It was several years ago that I wrote about the unparalleled simplicity and depth of Nintendo's excellent series of Advance Wars games. While some may find the cartoonish look of the game off-putting, I honestly think it's one of the most enjoyable light tactical wargames I've played. Today I'd like to tell you about Mecho Wars, an iPhone game that tries to emulate Advance Wars and, mostly, succeeds.
First, a brief recap: Advance Wars presents the player with a series of scenarios which are won by either destroying all enemy units or capturing the enemy's HQ. The game has a simple but effective operational resource allocation or supply aspect (captured cities provide income, which can be used to purchase or repair land, sea, or air units), models terrain effects by both changing movement cost and providing defensive bonuses. The game sports a great variety of units including infantry (necessary to capture cities and factories), armo, artillery, unarmed transport units, and a host of different sea and air units, most of which have a rock-scissors-paper relationship to each other. Generally speaking, doing well in Advance Wars requires aggressive play and effective use of combined arms tactics. All of this is wrapped up in a disturbingly jaunty cartoon story world where everyone is at war but the opposing commanders all pretty much like each other.
All of this is packaged up in a game whose user interface is so simple that in any situation, the right way to do anything is almost always "Put your cursor on the piece you want to do and press the 'A' button."
The iPhone and iPad, as one could imagine, are perfect for these types of games. There are a number of games in the category that take bits and pieces from Advance Wars, among them the enjoyable Rogue Planet, the somewhat less enjoyable Highborn, and Great Little War Game. The universally-adored heavyweight in this category is clearly Uniwar, which takes game mechanics similar to Advance Wars and puts them into a somewhat Starcraft-like universe. But although all these games capture the mechanics to a greater or lesser extent, they don't really capture the feel of the earlier game. Mecho Wars does.
Mecho Wars emulates not just the mechanics of Advance Wars but also what I'll call the Gameboy Advance look-and-feel of the game. In an apparently successful effort to avoid copyright infringement, the world of Mecho Wars differs substantially from that of Advance Wars. The two teams represent two different teams of strange yet whimsical alien races, fighting on a reddish-hued planet. This change of locale (and species) notwithstanding, the resemblance is strong: each scenario in the game's campaign, for example, is introduced by "talking head" style non-animated cartoons that anyone who has played Fire Emblem, or practically any other Gameboy Advance game, will recognize.
The primary campaign is enjoyable and straightforward, although the maps can be slightly cramped. Although I've implied above that the game lifts the Advance Wars mechanics wholesale, there are actually a few germane differences. First, capturing cities is not dependent on the strength of the capturing troop. Capturing an enemy city turns it neutral in one turn, and capturing a neutral city turns it friendly in one turn. These two factors mean that sending out "suicide infantry" to snatch cities out from under the enemy is a viable tactic - you may not actually hold them, but you can pin down his infantry and try to cut off some of his funds. Likewise, infantry can only be healed by certain (very rare) healing squares, not simply by holing up in a city and spending money. Overall, these changes put pressure on the player to be much less respectful of the lives of their own soldiers, which is an overall negative since it reduces the incentive to carefully combine arms.
Another interesting mechanic is that each turn is an hour in the day, and at 12 midnight the oceans freeze over, allowing land troops to pass until the following morning, when they thaw. This provides an alternative way to outflank the enemy if you can plan ahead properly.
The game provides an impressive array of artillery-like units with different strengths and ranges. As in Advance Wars, finding a formation that allows you to interlock different fields of fire while still protecting your units from direct assault is the tactic of choice.
Although the game is not Universal for iPad and iPhone, I mostly played it on my iPad scaled up to 2x. Given the "Gameboy Advance" visual style, the pixelation doesn't hurt the game's look at all.
At the ridiculous price of a mere single American dollar, Mecho Wars is clearly a game everyone who likes strategy games could buy. However, there is at least one higher-level drawback that's worth mentioning. The single biggest weakness of the game, compared to its Nintendo-produced cousin, is that the map design is noticeably weak. As I mentioned above, the maps are mostly fairly cramped, and combined with the capture mechanics nearly all of them call for "race to the middle" tactics that make the first few turns somewhat silly. You don't really appreciate how carefully designed the maps on Advance Wars are until you play something where that element isn't quite as good.
Mecho Wars also supports online multiplayer, but I didn't try it. If anyone wants to give it a go, drop me a line in the comments below or in the forums.
Mecho Wars by Oyaji Games. $0.99. Available on the App Store