Nintendo are best known for their history of family entertainment. First as a card manufacturer, then as a toy maker, and finally as the gaming juggernaut they are today. While they normally create their biggest hits internally, Nintendo have always been backed by a string of second party studios who have bolstered their game line ups and attracted audiences that Nintendo’s mainstays do not.
One such group is Intelligent Systems. While their games may never match the popularity of Mario, Pokemon or Zelda it cannot be denied that the studio has proven itself time and again through a string of cult classics, the biggest of these being Fire Emblem.
Beginning in 1991, Fire Emblem is a series of fantasy Role-Playing Games famed for its permanent death mechanic where a character is lost for the remainder of the game once defeated in battle. With Fire Emblem: Three Houses due to release on July 26 it is only fitting to reflect on the 15th anniversary of the series European debut. This is the history of the mainline Fire Emblem series in the West.
The History of the Fire Emblem series in the West.
Super Smash Bros. Melee (Nintendo GameCube, 2001)
When Super Smash Bros. Melee released, Nintendo fans rejoiced at the sight of their favourite characters duking it out in what would be one of the GameCube’s timeless classics. Players could look forward to playing as Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Samus and… Marth!?
For westerners this inclusion was baffling. Who was this mysterious cape-clad swordsman? What game was he from? Why did he speak Japanese? Players would learn that Marth was the main protagonist of Fire Emblem, a strategy game where the player commands an army to liberate their kingdom from invaders. Fire Emblem was a cult-hit and had half a dozen games by the time of Melee’s release. There was just one issue, the series was Japan-exclusive.
Marth’s appearance was completely left field and elevated the excitement of unlocking new content in Melee. This mystique would only be further enhanced when players discovered that Melee contained not one, but two unlockable Fire Emblem characters. If players didn’t know Marth, then they definitely didn’t know Roy. In fact, Melee would be the first game Roy ever appeared in – his own game wouldn’t be released until the following year.
Despite a lack of Western representation Marth and Roy would become popular and put Fire Emblem firmly into the conscious of gamers who were hungry for new Nintendo games. While Roy’s title would never see a release in the West it cannot be understated just how big a role the character played in putting Fire Emblem on the global stage.
Fire Emblem (Game Boy Advance, 2003)
While Marth and Roy were pushed as the Fire Emblem representatives in Smash Bros neither would be the focus of the series global debut as Westerners were subjected to an entirely new game. Fire Emblem (also known as Fire Emblem: Blazing Blade) would be a prequel to Roy’s game and tell the story of three protagonists. Lyndis, a nomad whose noble heritage sees her pulled into a conflict to save her grandfather; Eliwood, Roy’s father and heir to Pherae, a province in the nation of Lycia; and Hector, Eliwood’s best friend and brother of the most powerful lord in Lycia.
Fire Emblem would be a hit as it tailored to beginners and experts alike. Lyn’s tutorial campaign would hold the players hand a little too much, but the game would make up for it with the main Eliwood campaign and the hard-as-nails Hector mode. With three campaigns, multiple difficulty levels, respectable storytelling, a huge cast of characters and an abundance of secrets Fire Emblem would set the Western standard for the series and remains a fan favourite entry.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (Game Boy Advance, 2004)
The series second Western outing would expand on Blazing Blade’s foundations, ditching the linear structure for an RPG-inspired world map which gave players the freedom to go at their own pace.
The Sacred Stones follows twins Erika and Ephraim as they fight to free their kingdom in a plot that would escalate into a battle to save the world. Sacred Stones would take a novel approach to replay value as the player would be given the choice to take a story path exclusive to either Erika or Ephraim. Replay value has always been key in Fire Emblem’s long-term appeal and Sacred Stones made sure to preserve that.
As nice as the world map was, it broke the difficultly curve as players could freely grind out battles until their units were able to steamroll anything the game threw at them. This difficulty curve was further mocked by one of the most powerful characters in the series as players would solo the game with Seth, a paladin who joins on chapter one and remains active for the entirety of the game.
Sacred Stones further distanced itself from Blazing Blade with new classes, a promotion tree, and new enemy types such as monsters. Sacred Stones was a respectable follow up and whether or not you prefer it merely comes down to preference, it was a strong send off for the series on GBA.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (Nintendo GameCube, 2005)
Path of Radiance would mark the series debut in 3D and become one of the most valuable and sought-after GameCube games thanks to a late release in the console’s life cycle. Those lucky enough to own it would find it to be one of the most well-rounded entries in the series. The reintroduction of skills and weapon forging alongside the innovative bonus experience system made it a game where any unit could be made useful. A revamped support system helped give the game high replay value as the series returned to the linear story structure of Blazing Blade, encouraging players to experiment with different teams during each playthrough.
