When we saw Advance Wars at the recent Nintendo Show in London it was due for release in Europe some time in October. Unfortunately a couple of weeks after the show terrorists flew a pair of planes into the World Trade Center, and for some reason Nintendo decided to delay the game's arrival in Europe, even though it is already available in America itself. Quite why Nintendo felt the need to postpone the release of Advance Wars is a mystery, because the cute anime-style characters and brightly coloured units of this turn-based strategy game are pretty inoffensive on the wider scale of things. Your little monochrome units are painted in shades of red or blue depending on which side they are on, and scutter across a cartoonish map dotted with forests, mountains, cities and rivers. At first sight it looks kind of dumb, but behind the gaudy graphics is an involving and entertaining strategy game. More than a dozen tutorial missions are provided to ease you into the game, and although this is perhaps a little overkill there is plenty to learn. For starters you have a wide range of units at your disposal, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You will need infantry to capture essential cities and factories, but they move slowly and are easy prey for the enemy's tanks. Armoured personnel carriers and helicopters can be used to move your soldiers around the map more rapidly, but they are vulnerable should an enemy manage to intercept them. Meanwhile heavy bombers, fighter planes and helicopter gunships battle it out in the skies above you. After almost an hour glued to the screen playing Advance Wars, we can testify that the whole thing seems to be very well balanced.
Once your infantry have captured a city it will start providing you with resources each turn, which in true strategy tradition can then be spent on creating new units at any of the factories on the map which are currently under your control. When these units clash with the enemy you see a little cartoon rendition of them firing at each other, followed by the casualty figures on each side and an animation showing your general's reaction to the result, ranging from cheering and shouting to sobbing like a little girl. As well as adding some character to the game, these generals also develop their own unique special powers which charge up during a battle and can then be unleashed with often spectacular results. In one of the battles we played the enemy general had the ability to create a blizzard that left the entire map covered in snow, slowing down movement for the rest of the turn. The traditional fog of war also plays an important role on some maps, with obstructions such as mountains, forests and cities blocking your view. This can be overcome by using recon units, which are fairly weak but move quickly and have a greater visual range than your other troops, or by stationing spare infantry on top of mountains. You still have to be careful moving into unexplored territory though, as the AI is perfectly capable of ambushing your troops as they advance if you get careless.
Advance Wars is the GameBoy Advance's first true strategy game, and we can only hope that Nintendo don't delay its European release for much longer. Don't be deceived by the gaudy cartoon graphics - there is a serious game under there, and it's a lot of fun. Our only real worry at this stage is how easy it will be to make out the units and text on the notoriously dark GBA screen. At the Nintendo Show the game was running hooked up to a small monitor, so we have yet to play it at its normal scale. Otherwise though it looks like Nintendo could be on to another winner.