Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp is the kind of title that is only possible in video games.
It begins weird, brings maths into the equation, recalibrates with a colon, and launches into a clunky pun. And, somehow, you love it. The best thing about it is that it evokes the feel of playing the thing: the initial headway, the totting up of numbers, the fumbled halfway point, and the swerve into a whacky win.
What we have is a couplet of remakes: Advance Wars, which came out on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, and its sequel, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising, from 2003. The first thing we should note is that the series is simply dubbed “Wars,” but that these two games were so beloved – not just of turn-based tactics zealots but of folks from the wider fold – that the prefix hung around. Even when the series graduated onto the DS, and your troops were prodded into action by a stylus, the name stuck: Advance Wars: Dual Strike. You have to ask: What was so advance about it? Weathered veterans of Famicom Wars and Game Boy Wars found the core rudiments scarcely touched. You took control of an army, you took turns battling another army, you took your time, and, move by move, you took them off the map. There were tanks, infantry, helicopters, planes, ships, submarines, airports, seaports – and not a single drop of blood.
What the Game Boy Advance offered, in short, was a vision: a plush 32-bit playground (and that is what these games are filled with, not the grim panoramas of real war but the painted, toy-cluttered vistas of pure play), which was leaps ahead of earlier entries. In their pixel-rich style, these games told the mini-stories of battle over and over. Little army men stamping on cities, the way you would flatten a cardboard box. Enemy troops under fire, not crumpling into heaps but swept clean off the screen, as if your bullets were a sporting gale. They were spotless, free of mess and menace, and they were in your hands – literally, owing to the portability of the console, but also, in a deeper sense, yours to conduct.
And so to Re-Boot Camp, which takes the old look and licks it into modern shape. Chunky 3D, smoothly drawn characters, and vehicles that give you the impression of monopoly pieces; look at the plasticky red tanks, rumbling along like mobile hotels. As for the battlefields, they are now plotted into trays of cardboard and wood, of the sort you would find in a greenhouse, crackling with freshly grown conflict. I happen to prefer the veneer of the originals, but credit should go to the developer, WayForward, for paying homage to Shigeru Miyamoto, who, talking about the setting of his early masterwork, The Legend of Zelda, described it as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.” That game was an attempt, on Miyamoto’s part, to tap into the mood of his boyhood, spent poking around the wilds near his home, in Kyoto, collecting bugs. And the shrunken-down dioramas of warfare that you get here are rooted in a similar spirit – crawling with pretend peril, but completely unsoiled.
The story, such as it is, follows Andy, a lad who looks to be in his early teens. With his billowing shorts and his shock of blown-back hair, he cuts a Tintinish profile, and he has the same intrepid air, as though a boy could conquer the world. He just might. Andy is, in fact, a commanding officer in the Orange Star Army. The characters in Advance Wars don’t owe their allegiances to real countries (apart from anything else, that may dent the games’ international appeal); instead, they fight for an assortment of what sound like private military contractors. Other forces include Blue Moon, Green Earth, and Yellow Comet. It took me a while to figure out what this reminded me of, and then it clicked: it’s Metal Gear for juniors! Anyone weaned on Andy’s exploits would go into Kojima’s weird world prepared – already acclimated to its nationless soldiers, hulking hardware, and superpowered bosses.
Andy’s fellow Orange Star COs include Max, a tank-topped wall of well-meaning muscle; Sami, who sports a dark-green bandana and has an M16 slung over her shoulder, as if she had been drafted in from the Metal Slug games; and Nell, the chief CO, who dresses like a stewardess and pops up, now and then, to advise you on the proper procedures. Each CO has different perks and a special ability. Max, for example, can boost the brawn of his units’ attack and defence, while Andy, who totes a jumbo spanner, can mend his ailing forces in the field. The original developer of these games was Intelligent Systems, best known for the Fire Emblem series, and you catch a hint, in Andy and his cohort, of the mingling that has made that series so popular: the notion that private spats are being aired as outsize clashes, fed by larger-than-strife personalities.
The skirmishes themselves are wound tight, like springs, and spread cleverly over the terrain. One error or oversight (not remembering to have your submarine dive, thus shielding it from enemy ships, for example) is enough to build steam and steadily undo your careful efforts elsewhere. You have the option to replay the previous turn, but often you find that your mistake was actually several moves back, and that you’re better off restarting the entire mission. Success, in most cases, means wiping out all opposing forces or capturing the enemy HQ, a matter of distraction and covert traversal. (Black Hole Rising provides a richer brew of objectives, and beefs up the complexity of the levels.) That the game remains a delicious proposition, even as you’re stumbling through a fudged attempt, trying desperately not to come unstuck, is a rare thing.
Credit to WayForward, then, for delivering a faithful update on the work of Intelligent Systems. Diehards are likely to lament the absence of the old art style, and to keep up a campaign of nightly prayers in the hope that the old games make it onto the Switch’s Game Boy Advance catalogue. Nonetheless, a swathe of new players can now discover one of Nintendo’s most quietly cherished series. For those who loved this brace of strategy classics back in 2001 and 2003; who relished the way the intricacies of a tough genre were tucked away behind such a simple-looking façade; and who have missed the series since the last entry, in 2008, here is something irresistible: a way back.
Game: Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Out Now