Tanks for the memories!
The year was 2001. Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance was released that June, bringing new life to the handheld market with graphics and sound far beyond the Game Boy’s capabilities. Taking advantage of this new power, Intelligent Systems published Advance Wars just a few months later. Advance Wars was branded as an entirely new property for gamers in the West, though it was actually a continuation of a long running turn-based strategy series (beginning with 1988’s Famicom Wars). While the franchise never quite became the juggernaut that Fire Emblem eventually would, it still managed to embed itself in the hearts of many gamers who were eager for something to play on their new hardware.
Advance Wars seemed to exemplify everything that was possible with the GBA. It made great use of the system’s SNES-like power with its stylish pixel art graphics. The pick-up-and-play mechanics were perfect for on-the-go gaming. It put an entire battlefield in the palm of your hand, and when you needed to re-enter the real world, you could always make use of the GBA’s convenient built-in sleep mode. Prior to this time, turn-based strategy games were mostly confined to the PC, and they tended to be rather complicated affairs. Advance Wars was one of the first entries in the genre that felt approachable for casual gamers, without sacrificing depth or challenge.
There were a handful of sequels and spin-offs in the years that followed, but after 2008’s Advance Wars: Days of Ruin on the DS, the series went dark. Now, fifteen years later (including a year long delay from its initial 2022 date), we finally have a new entry in the form of Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp from developer WayForward.
Was it worth the wait? Yes! It may not be the sequel that fans have been clamoring for, but Re-Boot Camp is a fantastic reminder of why this series is still remembered so fondly all these years later.
If it wasn’t obvious from the title, Re-Boot Camp features remastered versions of Advance Wars (2001) and Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising (2003), both originally released on the Game Boy Advance. This includes both games’ single player campaigns in their totality, along with all of the extra modes and options you’d expect. That means every war room map, every multiplayer map, and every unlockable. Everything is here!
There have been a number of tweaks and alterations made under the hood, but the core games remain more or less the same as they were twenty years ago. For anyone hoping for something completely new, this could be disappointing. The good news is that these games are just as much fun to play now as they ever were.
For anyone who has no idea what Advance Wars is all about, here’s the gist: You take on the roles of various COs (Commanding Officers) and set your army against opposing forces on a number of battle maps. In the vast majority of missions, your goal will be to win one of two ways: either by capturing the opponent’s HQ, or eliminating all of their units.
You’ll have a couple dozen different types of units to play with, including ones that work best on land, air, and sea. Most units fall into three broad categories: direct damage (melee), indirect damage (ranged), and transport (which carry units across distances quickly). Infantry and mech troops aren’t always the best in a fight, but they can capture cities (which provide funding to produce more units) and the enemy HQ (which will win you the game). Meanwhile, your tanks, copters, battleships, etc., will be handling most of your actual combat encounters.
Each of your units can be activated once per turn, usually moving and/or attacking if there’s an enemy within range. The trick is to know when to push your units forward and when to hold back and let the enemy come to you. Should you try to overwhelm the opposition with a fleet of tanks, or can you load a single infantry onto a transport copter and sneak them onto the enemy’s base before they can stop you?
These are the big picture questions, but there are dozens of smaller questions that pop up every single turn, especially as you encounter more complex maps with more units available to you. There are always at least a few interesting decisions to be made at any given time in Advance Wars. Sometimes the choices will seem obvious, but there are plenty of viable paths to victory. Two battles will rarely play out exactly the same way, which means that the game is never boring.
To add further variability, each CO has their own special power which can be unleashed after accumulating enough energy (usually through combat). These powers usually give a temporary boost to your units, whether it be increased firepower/defense, or to help them capture buildings faster. Some can even change the weather to slow down your foes. Knowing when to use these abilities as well as which COs to bring to a match is often key to victory.
I could continue discussing the intricacies of Advance Wars gameplay for another three pages. Each mission provides a unique map layout with its own terrain types, unit loadouts, and some kind of strategic puzzle. You’ll have to suss out how to make the best use of the units and resources given to you, and you’ll have to do it efficiently if you want a decent score. This is complicated further when bases are added to the mix, which allow you to choose exactly which units to buy and produce each turn, rather than relying on the game’s predetermined loadouts.
Once Advance Wars 2 is unlocked, even more gets added to the proceedings. The sequel brings new units like neotanks, stationary missile silos, more powerful versions of CO abilities, and missions with more varied objectives. While the second game doesn’t exactly break the mold established in the first, it adds enough variety to feel like a significant step up in fun and challenge. It also provides some adjustments to some of the weaker COs to help them feel more balanced.
