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Retrospective: Advance Wars

Nintendo Gamer's Christian Donlan recalls GBA's classic reinvention of chess...

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A decade after release, Advance Wars is still an unmissable game, in other words - a fact that makes it all the more astonishing that western audiences very nearly lost out on the opportunity to play it in the first place. Back in Japan, Intelligent Systems' GBA debut was part of a noble line of strategy titles reaching all the way back to 1988 and the first Famicom system. The series was known - rather unimaginatively - as Famicom Wars, and it initially told the story of two nations, Orange Star (originally Red Star) and Blue Moon, locked in a constant battle for territorial supremacy. It was considered a little too slow and complicated for western tastes, and so it never made it across the ocean.

The first game was a big hit locally, however, taking the turn-based fighting of JRPGs and broadening the scope, unleashing players on massive campaigns across multiple maps, and allowing them to command entire armies instead of a handful of party members. Sequels followed, and with them a history of tweaks and refinements was written as the series switched, briefly, from square-based levels to hex-based levels and then back again, and threw in new enemies and units. It even dabbled with the ability to level-up units throughout the game - an idea that would come to define the series' brilliant fantasy sibling, Fire Emblem.

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With instalments on the Famicon and Super Famicom, and outings on handheld consoles (where development duties were briefly handled by Hudson Soft), Japanese Nintendo fans were onto a great thing. They alone knew of a franchise that was every bit as ingenious and personable as Super Mario, but that traded the plumber's focus on twitch-skills and freewheeling exploration for something more tactical. Canny westerners were left to import and translate. Most of us, though, remained entirely ignorant of all the fun we were missing out on.

NEW TERRITORY

Advance Wars changed all that. As a kind of experiment, Nintendo let the game break free of Japan and reach a global audience, allowing wannabe COs all around the world to take on the mysterious Black Hole army, while simultaneously playing an important role in a wider - and more significant - battle. It was a battle in which Nintendo itself would come to realise that gamers in Europe and America had the patience to handle dense systems and turn-based fighting mechanics if they came with decent tutorials and were delivered with this sort of energy and precision.

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Happily, despite a delay in the European launch on account of the 9/11 attacks, western GBA owners' brains didn't seize up as they tried to get to grips with Intelligent Systems' intelligent systems. Nobody got headaches or fainted at the complexity of it all, and nobody got bored and gave up either. Instead, players embraced the myriad intricacies, raced through the campaign, and even took the battle to their friends - just as long as they could remember where they'd put their link cables.

It was a turning point, and every time since 2001 that Nintendo have taken a risk on a European release for a quirky Japanese classic, you can quietly thank Andy, Max, Sami and the rest of the Orange Star army for the pleasure.

Many have tried to replicate Advance Wars' peculiarly compact strain of brilliance. The PSP got Field Commander, a shameful (if competent) piece of theft, lacking Intelligent Systems' graphical charisma and skills with map design, while iOS and Android are always overflowing with wonky clones. None come close to matching the GBA original, but that's hardly surprising. Intelligent Systems haven't been able to improve on Advance Wars either.

WAR NEVER CHANGES

Sequels tend to come with a handful of additional units and a sprinkling of new ideas. On the GBA, Black Hole Rising broke its maps up with huge pipelines that were impossible to traverse. As far as new terrain types are concerned, pipes aren't classics, making the pinch points and bottlenecks of a map a little too artificial, but they at least paved the way for Piperunners - zippy little turret units that popped up in Dual Strike, the DS's first Advance Wars game, where they rushed around a handful of levels making trouble for everyone, and were then never seen again.

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Dual Strike also offered a range of new modes alongside its campaign, and one of them, called Combat, is genuinely nuts: a real-time battler that feels like a bizarre, top-down shooter. After that, Dark Conflict, the most recent game in the series, dropped classic characters and armies in favour of a new post-apocalyptic setting. Visually without charm, it still offers veterans a range of smart new levels, and has the addition of online multiplayer too.

Advance Wars remains the series' high point, though: it has the best characters, the best missions, and a lovely campaign filled with choice. It offers a propulsive rhythm to its combat that an Advance Wars designer named Makoto Shimojo once put down to the fact that the development team had been drawn from fans of music games, racing games and brawlers as much as battle sims. The balance of the game's basic units is near-perfect in a way that can only be the result of developer obsession and ceaseless iteration.

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Obsession is something of a theme when it comes to Advance Wars, actually, with the game's devoted fan-base responding to equally zealous developers: developers who have determinedly battled with terrain layouts and weapon attributes until you can play the 20-odd levels of the campaign over and over again and still find things that surprise and confound you. It's quietly sobering to think that a game so outwardly cheerful is only as accessible and as rich as this because its makers have taken real pains to make it so. Perhaps it's also inevitable. Brilliance of the order of Advance Wars always comes at a price, and - getting back to those truly great double acts - victory never shows up on the battlefield without a little sacrifice leading the way.

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