This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
“Who are Marth and Roy?”
“They’re from Fire Emblem.”
“Oh. What’s Fire Emblem?”
“Some game from Japan.”
“Oh.” *picks Link*
I’m guessing that quite a few people had a similar introduction to the Fire Emblem series, if not through the first game localised outside of Japan on Game Boy Advance. I’d also guess it was similar with Advance Wars, another turn-based strategy series by the same developer. It is odd that it took so long for games in both series to be localised as its genre was not unknown to western audiences, with PC series like Jagged Alliance and X-Com being very similar (minus the anime style). But then we are talking about Nintendo, a company that makes (or at least seems to make) so many baffling decisions that it just isn’t worth wondering at all.
I come to the genre from the aforementioned Jagged Alliance series, which while different in a number of ways is essentially a turn-based RPG, with a heavy focus on story and the characters at the players command. So I had already experienced the despair of losing a beloved character after a long and furious battle and been forced to decide whether to start over or move on. I also well understood how one or two bad decisions (along with bad luck) can quickly change a soaring success into a definite disaster. These two aspects are very much what make both series hover between enjoyment and frustration, but both feelings are fuelled by (and essential to) the addictive nature of the games.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to finally play a Fire Emblem game. I came very close several times to buying the GameCube release Path of Radiance and regretfully so, given the prices used copies now go for. I also looked long and hard at the two GBA games quite a few times but never took the plunge for a number of different reasons, and now just a few months ago when I finally decided to jump into the series, I didn’t know which to choose.
So why not start with the original? I first looked at some gameplay footage of the NES original, but it lacked the slick interface of the more recent titles. Then I found out about the DS remake of the original Shadow Dragon and while it seemed to have less praise than other games in the series, it did have Marth – who very much represents the series to me. Reading about the game also made it clear that while the graphics, interface and some features were enhanced, it actually lacked some features of latter and even former titles. This only sold it further for me because if I liked it, I knew I had far more feature rich and interesting titles to try afterwards. So Shadow Dragon would be my First Fire… Emblem.
Something always bothered me about the very happy way the characters go about war in the early Advance Wars games. It seemed totally out of place in a game where the object is to destroy the enemy as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible. Indeed, you are ranked at how quickly and efficiently you do. So it was refreshing to experience the far more sombre opening to Shadow Dragon, where a young prince loses everything but a few loyal followers. Now facing an enormous empire, he has to win new allies and take back his homeland before finally facing the evil behind his great misfortune. The addictive nature of the gameplay is enough, but it was nice to have the additional incentive to defeat the enemy.
On the normal setting, Shadow Dragon contains a prologue campaign that sets the plot in motion; but more importantly for new players, it acts as the tutorial. I played through this eagerly and perhaps didn’t pay enough attention because when starting the campaign proper, I made multiple mistakes. These mistakes piled up as I missed visiting villages, recruiting characters and obtaining items and upgrades – and I lost many in my army through careless decision making. This came to a head in Chapter 7 and I realised that the game was going to get much harder going forward. With hours of progress already, I made the decision to start all over again.
This turned out to be an excellent decision as when starting again, I avoided many elementary mistakes, saw many things I’d previously missed and had a much better working idea of how I wanted to shape my army. While I learned from my mistakes, I of course made a whole lot of new ones. In doing this, I began enjoying the game immensely and even the battles I had already completed were exciting to replay due to my improved understanding of the game mechanics. If you are the kind of gamer that can’t stand losing game progress then Fire Emblem would be considered a game to avoid. But you still shouldn’t, because it is very much a game where losing progress is actually important to your enjoyment. I would go so far as to say that you are supposed to get frustrated, because the consequences of your failures are supposed to hurt and make your victories all the sweeter.
Once I understood the basics, I began to plough through chapter after chapter. I had chosen a group of characters to focus on levelling and upgrading, and I often ruthlessly sent in unwanted characters to lure enemies in for my preferred characters to defeat. The normal difficulty setting isn’t nearly as demanding as hard mode but I still had to be careful. I still had to restart on occasion and was still sometimes faced with the hard decision of whether to restart a battle or lose a character. The game did feel easier as I went but in a good way. After all, my army was stronger and more battle hardened. They were no longer under the direction of the careless commander whose adventure ended on Chapter 7.
In most chapters I was very thorough with exploring the map and destroying the enemy, even going so far as to fight every wave of reinforcements I could, whether a strategic necessity or not. As total victory became closer and the difficulty increased in the last few chapters, I felt less and less need to be so thorough. I had maxed out the levels of many of my characters and they could more or less overwhelm any enemy they encountered – so in the last few chapters I usually just went straight for the goal, killing only the enemies that got in my way.
I won’t go into detail about how the final chapter played out or even how the game ended. I will say (and I don’t think this spoils anything) that I really appreciated the way the games ending showed what happened to the characters, whether they survived the campaign or were lost in battle. Given how small I had kept my army throughout, there was a lot more of the latter but this reflected the reality of war, much like the hill in Cannon Fodder that slowly fills with gravestones as you lose troops.
One final thing I will mention is the music. I’ve never been good at describing why I like music but it is enough to say that it was foreboding, tragic, joyous and uplifting whenever it needed to be and I never felt like replacing it with my own playlist.