If you’re reading this and you’ve never played an Advance Wars game before, you might get the sense that this it’s rather complicated. And yet… Advance Wars is somehow incredibly inviting and easy to play in spite of its extensive ruleset. Of course, there are built-in tutorials which will introduce concepts slowly, plus convenient reminders and menu guides to ensure you don’t get lost. Even without those aids though, the game feels inherently welcoming. There’s some secret sauce at play here that puts a smile on your face even when you’re facing crushing defeat (which can definitely happen).
No doubt, some of this is thanks to the bright, colorful art style and unreasonably catchy, upbeat background music. While the essence of Advance Wars is a super strategic, tough-as-nails strategy game, the whole thing is inexplicably couched in a gleeful Saturday morning cartoon atmosphere that will (hopefully) keep you from getting too frustrated after a tough loss. It’s a prime example of a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. It might not sound like it works on paper, but that surprising combo is part of what makes the series so special.
That said, the cartoon cheeriness frequently comes off as absurd (or worse, borderline offensive) when replaying these games as an adult. The campaigns are predicated on wacky anime characters and light, silly narratives… that just so happen to center around the nations of this world warring against each other constantly. Lives are lost, buildings are destroyed, and general mass destruction is caused everywhere you go.
Meanwhile, the COs are casually bantering with each other and making dumb jokes. They brag about their victories as if they just won a game of Risk, rather than having been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of nameless soldiers - But hey, that’s just how it is in the goofy, happy-go-lucky world of Advance Wars!
Truthfully, it’s a weird and funny juxtaposition, but somehow it works. As long as you don’t take things too seriously, the narrative is a harmless and entertaining bit of fluff. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s cute, and it helps move the campaign along from mission to mission.
Speaking of tone, this game’s aesthetic is arguably more in line with its lighthearted tone than the originals. Cute and colorful as that GBA pixel art was, it was still attempting to depict more or less realistic tools of war. In Re-Boot Camp, every unit is a shiny, chunky toy that looks like it came right out of a Fisher Price playset. There have been some vocal critics of this new style online, and ultimately it’s up to you to decide how you feel about it. While I have a fondness and nostalgia for the way the old games looked, the new style won me over fairly quickly, and now I don’t even think twice about it.
What I don’t think can be argued is how much the game’s overall presentation has been improved. It’s now easier than ever to move around the map in HD and widescreen, quickly selecting units and observing all their possible options and info.
Newly redone character portraits and animations are faithful to their looks on the GBA, but some rounded edges and touch-ups make them more appealing than before. There are also a few brief animated cut scenes and the occasional voice line, all of which fit the tone and characters’ personalities exactly as you’d expect it to. If there’s one thing WayForward has perfected, it’s designing animations and character models that are flashy and fluid.
Outside of the graphical overhaul, there are several other changes to consider, though most of them are much subtler. Since Advance Wars 1 and 2 are now under one roof, you’ll be able to complete both campaigns from the same menu, and all of their unlockables will be available at the same in-game shop. You can also choose which game’s “style” you want to play with in versus mode, if you’d prefer to play with or without the enhancements and additions that the second game brought to the table. In the campaign, some of the starting map loadouts have been tweaked, but it’s likely you won’t even notice that unless you’re a hardcore player who’s memorized every mission’s layout over the years.
One of the most significant changes is to the AI’s behavior in missions with fog of war (maps where you can only see the spaces near your own units). On the GBA, the AI was more or less able to cheat on these maps, moving and acting with the full knowledge of where everything was.
In Re-Boot Camp, the AI has to play fair and square just like the rest of us, and it’s now possible to sneak around and lay traps for them just like they’ll do to you. This is a welcome change that makes things feel fairer, but still allows for challenging fights. I used to absolutely dread fog of war back in the day, and while it can still be annoying, it’s not nearly the hassle it used to be.
Outside of this change, the AI generally seems to be just a bit smarter this time around. For example, they may save their CO ability to use at a pivotal moment, rather than always triggering it as soon as it’s ready. That said, they still have a few blind spots too. They tend to love going after transport units in their vicinity even if there’s a more valuable unit they should be going after instead. In spite of a few weaknesses you might be able to exploit like that, it never feels like you’re going up against someone who’s completely braindead.
If you want a challenge that goes beyond what the AI can provide, then multiplayer with actual humans is what you’ll be after. (As a bonus, you no longer need a link cable to play with friends!) If playing locally, you can compete with up to 3 other players on a single system, or connected to other Switch consoles with their own copies of the game. This works just about how you’d expect it to work.
