Remembering the Classics: Advance Wars

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The video game industry has always had the unique issue of looking towards the future while simultaneously keeping a firm place in the past. For many years each new generation brought a new console with new games, but lacked the option to play the older games you loved so much. If you wanted to play a Nintendo 64 game during the sixth-generation when the Nintendo GameCube was in focus, you had to have a Nintendo 64. The same was said for Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, NES, etc. It’s easy to see how, after several years of gaming, ones closet can get packed to the brim with old systems they wanted to keep to play classic favorites. Some people would literally keep an entire system solely for the select few games they wanted to have on hand. Sony’s PlayStation 2 broke this trend with backwards compatibility to play PlayStation games, but any games released before 1993 were still strictly tied to their respective generation, re-releases notwithstanding.

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This all changed with the seventh-generation and internet based console stores. With services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live, Nintendo’s Virtual Console, and Sony’s PlayStation Network, many old favorites became available for download on the current systems. The concept of keeping an older console to play one game became an unnecessary practice. Naturally the one company that benefitted the most from this was Nintendo which had a full four generations of games at its disposal. Over the past eight years, Virtual Console at home has allowed gamers to replay old Nintendo and Sega console games while the 3DS has mainly focused on handheld titles. Next week this all changes though with the Wii U’s Virtual Console receiving its first ever Game Boy Advance games. The list is already impressive, containing hugely popular games like Metroid Fusion and Golden Sun, but there’s one among them that stands above the rest: Advance Wars.

There really is no better title to usher in this new trend than this 2001 hit. Advance Wars is part of the Wars series of games that started in 1988 with Famicom Wars for the Family Computer (Famicom) in Japan. Famicom Wars and the five games that followed were kept in Japan only however as Nintendo wasn’t convinced outside consumers were interested in complicated, turn-based games. Similar practice is what kept several Final Fantasy entries within Japanese borders for many years. Advance Wars changed this though as employees in Nintendo’s North American division loved the title and absolutely felt that there was a growing market for it overseas. With easy to understand mechanics, a detailed tutorial mode, and simplistic option for newcomers to take baby steps, Nintendo introduced Advance Wars to the world as a whole.

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Advance Wars told the story of Cosmo Land, a group of nations on the brink of war. The player controls the Commanding Officers (CO) of Orange Star as they fight the forces of Blue Moon, Green Earth, and Yellow Comet. You start the game as a new CO named Andy but later can control his fellow CO’s Max and Sami. Each have their own strength and weaknesses, and can turn the tide of battle with their unique CO Powers. Each battle can contain up to four different armies and take place across a wide array of terrain. There are 18 different units available ranging from infantry to super tanks and fighter jets, with battle outcome entirely determinant on which unit you choose, when you choose them, and how you use them. Most battles can be won by either taking over the enemy HQ or eliminating all opposing forces, but some have specific requirements like surviving for a certain period of time. After a grueling campaign, the truth about the enemy is revealed, and you learn that the secret Black Hole Army has orchestrated the war using a cloned Andy to vilify Orange Star. The game concludes with an epic battle as all nations band together to destroy the Black Hole Army.

Advance Wars was an instant success for the still new Game Boy Advance. To this day it’s regarded as one of the finest GBA titles ever released. What sold the game to critics and fans alike was its expert blending of cartoonish simplicity and aggressive complexity. The game was easy to understand with unit strengths and weaknesses very clearly stated, but becoming the best CO possible took some incredible skill. The enemy AI was surprisingly complex in the fact that the opposing forces very rarely tried the same methods twice. Something that worked at one time could easily not work the next. As much as the game was happy to hold your hand, it could also throw you to the wolves if you let it. One wrong move by a single unit could spell instant doom for your entire army. It also helped that the multiplayer was incredibly easy to manage with four players being able to play on one single game console.

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The success of Advance Wars actually changed the gaming landscape overseas. Once Nintendo saw how popular it was with non-Japanese players, it started to focus more on bringing its turn-based strategy games to other markets. Advance Wars fans naturally benefited from this as the sequels Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin all released globally. But another Japanese property named Fire Emblem used this success as a springboard as well. Both Advance Wars and Fire Emblem are developed by Intelligent Systems and feature very similar turn-based mechanics. Those who loved Advance Wars got hooked on Fire Emblem and now both franchises are critically lauded worldwide.

My own love for Advance Wars actually started by chance. Back in 2001, my brother went to EB Games (remember that place?) to pick up a completely different game. That game was sold out though and the clerk recommended he pick up Advance Wars instead. We never expected to get as hooked on it as we did. Before we knew it, my brother and I were playing the game competitively together and with friends. It was brought to school on more than one occasion and a ton of time was spent discovering the best tactics for combat. To this day I still love the series and am eagerly awaiting a new release since 2008’s Days of Ruin.

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Bringing handheld games to a home console is big news, especially since it’s making the Wii U the only Nintendo system you’d need if you want to play almost every previous game available (3DS excluded obviously…for now). There are currently seven other GBA games lined up to come to the Wii U throughout April, and each of them are spectacular in their own right. Advance Wars was the real game changer though. It gave a series that had been around for thirteen years a globally recognized brand name and it helped solidify North American interest in turn-based tactical games. While Advance Wars wasn’t the first turn-based tactics based game to come to North America by a long shot, there was definitely a genre resurgence follow its success. If you want to enjoy this outstanding title on your TV, it’ll be available starting April 3rd.

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