There have been a number of lucky genres having a bit of a resurgence lately. Starting in earnest with TellTale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, players the world over have started to get back into point and click adventure games. Indie developers with games like Cave Story and Fez breathed new life into the 2D platformer. But in the mix, one genre has got lost. Spare a thought for turn-based strategy games.
Okay, so they’re not quite dead. Fire Emblem still draws in a respectable crowd on the Nintendo portables, and roguelikes like Bedlam make good use of the good old grid-and-single-units battle system, but they’re small beer compared to Final Fantasy Tactics and, arriving at last at the point, Advance Wars.
Advance Wars was the culmination of the long-running Nintendo Wars series, but most Western gamers would only have heard of the games come the first Game Boy Advance installment, the first to be brought outside Japan.
Advance Wars 2 is the sequel and follows the four helpfully colour-coded nations of the first game in doing battle with the villainous Black Hole, a dictatorial empire intent on taking over the world.
So far, so typical but the way in which the nations are reflected in gameplay is highly effective. Commanding Officers for Orange Star, the stand in for the United States, do well with armoured vehicles and repair. Blue Moon, the expy Russians, gain bonuses in manpower and naval warfare. Green Earth, supposed to be Germany, are skilled with air power and Yellow Comet – Japan – have mastery over helicopters.
Combat takes place on a square based grid, with the player moving individual units around once per turn. The relatively short movement distance of most units combined with the range of indirect-fire weapons like artillery can create some weird tactical situations, like piling up all your units just outside the opponent’s range, then swamping them all at once in the hopes that the AI decides to shoot up your basic infantry units rather than the rocket battery you’ve saved up for for five turns.
It turns the game into more of a puzzle game than a classic strategy title and the cutesy cartoon soldiers combined with the perfunctory and illustrative combat cutaways adds to this sense. The fast pace of turn taking gives it the “just one more turn” quality that can make it pretty well impossible to put down.
There are more mechanics than just combat, although they’re pretty basic. Players can capture buildings – most notably, but not exclusively, cities, factories, airports and ports, which both provide money and allow the production of different kinds of units to keep up the fight.
The longest battles take place when the city count is balanced so the two sides can keep throwing endless units into the meat grinder and replacing them the next turn. Combat can get frustrating at times, particularly when Fog of War is in effect and limiting visibility.
The music is typical of the era, the last where melody and memorability were prioritised over big budgets and high quality. This was simply the limitation of the hardware – in a time when all you could use was slightly irritating bloops, the need to fashion them into something palatable was all the greater.
Advance Wars 2 is still surprisingly pricey given it’s over a decade and two console generations old, but is well worth the cash you’ll spend – Getting to feel like a masterful general during your long train journeys is one thing, but once you add an excellent level-editor and multiplayer, you’ll have an absolute blast.