ADVANCE WARS / Nintendo / Gameboy Advance
I think Advance Wars, underneath its cutesy surface, may be incredibly evil. It takes the concept of war, one of the most horrific human activities, and whitewashes all the ugliness out of it. Instead, we get a bunch of Yu-Gi-Oh kids in control of armies, getting pumped about throwing away the lives of their soldiers and initiating battles for no better reason than to "test" themselves or their foe. And these are the "good guys"! I mean, stuff like America's Army, that's bad enough. But at least that's blatant propaganda. Advance Wars doesn't advocate for any particular nation, but it does embrace and cutesify the idea of militarization in a way that really deeply disturbs me.
None of this would matter if it was some mediocre shit game, the problem is that it is fantastic gameplay-wise. It's a well-designed strategy game from Intelligent Systems, the team that was responsible for the Fire Emblem series. There's some superficial gameplay similarities in that they are both turn-based strategy, but Advance Wars is set in the modern age with modern (maybe slightly futuristic) weapons and has no RPG elements to it, just a series of isolated battles starring nameless grunts whose lives are yours to piss away however you care to.
The meat of the game is found in Campaign mode, though there are a slew of other options including multiplayer (either with one GBA passed around, or through link cables). Campaign sees you through about 18 missions as the Orange Star Army, set in the lovely locale of Wars World. The Blue Moon Army, led by Bad Santa Olaf, are invading your country for some reason or another. You end up fighting them, and pretty much everyone else in the world. It's not that all the other countries are bad folks, it's just that you seem to insist on traipsing through their territories without properly notifying them through diplomatic channels, and then when they find you they (quite rightfully) attack. Eventually, after hundreds upon hundreds of lives are wasted on needless battles, this pack of fools figures out an Evil Empire called Black Hole is creating clones of people or something to dupe everyone into weakening each other in preparation for an invasion by them.
Campaign Mode is good, a fairly stiff challenge, but not too ridiculous. When you've completed it once, you can play it again in Advance Campaign Mode, which is the same missions except the enemies have more and better units. They don't seem to fight any more intelligently than before, but I still quit Advance Campaign in frustration about 7 or 8 missions in as the ridiculous piles of powerful troops they send at you become so thick, you have to figure out how to execute some overly elaborate and perfect series of moves just to survive. Too frustrating for me. Regular Campaign mode was fun, though. You're ranked at the end of each map based on how many enemies you blowed up, how few you lost of your own, and how many days it took you to complete the map. You can challenege yourself by replaying maps to gain the ultimate S rank, and you also earn more coins with better performance which can be redeemed in a Shop that sells new maps and new characters.
Outside of Campaign, there is an area called the War Room that features standalone maps for either single or multiple players. In Campaign mode you only play as the three Orange Star characters, but in War Room you can unlock all the enemy commanders from the game for use. Each character has particular stat boosts and weaknesses that affect certain unit types, and each also has a unique "CO Power" that you can use when your CO Meter has filled up (which is done by both killing enemy troops and having yours killed). There's a pretty good amount of maps here, and you can buy a whole bunch more as the game progresses.
The last mode worthy of mention is Design Mode. Yes, the game has a level editor, albeit a pretty limited one. You can't set special conditions, or add dialouge or events to your maps. Basically you can just lay down terrain, bases and units. The positive side to this is that it's extremely simple and self-explanatory to use.
The graphics are small and simple, but the presentation is appealing. The music is a mixed bag, but never really rises above the level of "OK". It's a synthy fusion of MIDI rock and a few other random elements that is not likely to make an appearance on your iPod. Particularly grating is Max's theme, which features ear-bleedingly horrible solo Villafroove guitar noodling, which sucks particularly because I actually like using him in a lot of situations.
The gameplay is fairly addictive, and it offers a pretty substantial amount of replayability, especially if you pair it together with it's sequel. As far as it being evil, I guess it's actually not a whole lot worse than all the other games we play involving gun toting steroid freaks blowing the shit out of everything that moves. After all, Contra didn't turn me into a right-wing war hawk, so probably we'll be safe with this one. I hope.
Black Hole HQ