Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 41, Advance Wars (series)

Sure, this series started out on the Famicom, but we know it from its worldwide Game Boy Advance debut, so that's the name.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Nowadays, you probably know Intelligent Systems for their Paper Mario and Fire Emblem franchises. There was a brief time, though, where you could argue that the west and its reviewers loved them for Advance Wars more than anything else. And this came as a shock to Nintendo, who had been assuming for over a decade that North America and Europe didn’t care for something as complicated or deep or difficult as a tactics-based game, which was why, among other things, none of the Fire Emblem games had been released worldwide to that point, and none of the previous six Wars titles had left Japan, either.

Advance Wars was designed, like with the first Fire Emblem that released outside of Japan, to serve as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The initial slate of missions serve as something of a tutorial, with the complexities of the game brought forth and explained, but in enjoyable missions that were meant to let you get your feet under you while also moving the game’s story along. The difficulty would ramp up (and up) from there, as your opposition would bring the full brunt of its forces and tactics against you, but through trial and error, and even more trial and error, you could figure out what needed to be done, and secure your tactics-based victory.

In Advance Wars, you’re in the role of one of a number of commanding officers, ordering troops around a map with turn-based decisions. Each CO has a power unique to them, and the actions you take fill the gauge that allows you to use this power. Andy, the focus of the original game, has the ability to repair damage to his forces, for instance. Sometimes you can build reinforcements with funds you either are given at the start of a stage or earn through the capture of buildings, and sometimes you have just the units you begin with. These units are on land, air, and sea, and they’re all drawn to be bright and colorful, adorable representations of death-dealing machines. It was a different time, you know: literally one day before 9/11, in fact. Not everything had to be incredibly gritty or result in broad, unchecked surveillance powers for the state that answered to no masters but themselves just yet.

I joke, sort of, but this is actually one of my gripes with Advance Wars in general, and the reason I’ve always been Team Fire Emblem in what used to be a one-sided fight in the other direction. In Fire Emblem, there are real stakes in place: you are fighting with “real” people, with real faces, names, backstories, motivations, people with families and friends and lovers and enemies — people with some measure of depth. You want them to live, not just for your own success, but because you grow to care about them and their plight and the things and people they care about: losing one of them to permadeath, a central mechanic of Fire Emblem’s design, can be devastating, and you seek to avoid it for more than just “the game will be easier if this character lives” reasons.

In Advance Wars, though, you’re a CO delivering orders to nameless, faceless soldiers, and defeat feels more like an unfortunate bump in the road that has you focusing on how much it sucks to lose a tank than it does to lose the soldier piloting it. Advance Wars is commanding officers throwing troops at a wall until the wall breaks, and also giggling at their opponent's tactical errors while your own units explode.

I’m not saying the universe doesn’t work within its own context, or that I simply have too much heart to enjoy blowing up an impossibly designed and massive enemy tank and enjoying it, or that I can’t enjoy said giggling at opponent’s tactical errors and the one-liners those moments generate. It’s just that, as the two tactics-based series Nintendo has made for decades, developed by the same teams, Advance Wars and Fire Emblem were destined to be pitted against each other. And since I was a Fire Emblem guy nearly 20 years ago now, you can imagine the older, more… aware?… version of me is even more Team FE these days, too.

By the time they solved this narrative issue with a dystopian reboot of the series, Days of Ruin, the gameplay had become a little stale, since it was still just the same thing again and again: there were changes to the formula, sure, but never enough to necessarily justify going in and buying yet another Advance Wars title. (Though I will say that CO powers being less important in Days of Ruin was a plus: they were never game-breaking, but most frustration I ever experienced while playing Advance Wars arose from the AI deploying a CO power that you could not stop from happening, and completely undoing whatever progress I was making.)

