I'm positive I could play this series forever. Sadly, Advance Wars has always been overshadowed by Fire Emblem which is a similar series with an emphasis on individual units in a fantasy setting. There's no telling if Intelligent Systems will ever release another game in the series. The last time an Advance Wars game came out was Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict on the DS in 2008. And it hasn't even released in Japan yet. To be fair, when the very first Advance Wars came out on the GBA it was right in the wake of 9/11. And considering how war is still part of our everyday lives I can see how an upbeat somewhat cutesy spin on commanding legions of infantry, tanks, and airplanes into combat might rub people the wrong way.
Anyway, I digress. The point of this blog is to take a look at the last two major releases in the Advance Wars on the Nintendo DS and match em' up 1v1 style. Why? Because I like both of them, but they are pretty different. I don't think this will turn into a contest of "which one is superior?" but more why I think both of them matter.
Basic Intel - Need to Know Dual Strike and Days of Ruin might be in the same series but they are two very different beasts. It's the difference of balls-to-the-wall action disregarding all balance in contrast to a more reserved but better polished experience. The deciding factor comes down to how you like your games.
Dual Strike Dual Strike, released in 2005, takes the kitchen sink approach and packs the game with as much stuff as they could fit on the cartridge. Looking back on it, it was like a party blowout for characters that were back for a third and final time. They had new faces, an RPG-like progression system, tagging characters in and out, battles on two screens, new units, challenge modes, and a weird combat mode that would totally be a dual joystick shooter... if the DS had any joysticks. There are 27 commanding officers in all. You know how many they had in the very first Advance Wars? Twelve. There is a lot of stuff to do in Dual Strike.
However, this means that balancing the game was impossible. The dual strike system allowed COs to tag in and out and make use of their various abilities, so you could very well pick the guy who buys cheap units for lower firepower... and then switch to the guy who pays more for his units but gets superior firepower. The number of ways to break the game with crazy CO combinations is more than it should be. No one in their right mind should go up against someone using Sami and Eagle together. You could break this even further by equipping skills COs unlocked from leveling up. Some of the new units also didn't work so great in practice like the Piperunner that almost never gets any use unless there are pipelines it can roll on. Considering pipes are impassible objects, you didn't see them much.
I do have to give major props to this series for killing off one of their major villains (an alien? robot? snifit? named Sturm) and actually keeping him dead. You couldn't get away with that in a series like Zelda or Mario.
Days of Ruin (Cause I'm in the U.S.) Days of Ruin, released in 2008, was a reboot of the series with a new continuity and overall tone. When Advance Wars first came out it had a colorful, anime style to go along with the turn based military strategy. This game tossed all that out for darker and edgier with a decidedly next gen brown color scheme. It also has less content than Dual Strike, scaling things back and reworking the cost of units, Fog of War, and CO Powers. There are a few new units like the Duster plane, Biker Infantry, the Anti-Tank unit and a totally reworked Aircraft Carrier. It plays a lot better at the cost of slight tweaks to unit behavior, less COs, and a brand new cast of characters.
Instead of the simple good vs. evil storyline, Days of Ruin went a more complicated route. It was a survival story in a world totally devastated by meteors. Most of the characters represent various reactions to the end of the world. You have a guy like Waylon, who is ready to party down 'cause rules don't mean a thing in the apocalypse. There's Brenner, who's trying to do right because "where there's life, there's hope". And then you have NPCs like "The Mayor" who is so two-faced and backstabbing that he makes the major villain Caulder look good. It's one of those rare examples where making the game darker actually works in the favor of the story. There's only one character in the entire game who looks like a Mad Max extra and even one of the player characters falls pretty evenly between good and evil because she's the cold and calculating type.
