Advance Wars turns all-out warfare into play. In each stage, you shift tiny little combatants around a map as if they were plastic figures on a table, taking turns with your opponent to knock each other out. For a game about warring nations, it’s incredibly cute and charming, turning tanks and bomber planes into something akin to toys. That premise, combined with the game’s deep yet accessible strategic combat, has turned into something of a cult classic for Nintendo — and it turns out, it’s still just as good two decades later.
With Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp, Nintendo has bundled the original Advance Wars and its sequel, Black Hole Rising, together for the Switch. It’s technically a remake of two Game Boy Advance games but one that doesn’t mess with the formula — which is exactly as it should be. The core gameplay remains intact but with a modern new look and a few new features like online multiplayer and a map maker.
For those new to the series, Advance Wars takes place in a cutesy world full of warring factions, and things start when the Blue Moon army suddenly invades its orange neighbors. (If that premise sounds a little ripped from the headlines, then you can understand why Nintendo delayed the game’s release last year.) You take control of an army through a series of skirmishes that span the globe and eventually pull in a few other color-coded countries. The story is... fine, though personally, I can take it or leave it. For me, it’s really just an excuse to play with the toys.
The combat is turn-based and features a lot of the common tropes of the genre (think Wargroove, Fire Emblem, or Into the Breach). Depending on the map, you may have access to ground, naval, and / or aerial units, and there’s a Rock, Paper, Scissors-like structure that determines which are strong against which. You also have to deal with terrain like mountains and forests and the always pesky fog of war that can cloud large parts of the map. In most levels, the goal is to either eliminate all of your opponent’s units or capture their headquarters, but some stages switch it up by asking you to control the map by capturing cities and other buildings.
There are a few things that elevate the experience. One is the level design; Advance Wars features small but often dense maps, and figuring out the right approach is often akin to solving a puzzle. While the goal is almost always the same, your approach has to change constantly as you deal with different scenarios like enemies that can turn the map frozen or an onslaught of aerial attacks. There are a few stinkers — in one stage, I spent almost an hour slowly moving a line of tanks across the only bridge in order to get to my enemy’s base — but for the most part, the levels force you to think before you act, and experiment with new approaches.
Building on this are the COs, or commanding officers, which are the characters you play as. Before most levels, you pick which CO to take control of, and each has their own unique characteristics, including special powers that can turn the tide of a battle. Some can heal units, and others can improve their weapon range. Using these abilities at just the right time is similar to using an ultimate in a game like Overwatch: you can easily waste it, but it can be devastating if timed right. Having the right CO for the particular map can make all the difference. For me, skirmishes often go down to the wire — I’ve won more than a few times with only a handful of surviving units — so the little details are especially important. This also makes the win all the more satisfying, and in most cases, it feels like I really earned them.
This all remains pretty identical in the remake and, surprisingly, doesn’t feel dated at all. There are a few moments where the game can get punishing, but you now have something of a relief valve, as you can change the difficulty at any point before entering a level, letting you breeze by some of the more notorious stages. (Actually, breeze might be too strong a word: I still found myself occasionally failing missions, even on the casual setting.)
The most obvious changes are cosmetic. Advance Wars always felt a lot like a tabletop game, and now, it looks like one as well. The maps are like colorful versions of what you might see in a high-end hobby shop, with grass that looks like green felt and surprisingly realistic water effects. When units engage in battle, it’s like watching Fisher Price toys duke it out. Meanwhile, the COs look ripped from a modern cartoon, and there’s even a bit of voice acting now. In fact, the opening sequence makes me wish there were a proper Advance Wars animated series.
Outside of the visual upgrades, there are a handful of other welcome additions. One is the design room, which not only lets you create your own maps and scenarios but also allows you to share them online. I’m not much of a designer, but I imagine the Advance Wars community will come up with some very cool stuff to prolong the game’s lifespan. There are also some multiplayer modes I haven’t been able to test yet, including a versus mode with up to four players and an online mode where you can play against anyone on your friend list. Also, you now get an ID tag with medals tracking your achievements, kind of like a trainer card in Pokémon.
Even without these features, though, Re-Boot Camp is a huge package, offering two incredible campaigns that span dozens of hours between them. And it’s one that — even though I’ve played these games before — I can’t seem to get enough of. Advance Wars is the kind of strategy game you can easily lose yourself in, where one more map “accidentally” turns into a few more hours of playing. That was true in 2001 when the original hit the Game Boy Advance — and it’s just as true today.
Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp launches April 21st on the Nintendo Switch.