REVIEW: Advance Wars

Personal Favorite: ADVANCE WARS

When I was a kid my brother and I would come up to visit family in Indiana every month or so. When we did our favorite people to see were our three cousins who were all boys and all our same age. On these visits we would battle our Pokémon, have Goldeneye multiplayer sessions, or whatever the current game was at the time. One of those games we frequently competed on was Advance Wars. Nintendo made handheld multiplayer a promoted feature on the Game Boy Advance. Everyone had a link cable to battle and trade their Pokémon or to race on Mario Kart Super Circuit. My cousins and I loved to play Advance Wars against each other.awars

Advance Wars was developed by Intelligent Systems, who have also developed Fire Emblem games and Paper Mario games, that’s quite an impressive portfolio of work. It was 0a turn based tactics game that came to the GBA (and only to the GBA) in 2001 with great sales but even better review scores. Most consider it the best game on the Game Boy Advance (along with Metroid Fusion which we will also be reviewing). The success of the game led to a second Advance Wars game on the GBA and then two more later on the Nintendo DS.

The thing about Advance Wars is that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Little to none of the mechanics in this game were new to the turn based tactics genre. Where Advance Wars succeeded was in execution and presentation. Advance Wars is an incredibly deep and impressive tactics design wrapped up in colorful and attractive characters and animations and is well taught and explained to players who may be unfamiliar with them. At the time this game came out there were very few turn based games in the Western world. The creators of Advance Wars made it a point to present the game in an easier to learn format, in hopes that the Western world would catch on and get hooked quick and they were successful in those endeavors. Advance Wars does this by having what might be the best tutorial mode I have ever seen in a video game, even still to this day. Every unit or strategy is given its own dedicated tutorial, which are essentially little miniature battles. The game will educate you and instruct you on how this next mechanic works but it won’t hold your hand and force you through. Once its taught you the basics of the mechanics it lets you finish out the battle and use said mechanic to your advantage to win. Once you’ve won that stage of the tutorial it teaches you the next logical progression, another tasty layer to the strategy cake. After a few layers I remembered just how incredibly deep Advance War‘s combat could be. There are a plethora of different land military, land vehicle, air and water units. Not only that but the game also has multiple forms of terrain which influence battle and ways a team can win. On top of that each team’s captain has their own ability that is unique to them, that you can only activate a couple times per battle. For example Andy allows you to repair all units in one turn, Olaf turns the field to snow terrain for a few turns which his troops aren’t hindered by.

This all sounds like a lot to keep up with, and admittedly it is. But the presentation is so inviting that it doesn’t feel daunting or intimidating. The characters and vehicles are drawn in somewhat of a cartoony fashion instead of a realistic one. The captains are a tad over the top in their personalities. There is a bit of humor sprinkled in here or there in the dialogue. All of that coupled with the amazing tutorial helped me relearn the mechanics super quick and remember why I loved this game so much.

Advance Wars isn’t as much fun when you’re just playing the computer, which I was for this review. While the one player mode is great in its own right and still worth playing, I wanted so badly to be able to play this against my friends. Unfortunately no one else close to me still has a GBA and Advance Wars, so I didn’t get to relive those days. Still, I had fun with this game and this time around was able to appreciate more how great of a job the developers did with it. If you’ve never given Advance Wars a try you should definitely do so. Time does not show on this game, its still just as enjoyable as it was when I was a middle schooler.

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REVIEW: Metroid Fusion

Never Played: METROID FUSION

I’ve been a huge fan of the Metroid games since a little kid, well, since Super Metroid obviously. If I had to pick a favorite gaming franchise Metroid would probably be my choice (maybe second only to Street Fighter). Metroid Fusion was the one and only Metroid game I had never played before, so this blog is Metroid_Fusion_boxdefinitely a good excuse to finally do so. Metroid Fusion was the first of two Metroid games for the GBA, releasing in 2002 to amazing reviews and decent sales (which is pretty much the ratio for every Metroid game ever created). It was developed by Nintendo Research and Development 1, who also developed Super Metroid (which this game reminds me more of than any other Metroid game). Metroid Fusion is considered to be the latest in the timeline of Samus Aran’s journey.

Graphically Metroid Fusion is quite impressive, with excellent use of color and beautiful sprites. The art style reminds me a lot of Super Metroid, but with more crisp and clear outlines. Bosses in particular look awesome and intimidating, even on the small GBA screen. The cutscenes are nice too, almost manga-like in style. The soundtrack is just as brilliant, with good use of suspenseful tracks during certain plot points. Sound effects of weapons, doors and bosses are all impressive and immersive considering the limited technical abilities of early handhelds like the GBA.

