Platform: GameBoy Advance
Turn-Based Strategy: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Campaign Incomplete @ 20 Hours
They say success can bring greater challenge than failure. The success of Intelligent Design’s 2001 hit, Advance Wars, offers us a chance to determine if that’s true. Certainly there’s risk in making a follow-up to such a finely tuned game. Fire Emblem Sacred Stones, for example, contended with the shadow of the great Fire Emblem which came before. But what would be “advanced” if developers sat idle, doing nothing?
Advance Wars (2001) was a quality release whose final result was greater than its individual ingredients. It’s an easy-to-enjoy experience that brought strategy games welcome attention. Two years later many new strategy fans were undoubtedly looking for another fun adventure in the universe of mono-colored forces. But how do you change what doesn’t need changing, or fix what isn’t broken?
Most who played Advance Wars: Black Hole Rising were already familiar with its universe and conventions. Maps are top down with no height and no rotation. Forces from the last game return along with their signature-colored units and turn-based play.
- Colors For Everybody! Multiplayer is a welcome addition to this franchise. The game is made for it–that is if you’re inclined to break out your link cable. We really didn’t have the opportunity.
- Maps Made Easy: The addition of a map editor is a nice touch, especially considering the AI battle maps from the first game are so enjoyable. Perhaps it was an economical choice to incorporate for a title needing new features. Under other circumstances we might have used this feature a lot, but we didn’t.
- All Previous Commanders are Yours to Command: Black Hole Rising allows you to choose not only the three allied commanders from game one, but former opposing commanders can also lead forces into battle. It’s a good way to validate playing the first game. This player-perspective addition expands the game universe, similar to Shining Force III and its sequels.
The Good & Bad
Conveniently Together in One Point:
- New Commander Special Abilities: Each commander has a unique special ability. Newly playable commanders open up new strategic possibilities, similar to Brigandine. Okay, some are too powerful and/or break the game’s conventions too greatly. Now you can cheese the enemy just like they cheesed you in the first game!
- Super Specials… Seriously? Specials are a good idea with flawed implementation. Their regular level needs tuning. So what does Black Hole Rising do? It doubles down on them by adding an option for a more powerful level of activation. We like the flexibility of power level choices, just not the gameplay imbalance.
We read one review stating the balance was just as good as the first installment. This was only the case for units, whose balance was meticulously set in the original and merely transferred here. As discussed, the specials only threw wrenches into that fine balancing act, and the misguided scenario design (see below) threatened to crush the entire game enjoyment experience. At least the strong foundation of Advance Wars as a franchise tolerates special attack imbalances better than say, Spectral Souls.
- Take or Leave Your One New Unit: The Neo Tank. That’s it. It’s a big, expensive, tougher tank. The design is a little weird in our opinion too. Not fitting the franchise style (like aliens in an Indiana Jones movie–hey, that’s a little like the Wild Arms XF plot, but we digress).
It doesn’t take that much to make at least pseudo new units that add extra gameplay. Start with color changes or striping modifications to existing sprites for an “upgraded” version. A new, special factory building can be placed in a contentious location. Whoever controls it can unlock these “advanced” types with slightly upgraded specs. Like special forces or veteran units. These don’t break existing balances.
- More of the same, literally: How do things so good end up in “bad?” When they’re the same exact things as before. Isn’t two years enough time to do something more original than import or nearly duplicate the same sprites, music, and other art assets?
Someone implied that this game was more of an expansion pack than a full sequel. Even expansion packs that we’ve seen, like Starcraft’s, offer two or three new units per faction. It feels like Intelligent Design phoned this game in.
- Ready to Roll… Too Quickly! A good governor on gameplay in the first game was build-and-wait factories. A new unit came out of production, but had to sit idle on the factory for that turn. Some factories in Black Hole Rising allow the enemy to build and attack on the same turn. There’s little tactical decision-making fun based on enemy units engaging out-of-nowhere.
Too Big for a Bullet Point: Scenario Disaster
Almost every level set-up in Black Hole Rising has some stupid, arbitrary contrivance. There are turn limits that force you to abandon methodical play and sacrifice units wantonly. Not the way we like to do it at all. How about massive (and dumb) enemy fire fields that force the most tedious unit movement?
Black Hole Rising forces gameplay their one annoying way using cheap design tricks like impassable pipelines and overpowered static emplacements (see Front Mission DS). These are unimaginative and ultimately annoying ways to funnel play. It’s hubris to think these “my way or the highway” designs are always going to be more fun than the emergent strategies that can come out of a well-crafted map and good unit AI.
Yes, Black Hole Rising replaces strategic purity with shtick. The existing foundation was already fun before these fake, unnecessary, fun-stealing set-ups. Changing the goal of so many missions to gimmick instead of “military victory” is gaming malpractice. It used to be a game where one could build armies and maneuver against the enemy with personal style and strategy. Onerous scenarios made us stop playing this game far short of what could have… what should have been.
We read one reviewer opine that if you hadn’t played the first game, this was the place to jump into the franchise. We strongly disagree. The original was pure strategic fun, whereas Black Hole Rising is the same dish with bottles of spices accidentally spilled into the mix. It didn’t change existing things as much as add the wrong things.
The GameBoy Advance still had some time on it. There was no reason to put out an underwhelming sequel to such a popular game. Perhaps sequel is too grand a word. Yet we are reluctant to even call it “Advance Wars 1.5” because we don’t want to sully the reputation of the original.
Field Commander proved it isn’t easy to make an Advanced Wars styled game. It’s too bad Black Hole Rising had such a hard time too. There’s little reason to play it unless you want your time sucked down a black hole. Or you want a game with all the elements of the original–save the fun. Shtick may be what some are looking for, but for us, it’s not enough.
The Advanced Wars Series:
If you like Advance Wars: Black Hole Rising, try:
front mission DS