Review: Advance Wars (Wii U eShop / GBA)

War has never been so much fun

Mention Advance Wars to a seasoned gamer and they're almost guaranteed to have heard of it. One of the earliest major Game Boy Advance titles, it's now also one of the earliest titles from the handheld on the Wii U Virtual Console, giving veterans another chance to pick it up and newcomers an ideal opportunity to see what all the fuss is about.

What you might not know is that Advance Wars is actually part of a much older series, which can usually be identified by having "Wars" in its titles. It all started with Famicom Wars on the Famicom/NES, and then went on to appear on almost all of Nintendo's subsequent systems. Although it might not seem like it, the real-time strategy title Battalion Wars and its sequel are actually also part of the franchise. Advance Wars, however, has the distinction of being the first game to be released outside Japan, and we couldn't have asked for a better starting point, at that time and now on the Wii U.

When you first boot up the game, you'll be welcomed to the Orange Star army as its newly appointed advisor, given the task of helping it reclaim the land that it has recently lost to rival armies. You'll then be offered some Field Training, essentially a tutorial, consisting of 13 missions, teaching you everything you need to know about the game mechanics, although it is possible to skip almost all of it by only doing the final mission.

Advance Wars is a strategy game of the turn-based variety — this means you move all your units and do whatever else it is you want and can do before ending your turn. After this, the opponent gets to make their moves; if there's more than one opponent, they go in order, before circling back to you. The whole game takes place on a grid, which means that there's no free movement — units must always move along the existing tiles and can't move diagonally.

There are plenty of different types of these tiles, each with their own defence rating and a movement cost that depends on the type of unit traversing it — for example, tanks will have a much harder time moving through a forest than infantry. Likewise, some terrain can only be accessed by certain units, for example, infantry can wade through rivers, but vehicles won't be able to get across unless they're air units.

You'll quickly find out that one of the most important aspects of each map are buildings — moving infantry over these will allow them to capture them. Capturing any building will increase your income each turn by 1000, while capturing bases, ports and airports will also allow you to build additional ground, sea and air units, respectively, using said funds. It is of course also possible to capture enemy buildings, which can also be very useful; it'll cut down their income while increasing yours. Special mention must go to the HQ — each army only has one, and should protect it as much as possible — while it is possible to win each map by simply wiping out every enemy unit, capturing the HQ will result in an instant victory, which can at times be a much smarter strategy than going for the victory by rout.

However, arguably the most important part of the game are the different commanding officers (COs) which you can play as or play against. Each of them has their own major strength and weakness; for example Max, from Orange Star, deals more damage than normal with direct attacks, but deals less damage and has a decreased range with indirect units like artillery and rockets. Grit from Blue Moon, on the other hand, is the polar opposite, dealing less direct damage but more indirect, with an increased range for his indirect units to boot. Some COs are only useful in very specific situations, for example, there's one that has a clear advantage on maps with fog of war, which you will rarely see outside Vs. Mode.

The most important aspect of each CO, however, is their CO Power — as a CO's units take and dish out damage, a meter will fill which, when full, will allow them to unleash a single special attack any time they want, after which the meter will be emptied. These powers can easily swing the tide of a match in your favour, as not only do all of them grant a small, temporary attack and defence boost, they'll do a variety of other things as well depending on the CO, such as healing all your units for 2 HP, changing the weather, or even allowing all non-infantry units to move a second time in one turn with reduced stats. Generally, it's the CO that's losing that will be able to use his (or her) power more often, as taking damage will fill the meter faster than dealing it; this makes it quite fair and well balanced.

This title also deserves credit for including quite a number of animations — units moving around, units attacking, or infantry capturing buildings. While they are cool to watch (it never gets old having a bomber wipe out an enemy unit in one attack), they can take up quite some time. Fear not though, because once you've completed the Field Training it becomes possible to turn most of them off — speeding up the flow of each map tremendously.

After you've made it through the Field Training, the rest of the game will be opened up to you. In the Campaign, which is most likely what most will try out first, you get to play as three of the Orange Star COs, Andy, Max and Sami, as they try to beat some sense into the opposing armies and save the day. As you progress through the missions you'll frequently be offered a choice of CO — in some cases, the mission will actually differ depending on the CO you've picked, which means that several playthroughs might be in order so you can see all of them. Between and during missions there's plenty of banter between COs, and as you might expect from the game's cartoony look, it's generally of a comedic nature — you'll absolutely get some chuckles out of it.

In War Room, you can tackle smaller maps with a CO of your choosing as you try to get the best score, while Vs. Mode is similar, except without the scoring aspect and with the ability to play against other people. Unfortunately, in this version, local multiplayer must be played by passing the controller around; there's no retroactive online option to replace the link cable — which was surely the fantasy of some — though you can share a GamePad in off-TV mode and hide moves from each other. We also have Battle Maps, where you can buy and unlock additional maps and COs with coins you've earned, and Design Maps where you can, as the title implies, design maps for use in Vs. Mode.

While it might seem peculiar to have a cartoony-looking war game, Advance Wars just oozes charm. The COs all have very unique, fun designs and personalities, and the soundtrack — each CO has their own theme song — is immensely catchy. Both of these combined make the game an absolute blast to play, whether you're doing the ass-kicking or being on the receiving end.

As this is one of the very first Game Boy Advance games to hit the Wii U Virtual Console, it is also worth mentioning some of the special features that we can expect to be in every future GBA game. Naturally, the usual restore points are available here as well, but if you go into settings you can also toggle smoothing on and off — this gives all of the pixels a more rounded edge. While this is generally looked down upon by retro enthusiasts, it's at least nice to have the feature. There's also an option to toggle between full-screen and "original resolution", which makes it quite similar to the Game Boy Player, except with black borders instead of decorated ones. Advance Wars, in particular, looks great even when blown up on a TV, so we recommend just keeping it on the full-screen.

Lastly, the digital manual for this (and most likely all) GBA games is a little different than normal — it's not a simple-looking guide explaining the controls and little more, but rather the actual manual from the original GBA release, fully scanned and readable. While this is something that has already been done before on competing systems, it is quite a cool thing to see; we hope Nintendo potentially goes back and adds this to other Virtual Console games.

Conclusion

The first Advance Wars might not have the huge amount of COs and new units from its sequels, but it is more balanced because of this; as a result, it tends to always feel fair, even if you lose. Even in those rare instances that it feels unfair, the immensely charming graphics and music are top notch, and will no doubt manage to keep a smile on your face. The unlockable Advance Campaign — which is much harder — as well as the other modes, will also ensure that you'll still be playing it long after you've seen the end of the story.