You never forget your first. That eternally true cliché might not have originally applied to video games, but it’s a sentiment that definitely fits. A sizable portion of how we remember good games is colored by the time in our lives that we played them. Whether you popped that Super Street Fighter II Turbo cartridge into your Super Nintendo as a carefree sixth grader or allowed your Sega Saturn and Dragon Force to help you cope with the pain of your parents’ divorce as a teen, games can certainly have a profound impact on us. It doesn’t even have to be a matter of the game accompanying a life-altering event. Sometimes, as with the first time I played games as innovative as Jet Grind Radio for the Sega Dreamcast or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 for the PS2, a title just opens your eyes to a style of gameplay that you have never really experienced before. The seventh game in the Fire Emblem series, and the first released in North America, was the title that introduced me to Strategy Role-Playing (SRPG) games, and what an introduction it was.
Amidst a pretty standard swords-and-dragons setup, Fire Emblem offers a deep, rewarding, and tough-yet-fair experience that accomplishes what is truly the seal of excellence for a game in this genre: you want to play through it more than once.
The game, in fact, encourages multiple play-throughs by virtue of the numerous modes it offers. Novices get a roughly three-hour tutorial mode focusing on one of three “lord” characters, Lyn, that doesn’t just run through the basics of the game, but adds a story element that will have ramifications on the main tale. After learning about the game’s turn-based battle system and its weapons triangle of axes beating lances, lances beating swords, and swords beating axes (with a similar one for magic), you can choose to play main character Eliwood’s story on either normal or hard, or third lord Hector’s story (with this mode having an unlockable hard setting). You don’t get the full story until you play through all the modes at least once, and you’re going to want to.
What makes the gameplay in Fire Emblem so fun and addictive is its beautiful simplicity. You move your character on a grid map, to either directly attack an enemy unit or as bait inside an enemy’s attack area (which you will be able to display), then you wait, and do the same for the rest of your party until you end your turn. Besides melee attackers and magicians, there are units that heal, grant another unit an additional turn, and specific intricacies like flying units being extremely vulnerable to archers, while those same archers cannot retaliate at all against a direct attack. You are almost always outnumbered by the enemy party, which adds an element of real urgency that is increased exponentially by the fact that, if a unit falls in battle, they cannot be revived. This means you’re going to have to start over battles pretty frequently as a novice if you want to keep all your units, as well as make liberal use of the handy “suspend” feature, which initiates a one-time soft save of your battle.
Besides the simplicity and urgency of battle, I don’t think I’ve ever played an RPG where leveling up was so satisfying. A character can change class via a specific item after level 10, and watching the middling knight you’ve grown transform into a hulking general is an experience that never gets old. The class changes are aided by the truly fantastic graphics, which make full use of the GBA’s capabilities to provide true character and colorful style. The music is also great, and you’ll find yourself humming the opening tune randomly throughout the day.
Released in 2003, the success of Fire Emblem prompted Nintendo to regularly release subsequent installments of the franchise. Yet, after the too-easy GBA follow-up The Sacred Stones, the devoid-of-character shift to polygons in the 2005 Nintendo GameCube release Path of Radiance, and the insane difficulty of that game’s 2007 Wii sequel Radiant Dawn, this still stands as the best non-remake Fire Emblem ever released stateside. If you want a fantastic, portable SRPG experience, do yourself a favor and track down this cartridge.
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