Advance Wars in 2023 rings hollow in the face of actual war.
I experienced a weird sort of whiplash with the announcement and release of Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp (AW). Not only was the game’s release postponed twice, with all signs pointing towards a largely finished title, but the major cause of its primary delay was an event that at first had little to do with the game itself. The illegal war and subsequent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces that began in 2022, arguably earlier when considering the invasion in 2014 of the Crimea, put Nintendo in an uncomfortable position. Not only when thinking about their family-friendly brand, but also how possibly some of the original designs of opposing forces in Advance Wars could resemble modern countries. God-forbid Nintendo would take a stance during an illegal war that has killed over 350.000 people since it began. Now, Re-Boot Camp has finally arrived and while it is certainly a fine strategic title that honors the original games it has remade, it also left me feeling hollow while playing it. A war is taking place as I am writing this, less than a day's drive away (comparable to the distance from Miami to Philadelphia). “Ïn light of recent world events'' may have postponed this release, but these events are still looming over these advance wars.
About two hours into Advance Wars 1+2 Re-Boot: Camp, the latest long overdue Nintendo franchise revival, I decided to turn off the battle animations. The world of Advance Wars sees you navigating a globe as you guide the ‘Orange Star Army’ through several other nations such as “Blue Moon” (vaguely inspired by Russia), “Golden Comet” (taking influence from Japan) and “Green Earth” (seemingly based on Germany) completing objectives. Each nation has its own type of terrain, but certain landmarks always return like mountains that provide a high altitude, woods that give cover, and cities and bases that can be captured to gain additional resources. Every time you select one of your units, be they infantry or vehicles, your platoon fights in a little battle on whatever type of terrain you are encountering the opponent. Not only does this take up a considerable amount of time during the game, there was also something off while watching the little cutscenes.
As your little platoon enters the city to fight an opposing force, the camera zooms in from a world map overview to a little ‘’diorama’’ that shows the attacking army firing upon the opposing threat. After gunfire is exchanged, the defeated vehicles or people are blasted away and the camera returns to the world map and sees a little explosion, indicating the defeat of a platoon. The background of this cutscene changes depending on the terrain, such as in the city where the fighting takes place on the streets next to buildings and streetlights.
It was this particular scene, which lasts no more than ten seconds, that made me feel uncomfortable. Because every time that camera perspective changed I did not see tiny little 3D models shooting comedic fire at a fake video game enemy. The images of people fearing for their lives, in a place they called home days or even weeks before, kept on flashing through my mind instead.
See, Nintendo may think that the time is right to release this game that is about warfare given ‘current world events’, but while playing I often thought about the cruelty of war that is simply cleaned off in games like this. We can pretend that the invasion of Ukraine has passed its peak in media coverage and is now another of so many ‘background conflicts’, that it starts to feel like the new normal. But it is beyond scary that I live on a continent where an active war is now playing out. The idea that one day a madman woke up and decided to put an entire continent into chaos is something that I think we in Europe will never be able to truly process. I’m not closely or personally tied to Ukraine, but it looms over every aspect of life here on a daily basis. I go out to do grocery shopping and can’t get something as simple as cooking oil because importing sunflower seeds has halted. I turn on the news and see images of people who were living in a similar situation as I am today, having to take shelter in dim dark-lit basements to avoid the literal bombs dropping on their cities. And that’s not even to think about the anxiety of having a possible continental war with Russia if the conflict escalates. In the end, this is nothing compared to the actual horrors that Ukrainians have to deal with on a daily basis. Staying and choosing to survive and fight this invasion, knowing that the rest of the world cannot just intervene, fearing for their own safety.
I’m fully aware that games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and other games about war have kept on releasing ever since the start of the invasion. Those games have plenty of issues on their own, from the depiction of actual war crimes, to the treatment of minorities and non-US allies and opponents. It is not like I am expecting Nintendo of all game companies to lead this charge towards presenting a more in-depth take on the themes or war in their video games. But for a company that rarely ventures into the realm of games depicting actual warfighting and prefers to opt for the fantastical in Fire Emblem, the science-fiction in a Xenoblade Chronicles or the comical in a Splatoon, I was so much more aware of how spineless the storytelling and context is in Advance Wars. Especially when contrasted with something like Fire Emblem: Engage, which has several scenes of the characters reflecting on the horrors of war and what the human cost is of these conflicts. There is an extensive story and cutscene in Engage about the destruction of villages by the opposing forces and what this means to the characters fighting this war. When characters are defeated their death can feel meaningful or their loss is tragic in both a contextual sense of having one less unit to fight with, but also because their defeat is felt by your other allies. In my opinion the solution is not to simply ‘stop making games about wars’, but rather use that framework as a way to tell a story that reflects on what war actually means. How a war starts and in what ways it can even be fought can not only make for a more engaging experience, but possibly even leave the player with a way to process their own feelings on war and the politics surrounding them.
Advance Wars at times feels insulting in the way it simplifies and polishes the warfighting experience. I know full well that these games haven’t been designed with this goal in mind, but it isn’t like wars in *checks notes* 2001 weren’t full of horrors and casualties. The image of the squeaky clean red tanks rolling into a city to fire a few blasts at opposing enemy soldiers just does not feel entertaining to me anymore. Those cities aren’t backdrops for the people still living in them. I have seen the images of people standing near the ruins of their homes, looking for survivors, treasured possessions or even basic necessities. Advance Wars in 2023 just does not click in the same way as it did back in the early 2000’s. It is such a simple outlook on the complexities of war, the human costs behind invasions and the actual consequences when the tanks have crushed the roads and only have left destruction behind. As much fun as Andy, Max, Sami and Nell are, I never stopped thinking: “Are they aware that they are invading other nations and literally bombing down cities? And if so, why are they not reflecting on what is actually happening”?
By not taking a stance, Advance Wars feels more toothless than ever in its theming. Especially during a time where taking a stance, where reflecting on the ways wars are fought and won is more crucial than ever before. Nintendo may have wanted to keep politics desperately out of the release of these two games, but it has only made it more apparent to me how flimsy the actual wars in “Advance Wars'' feel. Hopefully next time it won’t just be another Re-boot camp, but a fundamental rethinking of what Advance Wars is and can be about. Inspiration for that should not be hard to find.