genoboost's Advance Wars 15th Anniversary Retrospective

advance-wars-black-hole-rising-dual-strike-days-of-ruin-review-retrospective

Advance Wars is my game. The one series I constantly sing the praises of and attempt in vain to get my friends to try.  I'd rank this series right alongside Zelda, Super Mario, Metroid, and Donkey Kong Country on my personal list all time great Nintendo series. 

It feels like this game was made just for minds like my own. Finding Advance Wars was a gaming epiphany. This series taught me to have some patience, and to think ahead a little. Eventually I would understand that an intense game doesn't have to be based simply on reflexes and memorization.

Like most forms of media that find a way into my heart, it just wasn't meant to last. I'm still tweeting at Nintendo of America to this day, just in the vain hopes of getting a re-release of Advance Wars Dual Strike on the Nintendo Wii U. It's already been available in the UK for months now. There aren't even any games coming out for the Wii U, and still nothing. Someone at NOA just needs to flip a switch, and the game is available for download. Well, okay, it's probably not just a switch. Knowing Nintendo, it's probably a glass you have to break, then there are two keys that need to be inserted. One of the keys belongs to Reggie Fils-Aime, and the second key is perched precariously at the top of an active Volcano.

BACKSTORY

I'm an old school, arcade type gamer, which means I'm impatient as hell. I like games that keep you guessing, and in an ever growing state of panic. That is why puzzle games are my jam, and also why the final lap in Mario Kart feels so intense. 

How kids these days are able to sit through updates and loading screens and logo screens of all the tech companies and developers and producers and audio companies and sound design studios and any other vested interests that played a role in the game, is completely beyond me. I think the youth are gaining a longer attention span at this point. How else do you explain all the repetitive games these days? 

With my lack of focus, most modern games simply aren't made for me. Cut scenes? Tutorial stages? Character building? All I know is that when I hit the 'Start' button, it means I should start playing the game. Straight up, moving my avatar with the analog stick, and being able to attack things, friend or foe, I'm swingin'. None of this dialogue box bullshit. I am not playing the game just because I'm hitting 'A' through some dialogue boxes, or watching an in game graphics cut scene rather than the big budget CGI cut scene. There is nothing worse in a game than a cut scene ending, and then another one beginning! (I was going to use this moment to dis the MGS series, but I don't even have the energy, you can wait for my upcoming Lunar Knights retrospective for that.) Reading is not a game, it's a book. So what if your budget allowed for a 30 minute CG cut scene, when the next 20 minutes after that is dialogue boxes explaining the non battle sequence of the backstory.

Sorry. Dialogue boxes aren't all bad, I mean, how else would I know what to do in a game, or how bad the writing is? 

Advance Wars couldn't possibly be mistaken for 'action' or 'arcade.' It is not that type of game at all. It is slow. It is so slow that I can waste hours playing only one or two stages. Even the first stage.

Too bad you won't be playing the first stage anytime soon. First, it's the tutorial. This is no simple tutorial stage either, it's more like an entire semester of tutorials, and this is just to understand what the hell is happening on the screen. After a few training battles, you'll pretty much have ground units understood. Too bad the next five tutorials are exclusively about boats. So after a battery of tests to see whether I'm ready to fly into the danger zone, I FINALLY get to take on a real stage. 

I got my ass kicked. 

By no means am I an expert gamer, or even a competent one, (except for Mario Kart where I will murder your body) but this was completely different. Imagine playing chess for the first time, against a seasoned pro, but you don't know the rules to chess, and, also everybody told you that chess is just checkers with some hoity toity pieces. Everything I learned in the tutorial was utterly useless in a real battle scenario. There is no practice that truly prepares you for battle. Not even fake battles.

What I mean to say is, I sucked at Advance Wars (in fact, maybe I still suck now). I kept coming back for more though. Perhaps it was the colorful art style, which I've always been a sucker for. Maybe just the fact that I hate when I don't understand how winning occurs. It's a pretty low bar, but I tend to be satisfied with knowing that I can at least beat the stage, but I couldn't even do that!

A dozen losses, another dozen 'C' grades, and probably twice as many rage quits later, that level of competency was within my reach. Now, in 2016, and literally hundreds of hours of Advance Wars games later, I consider competence my middle name. Honestly I still haven't come to grips on using air support. My copters often run out of gas and crash in the middle of the ocean. Sorry guys.

