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Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Advance Wars 10th Anniversary

10 Years and Counting

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Advance Wars franchise. Advance Wars 1 was the game that finally pushed the Nintendo Wars games into the western market, beginning a whole new franchise on its own. To celebrate the modest success the four Advance Wars games, a number of people from the community have written their own words on what Advance Wars means to them. I hope you take the time to read them all and reflect on your own memories and experiences. My own journey from a passionate fan to an elite (I dislike using the term "professional" as that term only appiles to salaried jobs) AW4 (Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict) player with actual tournament winnings wasn't something that magically happnened. To get to AW4, I had to experience the previous games and be more than satisfied with each one. If there had been one poor game in the chain, this article likely wouldn't exist. But before we get to that, we must remember how it all began.

Miracle Localization

Let's go back to 2000, before Advance Wars 1. Intelligent Systems was struggling with a fledgling Nintendo Wars franchise in Japan. It played second fiddle to its similar but more popular tactics franchise, Fire Emblem. The latest console installment, Super Famicom Wars, had multiple issues. Indirect units, such as artillery, were very powerful because direct unit engagements had both sides firing simultaneously. Therefore, there was no attackers' advantage if the unit matchup was relatively even. Most of the maps were also tuned to give one side, presumably the CPU, an initial positional or property advantage. Most importantly, it was released when the Nintendo 64 was available, thus dooming its sales. As for Game Boy Wars, it wasn't developed by Intelligent Systems, and it didn't resemble Super Famicom Wars at all. The future of the franchise looked bleak, yet somehow, someone at Intelligent Systems decided to take a leap of faith and develop a Nintendo Wars game for the upcoming handheld, the Game Boy Advance. What everyone didn't expect was that they went all-out revitalizing the franchise to appeal to the western market.

First, the base damage chart was revamped. The AW1 damage chart would stand the test of time and remain mostly unchanged until AW4. Simultaneous fire was changed to attacker fires first, thus fixing the mass artillery problems in Super Famicom Wars. Commanding officers with innate abilities and drawbacks were added. There had been COs with abilities in Super Famicom Wars, but they were so superior over the regular COs that they handicapped one side rather than provide a unique strategic experience. And finally, the most important aspect which has endeared the franchise to many: there was finally an actual story with real character development.

Being the first-ever Nintendo Wars title for the western market, Intelligent Systems thought the experience would be too complicated for western gamers. Thus, they went out of their way to write a long, but entertaining training campaign. This gave first-time players the confidence to play the real campaign, but it also had the side effect of influencing many reviewers who may have otherwise complained about the difficulty. Even before its release, I was hearing so much hype about it from the previews. Then the reviews trickled in, and they were overwhelmingly positive. Virtually everyone agreed that it was a must-buy title. Little did I know what effect the franchise would have on me...

Before Infantry Spam

My first handheld was a Game Boy Color, purchased in Summer 1999, which I had purchased by saving my lunch money. The first two games I bought for it were Pokemon Blue and Wario Land 2 GBC. Over time, I added to my collection, purchasing hits such as Pokemon Yellow and Silver, Wario Land 3, and Mario Golf. But one peculiar title was unique: Warlocked. This was the first ever realtime strategy game for a handheld. I had purchased it due to the positive review on IGN. Unfortunately, as I was playing it, I couldn't get what the buzz was about. It just seemed like an inferior version of Starcraft, or even Warcraft 1. In order for the realtime engine to work smoothly, all visuals were made simple, and the music was some ear-grating beeping and booping. The campaign broke when I realized that Quakewiz, the only hero unit that could damage both buildings and units, had more range than any unit or guard tower. This is significant because enemy units didn't chase after Quakewiz and just stood there eating the damage. So Quakewiz ran around soloing almost the entirety of the campaign because it was just easier that way. However, because Warlocked was a handheld game, I was able to complete the game on the go and in bed, and despite the Quakewiz shenanigans, I enjoyed the time I had with it. Handheld strategy games definitely had some appeal for me, but I needed something better than Warlocked.

