Even though Zelda has killing and even Mario has head-stomping, when you think about it, nearly all of Nintendo’s first-party properties are harmless affairs. Bright colours, innocent storylines, big-eyed cartoon mascots and candy-coloured fantasy worlds where everything turns out just fine.
With one exception: the “Wars” series, Nintendo’s only foray into, well, war.
In the late 1980s, a Nintendo employee named Toru Narihiro was in charge of taking Famicom Disk System games and porting them over to regular cartridges. It was a boring job (though also important, given the fact the West didn’t have the Disk System), but one Narihiro was able to break up by teaming up with Nintendo’s R&D1 team to program two games.
One of these was the first Fire Emblem. The other? A game called Famicom Wars.
1988's Famicom Wars was, and still is, something of an anomaly amongst first-party Nintendo titles. It’s not a platformer, it’s not a role-playing game and you don’t race cars. It was instead a turn-based strategy game, one where you took command of one of two armies and tried to defeat the other by killing his men and taking his cities.
Despite receiving a cartoon aesthetic, which with its cute characters and comedic slant helps lighten the mood, the fact remains this is a war game, with soldiers, tanks and bombers, where the object is to kill things on a large scale. Which is about as un-Nintendo as a Nintendo game gets, and may partly explain why, even with a large fanbase, the series never receives the kind of marketing or exposure from Nintendo as its more cuddly franchises do.
Not that it mattered. With a turn-based combat mechanic and balanced unit roster that bordered on perfection, Nintendo’s internal studio Intelligent Systems went on to develop a SNES version (Super Famicom Wars) and a Game Boy version (Game Boy Wars), which with help from Hudson would get three sub-sequels of its own.
Strangely, despite the subject matter and Nintendo’s popularity, the series wouldn’t make it to the West until 2001, when the Game Boy Advance iteration of the franchise, Advance Wars, was released. With its comic visual style looking better than ever and its structure inching ever closer to strategic perfection, Advance Wars was a surprise hit, and would find even greater success with Advance Wars: Dual Strike, the first DS outing for the series.
Curiously, as Nintendo’s popularity exploded in the middle of the last decade, the Wars series began to retreat into the background. After an aborted attempt at a more action-oriented outing on the GameCube and Wii with Battallion Wars and the disappointing sales of a more mature DS sequel, Days of Ruin, the franchise hasn’t been seen or heard of since, despite a large, hardcore fan base and a continuous streak of stellar critical acclaim.
The core series never appeared on the Wii, never returned to the DS and there’s no sign of a 3DS game either, with Intelligent Systems currently working on other projects, like Paper Mario 3DS and the puzzler Hiku-Osu.
Hopefully once those are done the team can get back to doing what it does best: killing adorable little men with adorable little tanks.
Below, you’ll find a selection of videos from the main games in the series, showing just how far (or how little) the series has come since Famicom Wars was first released in 1988.
An extended look at gameplay from the original Famicom Wars. Note how, aside from the graphics, the series’ gameplay has remained almost entirely unchanged. Not because the new games are lazy, but because the old ones were perfect.
Even if you’ve never played a Wars game, you may be familiar with Famicom Wars’ Japanese commercial.
Game Boy Wars. It’s...yeah, pretty rough.
The brilliant intro sequence to Super Famicom Wars, on the SNES.
Some gameplay footage from Advance Wars, for the Game Boy Advance.
A campaign mission from Advance Wars: Dual Strike on the Nintendo DS. Note the restrained, tasteful use of the top screen.
The last game in the series, the darker Advance Wars: Dark Conflict for the DS, set the game in a post-apocalyptic world rather than the bright green+blue of previous titles.