Remembering Advance Wars
30 years of dramatic strategy design
Intelligent Systems has been one of Nintendo’s secret weapons when it comes to innovative and underrated franchises. Despite being over 30 years old, the company’s best franchises stayed in Japan until the early ‘00s — at that time, Nintendo leveraged its massively popular Game Boy Advance hardware as a testbed of sorts to feature Intelligent Systems’ work in the West. One of those franchises was Fire Emblem, which has become an enormous success in its own right (and has even spawned a popular mobile game).
But today, I want to reflect on their other big franchise, and how fans of turn-based strategy might have missed a huge sleeper hit.
Advance Wars wasn’t the first game in the series — in fact, the original game was called Famicom Wars and was released in 1988 (it was actually released before Fire Emblem, which debuted in 1990). Famicom Wars was one of the first turn-based strategy games to be released outside the PC platform, but it was never ported to the West due to concerns that it wouldn’t be well-received.
Beyond Famicom Wars, Intelligent Systems would produce only one sequel to the franchise itself — the following two games were developed by Hudson Soft. In 2001, Nintendo announced that the franchise would be appearing in western markets for the first time with Intelligent Systems returning as the developer.
Advance Wars became a huge hit for both Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. For most of the world, the strategy genre has always been seen as a PC only experience; with some of the best — and most complicated — games staying platform locked.
Advance Wars was designed to be the perfect entry point for new players to the genre. The game featured bright and detailed pixel graphics to draw players in, and tutorials and missions were designed to provide a steady ramp for players to ascend.
The success of the franchise not only proved that strategy games could work outside the PC, but there was actually a market for such games. The impact would be felt for years to come, with recent examples like the XCOM franchise and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
As for the story, players took control as an adviser for the Orange Star army helping their commanding officer (or CO) Andy in battle.
When war breaks out between nations, it’s up to the player and Andy to prevent global war. Over the course of the four games in the franchise, the core gameplay loop stayed consistent and provided a variety of turn-based challenges.
(Not so) modern warfare
Each game in the series was built on the same fundamental model: players control one army on a preset map fighting against the AI. Both sides take turns in controlling their units and building additional ones. The units in the franchise are standardized across the factions: from infantry to recon units, and of course rocket artillery and massive bombers.
There was a basic rock-paper-scissors formula in terms of units being stronger or weaker to other classes, but the two main factors were terrain and health. Attacking a unit who was in a forest or mountain tile would give them additional armor to absorb damage. The actual damage done when attacking was dependent on the health of the unit. A unit with one point of health left was practically worthless in a fight.
Different maps would have conditions that you would have to meet or deal with in order to win — ranging from fog of war, escort missions, and even “boss” fights. The variety of mission types would evolve considerably over the four games in the franchise. The third entry “Dual Strike” introduced battles that took place on two different screens and sometimes fighting a colossal enemy.
The heart of the series was with the various COs, and this also created added depth. Even though every faction had the same pool of units, the COs would bring big differences to combat.
Every CO had a passive that would tilt the units towards their preferences. Max — who was the tank loving CO — would do more damage with his direct fire units, but suffered a penalty using ranged units.
Over the course of the battle, COs could activate a special power that would further enhance their units or weaken the opponent, with this growing into a two tier system in later entries.
This slight asymmetric design helped to make the Advance Wars franchise stand out. Not only did you need to think about combat at the tactical level, but you also had to take into account both your and your opponents’ CO.
The Advance Wars series — along with Fire Emblem — had a steady and dedicated fan base, but where Fire Emblem exploded to become highly popular, Advance Wars unfortunately busted.
Failing to find a foothold
In 2008, Advance Wars fans would receive one more game in the franchise. It carried the subtitle Days of Ruin, and operated as something of a soft reboot. Taking place in the future, all the characters, factions, and story from the previous games had been wiped clean. It’s a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is barely hanging on after a devastating plague.
The roles of the COs were greatly diminished in favor of doing more with the individual units. COs don’t have passive impacts on their entire army, and instead feature a local effect that can be charged for a global one. Veterancy was added to reward players who kept units alive longer during combat.
The game went for more of a cinematic tone — with more cutscenes and dialogue between the missions. From a design standpoint, Days of Ruin was reviewed positively. However, the complete change in brand and tone was a confusing inclusion. Conversation online suggests that this was Nintendo’s way of increasing appeal in western markets.
For Intelligent Systems, it was really Fire Emblem that became the standout franchise, and I have a few thoughts about why that is.
The power of story
Both Fire Emblem and Advance Wars share many similarities in terms of their strategy RPG background. But to be more specific, Advance Wars is more strictly a turn-based strategy game, while Fire Emblem is tactical strategy.
Advance Wars was always about fielding nondescript units, with the COs providing banter and a point of view. Fire Emblem tells a far more personal story with every unit on the field being a unique individual with their own narrative that grows from battle to battle. Each person has their own unique role to play — both as individuals, and alongside teammates — creating a soap opera on top of the tactical play.
Losing a tank in Advance Wars is nothing compared to having your favorite archer get killed due to a mistake. Both series have operated on the harder side of the TBS formula, and we could argue that Fire Emblem was the more extreme example for some time.
If you lose your best characters or don’t have the proper counters for a mission, you may enter an unwinnable position.
That all changed with Fire Emblem Awakening in 2012, which was planned to be the series finale (the franchise was apparently due to be canceled if the series didn’t reach at least 250,000 copies sold). Awakening was Intelligent System’s last chance to put everything they had into one more Fire Emblem game, while trying to make it the most accessible. Difficulty levels were introduced, the option to turn off permadeath, and quality of life and new systems were added.
It’s interesting to compare Awakening to Days of Ruin in terms of their response to the market. Awakening’s strategy was to be more accessible and inviting to new fans, while Days of Ruin went for a tonal shift in an attempt to appeal more towards their supposed fan base.
War sometimes changes
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Wars franchise, and the perfect time to reintroduce gamers to the Advance Wars series. With Intelligent Systems firmly committed to Fire Emblem now, we may not get another game in this seminal turn-based strategy franchise.
Regardless, the series is easily a must play for anyone who likes turn-based strategy design. Advance Wars proved that the genre wasn’t just meant for PC gamers, and was one of many franchises that began to break down that wall between console and PC fans.
With Wargroove released a few weeks ago, it’s the closest we’ve gotten to an Advance Wars follow up, and I hope is a sign that this kind of design will make a return in a big way.
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