The strategy game genre has made me question myself as a gamer more than any other genre. Most of the games end up pushing my brain and multitasking abilities to the point where I freeze up and can no longer process how to keep playing the game. Others have an exploit or two that always works so I become bored with the game and move on. Forget multiplayer, as nothing is worse than getting schooled before you even knew you were in class, and then having that teacher ridicule you in public chat as you watch better players finish the fight the way it was supposed to be fought. However, there is one perfectly paced strategy game out there where I experienced one of the single greatest multiplayer matches in my gaming life – Advance Wars.
Maybe it was just the name Nintendo on the box that made me give Advance Wars a shot. From the first screenshots, I found the game completely endearing. Colorful commanding characters, the classic formula of easy to get into but difficult to master turn based strategy gameplay, and plenty of game modes. Advance Wars proved itself to be the perfect handheld game for a system that I was winning me over with great titles left and right.
Welcome to the wars
Here was a strategy game that I could play at my own pace. You could save at any moment which made it great for playing in 5 minute bursts when I was waiting for a class/movie to start or the bus to pick me up. I found myself keeping my GBA SP with Advance Wars on me at all times. Of course, the game also supported my fair share of drawn out game sessions. If you’re not careful, and you’re a perfectionist like me who has to replay missions to get the highest grade before moving on, battles in the middle of the campaign can take hours and you can lose entire nights of sleep sealing your victory.
My initial strategy was the cause of my longest game sessions. I hated to lose units. No one left behind? How about, no one dies at all? Of course, the game wasn’t designed with that style in mind so I was technically playing the game wrong, but I didn’t care. When the AI would go passive, I’d just play cat and mouse while I built up a ridiculous army. One unit wouldn’t head out unless it had a full army right behind it. Days would pass in game as my units would move one space forward, the computer would move one space back, and vice versa. No one attacking for weeks, but I was still enthralled by the thought of crushing them once I had the army I thought I needed. Of course, once I made my move I would sweep through in one giant crushing blow. My score plummeted, but the job got done with little casualties from my army.
Eventually, I’d replay each map a couple of more times and start to learn the tricks of how to really play Advance Wars and find the weaknesses/mistakes of each AI opponent. My initial patience with the game paid off into that moment of clarity that happens with all great strategy titles. I attribute this entirely to Advance Wars brilliant pacing, balanced learning curve, and multitude of game modes that allowed me to take breaks from the campaign and hone my skills. The key was, I wanted to get better at the game and no strategy game had made that happen before for me. I finally crossed the hurdle and was willing to challenge a few friends to a multiplayer match.
But who in the hell wants to play a multiplayer match on a GBA? Those link cables are annoying, and handing off the device is dangerous when tension and sweaty hands are in the mix. Enter Nintendo with yet another device to save the day/sucker me in. The Game Boy Player for Gamecube brought even more life to my GBA, which at the time was turning into my favorite system. This allowed for extended game sessions to be even longer on a giant tv from the comfort of a couch, and soon enough I’d need it.
Two immovable forces
About once a month, I’d have a game night with a close friend of name. This usually involved me introducing him to new games by bringing over the latest 2-3 games I was currently playing. This particular night I was actually coming over to show him Eternal Darkness, but at 10pm we thought we’d play a “quick game” Advance Wars before diving into a single player game. One match and 7 hours later, we decided to wait on playing Eternal Darkness.
This was a guy who had slaughtered me in just about every major RTS game we’d tried. He had a knack for these games, but I thought I stood a chance with a turn-based game that he’d only played a handful of times. Letting him learn the ropes allowed me to build up a decent sized army as the game got going, but about 2 hours into the match we realized we were equals. The balance shifted back and forth before being at a complete standstill with both of us fighting over a key set of cities in the center of the map. These cities held the key to increasing resources that would shift the tide of the fight entirely, and we both knew it. Hours went by with multiple strategies leading to each of us controlling 2 of the 3 cities at different times, but never all 3 cities at once. The loser’s final unit would always survive whether it was with the help of a last minute recon unit, a tank, or a distant attack from an assault unit. The last city would not fall for either of us.
Strategies started to repeat until it become a battle of attrition. Two stubborn gamers plugging away at 4am, not willing to cave. Until finally, he slipped. One mistake of clicking a button too early and one of his units was out of place by a single grid unit. Panic sit in on one side of the couch while I beamed with the knowledge of knowing this battle was over. Of course, it still took an hour to clean up the rest of the map, but it was inevitable. City by city, unit by unit, his army shrank, while mine pummeled his from new angles. I’ll hand it to him, he fought to the bitter end, but even he knew I had won the war long before it was over. There was no trash talking, just a 5am handshake and a nod of respect as I packed up my gear and tried get home before sleep defeated me.
I can’t give up on handhelds
One single game justified the purchase of an entire system as well as an accessory to play that system in different ways. Other Advance Wars games have come since, but I have yet to play another multiplayer match since the great war. That single battle and my time with the game leading up to it will forever etch the Advance Wars into my gaming memory as my favorite strategy title on the greatest handheld.
Just 5 More Minutes – Anecdotes and memories of when we didn’t want to put a specific game down.
Giant Bomb (images)