The ongoing cultural conversation over video games and their place in our culture is a fascinating one with many separate components. One of the less interesting topics that seems to come up constantly is whether or not video games can be considered “art.” I mean, of course they can be! But not all of them should be. Most probably shouldn’t be, but then, the same can be said, broadly, of most movies, most photographs, most drawings, and most human creations in general. I don’t want to spend much time defining my stance on this one, but art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder – and so is quality. For instance, I consider Braid one of the most memorable and thematically complex games I’ve ever played. Soulja Boy, meanwhile, gives it high praise from an entirely different perspective. (Watch him do so here. Seriously.) Now, granted, I’d have linked to that video for just about any reason, but my real point here is that whether or not a video game has any artistic merit doesn’t really matter as much as whether or not the game is any fun to play.
Advance Wars isn’t art, nor does it pretend to be; instead, it’s just a confidently great strategy game.
In fact, this little title from Nintendo’s uncelebrated Wars series is one of the highest rated Gameboy Advance games of all time – newly available, like so many other GBA classics, on the Wii U Virtual Console, where I recently played through it. It’s a grid-based turn-based strategy game that feels a whole lot like Fire Emblem with tanks and helicopters. The gameplay is straightforward and fairly basic; use your troops to defeat your enemy’s troops. While doing so, you’ll devise a tactical approach by taking a number of things into consideration, like your enemy’s troop types, your officer’s special abilities, and the terrain of the battlefield itself. Some of the maps also feature bases, shipyards, and airports that let you build more units as the given battle continues, and other levels have a fog of war aspect that doesn’t allow you to see your enemies’ movements. In these respects, Advance Wars also kind of reminded me of a non-real-time version of Warcraft or Starcraft – again, with tanks and helicopters.
The story mode consisted of a lengthy tutorial followed by around twenty missions that ranged anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour in length. I’m sure each level can be beaten in a matter of minutes with optimal strategies in place, but some of the levels, particularly those where reinforcements could be summoned by both sides, grew very long and monotonous. I recall one level in particular with a long bridge; both my units and my opponents’ were just stacked into lengthy single-file lines, and only two could engage with one another at any given time. It took me close to an hour to advance the four or five grid-spaces I needed in order to win the battle – a real war of attrition! The final level of the game, which was actually really well-designed, took me close to two hours thanks to the enemy having six reinforcement locations and almost unlimited resources to create new troops.
It’s hard to complain about the lengthy missions, though. While a handful of the levels in the campaign were tedious, the sheer variety of missions and maps kept things fresh and interesting. Some levels were time-sensitive blitzes of sorts, where all enemy troops needed to be eradicated within a certain number of turns. Other levels required that I capture a certain number of cities or defend a certain unit for a fixed length of time. Furthermore, there’s an entire “war room” section of the game full of non-campaign challenges and missions. I haven’t even touched that yet. For all I know, I’m less than halfway done with the game’s overall total content amount – and that doesn’t even account for the multiplayer mode available on the original Gameboy Advance version of the game.
If there’s any additional criticism I can levy against the game, it’s merely a less flattering comparison to the numerous turn-based strategy JRPGs I’ve enjoyed through the years. I compared Advance Wars to Fire Emblem above, and from a gameplay perspective they’re quite similar, but Fire Emblem has a rich level of customization and emotion built into its gameplay as well as a deeper and more character-driven story. (And games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Valkyria Chronicles are, in my mind, even deeper and more memorable than Fire Emblem.) Advance Wars doesn’t exactly suffer for neglecting to flesh out its numerous army men with distinct personalities and attributes, but it does make all the units completely interchangeable. No death or loss can “hit you right in the feels” when the virtual soldiers are nothing more than pieces on a virtual chessboard. Of course, no one has ever criticized chess for being a game in which you can’t get more personally invested in some pieces than others. And why would they? Chess isn’t art! It doesn’t present itself as the touching story of knights and bishops falling in battle in order to protect their king. It’s just a mental contest between two people matching wits. To an extent, so is Advance Wars. It’s just a well-balanced turn-based strategy game with no desire to reveal truths or explore the human condition.
I liked Advance Wars enough to consider looking into its many sequels. Advance Wars 2 is also a Wii U-ported GBA game, and beyond that there are two DS games, a GameCube title, and even a game on the Wii. The thing is, I’m in no rush to dig into any of those games when I’ve still got all kinds of untapped content waiting for me in the war room mode of this one. Someday, maybe. But not yet. Not yet.
Really, it all boils down to the genre. If you’re a fan of turn-based strategy games, you’d do well to check this one out. You’ll form no lasting attachments to your troops the way you do in Final Fantasy Tactics or Valkyria Chronicles, but the strategic battle planning components are just as present. Advance Wars doesn’t concern itself with dropping your jaw, opening your eyes, or pulling your heartstrings, and it’s all the better off for punting on those matters.
An earlier version of this review appeared at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.