Fire Emblem. Now there’s a Nintendo franchise. There are few more elegantly despicable systems as the permadeath-infused combat you’ll find there. Anyone who’s suffered through the ignominy of its child-rearing, instant-reset gameplay ‘loop’ will tell you that perhaps it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
For the last decade though it’s been a strategic crown jewel in Nintendo’s 3DS output, spawning a bevy of well-spoken fantasy characters and quietly convincing the world that it’s the only Intelligent Systems-developed tactics rodeo in town.
Before Fire Emblem though, there was the Wars series. Two years the fantasy series’ senior, its earliest years were locked away in the East thanks to Nintendo’s absurd belief that the average consumer simply wouldn’t take to turn-based combat.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2001’s Advance Wars, with its approachable systems, likeable characters and focused tutorial, that those of us on this side of the world were finally able to try our hands at one of Nintendo’s few representations of modern military combat.
Thanks to being on the Gameboy Advance, you could do that anywhere.
Days Of Ruin
For seven years both Fire Emblem and Advance Wars made tactical handheld gaming their genre. From the GBA they jumped across to the fledgling DS and its curious dual display. While Advance Wars: Dual Strike built on the previous game’s bright and colourful aesthetic, stretching the action across two screens, Days of Ruin later brought in a grittier look and more adult narrative.
That was ten years ago though, and since 2008 the Advance Wars series has been dormant. In the meantime, Fire Emblem has become one of the most recognisable of Nintendo’s second-party properties, with Awakening, Birthright and Conquest amongst the 3DS’ all time best-selling games.
Now though, with the Nintendo Switch in rude health, it’s surely time for Intelligent System’s other series to make a return.
Advance Wars has the same base tactical set-up as Fire Emblem: moving units across a grid as you try to annihilate your enemy or head for a particular target.
Where Fire Emblem has its weapons triangle, Advance Wars’ range of different units each have their own use, and the interplay between them ensures there’s a counterattack for every attack. Every problem has a solution.
In Advance Wars matches, players are able to leverage city resources to make new units, countering their enemies mid-battle. It alters the ebb and flow of battle to such a degree that despite the two series’ shared heritage, they feel utterly different, and Nintendo tacticians are currently missing out.
The key difference is the lack of perma-death. Fire Emblem fans will know the pain of shepherding their armoured flock around the map only to see one of them of be picked off, and the instant reset that you have to follow it with.
Unless, of course, you’re a monster. Advance Wars takes a more detached view to proceedings, putting the onus on the tactics and the mission, rather than the characters.
Much as in chess, you become willing to make sacrifices in order to secure victory, and by that nature Advance Wars is a far more free-flowing game, and one where you’re not beholden to a single unlucky moment. While a new entry could bring some aspect of character units into the fray, it’d lose much of what separates it from its peers.
It’s that hard reset that’s one of Fire Emblem’s key failings. In my life I can’t actually imagine how many hours of gameplay I’ve lost. It’s probably equal to the number of hours on my save files.
Advance Wars isn’t a series about disposability — you’ll never want to lose any of your endearingly chunky army men. But it is a series which allows you emotional distance from the tactical puzzle you’re trying to solve.
There are characters in Advance Wars, but they aren’t out on the field. They’re the commanders of each army, and for fans they’re an iconic bunch. Each of the COs has their own strengths and weaknesses which alter the performance of some of your units.
Playing as the burly Max, you might have extra firepower but reduced movement. Sami’s lithe infantry will capture buildings quicker. Few games force you to evolve, but Advance Wars asks you to be forever improving your tactics, changing the way you approach things.
A new game would have myriad ways to play with your preconceptions, and a return for those well-loved characters besides a number of new ones would be great way to bring the series back.
Turn-Based Strategy Has Never Been More Popular
Though Nintendo’s fans of strategy haven’t suffered anything remotely like a drought in the past ten years, not everybody enjoys fantasy RPGs, and Fire Emblem has blurred the lines between strategy and RPG further with every outing. Last year’s Echoes: Shadows of Valentia featured the franchise’s best storytelling.
But the strategic gameplay was actually rolled back, removing many of the series’ most recent additions. Meanwhile, the Advance Wars games are more about strategy, and tactics fans looking for a more focused experience could well be better served by a new Wars game.
That said, there’s always been a vein of political commentary present in the Advance Wars games. Despite its name, there’s actually a deep-seated reluctance amongst many of its central characters – on both sides – to engage in war, and certainly not to glamorise it.
Perhaps that commentary doesn’t often extend much further than “War is bad,” but a new game would have the opportunity to pose some interesting questions to players. Given the current global climate, there’d be plenty to ask.
Advance Wars’ Anti-War Sentiment Now Feels Even More Relevant
Perhaps it’s current events that have caused the series to disappear from view. The tragic events of September 11th saw the original Advance Wars delayed by months in Europe. It was three more years before it appeared in Japan. The last game, Days of Ruin, was never released in the East after a series of delays.
Nintendo is a company famous for making decisions based on being family-friendly. Within its home nation there has been a steadily increasing lack of appetite for conflict — particularly offensive military action. Maybe more than anything it’s that that has fed into Advance Wars’ hiatus.
Intelligent Systems has proven time and time again though that it’s capable of wrapping combat, conflict, and commentary up in a way that is both thoughtful and meaningful. Whether that’s in Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, or some of their lesser known games like Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
Though the Nintendo Switch has recently seen Tiny Metal crib its entire foundation from the Advance Wars games, it managed to do so while utterly missing the point. The character and strategy of Intelligent System’s military opus gave way to meaningless interactions and thoughtless combat, where human cost wasn’t even a consideration.
Now, perhaps more than ever, could be the perfect time for the developer to return to the series that started it all, and remind the world what being advanced could, and should, mean.