaking the various mechanics down into small manageable chunks, allowing the player time to gradually learn the rules of the game without becoming overwhelmed.
Many older strategy games and RPGs fall into the trap of overloading the player without explaining how the various mechanics work, which makes understanding and learning how the game works a chore. This, combined with the unreasonable but common sink or swim attitude when it comes to the difficulty, and you have a recipe for a game that is needlessly hostile toward newcomers.
Advance wars skillfully avoids these problems by appealing to players of all skill levels, at least at the start. This is not to say that the game is easy. On the contrary, many of the challenges and maps are quite difficult, and require smart planning and sound strategy to overcome. But the game understands the importance of starting small and gradually becoming more difficult, rather than hitting the player with tough challenges right off the bat.
Besides the gameplay, the art style and characters have also aged quite well. They provide the game with a timeless charm, and unlike other war games, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
While the game is polished nearly to perfection in many areas, it does have its flaws. Some units are not able to attack other types of units, which can be irritating, and in some circumstances makes some units functionally useless. The game would have been better if there was simply a massive damage penalty when certain units try to go up against units they aren’t as good against, rather than simply not allowing the option of attack at all.
Another issue is the main campaign. While it has a decent difficulty curve, and does a good job of showing off the various characters and strategies the game has to offer, it’s not always structured coherently. The sequence of battles can feel random at times, and the difficulty can waver up and down without warning.
This may be in large part because the story for the campaign is not very good. It makes very little sense, is needlessly complicated, and doesn’t flow very well as a narrative. While I realize story is not this game’s focus, having a basic and coherent narrative shouldn’t be that difficult. The bulk of the worthwhile content is outside of the main campaign, and while the campaign isn’t bad, it’s not as good as it could have been.
Another issue is that some of the maps occasionally have arbitrary win or lose conditions. For example, some maps require you to protect a particular unit for a certain number of turns, because of…reasons. In a game like Fire Emblem, which is very character and story based, this makes sense, as each individual unit is distinct and irreplaceable, and you can care about a unit even if they aren’t that useful to gameplay. In Advance Wars, however, all of the units are generic and interchangeable, and many maps allow you to build new ones from scratch. So it’s rather bizarre that the game would try to make you value one particular unit over another when they have as much personality as a chess piece.
Finally, there is the inclusion of the Fog of War maps. This is a mechanic I extremely disliked in the Fire Emblem games, and I don’t like it much better here, because Fog of War is a mechanic that takes the strategy out of a game that’s supposed to be all about strategy. In most maps, if you lose a battle, it’s because you made a mistake, or the enemy outmaneuvered you, or you didn’t plan ahead. The point is, for most of the game if the player fails a match, it’s entirely their fault. In the Fog of War maps, however, it’s almost impossible to make sound decisions because you can’t even see the enemy. As a result, the only “strategies” are either moving like a snail across the map to avoid ambushes, or just rush ahead and get slaughtered so you can know where the enemy will be coming from on the next try.
I’ll grudgingly admit that the Fog of War maps in Advance Wars are marginally better than the ones in Fire Emblem because the enemy is bound by the same limitations as the player, and there are ways you can use the limited visibility to your advantage. I still don’t think it’s a good or fair mechanic, but it’s at least tolerable here.
Beyond those minor issues, Advance Wars is a fantastic strategy game. The gameplay is almost perfectly polished, it has an enormous amount of content, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a feature that allows you to create your own maps. The game may have its flaws, but it deserves all of the praise it gets, and it’s a shame that it isn’t as well known as Nintendo’s other classics.
How well it holds up 4/4
Personal Enjoyment 4/5
Overall quality 9/10
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