Turn-based strategy games is a genre most commonly associate with PC so it was a bit surprising to see the Gameboy Advance step up with this gem. This is not some super serious military simulator however, but a light hearted tale of the Orange Star Army and their skirmishes with neighboring countries. While the story might be very tongue in the cheek, the strategy involved has a lot of depth, making this perfect for those who want to flex their grey matter without getting bogged down with too many statistics.
The game opens with an extensive field training tutorial that is split into 15 lessons and teaches you everything you need to know without any need to look at the manual. The plot and characters involved are also revealed during the tutorials to prevent things from becoming boring. The game has quite a learning curve to it, but the tutorials do a marvelous job of teaching you all the basics. Once you have mastered all the tutorials (which almost feel like a game on its own) you can finally take on the campaign mode. You can also try out individual skirmish maps, design your own maps or battle friends via the multiplayer mode. Suffice to say value for money is pretty much guaranteed with this game.
The basic goal in Advance Wars is to win battles against rival armies lead by commanding officers, each with their own special ability. Most battles can be won by either destroying all enemy units or by capturing their base, while defeat comes as a result of the same happening to you. Sometimes missions have special requirements like being the first to capture a set number of buildings or protecting a particular unit for a certain amount of turns. Each of your units has a limited amount of movement points used to maneuver them into position. Some long range units cannot move and fire in the same turn, but most direct attack units can. Once you have commanded all your units you can end your turn and give your opponent a chance to retaliate. This continues until the victory conditions are met. It might sound very simple, but there are so many factors that came into play that careful planning is required.
The different terrain types play a role in battles so getting your infantry to higher ground will count in their favor. Certain types of terrain are also impassible to certain units which can be used to your advantage. Then there is the weather conditions to contend with and fog of war, which obscures your vision and can be used to lay ambushes. Battles take place in the air, water and on land, but all the units are so well balanced that not a single one feels overpowered. This means that you really have to plan the movements and placements of each unit very carefully in order to maximize their usefulness. Capturing buildings on the map rewards you with war funds which can be spent buying additional units at captured factories, shipyards and airports.
Many times you have to make do with what you have which means using the terrain to your advantage instead of just amassing a huge army. Units can run out of fuel and ammo, which requires them to be restocked and damaged units can be retreated to friendly cities for recovery. All the Commanding officers, including your own, have special abilities which can be activated when fully charged. These range from repairing units to increasing damage and even receiving an extra turn. It can feel a bit unfair at first until you discover that some power have drawbacks as well which prevent them from being abused.
During the game you will unlock new commanding officers, which allow you to choose which one you want to use in battle. This can lead to branching paths, further adding to the replay value. After each victory you are rated on your performance and rewarded with coins which can be used to purchase new maps and CO’s for the skirmishes. The multiplayer mode allows you to take on friends using a single cartridge via the link cable or by simply passing the GBA around.
Visually the game is pretty basic but it does have a nice anime influenced charm. Everything takes place on a grid based overhead map where you maneuver your units around. You can check the movement and firing radius of all visible units in order to carefully orchestrate your attacks and to capture vital checkpoints on the map. Once you initiate an attack the views switch to a side on perspective where you get to witness super deformed depictions of the clashing units duke it out. A nice touch is that the type of terrain that the battle is taking place on is shown in the background. These animations look really cool but can be disabled to speed up gameplay. There is no blood and gore as defeated units are simply blown off the screen so overall the game is very family friendly. The audio is nice and upbeat, but can become a bit repetitive due to the length of the battles. Sound effects are limited but good.
Advance Wars is a challenging and addictive game with very little to criticize. The enemy A.Is fondness for attacking transport vehicles first can be exploited, but overall it’s a solid and engrossing title with many hours of rewarding gameplay. It has a high learning curve, but it is well worth completing all the tutorials. This is definitely a top strategy title and compares favorably with even non-portable games.
*Review originally published 2002.