The Making Of: Advance Wars

Format: GBA Release: 2001 Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Intelligent Systems

Playing Advance Wars is a painstaking process. It’s not so much trial and error as trial and education, each mistake teaching you a little more about the impeccable clockwork that powers the game’s simple, stunning mechanics. And, it turns out, playing Advance Wars isn’t a very different process from making Advance Wars.

Its creators at Intelligent Systems have been studying their creation over four generations – from the exuberant, unforgiving NES original, to the skeletal appeal of the Game Boy version and the lavish charm of the SNES title, culminating in the near perfection of Advance Wars itself. Each version adds something, takes something else away, a painstaking process of experimentation within a set of rules perfectly balanced between complexity and comprehensibility.

Famicom Wars was released in 1988 andwas followed by various
versions for Gameboy and one for SNES before 2001′s Advance Wars.

For a game became the cornerstone of any sane GBA collection, however, its genesis was a little scrappy. “The project was started when we were working on the original launch titles for the GBA,” explains director Kentaro Nishimura, “and, to be honest, Nintendo was already too busy, we had too many jobs to do, so we had to ask Intelligent Systems to share the responsibility of making Advance Wars.”

It was, of course, a responsibility Intelligent Systems had always borne before, but this time around Nintendo was keeping a close eye on the game’s development. “At the early stages, it’s just IS developers who get together and come up with unique game ideas,” confirms director Makoto Shimojo. “But when we present to Nintendo, their observations are nearly always: ‘That’s too sophisticated, that’s not balanced for a general audience’. And that’s when we start working on the adjustments.”

Those adjustments were tied in inextricably with the platform they were designing for. “We were aiming at the GBA’s target audience – relatively young children – and at that time I thought they would like the pop design – the bright colours and rounded characters – and the comedy elements, so we applied that kind of approach to the design and the interface. Of course, when we got feedback from the game we discovered that it had sold mostly to teenage boys, so…” Shimojo laughs and shrugs.

Were there ever any concerns about tailoring such a cerebral game to a portable machine and a young audience? “Yeah, you’re right,” says Shimojo. “At the very beginning we were very aware that we were going to be asking people to play for long periods of time and that the game was going to be quite hard. So we thought, why don’t we make it so the game has a cycle, a wave from a period of excitement to another? If you look at long films, they keep people’s attention by varying the pace, by mixing moments of excitement with moments of calm. So that’s what we tried to do. I don’t know if it quite worked out, but that was our original idea.”

There’s no doubt that these efforts were successful – for many, the total coherence of Advance Wars’ vibrant art style, despite seeming as ready to draw its inspiration from Citroën’s back catalogue as local manga traditions, was what drew them to a genre they’d previously ignored. But once you’ve pulled new players to a strategy game, how do you keep them there? Shimojo acknowledges the problem: “There are people who really like to play action games, games which give you instant feedback without having to think too much about anything. But what’s interesting about Advance Wars is that the team who made it are not avid sim games fans.

“They are people who love Beatmania, who love shooting games and fighting games. For example, I’m an avid racing game fan. And all those people joined together to make the game, and because each member has different tastes, they tried to pick up the best elements of other genres and incorporate them, even though sometimes they had to do it very subtly! For example, one of the most important elements is how you move each unit. It’s important that the player doesn’t feel any stress when they do that. So the guy who loves shooting games came up with the way of moving, so there’s no stress and you feel you can control everything right down to the perfect centimetre. And the guys who love music games helped with the timing, trying to get the tempo right, to make a rhythm with the way you move the units. So those kind of elements – the entertaining elements – are the kind of things which usually aren’t included in simulation games, but they are a core part of the Advance Wars experience.”

And so, with its appealing art, engaging story and entertaining interaction, Advance Wars became the approachable face of strategy. Was the team worried they might alienate the sometimes rather serious-minded fans of wargames? “We wanted as many people as possible to enjoy playing Advance Wars, but I also thought we were trying to cater to the needs of avid simulation fans, who would know all about the weapons and care about the tiny details of the costumes,” explains Shimojo.

“So we follow real history, we try to preserve the spirit of the weapons and the arsenals, but everything is deformed rather than duplicated. But professional eyes can see through all that. They can say: ‘Oh, I understand that they are replicating the core aspects of the real weapons’, and they like that.”

This pattern, of preserving the heart but stylising the surface, extends to the game’s story and atmosphere: “It doesn’t mean the contents of the game need to be gritty and realistic. We weren’t trying to create a make-believe war, but we believe it can still be sophisticated. We tried to make sure that people would believe the way people talk to each other and make that feel real, even if the way we show war isn’t realistic.”

For all these efforts to make Advance Wars’ appeal as broad as possible, there were still no plans to release the game outside Japan, just as the previous games in the series had never seen an overseas release. “When I joined Nintendo,” says Nishimura, “I was told that these kinds of games would never be successful abroad, because they were turn-based games, and turn-based games weren’t appreciated outside Japan. But we decided it was because these kind of games were too complicated. People are used to action games and shooting games, and in those all you have to do is press the A button and the B button and you’ll soon understand how to play.

“But for SRPGs, you’ve got to know the rules before you start. So, with Advance Wars, even though there wasn’t a plan to release it outside Japan, we made it really easy to play. We put a really good tutorial in, so people didn’t need to read the manual. And when the US marketing people played it they came to us and said: ‘But this is great! Why can’t we sell it over here?’ And it seems that Advance Wars’ success shifted Nintendo’s attitude over western tastes.” Nishimura, who also worked as director on Fire Emblem, makes it clear that game would never have been released in the west had AW not paved the way.

But all of this work, no matter how meticulous and imaginative, is only the window dressing. What matters about Advance Wars is its clockwork heart, the cogs and gears which would make the game as engrossing to play on the back of an envelope as on an LCD screen. Does it take a great deal of work to balance the game? “Exactly,” says Shimojo. “After all, repetition is the only way to make a good simulation game. I am the person who judges whether or not the balancing is good enough, so I have to play maps over and over and over to be sure. Of course, the problem is that I get accustomed to the game, so it becomes hard to imagine what it must be like for a novice, but my goal is always to come up with the parameters so the largest number of people can enjoy the game. And then I deliver that prototype to the team, so they can confirm if I’ve got it right.”

Nishimura is quick to point out that the process doesn’t end there: “But it’s not only the staff members. Nintendo has its own team monitoring the game. The debugging team, in the course of doing their work, monitor the game very closely and we listen to what they think about the balance. And, if necessary, right up to the end of the project, we can still make adjustments. And then there are other people who check the balance ever more carefully. The fact of the matter is that we keep checking and checking until – well, until after the company is yelling and saying: ‘Stop it, stop it, we really have to launch it now’.” He laughs. “It’s because of that fact that I believe we came up with a high-quality game.”

But for all these efforts, Shimojo is realistic about the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time: “I have worked on hundreds of different maps, and I think I understand which type of person likes which type of map. I know there are people who like to start from a very weak position and gradually become strong and stronger and defeat the enemy. And there are people who want to be powerful from the start, who just want to crush their opponent. I realise that it is impossible to make a map which will appeal to everyone. So I try to make sure everyone will be able to say at some points: ‘Here we go, here’s one of my maps. This is what I was waiting for’.”

More recently, the title has been followed by Advance Wars: Dual Strike and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin for the DS, but has the series really evolved further, or is Advance Wars itself the perfected expression of Shimojo’s vision of approachable strategy?