By Jeremy Parish

When people see Area35's military strategy game Tiny Metal in action for the first time, they almost always have the same response: “Hey, this seems familiar.” In Tiny Metal, cute little soldiers and battle tanks move around a colorful battlefield as units of 10. These squads face off against one another through quick animated sequences where numerical and tactical superiority determine the final casualty tally. It does seem very familiar, and that’s no accident. Tiny Metal producer Hiroaki Yura is only too happy to acknowledge the concept his game aims to capture: Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’s Wars series, best known in the U.S. through its Advance Wars entries on Game Boy Advance and DS.

“The Wars series has been one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Tiny Metal,” says Yura. “We loved the Wars series and have played a lot of it since we were kids.” 

Nintendo hasn’t produced a new Wars game in more than a decade, and Tiny Metal goes a long way toward filling the void left behind in fans’ lives. However, Yura is quick to point out that neither Tiny Metal nor its follow-up (Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble) are simply opportunistic rehashes of someone else’s work. His driving ambition has been to modernize the gameplay and design of the games that inspired Tiny Metal to better suit modern tastes and expectations. 

“Time has a different velocity these days,” he says. “So many other games have streamlined their gameplay loop. We felt we needed to really streamline the gameplay, as people have less time and want a lot of quality-of-life features in a modern game.”

Yura also points out the many new elements Tiny Metal brings to the format, including the ability to set each unit’s direction at the end of a turn—a feature previously seen in Intelligent Systems’s other, more popular strategy series, Fire Emblem. As Yura puts it, “The introduction of facings, which allow a more in-depth tactical decisions, and focus-fire mechanics, which allow quick annihilation of tough units: These features allow a modernised Wars game, along with the 3D visualisation of the battlefield.”

Both Tiny Metal and Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble appear as part of Limited Run Games’s Tiny Metal Ultimate, a complete, two-in-one physical collection for Nintendo Switch. The real standout here is Full Metal Rumble, which greatly improves on the original game with cannier enemy intelligence, expanded tactical options, and additional units like the Archelon personnel carrier and a Supply Plane. “The Archelon and the Supply Plane were added [to support] the ammo and fuel mechanic (previously seen in the Wars series),” says Yura, “but the Mechs are a completely new idea. We just wanted some awesome robot combat action!”

Best of all, Tiny Metal Ultimate includes the two brand new downloadable campaign add-ons, Caesar’s Rescue and Will of the Shogun. The former is particularly noteworthy, as it was created in collaboration with developer Chucklefish as a crossover between Tiny Metal and Wargroove centered around the latter’s fan-favorite commander Caesar: A noble St. Bernard with the ability to inspire all those around him. While Caesar’s appearance in Tiny Metal is more of a character cameo than a full-scale mechanics-focused crossover on the order of something like SNK Vs. Capcom, it could herald greater things to come.

“For now we're just looking at the character crossover,” says Finn Brice, Chucklefish CEO and lead designer of Wargroove, “but working with the Tiny Metal team has been an absolute pleasure, and we hope we can do so again in the future.

Wargroove and Tiny Metal share a lot of DNA while placing their focus in quite different areas. I consider Tiny Metal to be a more strategic game, while Wargroove focuses heavily on tactics. These two approaches plug nicely into one another, and it's a wonderful and exciting experiment to see how a character from Wargroove fits into that strategic framework,” says Brice.

Caesar’s Rescue takes an interesting approach to collaboration, since Wargroove and Tiny Metal also differ in terms of their graphical styles. The former employs a classic, sprite-based bitmap art style, while Tiny Metal opts for bokeh-heavy fully 3D models that create an impression of tabletop miniature wargaming. Caesar’s Rescue splits the difference, turning Wargroove’s stylish pixel graphics into flat, semi-3D objects that resemble classic board game playing pieces. Katy Elllis, marketing lead at Chucklefish, says the DLC perfectly embodies the collaborative spirit of indie gaming.

“We were really excited about the concept of not only having Caesar on his own adventure in the Tiny Metal world, but also coming together to support each other as studios,” says Ellis. “The core idea, design and development of the Caesar's Rescue update was completely [handled on] Area35's side, with the Wargroove team offering feedback on Caesar's art and narrative characterization."

The crossover graphics of Caesar’s Rescue also fit neatly with the overall creative direction that drives Tiny Metal, which Yura says was intended to work as a hybrid style to begin with. “I had a lot of discussions with Go Takahashi, our art director for the project, and we wanted an art style that fit both Japanese and Western cultures,” says Yura. “Go initially worked as a designer for popular comics like Marvel & DC in New York and came back to Tokyo to work on Tenchu and other popular game titles. He has a good understanding of both cultures, and he loves games both from Japan and outside of Japan.

“We came to this style of emphasizing certain visual keys to bring out each unique character trait and gave a unifying deformity—pointy ears—to help define that these characters are from the Tiny Metal world. In terms of narrative design, we’ve deliberately kept it simple and easy to understand so the game can be enjoyed by all ages. The narrative was expertly created by [Hirotaka] Inaba-san, who was involved in I am Setsuna. and Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright and has a great focus on how characters react to stressful situations.”

This combination of disparate influences and inspired creative choices have helped make Tiny Metal a game genuinely worthy of its informal heritage. Packed with charm, crammed with content, and loaded with addictive gameplay, Tiny Metal demonstrates there’s life still left in this format—even if its original creators appear to have abandoned it.

“The tactical combat genre is wide and varied,” says Brice. “I believe Wargroove and Tiny Metal have both attempted to modernize the genre to create a snappier, more dynamic tactical experience while remaining true to the roots of an adaptable style of Wargame. I don't believe there is a single ‘right’ way to deliver a turn-based strategy experience, however, and I look forward to seeing the genre continue to expand.” 

But does Tiny MetalUltimate” truly live up to its name? That is to say, is this literally the end of Tiny Metal? Yura says it is—in a sense.

“Well, it’s the ‘ultimate’ version of Tiny Metal,” he muses. “But maybe there will be a Tiny Metal II!”

Tiny Metal Ultimate is available for open preorder through March 27 at Limited Run Games: Switch Standard Edition | Switch Bundle

March 20, 2020