Where Metroid Fusion excels the most (like all Metroid games) is in gameplay and level design. The game takes place on a single space station that is in lockdown, with different sealed off quadrants, each with their own security clearances. To progress through the plot you must gain different clearance levels to get access to areas you could not before. You get that access by gaining new abilites that allow you to work your way into the new areas. For example, once you have missiles you can blow up rubble to get to a previously unreachable area. Or once you have ice weaponry you can freeze enemies and use them as jumping platforms to get up to a room you previously couldn’t. These mechanics reward the player for smart thinking and exploration. Often these new weapons are found by defeating bosses, which Metroid Fusion is in no shortage of. Several of these bosses will be very memorable for me due to their crazy designs or the fun mechanics of their fights. Gedo X was an awesome fight (I won’t spoil the details for you) which I had a lot of trouble with at first. Nightmare X was frustrating difficult for me and there was a point where I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to complete this review or not. His amazing gravity controlling mechanics and weird design combine to make him one of the most memorable bosses ever. Speaking of memorable bosses, Dark Samus (known in this version as SA-X) has some particularly awesome moments in this entry of Metroid. She’s constantly stalking you throughout the game and when she’s near you you must hide or run for your life.

These moments can be very suspenseful and sometimes require very smart play by the player. As difficult as Metroid Fusion can be at times, I must commend it for doing a stellar job at explaining mechanics to the player and walking them through how a Metroid game works. The pacing also is top notch. There is a steady stream of new weapons and abilities that fit their way perfectly into the progression of the game’s level design.

If there was a Metroid game I could suggest to new players who want to get into the series, it would be this one. Not only because it is a great example of how amazing Metroid games can be, but also because of the great job of direction the game gives you. Metroid Fusion is one of the best handheld games I’ve ever played, its one of the best Metroid games ever, which is really saying something.

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REVIEW: Nintendo Game Boy Advance

GAME BOY ADVANCE REVIEW

The Game Boy Advance was and still is technically and aesthetically impressive, even without considering it came out in 2001. It was worlds ahead of its predecessor and ahead of Sega’s best effort: the Game Gear. Nintendo managed to simultaneously make the system lighter than the Game Boy Color while still improving performance with a 32bit processor and bigger screen. Graphics, sound, button layout, button responsiveness, battery life…the GBA performs in all areas. On top of that it had a great library which let us replay many SNES and NES hits on the go, while still sporting many new gems like Advance Wars, Golden Sun, TLOZ: The Minish Cap and many more.

The only complaint I could possibly make about the original GBA model is that it suffers from not having a back-lit screen. In some lighting it is nigh impossible to see what’s on your screen. But this was a problem that every electronic device 15 years ago suffered from, so its pretty forgivable. Nintendo fixed that issue with the newer model GBA SP, gbaspwhich had a square shape layout instead, and folded into a flip up style which was gaining popularity at the time (am I the only one who remembers how popular the Motorola Razor phone was?). The screen looked beautiful with its built in lighting that could be turned on and off at your whim if you wanted to preserve battery life. Speaking of which, the SP had a rechargeable battery. No longer did you have to keep dishing out cash for AAs, just charge the SP for a couple hours and its good for quite a long time. Nintendo also cranked out a third GBA model, named the Game Boy Micro, which I cannot comment on since I’ve never played it and don’t yet own it.

Overall the GBA is absolutely amazing, with excellent performance, an even better performing SP model and one of the best game libraries ever.

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HISTORY / COLLECTING: GameBoy Advance

HISTORY OF THE GAME BOY ADVANCE

After making sales records with the GameBoy and GameBoy Color, Nintendo set their sights on development of a newer, more powerful handheld. That handheld would be the GameBoy Advance. It launched in 2001, months before Nintendo’s GameCube launch, at a price of only $99.99 ($134.64 today adjusted for inflation). Launch titles included mostly ports of home console games like Earthworm Jim gba adand Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, but did have a couple noteable original titles like Rayman Advance. It had practically no competition during its lifespan as the only other handheld that even came close to decent sales numbers was the failed N-Gage. Being that it was cheap, impressive for the time and had no competition it is no wonder that the GBA sold 81 million units worldwide over its 7 year life span.

The GBA is a 32 bit console and does a great job of emulating the games of the SNES era. A large chunk of its library are basically ports of the best SNES games, which most people were pleased to have. There were a handful of other new and well reviewed titles for the GBA like Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Golden Sun, Metroid: Zero Mission and Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire. The system was smaller than its predecessor but managed to simultaneously be far more powerful. After a few years Nintendo released a new version called the GameBoy Advance SP which featured a flip up display, much-improved lighting and overall smaller desing. In 2005 they did a second redesign called the GameBoy Micro which was basically the original design but a bit smaller and skinnier.

PERSONAL HISTORY WITH THE GAME BOY ADVANCE

The GBA is my second favorite console (behind the SNES), my favorite handheld. I still remember getting it for Christmas. Levi and I each got one, mine the Arctic White color and Levi’s the original Pokemon-Sapphire_GBA_ESRBPurple. We got Mario Kart: Super Circuit  (still one of the best Mario Karts ever), Super Mario Advance, Rayman Advance and Pokemon Sapphire with them. At that time most of those games were older and thus our parents were able to buy those affordable used copies. I’ve talked in previous posts about taking long monthly drives to Indiana and back, along with my long daily 3 hour round trip bus rides to school, so as you can imagine I got a lot of hours in with my GBA. I oftentimes saved up my farm work money for weeks and then when we visited dad monthly in the big city of Indianapolis I would have him take us to GameStop so I could afford a couple used games. I also replayed all my favorite original GameBoy/Color games, especially Pokemon Red and Silver. I love the console to death and still play it quite often, usually the SP version.