GAMEPLAY

This is your basic turn-based strategy. You take control of one of several Commanding Officers, which give your units different attributes and their own, specific, Super CO power. If you've played Fire Emblem (which statistically you are more likely to do than play Advance Wars, even when you are the type of person to read an article about Advance Wars), then you know the drill. Move your units, they move their units, you feel like an idiot for moving your units there. The big difference is that instead of a sword, or a winged horse, your weapon is a never ending army of nameless goons that move according to your every whim. Their demise is inevitable, but they do not die in vain. Every lost helicopter that crashes, and every APC I park in the way of gunfire was necessary to-ah crap I didn't mean to move my missile launcher there. Restart. 

So instead of every character being an indispensable commodity that can never be replaced, nor forgotten. Intelligent Systems went the complete other direction in this series. Troops can now be created quickly, and sent to die even faster. The strategy comes in as you allocate resources, and build and deploy the proper units for the current battle. 

GAME HISTORY

There are four games in the Advance Wars series. The first three, I like to define as the "original trilogy," which consists of the original 2001 Advance Wars, followed closely by Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising in 2003. In 2005, the Nintendo DS received Advance Wars Dual Strike (i.e. the perfect game.)

As an aside, I'd like to mention that Advance Wars Dual Strike and the original Nintendogs came out on the Nintendo DS on the same day. Way to cannibalize your own game Nintendo. There was a DS game drought the entire summer, if Meteos hadn't come out earlier that year, I would have tossed that ugly old DS in the garbage months ago. How many dog owners would have preferred War! There's no way to know now. I bought both games, at launch, on August 22, 2005 from GameCrazy, yes I remember, and it cost way too much. I can understand a more fiscally conservative gamer only choosing one. The vast majority of DS owners went with the hit game Nintendogs. I played Nintendogs for a week. I've played Advance Wars Dual Strike for the rest of my life. 

These three games were followed up in 2008 with a gritty re-imagining for the Nintendo DS called Advance Wars Days of Suin, no wait, this game doesn't have a "DS" pun, it's called 'Days of Ruin.' Okay, That's cool.

Screenshot 2016-09-20 05.07.22.png

The original Advance Wars debuted in 2001. The series had existed in Japan as Famicom Wars on the NES back in 1988. Very much like Fire Emblem's eventual Western release for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, the Famicom Wars series was being exported out of Japan for the first time. What is most interesting though is that once the Wars series went international, it sold better in Western territories far better than Japan. 

Advance Wars was so underappreciated in it's home country that Nintendo's number crunchers figured that releasing an already finished game wouldn't even recoup the costs of the cartridges the game was printed on. So, despite the rest of the world receiving Advance Wars for the GBA in 2001/02, and even getting the follow up, 2003's Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, Japan wouldn't get either game until 2004, when Nintendo finally saw fit to release both games at home, as a single cartridge called "Game Boy Advance Wars 1+2" like some kind of 2 for 1 bargain bin reject of a game. If you release the game as an afterthought, it might not sell well.

Things seemed to be getting back on track as 2005's Advance Wars Dual Strike released all over the Northern Hemisphere in 2005. At this point Intelligent Systems was dropping hit after hit for Nintendo. Between the launch of Advance Wars in 2001, and AWDS in '05, Intelligent Systems debuted the WarioWare series, introduced Fire Emblem to the west, created Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door for GCN, and then released another couple WarioWare games. Advance Wars Dual Strike was an incredibly polished game which won a variety of awards and accolades for it's replayability, variety, and gameplay. It sold terribly. 

Unlike all the other lame niche junk I love, this one is the most objectively great. Advance Wars Dual Strike was the indie darling of niche handheld gamers. Too bad that narrow group of game buyers doesn't seem to move a lot of units. This series got Zelda level scores, tossing around 9 out of 10s like they were going out of style. Dual Strike is still sitting on a cool 90% on metacritc from both critics and players. Intelligent Systems made a damn near perfect turn based strategy game. How come more people didn't want to play it? Not even anyone in Japan, as always.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems gathered their greatest minds to understand the problem. They were probably in a bunker deep below Nintendo headquarters, I speculate. According to the secret documents smuggled from that bunker, war is gritty, gruff, and grimy, while Advance Wars is colorful, cute and full of character. The reason people were buying that war game Call of Duty, and not Nintendo's turn based war simulator, was clearly because of the color schemes. 