The Cast - Commanding Officers
Dual StrikeWhile the story in Dual Strike might be simple, it allows for a lot of awesome characters and general insanity that you couldn't pull off in a more grounded setting. Since every nation (with the exception of Black Hole) is somewhat based off a real world military at some point in history, they go through a lot of archetypes. Orange Star is the U.S. Military, Blue Moon is Soviet Russia. Yellow Comet is Imperial Japan. Green Earth is WWII Europe. Air ace Eagle does the Blitzkrieg, and when his CO meter is charged up he can move most of his units twice in one turn. Drake is the British Navy who can also launch giant tidal waves that steal fuel. You also have Sami, who represents all sorts of Special Forces where a single solitary solider can capture an entire city (or enemy HQ) Rambo style. But sometimes you get a really dumb character like Jake, who uses so much slang he could be considered offensive.
Most of my favorites are the villains though, like the crazy Black Hole inventor Lash. She seems to have the most awareness about how absurd Advance Wars is without breaking the fourth wall and generally tries to have as much fun as she possibly can. Why is she evil? Because she can make giant ICBM cluster bombs and tanks with legs. She can produce cannons the size of mountains. While safe science is talking about ethics she's busy blowing up Olaf's hometown and installing self-destruct devices in airports just for fun. There's also Jugger, who is basically a webcam with arms and legs with some of the best dialogue in the game. These guys are gloriously dumb sometimes but always entertaining.
Not to mention, there are a shit ton of characters in this game. You're bound to find someone you like.
Days of Ruin The cast of Days of Ruin is much more low key compared to Dual Strike but that makes them slightly more realistic if you're into that. Lin is probably my favorite example because she tries to do good things but is pragmatic enough to suggest non-heroic actions like leaving civilians behind if they aren't pulling their weight or shooting villains in cold blood when the opportunity presents itself because they had it coming. Some aren't as great though, like Will who falls into the "never say die, never give up" pothole that most designated protagonists fall into. Brenner, while a decent and kinda cool, pulls and Obi Wan. And there's Tasha who can be summed up in one caps lock word, REVENGE.
Probably the strongest aspect of the cast are the villains who are actually really bad guys. They range from complete assholes to complete monsters. Like I mentioned before, Waylon is one of the biggest dicks I've ever seen in a video game. But he's so good at it, it's hard not to like him. Greyfield is a warmonger who goes the extra mile and nukes one of the protagonists out of spite. And then you have Dr. Caulder, who is downright sadistic. Under the guise of science he pits the remnants of humanity against each other just to see what would happen. Meteors weren't good enough for him, so he creates a virus that causes plants to grow out from under people's skin. He also has a bunch of creepy "children" ( Penny and Tabitha) he's ruined through experimentation that they're more weapons than human. It's stark contrast to the villains of Dual Strike who try to be evil but are not very good at it.
Spoils of War - OutcomeThe split between Dual Strike and Days of Ruin comes down to whether you like an exaggerated take on turn based strategy or a more focused affair. I think Days of Ruin plays a lot better with a healthier balance across units and COs... but there's something great about the series origin as an expressive, somewhat goofy turn based strategy game where a commander could drop a meteor on the battlefield and that was perfectly normal. Both games have their fair share of missteps what with two of the new COs from Dual Strike, Jugger and Koal, as slightly modified copies of Flak and Adder. It's clear that Flak and Adder were going to get cut from the game but for some reason were hastily slapped back in. Days of Ruin also has a strange flip-flop where a CO in the campaign, The Beast, isn't playable and Isabella takes his place (who never got involved in fighting). Not to mention the difficulty which can be a little uneven in Dual Strike with terrible missions like Crystal Calamity and Pincer Strike, and soul crushingly hard in Days of Ruin with the final stage. Sunrise is probably the hardest mission in the series history.
But the one things both games do well without fail is the soundtrack. Dual Strike might be a little less impressive considering a bunch of CO themes have been carried over three games, but there are some good ones in there. I'll finish this (probably overly long) blog with a selection of my favorites. You know, just in case you're into it.
Dual Strike Jake's Theme
Days of Ruin The Owl's Flight
Flight of the Coward - Waylon's Theme
Mr. Bear - Penny's Theme
Supreme Logician - Lin's Theme