The Fire Emblem series has experienced many highs and lows since its global debut and while many fans settled for the Western releases there were a portion who wanted more and wanted it immediately. With new titles releasing biennially, fans would look elsewhere for ways to fill the void. For these fans the best way to wait for the future is to go back to the past.
With Three Houses releasing this week let us look back on the golden age of Fire Emblem, a time where the series would be Japanese gaming’s biggest open secret. This is the history of Fire Emblem in Japan; the games Nintendo didn’t want you to play.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (Famicom, 1990)
Fire Emblem would be the brainchild of Shouzou Kaga, a designer at Intelligent Systems who would work on the game as a side project for three years while the studio focused on supporting the launch of the Game Boy. After a successful run of handheld titles, the studio would turn their focus back to console development, finally making Kaga’s vision a reality.
The hybridisation of strategy and role-playing pushed Famicom memory limitations to the point where a new chip set was developed specifically for the game. The need for memory would be a burden as the developers streamlined visuals to fit the whole game onto a single cartridge.
While Fire Emblem would be a fresh take on two already popular genres it would be the permanent death mechanic which would really hook Japanese gamers as it dared to punish them like no RPG before it. A brave design choice but one Kaga would stand by:
“I wanted to make a strategy game that was more dramatic, something where you would really be able to feel the pain and struggle of the characters. That’s why characters can’t be revived once they’re killed, to impart a sense of gravity and seriousness. In turn, I think the result is that the more love you have for your characters, the more rewarding the game is.” – Shouzou Kaga
Had players not taken so well to perma-death the series would not be where it is today. That no other strategy game dares to employ this mechanic says much of the risks in doing so.
Playing Fire Emblem in 2019 is… an experience. The limited graphics and chiptune soundtrack can be forgiven but the play itself drives home how far we’ve come. Players lack visual reference for movement and must manually calculate unit range while accounting for the penalties incurred by terrain such as forests and mountains.
With sluggish movement, a reliance on player calculation and a limited battle engine, Marth’s 8-bit outing will make you appreciate modern releases. Having been remade twice I cannot recommend it as anything other than a curiosity, play Shadow Dragon on DS instead.
Fire Emblem Gaiden (Famicom, 1992)
It would be hard to blame anyone for labeling Gaiden an obsolete game. While Shadows of Valentia has remained faithful, the originals ambition doesn’t truly hit until you witness the 1992 Famicom release first-hand as it attempted to merge the Fire Emblem formula with the likes of Dragon Quest.
The world map and dungeons allowed players to train units freely, but this freedom was hampered by the games painfully slow experience gains. With players able to battle endlessly, ditching breakable weapons would be a necessary concession. Furthermore, while map design would be the same as Echoes, the enemy layouts would be a pace killer in what was already a slow game.
That said, the game did feature innovations designed to circumvent these issues. It would be the first Fire Emblem with an auto-battle option where players could command their units to front an all-out-assault. With early game enemies being weak this is a command the player will want to use often.
Gaiden is no doubt an important entry but even without the remakes existence it would be hard to recommend it to anyone other than the most hardcore and patient of Fire Emblem fans. If you play this then be prepared to see your preconceptions about Fire Emblem thrown out the window.
Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem (Super Famicom, 1994)
The limitations of the Famicom would unfortunately prevent the Fire Emblem team from fulfilling their ambitions for the original game. The power of the Super Famicom would allow for many improvements as Intelligent Systems would release a remake/sequel to Fire Emblem.
Mystery of the Emblem would essentially be two games in one. Book 1 would be a remake of the original game with minor changes and a more streamlined story. This would serve to make Mystery of the Emblem a good starting point for newcomers and a way for experienced players to bring themselves back up to speed.
Book 2 tells a new story taking place two years after Marth defeats the Dark Dragon Medeus and end the War of Shadows. This story introduces new characters and sees former allies become enemies as the continent of Archanea is pulled into the War of Heroes.
Gameplay would be faithful to the original while new features would bring welcome improvements. Players could now display a unit’s movement and attacking range, a modern series staple. New to Mystery would be dismounting as knights could now fight on foot. This would be useful for avoiding weapons which were effective against mounts, but it would also inconvenience the player as knights cannot ride indoors, losing their ability to use powerful weapons such as lances.
Mystery of the Emblem is a little on the slow side but more than playable. If you ever wanted to go on a tour of the series origins, then skip the Famicom original and start here.
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (Super Famicom, 1996)
Genealogy would be an incremental entry, bringing with it many features that would become series staples. Chapters would be the largest of any Fire Emblem game, with the player capturing multiple castles while defending their own from opposing forces.
Villages now take several turns to destroy. Shops and arenas are accessed through allied castles and units can only change class at base. Weapons have more uses to account for the larger maps and can be manually repaired at shops, saving the player the trouble of buying more.
Genealogy would also establish the modern support system, with characters being able to marry and have children. This would be accompanied by the skill system and the ability to pass down special skills if the parent was of a holy bloodline.
Finally, it would introduce the weapon triangle where swords have advantage over axes, axes have advantage over lances, and lances have advantage over swords. This would be so popular that it has been included in almost every Fire Emblem since, with over variables existing for magic and ranged weapons.
This plethora of features only scratches the surface of Genealogy’s impact. Battle cinematics are more detailed than ever and set the standard for the series going forward. Without Genealogy we would not have the beloved animations of the GBA trilogy, or the fight choreography seen in Awakening, Fates and Echoes.