COLLECTING FOR THE GAME BOY ADVANCE

Arguably the best thing about the GBA is its low initial price of system and games. Low cost plus high sales numbers during production equals great news for us collectors! Both the original and SP versions are quite cheap, found regularly under $50 for ones in great shape. The original versions may need some cleaning when you first buy them as gunk tends to form around the crevices near the buttons over time. If you only care about actual performance I definitely recommend getting an SP version instead (as I’ll talk more about in my review next week). Games are quite cheap. I would say the average game I’ve bought was between $10-20, with only a handful being over $20 like the Metroid titles, Minish Cap and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Complete-in-box collectors will have a harder time since GBA was still in the cardboard box era of gaming but you can expect to only see about 200-250% mark-ups off used prices. If you collect for handhelds in any capacity whatsoever you must collect for the GBA.

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REVIEW: Kingdom Hearts

Poll Winner: KINGDOM HEARTS

Its a common trend that video games that feature movie or cartoon characters turn out to be poor quality, typically due to a rushed development window and because the dev studio has to spend a sizable chunk of their budget solely on acquiring the rights to the character(s). Kingdom Hearts was one of the first games to feature popular film or cartoon established characters but be of superb quality. It weaves an interesting storyline, involves popular Disney characters and has refined action JRPG elements that Square Enix has become known for over the years. Since its release in 2002 Kingdom Hearts has sold 20 million copies and is in the top 10 of PS2 game sales.

Kingdom Hearts is a shining example of how to properly use popular, established characters in your game. It does that in a few different ways. Disney characters are not forced on the player, in kingdom heartsfact the player doesn’t control any Disney characters at all during the game. Instead they control Sora, a brand new figure in the Square universe. The Disney characters also are very true to their personality displayed in their respective movie settings, with good integration of popular scenes, landmarks and side characters. Lastly Square Enix nails the integration of Disney characters by using an animated art style that looks similar to what we remember from their films while simultaneously having a Kingdom Hearts feel and style. Kingdom Hearts‘ soundtrack is a good example actually. When visiting Tarzan’s world the tracks that play are not reused tracks from the movie, they’re all original. But they have great use of drums and pacing that properly recaptures the spirit and atmosphere of that movie while still being unique to Kingdom Hearts. The art style is very beautiful and uses a wide color palette and smooth edges. It feels similar to most other Square games of the PS2 era, but the Disney vibe is definitely tangible and utilized well. Like most Square titles, there are a ton of well polished cutscenes that feature spectacular voice acting (Haley Joel Osment is the main character for Christs Sakes!) and lots of dialogue.

The gameplay of Kingdom Hearts is at its base your standard fare of action JRPG. Typical spells like Cure, Fire, Slow, etc are used. There are summons, health bars, mana bars, so on khears gf and so forth. It doesn’t do anything new, what it does is use established systems and adds Disney flare to them. What’s great about that is Kingdom Hearts is almost like a “My First Action JRPG” type of game because it gives you the basic mechanics you can expect from other games in the genre in a form that is easy to learn and comprehend. I think that’s a great direction to go with Kingdom Hearts because there were surely several gamers drawn to this game that don’t have extensive histories with JRPGs, solely because of the Disney involvement. Hooking those players on JRPG mechanics and teaching them the basics of them is genius because several of those gamers will be able to now pick up and enjoy the other titles that Square makes.

Combat can feel stale at times, particularly at the beginning of the game, but as Sora learns new combos and techniques things start to open up a bit more. The platforming aspects of the game I found to be fun and a nice brief break from the combat. Bosses are a blast, usually are Disney themed and present unique challenges. Many are memorable and inspired. Fighting the Tiger’s head in the sand from Aladdin and fighting the gigantic mega-powered Ursula from Little Mermaid were great examples as the fun of the combat is also supplemented by the nostalgia aspect of the respective movies. The worlds are extremely well done and each presents new mechanics. The difference between Atlantis and Halloweentown for example are huge. Speaking of Halloweentown it was easily my favorite level. Even though I don’t care much for the movie its inspired from I loved it in Kingdom Hearts because of the addition of spooky costumes for my trio of characters, the art style of the world and the personality of the side characters.

Kingdom Hearts was one of the most beloved video games ever and its for good reason. Square Enix took popular characters and integrated them perfectly into the RPG systems they have mastered over decades of development. This game is a must play for any gamer of any age and fans of any genres. You don’t need to be a fan of Disney or RPGs to enjoy it, but it will certainly help if you are.

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