Advance Wars 1 was on my wish list once I saw the Nintendo Power preview. For handhelds, turn based strategy made more sense because of the limited computational power. Knowing it'd be a killer app, I imported a limited edition Celebi Green GBA in August 2001, then waited patiently for AW1's release. It was slated to be released on September 11th in Canada.

We all know what happened on that day, and today there are countless other sites discussing that event, so I won't wax poetic about it here. Anyway, there were rumors on GameFAQs that Nintendo might recall Advance Wars 1. I immediately went down to my local game shop. But it wasn't there! The salesperson said it wasn't in yet. In a desperate move, I took the bus and went to the department store. There on the display, behind the glass doors, was the treasure for $45! I immediately purchased it, opened it up, and began to play it on the way home.

The First Three

Advance Wars 1 captured me from the very beginning. The visuals and sound far surpassed those of Warlocked. I couldn't put it down, playing it at almost every moment possible, even skipping class at times. I cleared the campaign in about a week, then spent the next month trying to clear the super hard difficulty, the Advance Campaign. Two whole weeks were spent trying to beat Rivals AC, which to date is the most difficult Advance Wars mission ever created. For those who haven't experienced it, it's Andy vs. Eagle. Eagle has the 18-11 property lead and immediately attempts to overwhelm you with his starting force of 4 bombers, 4 fighters, 3 b-copters, and 2 each of antiair, tanks, and md tanks. All Andy has in the beginning is a ragtag army of 2 mechs and 1 infantry. It takes expert skill to defend this because Eagle has his CO power. Actually, you can't hold off the assault: the key to beating it is to buy enough time in order to escape with a few fighters and t-copters, then all-in to the HQ while Eagle's md tanks crush your remaining land army. Eventually I S-ranked the entire war room, played a number of "hot potato" games with my friends, and even found someone with another copy for a link cable battle!

Advance Wars 2, Black Hole Rising, was also very good, though I now see it as the weakest entry in the series. Despite introducing super CO powers and a linear power meter, I felt it was only an incremental upgrade over Advance Wars 1. The hard campaign was the biggest disappointment, as the missions were no longer of the all-in to the HQ variety. I still remember the debates on the message boards as to which was better: Sensei or Sami. Strangely enough, due to Advance Wars by Web, the AW2 mechanics remain popular to this day. I was never too interested in Advance Wars by Web because it lacked the portability and the fun interface and presentation. In short, it reminded me of Super Famicom Wars. In addition, the mechanics of AW2/AWBW, which promoted infantry spam and positional stalemates, are nowhere near as fun as that of AW3 and AW4.

Advance Wars 3, named Dual Strike, introduced stylus control and quickened the power meter charge rate, while keeping the same damage formula. Stylus control was simply fantastic the first time I tried it. The campaign was the easiest yet because COs were able to be fitted with skills, which were selectable minor boosts. Hard campaign had the dubious distinction of being easier than the normal campaign.

Unfortunately, this was released just a few weeks before Nintendo launched wi-fi. A multiplayer environment never surfaced as a result, and it wasn't until 2009 that a few WWNers and I pursued serious multiplayer AW3. The accelerated power meter dramatically quickened games and increased CO power usage, and the black bomb ensured that there were never any stalemates. This came at a cost of unit diversity: since infantry charged the power meter much faster than the other units, it wasn't unusual to see both players have an army composition of over 80% infantry. Something needed to be done about the infantry menace.

Jumping to Conclusions

Then came Advance Wars 4, which is either Days of Ruin or Dark Conflict depending on your region. It was a reboot of the franchise, and Intelligent Systems completely reworked the mechanics. I deeply enjoyed the campaign, though in the end it was still a good versus evil story with little shades of gray. But what everyone was looking forward to was wi-fi multiplayer for the very first time.

With its release, everything we once knew about multiplayer turned upside-down. The game had changed so much, and was so deep that it took just over two years to discover all the pieces in the puzzle. How did it take that long despite the fact that the metagame evolved at a much more dizzying pace than AWBW due to the volume of games played?