Path of Radiance would also stand out for its storytelling. Ike would be noteworthy as the first series protagonist to not be of noble birth. Ike was not a lord but the son of a mercenary, learning swordsmanship from his father so he could one day begin working in his company. This peaceful life would be rocked by the revelation that Ike’s home nation of Crimea had been invaded by Daein. In the chaos following the invasion Ike would rescue a woman who turned out to be the Princess of Crimea. These events would set Ike on the path of liberation as he would work under Princess Elincia as her bodyguard and eventually, military commander.
The plot was a standard hero’s journey, but Path of Radiance would excel thanks to outstanding world and character building. Tellius hosts a detailed history of kingdoms, war, religion, politics and slavery. The games two respective races, the Beorc (humans) and the Laguz (therianthropic shapeshifters) have long held disdain for each other as Ike comes to learn the suffering bought onto the Laguz through inequality and genocide. These racial tensions help set the backdrop of Tellius with the invading nation of Daein being a fascist state whose Mad King sees his citizens raised to view the Laguz as savages who must be wiped from the earth.
The racial tension affects everyone. Even Ike and his allies are subject to it with some being racists or the victims of racism themselves. Character arcs relating to this subject give the support system a real sense of progression as characters change their ways over the course of the game.
Path of Radiance may be easy as Fire Emblem games go, but it provides excellent storytelling by Nintendo standards as no other game in the series delves so heavily into these topics. It’s a shame the games cost will prevent many from experiencing it. It is in desperate need of a re-release.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Nintendo Wii, 2007)
Radiant Dawn would be the second time the series saw a direct sequel, taking place after Path of Radiance. Ike would now share the leading role with Micaiah, a silver haired maiden who leads a band of warriors called the Dawn Brigade as they fight to free Daein from occupational forces following their defeat in the Mad Kings War three years earlier.
Path of Radiance’s optimism would move aside for a bleaker story where every thing that can go wrong, often will go wrong. With characters returning stronger than ever, the games creators clearly saw it as fitting to put them in increasingly desperate situations.
As a game Radiant Dawn is in so many ways superior to Path of Radiance. An improved skill system, faster game pace, dynamic battle engine, flexible support system and class balance tweaks would make for a more engaging tactical challenge. Terrain would take advantage of the 3D engine by introducing climbable ledges and giving units advantage when fighting from the high ground.
Radiant Dawn would come into its own with map design being among the most celebrated and challenging in the series and would also come to be known for its crushing difficulty. This infamy would be due to a localisation error which saw normal and hard renamed easy and normal in the Western release, overwhelming many a player who took a chance on this game.
For all the things Radiant Dawn had over Path of Radiance it would fail to garner the same critical praise. There are many reasons for this, such as the difficulty and the decision to release on the Wii, but more than anything else Radiant Dawn’s biggest failure would be its storytelling.
Radiant Dawn’s story was in short, a mess. Path of Radiance set up a sequel by suggesting Ike’s rise from common mercenary to war hero would have severe consequences. This plot thread would be dropped entirely as Radiant Dawn ham-handedly retconned the revelations uncovered by Ike in the Mad Kings War. The player was often left questioning the characters intelligence as the narrative become riddled with inconsistencies, plot holes and moments of laughably dumb writing.
Furthermore, characters who have already finished their respective arcs do not often make for good story-telling opportunities, nor does having the newly introduced characters be ordinary and inferior in comparison. While the support system would allow for more flexible paring the lack of real support conversations would hurt in the long run.
That said Radiant Dawn is still a solid Fire Emblem game. If the Radiance games excel at anything it is music. The soundtrack for both are equally fantastic.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (Nintendo DS, 2008)
For its DS debut Intelligent Systems would take the series back to basics, remaking the 1990 original and bringing Marth’s adventures to the west for the first time. Shadow Dragon would leave many fans cold as it abandoned features which had become staples of the series. Skills and the supports were gone, and the gameplay would be far simpler as a result.
Its Gaiden chapter requirements left a bad taste in the mouths of completionists as many were only accessible through the deaths of your comrades. The art style would be widely disliked as the game abandoned sprites for pre-rendered 3D models. Gameplay further split opinion as many believed it was perhaps too faithful and felt aged as a result.
One change which would be appreciated however was the new class system allowing you to change units into whatever you saw fit, such as reclassing the early game paladin Jagen into a draco knight to gain immediate access to a powerful flying unit.
Shadow Dragon is Fire Emblem at its purist; a war game where soldiers are disposable people who throw down their lives in the name of a greater cause. Their worth as people is complimented by their worth as a soldier. Marth is the only character to see real development, it is the story of how he returned from exile to free Archanea from the Dark Dragon. He is the only one who matters.
Fire Emblem was never originally designed with resetting or stat maxing in mind. Permanent death gives weight to decisions and makes choices matter. The game is balanced around those commitments. Intelligent Systems bravely stood by this design regardless of whether or not players agreed with it, if nothing else Shadow Dragon can be commended for that.