Genealogy’s increased complexity would personify what came to be known as “Kaga Emblem”. It is a more mature and nuanced Fire Emblem with a narrative to match as its story’s themes have caused some fans to dub the game “A Song of Ice and Fire Emblem”.
While the lack of official release is a major inconvenience, it is still worth seeking if you have played the Western releases to death and wish to play an entry which is unlike anything else in the series.
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 (Super Famicom, 1999)
Thracia 776 is often overlooked and it is no surprise when you consider that the game hit stores six weeks before the PS2 launched. As the last Super Famicom game it would sell in miniscule numbers, becoming one of the systems rarest games. Shouzou Kaga would leave Intelligent Systems a month before Thracia’s release, making it the last “Kaga Emblem” title to be published by Nintendo.
Thracia would be a midquel set in the middle of Genealogy of the Holy War’s story. It would focus on Leif, heir to the Republic of Manster as he hides from Thracian forces following the Yied Massacre, a significant event in Genealogy of the Holy War. Leif embarks on a journey to take Manster back after his village is attacked by Raydrik, the new Duke of Manster.
Genealogy would introduce features that would become cornerstones of the franchise. Thracia would bring them all together to create what the first “modern” Fire Emblem. Battles would be scaled down from Genealogy as players once again fought through villages, islands and buildings. The narrative structure would return to the old style with the story being told across 25 short chapters (plus 10 optional chapters) as opposed to the 11 long chapters seen in Genealogy.
Fog of War (known in this as Night combat) made its debut as players would be robbed of their ability to see enemy positions, landmarks and map terrain. It was a challenging twist which demanded caution. Joining it would be Capturing (the ability to subdue enemies), Fatigue (a stamina counter which forces you to rest units) and Rescuing (the ability to carry and protect ally’s).
Finally, mounting would return from Mystery of the Emblem as knights were once again forced to fight on-foot when indoors. These features alongside new objectives and Gaiden chapters would make Thracia the most feature heavy Fire Emblem to date.
Without Thracia there would be no Path of Radiance or Radiant Dawn, such is its influence. With the recent completion of the new fan translation now is as good a time as any to experience Thracia. Be warned however, Thracia 776 is Kaga Emblem in all its unforgiving glory. This is one worth seeking if you don’t mind games that are unapologetic about being designed to sell strategy guides.
Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade (GBA, 2002)
With Kaga gone Fire Emblem would begin to transition into the game’s we Westerners know and love. The Binding Blade would already garner attention before release thanks to Roy’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros, but it would also be significant as the series first venture onto handheld systems.
Play would be simplified to accommodate for the Game Boy Advance’s pick up and play nature. Maps would be small, objectives straight forward, and the skill system removed as units fought on ability alone. It was a return to the simplicity of the Archanea series.
Battle menus would be redesigned, merging stat breakdowns into new categories to streamline decision making. This change would become standard as the new menus were easier to read.
Roy’s story would be set 20 years after Blazing Blade and see the young lord called into battle after Lycia is attacked by Bern and their King, Zephiel. With other nations falling and few options remaining, Roy takes charge of the Lycia alliance and leads the charge in ending Zephiel’s tyranny once and for all.
Binding Blade would run on the same engine as Blazing Blade and the Sacred Stones but unlike those games Nintendo would pass up on localizing the it for a simple reason, it was absolutely not beginner friendly. Weapons are inaccurate and many players saw their strategies ruined by attack misses at the worst possible times. Enemy reinforcements would appear after the players turn ends, often without warning. Finally, Roy just straight up sucked thanks to a delayed promotion which prevented him from fighting stronger enemies head on.
The series would not have survived in the west had it debuted with Roy. The longwinded tutorial in Blazing Blade’s Lyn campaign would be a direct result of Binding Blade’s difficulty. A good Fire Emblem but one which that has quite rightly been criticised for its more frustrating aspects.
Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem (Nintendo DS, 2010)
After Shadow Dragon’s damp western reception, Intelligent Systems would pass up on localizing New Mystery altogether. This would be a loss for Western fans as they would be denied the chance to play the second half of Marth’s story.
New Mystery would be a reimagining of book 2 as it retold the War of Heroes with a new prologue and a fresh crop of characters. Among these newcomers would be Kris, a player-created character who would join Marth as the co-protagonist.
New Mystery like Shadow Dragon before it was a relatively faithful reimagining of the original with some minor differences. The players army size has been increased by one unit to make room for Kris. New chapters were also added to accommodate for Kris’ role in the story. A remake of the 1997 spin-off “BS Fire Emblem” is also included as a bonus. The game would reintroduce support conversations and remove dismounting as knights could fight on horseback even when indoors.
The modern streamlining brought to New Mystery would make for a swift paced game that is easy to pick up and play. This is definitely worth trying but it is suggested you find a translation. Play it in Japanese and you may end up accidentally shaving Kris bald like I did.
29 years and 16 games later, Shouzou Kaga’s vision has come far from its humble ambitions. What began as an innovative but frustrating RPG has evolved into one of Nintendo’s biggest second-party titles. While these Japanese classics may never receive a localization from Nintendo, their importance is undeniable. Without them Awakening would have never become the game it was. Those hungry for more Fire Emblem can rest easy knowing a fan community is out there working hard to make it possible to play these Eastern wonders in English. Translators, we salute you!