At the release of AW4, people noticed the obvious tweaks, such as the new units, the price changes and the zone system, and the "weaker" CO powers themselves. Less obvious was the damage formula and base damage changes, but we'll get to that later. The zone system allowed players to possibly come from behind and win because a player with a property advantage wouldn't necessarily convert that to a faster power meter charge. It was actually possible to win as the disadvantaged player on such great classic hits like Crater Isle and Fist Peninsula.

Three COs made their way to the top: Isabella, Forsythe, and Tabitha. In a way, they represented the three corners of the zone system: Isabella rewarded those who worked with a smaller zone with a good payoff, Forsythe had no payoff but a large zone so people could easily go for favored matchups, and Tabitha disregarded the zone completely in favor of a superpowered unit and an eventual "I win" CO power. Every other CO was virtually disregarded as inferior because they had an even smaller zone than Isabella, or just couldn't stand up to mighty Tabitha.

At first, everyone tried to play the game like AWBW: lots of infantry with the occasional artillery and tank. This only served to easily feed Tabitha, which perpetuated lots of complaining and whining on the message boards. Even I was caught by this, as I declared on numerous occasions that Tabitha was indeed broken. Did Intelligent Systems produce a flawed multiplayer experience yet again? Out of the eleven multiplayer COs, were only three truly viable?

Meanwhile, advancewarsnet.com formed a ladder based on the ELO system to see who could be the best. In a span of two months, I had racked up 75 games on the ladder and was #1 by a large margin with a 72-3 record and a rating of around 1400 (1000 was the start). In those games, Tabitha was mutually banned, though as a result, I usually picked Isabella every time. However, the ladder required an account and wasn't really easy to access. As a result, only two other people had more than 20 games played.

Rising to the Top

As people were discussing this, a bomb dropped on the community: an Internet radio station, Allgames, would be holding a 16-man single-elimination AW4 tournament, with the finals being streamed live. The winner would receive a prize package valued at approximately $1000, which included several Nintendo DS lite units, several copies of AW4 itself, and some swag such as a wi-fi t-shirt. The only way to enter was via a raffle.

The initial ruleset, which limited map choice to IS maps, included Crater Isle and other handicap maps. You can see how I immediately approached allgames and suggested better maps for each round. They wanted to see all units in the finals, so the finals had to be land/air/sea. Round 1 would be Mouse Island, Round 2 would be Spanner Isle, the semifinals would be Beaker River, and the finals would be on Rainy Haven. COs were disallowed because Allgames had caught wind of the CO discussion. They decided that Tabitha vs. Tabitha in the finals would be rather boring!

I lost the raffle to enter the tournament, but suddenly, one of the winning players couldn't show up, and Allgames asked me if I could enter as a replacement as thanks for assisting in the setup! I couldn't turn the offer down, so I was in! The first two rounds were rather uneventful, since Mouse Island wasn't as balanced as I thought: that one was all artillery spam. Spanner Isle was more interesting, but sea play, which has always been flawed in multiplayer Advance Wars, didn't improve much despite the addition of the gunboat and the price tweaking of the other units. We didn't know it at the time, but general sea play has a sharp slippery slope because the required inexpensive equalizer unit, the gunboat, just wasn't practical enough.

The semifinals was against the #2 player on the AWN ladder, TheMute. Both of us thought this was the real finals, as the winner would probably go on to become the champion in a cakewalk. In the first test of my webcam, this was streamed live to a handful of people on GameFAQs. The match lasted a grueling 4.5 hours because without COs, the board position became an indirect stalemate. Some clever duster usage allowed me to safely tech to rockets, and the game was over once I was able to camp his expo base with one.

The finals was just over two hours long and was streamed live, which you can see here. My opponent, therobd, won the flip and chose to go first. I was caught off-guard by the day 1 b-copter, which compounded his first-turn advantage. At one point in the game, he had double my properties. Suddenly, it was very possible for therobd to upset me. However, he made the critical mistake of leaving a base open, which I covered after 1 turn. This allowed me to take the bottom, reclaim the property advantage, and evetually force a concession. In hindsight, there were a few embarrassing moments in the cast, and I really should've stayed quiet until the game was completely over, but Allgames insisted on having both of us talking in the stream. The worst snippet was probably the declaration that Tabitha was broken.

