The long awaited remake of the first two Advance Wars games is finally here but do the old GBA strategy classics still stand up today?
The sudden rise in popularity for Fire Emblem, following the release of Fire Emblem Awakening in 2012, was a serious blow to fans of Advance Wars. Nintendo developer Intelligent Systems works on both franchises, and there’s a lot of shared DNA between them, but the success of Fire Emblem meant that Advance Wars was put on the back burner, to the point where it was looking like it might never return. But finally, it has and it’s just as glorious as ever.
Although Advance Wars has only a paper-thin plot and no role-playing elements its turn-based combat is similar to Fire Emblem, as you move around units on a grid-based map. Advance Wars’ military theme is much more focused on pure strategy though, and for decades it’s been regarded as a classic of its genre and a major influence on everything from Wargroove to Into The Breach.
There were a few, increasingly less successful, portable sequels afterwards, and spin-off series Battalion Wars on the GameCube and Wii, but we’ve always regarded the original Game Boy Advance game, from 2001, to be an almost perfect video game. Although we have to admit we were concerned as to whether it would retain that status in a modern remake.
The tone of the Advance Wars games is very cartoonish (except for the grimdark Days Of Ruin on the DS) but nevertheless it’s one of the few Nintendo franchises that deals with anything related to real world warfare. The franchise stretches back to a number of Japanese-only games on the NES, Game Boy, and SNES but the first entry to be released in the West was the original Game Boy Advance title, which managed to launch one day before September 11 in 2001.
That caused Nintendo to get cold feet and the European release was delayed by almost a year. This time round the remake of that same game, and its immediate sequel, was originally scheduled to come out just as Russia invaded Ukraine. For a while it looked like Nintendo might just can the remake but now it’s due out this April and we can confirm it has been worth the wait.
We’re playing through the Switch version now, but we can only talk about the first half of the first game, although the sequel is very similar to the original, with little in the way of additional features. They’re both full remakes, in that all the graphics have been recreated using 3D visuals, but it still looks and works essentially identically to the original games.
We’re sure some will call that lazy, but we see it as confirmation of the original’s near perfect design, especially as trying to make the graphics more detailed wouldn’t work with the tone and would probably make the game more visually confusing.
As it is, Advance Wars is extremely easy to get into and, like most turn-based strategies, all you have to do is point where you want a unit to move to and/or attack. Each type of unit is very different though, much more so than in Fire Emblem, with multiple sizes of tanks, as well as infantry that are the only ones that can take over cities. Cities in turn are used to generate money which can be used to build new units.
The game starts things off simple, with only a few different units, then slowly introduces different kinds of artillery, transport, aircraft, and ships as the story progresses. Fog of war is not always present, but terrain does make a difference, with forests offering cover and mountains allowing infantry units to see further.
It’s a very tight, almost chess like, design that needs absolutely no change for the modern day. The only additional complication is CO powers, which slowly build up via a power meter and are different for all the various heroes and villains you ostensibly play as. These do things such as auto-repairing all your troops by a few health points or increasing your attack and defence power.
Although some are more useful than others, none of the CO powers are very extreme and this is one important reason why many still consider the original game to be the best, as the CO powers got very unbalanced the longer the series went on.
We haven’t been able to play the game online yet, but since it’s turn-based it works perfectly fine in multiplayer even on just one console. Especially as there’s a number of separate non-story maps to play on and the ability to design and share your own.
As much as we’re fans of the series, we have to admit we haven’t played any of the games for quite a while but one thing we’d forgotten was just how clever and varied the single-player scenarios are, with many limiting the units at your disposal (building your own units is a surprisingly infrequent option in the story campaign) and forcing you to think creatively and not just rely on tank rushes.
There are sieges to survive, hidden enemies to discover, and specific units to protect, and if you don’t come up with a proper plan to succeed, you’re almost certainly going to lose. Or at least be forced to grind out a lengthy victory. There are two difficulty modes though – casual and classic – so if it seems too tough, you can switch at any time.
Our one concern for this remake was the artificial intelligence, which was always a bit mechanical – as you can imagine being a Game Boy Advance game. It holds up surprisingly well though and while things like the enemy AI being obsessed with targeting transports is technically a flaw, developer WayForward seems to have leaned into it, so that using them as bait is now a key tactic.
Or at least we assume Shantae developer WayForward is responsible for the remake. They were supposed to be, and the art style looks like them, but they’re not mentioned anywhere in either the start-up sequence or the title screen. We haven’t unlocked the credits yet but if they are involved it seems very unfair not to acknowledge the fact properly.
They’ve done a great job too, although while the large amount of content does justify the price, we do worry that newcomers to the series are not going to see it that way, given the simplistic visuals. However, the gameplay is anything but simplistic and this will give Resident Evil 4 a run for its money as the best remake of the year.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: WayForward and Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 21st April 2023
Age Rating: 7
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