As gritty, realistic, brown and gray as fuck FPS games like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty came to the forefront, something as colorful and kid friendly as Advance Wars tried to change with them. This train of thought led directly to the gritty Advance Wars re-imagining known as Days of Ruin (and also forced the console outings, known as Battalion Wars, to feature more on the ground gameplay and twitch shooting action, the exact opposite of why I play Advance Wars).

In 2008, Advance Wars Days of Ruin debuted around the world, well, except Japan. Somehow, a game produced, in Japan, by a Japanese game company, was released everywhere on earth except Japan. Somehow. How often could this possibly have happened in the history of video games? Seriously?

A game studio in Japan creates a game that never gets a Japanese release. The game was created in Japanese right? I would naturally assume so, so how could it be more cost effective to shelve a game that was already done? I'm honestly baffled.
…and due to a lack of any real explanation from Nintendo and those who worked on Advance Wars Days of Ruin, I am left to speculate. 

The easiest assumption is that Intelligent Systems went full steam ahead with a dark and gritty reboot, pandering to the west in a vain attempt to satisfy Western tastes. So the creators of such whimsical fair as the Paper Mario series, WarioWare, and the cutest damn game ever Cubivore, were now in charge of a dramatic tale about the tragic, and often deadly realities of war.

Guess how that went over? 

Like the artwork for the game. Get to the back protagonists, this grizzled beefcake is what sells games in America.

Like the artwork for the game. Get to the back protagonists, this grizzled beefcake is what sells games in America.

Despite some heavy handed moments in the story, the dialogue didn't actually veer too far from the optimistic, often comedic tone of the original Advance Wars and other Intelligent System produced games. Which immediately clashed with the art style of the game. Though well drawn, the style was much less cartoonish, darker, drabber, and, well, brown and gray as fuck. Intelligent Systems couldn't help themselves in the art department either though, wedging in a few blue haired characters and unkempt protagonists to tinge the whole game with anime vibes. Nothing wrong with anime vibes, just tone it down a little.

Intelligent Systems and Nintendo bet everything on a rebooted IP aimed solely at Western audiences, even at the expense of Japanese gamers, who, frankly don't even deserve Advance Wars at this point. Why don't YOU import an obscure game, Japan? Even when the series had a colorful, cartoonish, Japan inspired aesthetic, Nintendo's home country couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately the game failed to truly catch fire in the west either (which Ironically Fire Emblem would accomplish in the present day, even while reverse pandering to the western market).

Though the series saw a significant growth in sales, from just below half a million sold worldwide, to just over half a million sold worldwide! Staggering, it seems the reboot really did pay off!

Another fun way to be disappointed is to contrast the fact that 2005's AWDS sold about 440 thousand copies. That isn't bad, considering that only about nine million DS's were in gamer's hands at the time. Days of Ruin on the other hand, sold just over 600 thousand units in 2008, when sales of the DS were fast approaching 80 million. So once you consider the possible sales, well, well, I need to sit down.

Luckily for the small niche of Japanese citizens who love Advance Wars, the game eventually came out, in 2014, for the 3DS, as a downloadable Platinum reward for the new defunct Club Nintendo. Which also makes it the only DS game to be available as a download for the Nintendo 3DS. Even when Japan loses they win.

Also, perhaps ironically, I really don't understand the definition of irony, is that instead of bringing in more international fans of Advance Wars, the new reboot pretty much split the fanbase in two. Thus guaranteeing that a follow up to Days of Ruin, or a throwback to the original Advance Wars trilogy would immediately piss off half the fanbase. Great work everybody. Now let's get back to the bunker and never discuss Advance Wars again.

MUSIC

The music is very marching band, war song, drum and horn driven affair, which makes it boring as hell. The music would be fine in small doses, but one stage can take several hours, so the lack of variety becomes evident very quickly. The simple vibe of the tracks is not a good thing when they repeat endlessly as you try to decide whether to move your infantry three steps forward, or two steps forward and one step upward. not to mention that listening to it on the tin cans that the GBA calls speakers makes it an even harsher listen. At this point I very rarely listen to the in game music. I've heard it quite enough.