So with that, I was undisputably the best AW4 player in the world. The prize package promised a game with a media representative and possibly a direct line to Tim O'Leary, the localization head. However, neither of those ever came to fruition. I had believed that winning this tournament would increase my chances of joining the AW5 development team, but alas, that was not to be.

Band-aid Solutions

After the Allgames tournament, AW4's popularity dropped considerably. I was still playing the AWN ladder but at a vastly reduced pace, and wait times in random wi-fi became longer. Super Smash Bros. Brawl had been released a month ago, and everyone was mostly spending their time on that. My playgroup was still determined to play until at least the end of 2008. With the flurry of games, we went out to solve some misconceptions. First, the weaker CO powers were actually more powerful in context than the super CO powers of AW2 and AW3. In AW4, the first player who used their CO power could completely shut the other player out of the game, as the second player won't charge their power meter much by defending the offensive. Second, we discovered that defensive power meter charging only worked if the attacker was in the defender's zone. More simply, Tabitha couldn't charge defensively with 0 zone. With this in mind, we began to drop infantry from our builds and replaced them with mechs and artillery. Tabitha had weakened enough to be unbanned.

However, what was fixed simply gave way to a new problem. What's wrong with a mech and artillery setup? Both units are rather slow. Taking this into account, a new strategy in 2009 saw Tabitha rise again using only a skeleton capture crew and seizing contested areas early with the Tabitank. Lin was able to do this effectively as well. With their superior CO tanks, those two could bully their way into a superior position despite having significantly fewer units. Something new and out-of-the-box had to be done.

Air Revolution and Total Balance

Over at WWN, RadioShadow was able to decipher most of the AW4 map header. Most importantly, he found the section to toggle the availability of a map on random wi-fi. With this available, I edited the random wi-fi list to only include maps with an airport, so that I could play Waylon and Tasha more often. I had always been intrigued with Waylon in particular because of his CO power, but he and Tasha had been dismissed as unplayable because airports weren't always around.

As I used Waylon over and over, something incredible was happening. Waylon's CO b-copter was doing far more than I had envisioned. I took a second look at the base damage chart and realized the answer to the Tabitank was there all along. All this time, I had assumed the AW4 base damage chart was mostly a carbon copy of AW3, which was similar to AW2 and AW1. As seen below, I was dead wrong.

Click for Full Size

We had assumed b-copters to be a support unit. After all, antiair had its cost reduced to $7000, and b-copter vs. anti-air had its base damage reduced from 25 to 10. But there was more: b-copter vs. tank went from 55 to 70, tank vs. antiair went from 65 to 75, and antiair vs. tank went from 25 to 15! To further understand the implications of these three tweaks, let's take a look at Sensei from AW2/AW3. Forget the CO power that makes him broken for a moment. Everyone knows he also had the best b-copters in the game because they were 150/100. Most importantly, his copters OHKO'd infantry with 100 or 110D. However, the old damage formula used D as an inverse multiplier variable (110D = multiply by 0.9), while AW4's damage formula uses D as a dividing variable (110D = divide by 1.1). When calculated, the results are quite surprising:

B-Copter vs. Tank
Defense AW2/3 100A Sensei 150A AW4 110A Waylon 150A
100 55 82 77 105
110 49 73 70 95
120 44 65 64 87
130 38 57 59 80
140 33 49 55 75
150 27 41 51 70

The important value here is 130D, as that's what a 10HP unit on a city has in AW2/3, or a 10HP zoned unit on a city (with no extra zone boost) in AW4. Every AW4 CO can use a zoned b-copter to punch through a tank as well as Sensei could in the old games. As for Waylon? His b-copter vs. tank matchups are in another league. Sensei can only dream of having b-copters as powerful as Waylon's.

