The 90′s console wars, unlike most other wars, is a conflict that’s fondly remembered by most of its participants. It seems that every game on each side had a counterpart on the opposite side. Mario vs. Sonic, Final Fantasy vs. Phantasy Star, Star Fox vs. Afterburner and the list keeps going. But if there was a genre where the great Nintendo had to see itself defeated, it was the strategy-RPG. Sega had the amazing Shining Force and Warsong while Nintendo tacticians just had to bite the bullet; at least that’s what we thought back then.
More than ten years later, western Nintendo fans found out that Nintendo had excellent counterparts to both of Sega’s big offerings in the form of the Fire Emblem and Wars series which had only been released in Japan.
Luckily for western gamers, Nintendo took the better late than never approach and finally released Fire Emblem (actually the seventh game in the series) for the GBA in 2003.
The game consists of two lengthy campaigns where you control the members of the royal families of the continent Elibe through battles and political conspiracies. The plot doesn’t exactly break any new ground and it’s mostly told through textboxes and profile pictures of the characters but it does a good job of moving the game forward. But as with any good game in the genre, the real strength of Fire Emblem is the game itself.
The basic gameplay of Fire Emblem follows the standard strategy-RPG formula with each side taking turns moving their units across a grid based map, however, it soon becomes apparent that the depth offered here is far beyond the average game in the genre.
Both weapons and units have different strengths and weaknesses, for instance swords are strong against axes and flying units are weak against bows. This is not exactly unique for the genre but if you add the fact that every weapon in the game degrades every time you use them, with the most powerful ones degrading the fastest, things get more complex. Finding money is rare so you need to carefully consider if you want to buy weapons that can really help you in a mission or save the money to buy more powerful weapons later in the game.
The maps, while graphically simple, are extremely well designed and later in the game often hairpullingly challenging. Just when you think you have the upper hand, the enemy may gain reinforcements and completely turn the battle around forcing you to think up completely new strategies on the spot. At times you can even find units among the enemy ranks that can be convinced to join your army if the right friendly unit talks to them before they’re killed.
But what Fire Emblem may be most famous for in the genre is its use of permanent death for your units. If one of your characters is killed in battle they are gone for good, and these are not faceless drones like in Advance Wars; they are characters with unique personalities who contribute to the game’s plot and if they die their part in the story is over. This makes you really care about them and forces you to think through every move very carefully, but if you want to make it through the game with every single unit alive, you’ll probably need to restart hour long chapters more than once.
Fire Emblem is a masterpiece that every fan of the strategy-RPG genre would definitely enjoy, however, the original game cartridge can be rather expensive today. There have been many equally engaging games in the series released since so while I absolutely recommend the game, you might want to try one of the later releases before you shell out the cash for this brilliant but expensive pearl of strategy gaming.
Year of release: 2003
Developer: Intelligent Systems