GRAPHICS

I love these graphics. Absolutely timeless for me. The little troops, and CO artwork are well ingrained in my mind after hundreds of hours of Advance Wars. The graphics are nothing to write home about, This series is strictly handheld, so ergonomics took precedent over getting all artsy on a tiny handheld screen. The sprites and backgrounds are crisp and easy to identify with a glance. The battle animations are nice, and give a good visual for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different units. I turned the battle cut scenes off ages ago though, Advance Wars is slow enough as it is.

STORY

There are essentially two stories in Advance Wars. The ever escalating war of the original three Advance Wars titles, and the completely separate story line of 2008's Advance Wars Days of Ruin. I'll get more into that gritty reboot soon, I'll start with the original story line.
There is a land called War World, no wait. There is a world called War World, and a land in War World called Cosmo Land. 

The main protagonists of the GBA titles are Andy, Max, and Sami. (as an aside, I always hoped that one of them would get the go ahead as a Smash Bros character, but instead we got an entire Fire Emblem inside Smash Bros. instead)

Cosmo Land

Cosmo Land

So what else do you do on War World? You start a war! The series starts off small, with a battle between the belligerent Blue Moon army versus the protagonists, Andy, Sami, and Max and the Orange Star army.  As the series continued, the armies, and CO's, and tank units, and even continents expanded. From Cosmo Land, to Macro Land, and finally, Omega Land. It's like the villains knew there would be ever escalating sequels, and used that logic to attack the smallest, least valuable continents first. 

Macro Land

Macro Land

Omega Land

Omega Land

Also, how do you fit all these continents into one War World? Cosmo Land is enormous, basically the size of the Americas plus Japan. The next game has the much larger Macro Land. At this point I can assume that maybe these continents are on the opposite side of the planet. That theory ends when AWDS introduces the EVEN LARGER continents known as Omega Land. Is Omega Land in Antarctica? How did no one notice it? Did no intercontinental war commander care to bring up the most giant continent of all? Assuming each continent in War World is roughly equivalent to a similar shaped content on earth… ah forget it.

This story is as lighthearted as the graphics, even as you send wave after wave of soldiers to an early demise in an attempt to take a key bridge, a strategic factory, or because tanks just seem so expensive. They're doomed regardless. The writing is more about the interaction between CO's and the tactics they use on the battlefield. It's less grizzled war generals with thousand yard stares, and more like an intense battle in a decent chess club. The story line is mostly told in dialogue box cut scenes before and after each battle. All this leads up to the revelation of a doomsday device, at the end of each game. No grand tales are woven in this series, so I won't dig much deeper into the plot. This article is already off the rails.

I have to mention Days of Ruin as well though. Same thing, except darker. The world, which isn't War World, has been devastated by meteors, causing massive deaths around the world. The straggling armies that survived in the aftermath continue to war, so get to warring already. Also spoiler, another doomsday device. Even though doomsday already occurred, but you know those people who go too far to relive their nostalgia.

LEGACY

What can I say about a game series that is never going to get another sequel?
Advance Wars is never coming back. Ever.

To be fair, 'never' is a strong word, especially for video games. Duke Nukem Forever was 'never' going to be finished. Nintendo would 'never' make games for mobile phones. You can call me out on this when it happens though. I'm saying that right now, that the Advanced War is over.

I'm sorry for your loss, I know you were hoping things might be different. That I would have a big pep talk in the end, and get hyped for the future of the series. Nope. 

Let's go through the grieving process together.

Nintendo has made some strange decisions with the Advance Wars series. Fire Emblem got larger scale games on both the Gamecube and the Wii. So did Advance Wars. Sort of.

Following the release of Advance Wars Dual Strike, Nintendo released Battalion Wars for the Gamecube, quickly followed up by Battalion Wars 2, or BWii (ugh, feels gross to type that out). Though they weren't true Advance Wars games, Nintendo felt that they would shut up whiny Advance Wars fans for a while. In actuality, they were fun games, but just confused Western gamers who had been led to believe it had something to do with Advance Wars. Then Intelligent Systems rebooted the series with Advance Wars Day of Ruin. So now the already small contingent of Advance Wars fans splintered into fans of classic AW, Days of Ruin, and Battalion Wars. Now you are guaranteed to piss off at least some of the fans.