Fire Emblem Awakening (Nintendo 3DS, 2012)
After Shadow Dragon’s poor performance, the series would fade away temporarily with New Mystery of the Emblem remaining Japan exclusive. Sales were down and the series wasn’t popular in the West, it seemed like Intelligent Systems would only be able to make one more Fire Emblem game before being forced to move onto new ventures.
Designed as the final Fire Emblem game, Awakening aimed to go out with a bang. It was a love letter to the series as it attempted to incorporate almost every feature introduced over the previous 20 years from skills, supports, world maps and class changes to the return of character marriage and child units who could be recruited into your army. With these features and more, Awakening would be the biggest Fire Emblem to date.
Awakening follows the story of Chrom, a descendant of Marth who commands the Shepards, a group of soldiers in charge of maintaining peace and order in the kingdom of Ylisse. This peace would not last however as undead warriors known as risen and the neighbouring kingdoms would bring war to Ylisse. With the help of the amnesiac tactician Robin and the mysterious masked swordsman “Marth”, Chrom would embark on a journey to save Ylisse, the world, and his future.
Awakening would not be the final Fire Emblem. In fact, it would completely rejuvenate the franchise and become the best-selling game in the series. While Awakening would save Fire Emblem it would also split the fanbase. New players liked the abundance of choice as they could turn off permanent death and use the world map to train their characters freely.
Veterans were less receptive however as they as they felt the game had become too simplified as enemy AI just brainlessly rushed the player. Others felt the game was geared too much towards fanservice, beginning what would come to be dubbed by fans as “Waifu Emblem”. Complaints aside, Awakening would still be a strong Fire Emblem and a far better fate than what could have been.
Fire Emblem Fates (Nintendo 3DS, 2015)
If Awakening was the game to bring Fire Emblem into mainstream popularity then Fates would be the game to cash in as Intelligent Systems released not one, but three new games simultaneously. Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation, three campaigns that would tell the Fates story based on the player’s choice. The protagonist can either side with the kingdom of Nohr (Conquest), the kingdom of Hoshido (Birthright) or side with neither and end the war by their own hand (Revelation).
Birthright was straightforward and designed for newcomers while Conquest would be a challenging campaign designed for veterans. Revelation would be experimental and designed for players who had already finished Birthright and Conquest. If you owned the special edition then you had access to the entirety of Fates on one game card, making it far and away the largest Fire Emblem game with over 70 chapters to play over the three campaigns.
While Conquest would provide a satisfyingly difficult challenge there is much to be desired with the rest of Fates. Birthright would consist entirely of rout maps while Revelations would be too gimmicky for its own good. The story and cast would also leave old school fans cold as it exacerbated the aspects of Awakening and “Waifu Emblem” they disliked the most. The romance mechanic was made more intimate as the player could invite characters into their home. The child mechanic returned and was inserted into the narrative in a laughably ham-fisted manner.
Overall fans would come to have a love/hate relationship with Fates. It wasn’t a bad game but its pandering and overexposure in Fire Emblem media and spin-offs would come to wear thin. Had the series had continued down this path fans probably would have grown tired of it.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (Nintendo 3DS, 2017)
Shadows of Valentia would be a remake of the Famicom game Fire Emblem Gaiden. After Shadow Dragon’s disappointing performance Intelligent Systems made sure to avoid the same missteps as Valentia embraced everything unique about Gaiden while bringing it up to modern standards.
It would be a resounding success and praised for its design, characters and story alike. The lover’s quarrel narrative between protagonists Alm and Celica would go well with the tagging system which allowed players to switch parties on the fly as they worked together to open the path ahead for each of their respective journeys.
Gaiden’s dungeons would be a welcome feature as they displayed some of the most detailed graphics on the 3DS. It’s a fantastic evolution of the series explorable worlds and it will no doubt be something the series returns to in the future. Valentia would also be the first game in the series to be fully voice acted. These advancements alongside stunningly beautiful renditions of the original soundtrack would make Shadows of Valentia the most impressive of the 3DS trilogy.
Despite differences, Shadows of Valentia is a Fire Emblem game at its core and while map design would be retained from Gaiden, warts and all, the game still offers a satisfying challenge for players of all levels. Shadows of Valentia is an easy recommendation for newcomers who may be looking for something closer to a JRPG.
With Valentia taking the series back to its roots without abandoning 25 years worth of progress, it is fair to say that Intelligent Systems have found a balance that pleases both fans old and new. If Valentia is a sign of things to come, then the future is looking bright for Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Nintendo Switch, 2019)
This brings us to the modern day as we await the immediate release of the series latest entry. Early impressions suggest the Three Houses will continue to uphold the high standard the series set when it first introduced itself to the world back in 2003. Fire Emblem has seen many ups and downs, but it has finally hit the big time. Where the series will go from here is anyone’s guess.