When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.
I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.
Always brute forcing through missions.
In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.
In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.
I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.
In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.
But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.
When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.
The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.
Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.
There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.
There was no brute forcing the enemy.
Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.
Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.
I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.
I hated the game for keeping me focused.
I stopped playing.
Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.
Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.
I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.
That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.
No one else seemed to get it right.
Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:
“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”
The answer was always no.
My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.
I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.
I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.
I needed to return to a place of focus.
I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.
What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.
The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.
The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.
Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:
I understood what the missions were.
I understood what the game was.
Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.
AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.
The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.
By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.
Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.
The player can do everything inside of two small menu screens.
It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.
It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.
They are there if the player chooses to focus.
In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.
Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.
The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.
Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.
But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.
There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.
The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.
Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.
These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.
One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.
It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.
This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.
This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.
On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.
The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.
Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.
Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.
Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.
In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.
It is a thorough study of excellent design.
With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.
13 years after its release and the game still shines…
long after many have forgotten it.