By significantly improving the b-copter vs. tank matchup, players with an early CO tank must build an antiair to deal with any enemy b-copters. This means one less tank in which to support and join with the CO tank if necessary. This antiair is hard countered by a tank, but that's another base damage change! Unlike in the old games where the antiair could muster a half-decent shot against a tank, in AW4 it has no chance. With the unit triangle complete, any excess funds are used towards mechs, which combat tanks well, and artillery, which are good against everything but especially so against mechs.

So could it be? By tweaking the tank/b-copter matchups so that each one hard-counters another instead of being just effective, the strategy of tank spam spearheaded by a CO tank became neutralized!

As I played more games armed with this knowledge, unit diversity increased, and I finally realized that the game had achieved total balance. Of the 17 non-transport non-sea units, 9 saw common play and used 80% of the budget. No unit used more than 20% of the budget or more than 25% composition. That was more diversity than AWBW and AW3 ever had. Did Intelligent Systems know of this all along, or were they incredibly lucky with the tweaking? Either way, we should be thankful.

On February 2010, I rolled out the revamped tier list. Everything had changed: Tabitha was no longer a powerhouse, Forsythe was underpowered, and Waylon finally got some recognition because airports were now a standard inclusion. In a way, Tabitha's rise and subsequent fall redeemed the zone system itself, in that the COs who could micro their zone for a good payoff fared better than those who could not. Naturally, Isabella was overpowered all along.

Empty Seats

Unfortunately, by that time, the game had nothing more than a cult following. People had moved on. My AWN ladder account was idle, with the last real game occurring on July 2009 and two previous unreported games finally finished. The last tier list update, which was a minor update to the Feb. 2010 list, was in November. As the AW4 metagame was finalized, so was the game itself. I'm grateful to have been along for the entire ride.

Would AW5 ever happen? It was rumored that AW4 was funded by a French company, because the first previews were at a French game convention, and the French commercials were actually animated. Japan is currently in an economic recession, and the recent earthquake didn't do any favors. The Fire Emblem franchise is more lucrative, and AW4 was canceled in Japan, so Advance Wars has a bleak outlook unless another western company funds Intelligent Systems for one more ride. AW5 needs to happen, if only because AW4's multiplayer was so promising, though bittersweet because random wi-fi was flawed. We can only hope at this point. If Tim O'Leary is reading this, I can only hope that he contacts me if such a possibility does happen.

Did AW4 even leave a huge mark on the community? Even at launch time, none of the Advance Wars sites (including Wars World News) had transformed themselves into being the #1 AW4 hub. Almost all of them regurgitated the manual. Maybe it was because CO debating and theorytarding became obsolete in favor of playing actual games, or maybe the lesser-skilled players were being defeated into submission. Or maybe the community had devolved itself to children who preferred "competitive" Pokemon. As a result, almost all Advance Wars sites have transformed into social message boards instead of keeping up-to-date with AW4 developments. One must marvel at all these boards for such a niche franchise, but who cares about the details? People should have been playing AW4 instead of engaging in trivial talk. Who knows, maybe the sorrowful fate of Matthew Pyke could have been avoided.

Just Celebrate!

And that's what I'm here to tell you today. Celebrate the 10th anniversary of Advance Wars by doing something related to the game. Discuss it, play any one of the four games, or even watch my live stream today, which I'll be marathoning for at least 10 hours. Advance Wars was what brought us all together, and we should never forget that.

I love Advance Wars so much that I found the drive to spend many, many hours on the franchise. My article focused on my multiplayer experiences because that's what I'm known for, but I can't forget the campaign and the crazy characters that initially drew me in. Everyone has their own story, and I hope you spend some time to read the others.

Over 4000 words later, it's over! Thanks for reading.


AWN ladder: 187-8-0, +505 ELO

Wi-fi games played: 9392

Total days: 61924

Unit actions: 716075

AW1 AC score: 941 ^_^

With the DS Wifi service shutting down in May, did you ever play AW4 online?


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