Then, there’s the online mode, which leaves something to be desired. Online matches in Re-Boot Camp will only allow you to play against people on your Switch friends list, and only in 1v1 matches. In fairness, Advance Wars matches can sometimes last for a rather long time, and I could imagine that matchups with random players would frequently end in connection errors and rage quits. Still, it would’ve been nice to have the option, or at least for the battles with friends to have parity with the options in local play (larger maps are also not eligible for online battles).
My real disappointment with the game’s online features has to do with custom maps. It’s great fun to mess around with the game’s map design options, which allow you to create your own maps of various sizes with all of the game’s units, terrain features, etc. If you’re a creative type, you can lose yourself for hours developing challenging and/or ludicrous maps, then testing them out in battle against your friends or bots. The big bummer here is that once again, there’s no way to share maps directly online with anyone who isn’t on your Switch friends list.
Anyone who’s played Super Mario Maker knows how much fun it can be to find and download other players’ levels online using a simple code. A similar function allowing you to share maps via a code in Re-Boot Camp would’ve added countless hours of replay value to the experience. Instead, you’re out of luck unless you get someone with a cool map design to add you as a friend, or if you want to recreate a map you find manually. I understand that full fledged online multiplayer can be pretty complicated to get right (especially for Nintendo…), but the lack of map sharing options feels like an omission that could’ve much more easily been worked out.
The rest of the game’s new features mostly involve collectibles and completion goals. You can now purchase character art and music tracks from the shop, plus some bonuses like alternate CO colors for multiplayer. These are neat little incentives that encourage you to keep playing and going for high scores in order to earn more coins.
You also get a personalized ID tag that you can deck out with medals for accomplishing various goals, such as completing both campaigns, or getting high Ranks on War Room missions. The Switch may not have achievements, but a built-in feature like this is a welcome one for all the completionists out there.
That reminds me, I didn’t even talk about the war room mode yet! War room is another mode featuring a plethora of maps, each one allowing you to choose any CO you want as well as customize your unit loadout as you see fit. While it may lack the structure and narrative of the campaign, the war room can be just as addicting, if not more so.
Discovering which strategy works best for which map is something I find endlessly fascinating, and it’s a challenge that’s always exciting to overcome. You’ll be unlocking and buying new maps for the war room at the shop, giving you even more reason to earn as many coins as you can in missions. Once you’ve completed both campaigns (or quite possibly before), you’ll probably be spending most of your game time with this mode.
Outside of a few quibbles I have with the online functionality, I’m enthusiastic about pretty much everything Re-Boot Camp has to offer. That said, the biggest hurdle that’s keeping me from recommending this game wholeheartedly is its price. At $60, Re-Boot Camp is asking a lot for what it really boils down to - a pair of GBA games from over two decades ago, even if they do have new graphics and added bells and whistles. At $40, or even $50, this would’ve been a much more attractive offer.
On the other hand, it’s hard to deny just how much content there is in this collection. For newcomers, each game’s campaign should last you 20-25 hours, far more if you intend to 100% them and S-Rank every mission. Then, there’s the war room, which is a veritable playground of maps and endless possibilities, versus mode, and the map designer…
If you get hooked by this game, you could easily find yourself spending hundreds of hours on it (just ask anyone who’s been playing the GBA versions since their release). So while I lament that the game isn’t a little cheaper to reflect the age of these games and to attract more new players, it’s hard for me to argue that you aren’t getting your money’s worth when it comes to the amount of content. You absolutely are.
If you’re a fan of strategy games and you’ve never experienced the Advance Wars series, Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp is unquestionably the definitive way for you to get started. While some may gripe about the new art style, virtually every other aspect of the games has been improved. Even if you aren’t typically a fan of the genre, Advance Wars could easily be the exception that gets you hooked. With its welcoming tone (and new Casual difficulty level), there’s room for anyone to find a way in.
For longtime fans who have already played the original games to death, you may find slightly more to object to here. Specifically, the art style could be an issue, but it’s one worth overcoming in exchange for the HD upgrade and quality of life features. You may also need to learn to adjust some of your strategies slightly (though they should work just as well in most missions).
Personally, I fall somewhere between these two camps, having been a huge fan of the original games, but not having played them so much that I remember every single nook and cranny. In re-exploring these titles, I found nothing but joy. They’ve aged remarkably well, and the proof lies in the fact that WayForward hardly had to change anything in terms of the actual gameplay. It’s just as exciting, addicting, and smile-inducing as it was back in 2001. If you’re looking for a blast from the past, or you’re curious to try the series out for the first time, you won’t go wrong with Re-Boot Camp.
Now, let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 15 years to get a follow-up!