Intelligent Systems for Nintendo
February 18, 2005
The best game ever made for the Gameboy Advance is Advance Wars 2. This is a true example of the 'killer ap:' a wonderfully attractive, easily accessaible, and richly complex game with a great sense of depth. And it also happens to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Turn-based strategy games were a staple of videogames a long time ago, before the genre moved into realtime. Now most strategy games are overburdened and too complicated, too pomous for their own good. Who wants to play a game where armies battle one another all by themselves? Since when is that entertainment? If that's what I wanted, I'd get a television.
Intelligent Systems has been steadily working on its series of strategy games since the beginning of time. Versions of Wars have appeared on the Famicom, Gameboy, and Super Nintendo. When the Gameboy Advance launched, it appeared with Advance Wars, and Nintendo immediately had a system-seller.
The first Advance Wars worked so well because it mixed up turn-based strategy with an entertaining, character-driven story, and then throwing in dozens of playable maps and a map editor for good measure. This was the rare game that deserved all its extras.
I think the second title is the better of the two, although its differences may not seem as apparant at first. The visual design is much better; the color scheme is brighter and with less contrast, and objects such as buildings and trees are less obtrusive. The first game looks garish compared to this. I also have to say I prefer the artwork of the characters, with their romantic, yet slightly comic poses.
The most notable difference is the tweaking in the game's balance. The idea is that all units - infantry, transports, tanks, anti-aircraft, and so on - should have a fighting chance. In the last game, a squad of tanks could completely destroy a squad of infantry. This tends to encourage building only the biggest and most powerful units. This sequel levels things out, and there's more of a paper-rock-siccors feel.
Chances are you already know something about this game, so you don't need me to recite the Campaign Mode for you. Everybody goes through it at least once, if just to enjoy the playful banter between all the cartoon characters (this is the only world where Macy Gray would team up with Marilyn Manson). Most everyone enjoys this mode, although most levels require you to overcome overwhelming odds again and again.
Chances also are you'll also know about the dozen upon dozens of extra maps to buy and play through, including all the maps from the first Advance Wars. Most of these you will only play through once, and some are worth repeated visits. This doesn't really matter to me, since I have the option to create my own levels.
It's the same question I've been asking for twenty years: why don't more games have a level editor? These things are pure gold. Through the AW2 map editor, I've created some terrific levels and shared them with players around the world. Building that sense of community is what make computer games like Quake and Unreal Tournament so endlessly entertaining. You give us the tools to create, and we'll be loyal fans forever.
I don't like reading overhyped praises in game reviews, but Advance Wars 2 really is the best game for the Advance, and just about the best handheld game ever made. It has the ability to grab even those who don't enjoy strategy games or military sims, that same way that all classics hook you.
Intelligent Systems is continuing the series on Nintendo's DS handheld, and we're all eager to see if they can continue their successful formula while adding enough new content to keep everything fresh. Personally, I don't think any major changes should be made. I'd try to empahsize naval units a little more (all those ships are way too expensive), do away with the Neotanks (they're far too powerful), and maybe even offer seasonal-based levels (instead of merely raining or snowing for a turn). I'd also look into the possibility of destroying or bombing cities, because I don't think it's ever been done before.
See? This is what happens when I start to go on a game design streak and create my own custom levels. I don't think a game like this even has a shelf life. This may be a multiplayer classic on par with MULE, Super Bomberman 2 and Herzog Zwei. But don't quote me on that just yet. Ask me again in two or three years.