That’s the other problem with Advance Wars, actually: there are some changes from game to game, sure, but for the most part, given the fact that the plot is secondary to the strategy, and it’s always nameless/faceless troops doing the fighting, their sameness is a problem that presented itself almost immediately. The second GBA Advance Wars release, Black Hole Rising, was reviewed exceptionally well, but not without a caveat from many that it was basically a full-price expansion pack on the original. The third worldwide release, Dual Strike, changed things a bit by creating a two-CO-per-map situation that allowed for some massive, momentum-shifting dual CO powers to be deployed, but at its core, it wasn’t all that much different than the two games before it.

And this trend is probably why we haven’t seen an Advance Wars game since Days of Ruin, not in Japan nor worldwide. Hell, Days of Ruin didn’t actually receive a Japanese release of the 2008 game, except as part of a giveaway for Club Nintendo members five years later. Intelligent Systems always tries to change things up with their games. Each Paper Mario is significantly different from the last in some way. Sometimes these changes aren’t as enjoyable as what we’ve seen or what’s to come, but they take chances, they take risks, and they try to evolve. There are four games in the Pushmo series, and each has a different gameplay mechanic that makes your brain have to process the puzzles in a completely different way. There’s something admirable about that kind of design, and Fire Emblem has almost always had the same energy: remember, it wasn’t that long ago that I wrote about how ambitious Thracia 776 was, and that game released for the Super Famicom even if its features and depth come off sounding like they’re for a modern-day release. It felt completely different than the game before it, as well as the games after it, even though they were all clearly Fire Emblem titles.

Advance Wars never really achieved that kind of balance with its worldwide releases. Subsequent releases felt, fairly or not, like expansions or even map packs, in comparison. There was a spinoff series, Batallion Wars, which was from a third-person, real-time perspective and allowed you to assume control of various troops on the battlefield, but that was a different developer and, at least outside of Japan, Nintendo marketed that as if it was completely unrelated to Advance Wars. So it’s no wonder that the series has essentially ceased to be, even if it hasn’t been officially canceled.

It should be pointed out that, even with these two issues I have with Advance Wars, that I’ve ranked the series in a place where there are just three Fire Emblem games (out of 16 total, seven of which made this list) in front of them, despite my obvious preference for Intelligent System’s more personality-filled, swords-and-magic version of tactics. The original Advance Wars is incredible, to this day. It’s the best of the bunch, since it, better than any of the others, serves as both an enjoyable introduction and a legitimate challenge, with real depth of gameplay and modes that allow you to keep playing beyond what the campaign has to offer. The difficulty curve is at its most fair and least spike-like, the CO powers at their best balance between game-breaking and survivable, and even I’m capable of turning my brain off so the colorful cartoon war machine can go brrrr for hours at a time.

I might have actually ranked it on its own a little bit higher than where the series as a whole landed, but the problem was that the others are also great, even if they aren’t as great, and writing about four games that are basically the same game (well, maybe just three), at the expense of a few other games from other series instead was far less preferable to me than slightly knocking the ranking of the original. So, here we are.

Maybe you like Advance Wars more than me — lots of people do, and that’s with me thinking oh so highly of Advance Wars despite the way I might have framed some of this piece. Remember my complaints within the context of me saying that Advance Wars is basically in the top four percent of the over 1,000 games Nintendo has either developed or published in their entire history: like everything on this list, it’s so great, and writing about it is making me want to play it again. The depth of the strategy, how enjoyable it is to succeed, makes it obvious why this was the favorite Intelligent Systems’ series of western reviewers for a time, and the tactics series Nintendo seemed to put more of their weight behind worldwide. There hasn’t been a west-exclusive Fire Emblem, you know?

It’s great enough that I would love the hiatus for the series to end: there has to be some new idea that can be figured out, some new wrinkle, or, at least, enough time has passed since the last entry that even something similar to what’s come before could be better appreciated than Days of Ruin ever was. Look at the way Intelligent Systems continues to redefine Fire Emblem and Paper Mario, while also developing new series like Pushmo. If there’s something left in the Advance Wars ideas tank, I want to see it on Nintendo’s hybrid console, the Switch. If not, though, then at least we got the Advance Wars games we did, and their challenging, deep style of tactics that Nintendo wasn’t convinced the rest of the world would enjoy as much as Japan did.

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