In truth, Intelligent Systems had produced itself into a corner. The main draw of Advance Wars is the gameplay. Though they can make some changes to the gameplay, in terms of units and CO powers, the basic rules that make it an Advance Wars title are dead set. All that could be done was to change the art style and try to appeal to a wider audience. That didn't work out either. At this point, neither Intelligent Systems nor Nintendo have any clear direction to go with the series, so it sits on a dusty shelf, wedged between F-Zero, Pokemon Pinball, and all the other Nintendo IPs that get eternal shrugs from Nintendo producers.

What hurts the most is that Fire Emblem is living this incredible resurgence of their brand. Back in the GBA days, the FE and AW series were brother and sister. Both turn based strategy, but presented with very different styles and aesthetics. Since I hate grass and magic and bullshit, I quickly gravitated towards the modern, colorful war games interpretation of turn based strategy in Advance Wars. I much prefer the cartoonish spamming of troops over the existential angst of permadeath. 

Despite my specific preference, neither series could break the hallowed number of a million units sold until Fire Emblem Awakening came out on the 3DS in 2012. Thus it became everyone's favorite handheld series, and took up half the roster in Super Smash Bros. All Advance Wars got in Smash Bros was the game's most impotent assist trophy. Way to kick a guy when he's down, Sakurai.

That 3DS resurgence could have been Advance Wars! It feels like merely a coin flip. Before the 3DS launched, there was another meeting between Nintendo and Intelligent Systems, not in a bunker, it's not that important of a secret meeting. The 3DS needs a turn based strategy game. But which one? Then the president of Intelligent Systems greenlit a new Fire Emblem because he had an upset stomach and just wanted to go home. If only he had his heartburn medicine, I could be playing as Sami (oh who am I kidding, it would be Andy) in the latest Smash Bros. Tell Sakurai I'll trade one Advance Wars character for three Fire Emblem swordsman.

Advance Wars is to Fire Emblem, as Metroid is to Legend of Zelda. Let's note the similarities:
Zelda & Fire Emblem are medieval, magical games, while Metroid and Advance Wars are modern and focused on weapons and technology.

Both Advance Wars and Metroid sales are poor, in general, and especially in comparison to Fire Emblem and Zelda.

The Advance Wars series (more specifically the 'Famicom Wars' series) and Metroid have been shuffled around both 1st and 3rd party development studios.

Both Advance Wars and Metroid are being (or have been?) run into the ground with a lack of direction for the series. Is Metroid an action game? An FPS? A fucking soccer game? Same with Advance Wars. Is it turn based? Real time? Gritty? Cartoonish? 

"Come on boss! Twenty of us could put together a new WarioWare in a few months!"  "No! You better animate this fucking lemon, it better be the most realistic lemon in video game history or this game is going to flop I swear to g-"

"Come on boss! Twenty of us could put together a new WarioWare in a few months!" 

"No! You better animate this fucking lemon, it better be the most realistic lemon in video game history or this game is going to flop I swear to g-"

So, now Intelligent Systems just creates Fire Emblem games and a bunch of half-assed Paper Marios. 

I'm not mad though, Intelligent Systems has done so many great series. Development costs have gone up exponentially since many of those series were first created, and it's understandable that the lowest selling series are first on the chopping block. Intelligent Systems' resources are spread too thin to pander to Fire Emblem fans, develop new installments of WarioWare and Rhythm Heaven, release a game called Codename STEAM, just to have one more IP that only five people care about, create uncompelling battle systems for Paper Mario, and still have time for another Advance Wars game. They don't even have time to re-release Advance Wars Dual Strike on the Wii U Virtual Console. 

In conclusion, get it together Nintendo. Just double the size of Intelligent Systems studios, or at least give some of the game producers the Sakurai treatment like Smash Bros and just rent Namco's studio for them.I'm not saying that this course of action would revive the Advance Wars franchise, but it would at least help to keep the Paper Mario franchise from irrelevancy. It's the best we can hope for.