I’m not a prude about war games, but real war is so horrifying that I always need some abstraction to get into it. The outlandish outfit designs in Fire Emblem and the cat ears in Arknights create a bit of cognitive distance from the harsh realities of armed conflict I learned about in school, allowing me to embrace their fictional video game worlds. It’s the only way to make the games’ brutal battlefields palatable for me. But Advance Wars goes so far in turning war into a schoolyard rivalry that I find distasteful.
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Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp is the Nintendo Switch remake of Advance Wars and its sequel Black Hole Rising, the beloved tactics games originally released for the Game Boy Advance, here updated with much more detailed graphics. What hasn’t changed is the tactics-based gameplay in which the Orange Star Army commanding officers (COs) defend their nation from belligerent military forces that are trying to invade their homeland.
Originally set for release on April 8 of last year, Nintendo ultimately decided to postpone the release in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I can see why, as the game’s candy-colored armies still suggest real-world geopolitical forces. In order to hold off the Russian-coded invading army, you command your own army of soldiers, tanks, planes, and factories. Sometimes winning the battle means wiping out every enemy on the map. Other times, capturing the enemy headquarters is the only way to bring an end to the bloodshed. I didn’t encounter any overly complicated optional objectives, which is good. Battles in Advance Wars are already plenty complex without them.
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You don’t just manage your units’ health in this game. Depending on each individual unit, you might also have to manage their fuel usage or the amount of ammo that they carry. While soldiers still do a decent amount of damage on low health, the amount of city they can capture is directly proportional to how many hit points they have remaining. And unlike other tactical games such as Fire Emblem or XCOM, the game doesn’t tell you the exact amount of damage that your troops will deal—it’s all conveyed in percentages. By obfuscating the exact amount of damage that it takes to destroy a tank, Advance Wars turns war into a series of calculated risks rather than a hard science. I liked that a lot, but it did mean that I ended up losing a lot of units to imprecise bets. You can improve your soldiers’ chances of survival by hiding them in a city or in the mountains—but in the end, you’re still gambling.
If this were any other game, I would have found these mechanics to be profound. I’ve always imagined that being a military commander isn’t actually about being the smartest person in the room—it’s about being smart but having luck bite you in the ass anyway, and then adapting when well-laid plans fall to pieces. To be fair, this also happens in XCOM. But I rage at the latter because there’s a bullshit RNG component in the alien defense game. Advance Wars seems to just hide the numbers from me, which I think is a fair compromise.
The art style is appealing and smooth. The bright background colors are pleasant to look at as you shutter tanks back and forth across the map. Unfortunately, I also found that the different ground vehicles and naval units were barely distinct from one another. The way that different types of vehicles have varying degrees of effectiveness against different enemy units lends some tactical complexity, but the nitty-gritty strategic elements of the gameplay only serve to make the game’s lighthearted tone even more jarring.
The narrative problem in Advance Wars is the complete lack of gravitas. To be clear, I’m not expecting the story to be War and Peace or All’s Quiet on the Western Front. I love a goofy war narrative here and there. But there’s absolutely no space for any reflection in Advance Wars. The story never feels as serious as its premise of international armed conflict suggests. Contrast this with Fire Emblem, whose blue-haired prince reflects on how war tears his country apart, or Arknights, which never lets you forget that its goofy heroes are fighting against eugenics and genocide, or how deeply broken these child soldiers are. The worst thing that happens in Advance Wars is that the rival general keeps calling my CO childish names. I wish that was the worst possible thing that could possibly happen in a war.
The soldiers in Advance Wars get blown away from having tank projectiles shot at them, but there’s never any consequences for letting them die. You just spend some money to recruit more bodies for the grinder, or manufacture more tanks for the front line. None of the COs seem concerned that war comes at a price. They represent the army, and not any individual units like characters do in Fire Emblem. At first, I wasn’t too bothered. This fictional story represents a large-scale, modern war. You can know ten soldiers, but it’s impossible to know thousands. Even if a specific map required me to send endless waves of infantry to hold off the enemy army while I captured a far-off base, they remained faceless and unknowable to me.
You might see this as a commentary on the cruelties of war in and of itself. But all of that is sanded off by the bright and cheerful art, the cartoonish jokes, and the focus on the interpersonal relationships between COs. Maybe the story gets there eventually. Maybe, if I’d soldiered on, I’d eventually be treated to long soliloquies about the sanctity of life or the necessary evils of war. But I couldn’t stand to watch these young commanders treat war like a board game, one where only their personal pride mattered. I lost an average of five to eight units per battle, and I felt worse about my losses than any of the characters did. It’s hard to want to root for the protagonists when they’re so disconnected from the sacrifices that scouts have to make whenever I send them to the front lines.
By the time I stopped playing, I realized that my CO actually did deserve to be represented as a child. Even the game wants you to know that these characters are all just children playing at war.