(Note: This is a piece I’ve been conceptualizing for some time, and I feel like now, with talks of the new Fire Emblem titles coming out in February, this is the best place to put it. Whether you’re new to the series, incredibly familiar with the games, or hearing about it for the first time here, hopefully, this will stir something in you to go and check the series out or relive your favorite entry!)
Nintendo releases a unique title that plays like a combination of chess and Dungeons and Dragons. This ambitious little game ends up laying the groundwork for a series thirteen entries deep (and then some, if you consider some of the side games and stories). With another entry in the works to come out soon, this series has gained acclaim in various ways, often scraping and presenting product that we had no precursor for in the states to gain some visibility.
Needless to say, it’s been working, one way or another.
Fire Emblem is now a franchise known to nearly all fans of the role-playing genre, and a wide range of gamers in general. While we have only seen a handful of “official” titles on this side of the ocean (five, unless I’m mistaken), we have been given glimpses of other titles, especially in the latest entry, Fire Emblem: Awakening. Though various downloadable scenarios and other features, we peer into the past games of the series and some of their characters, though a bit out of context. It was enough to pique interest for some new and unseasoned players of the series, and a fit of satisfied giggles for those of us who have played some of the older entries, one way or another.
To those who are fairly new (or even brand-spanking new) to the series, welcome. This overview is guided almost squarely to you- to teach people about the series in general, present some interesting trivia, and share a love for a series that doesn’t seem to get enough of it.
Those of you familiar with the series, while most of this is informational, it will dig into the subjective at times. It’s easy to keep completely objective, but I think that writing about a series with affection is more interesting, and it makes people who know the subject matter remember their own experiences with the topic. Hopefully, if you don’t learn anything in this, you at least remember your time within the worlds of Fire Emblem.
Basic Questions (and Their Fitting Answers)
“So… what exactly is Fire Emblem?”
Fire Emblem is a role-playing game of the “tactical” or “strategy” variety. You can reference various other games for the style- Shining Force, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre- and pretty much understand how the game plays out. Your characters are placed into a landscape and they move in a grid to attack the enemy. I won’t go into all of the mechanics about tactical RPGs at the moment, since most people reading about this game probably have a vague idea of the system, but that is the basic idea.
“Okay… so what makes this series special if there are so many tactical RPGs out there?”
Not only was Fire Emblem considered to be the first of its kind, but it has a lot of features that tactical RPGs, even now, don’t rely on. The playable cast is enormous, averaging on between 30 and 50 usable characters per game, so you can find characters you like from different classes- mage, mercenary, warrior, and thief, just to name a few- and create your own party that is unique to your game as compared to your friend’s.
“That sounds like a lot of characters, though.”
Well, you need to have a lot of characters, in the case that you need to replace someone that dies in battle.
“Replace them? I can just bring them back to life like in other role-playing games, right?”
Therein lies another facet of Fire Emblem. Save for the rare game here or there that has a ‘casual’ mode to rout this, Fire Emblem characters cannot be brought back to life if they are killed in battle. It may seem unfair. You level up some of your favorite characters, you bring them into a tough fight, you accidentally miscalculate and that archer from the enemy side comes up and makes short work of your poor healer. That character is now dead unless you decide to reset and start all over for that level.
This adds a whole other level of strategy to the game. Protecting your weaker units becomes a must. You have to make decisions on whether to press forward and attack or hold your ground and form a defensive front. In the rare case that an item does appear to resurrect characters, it has a very limited power and can only be used by very specific people.
Death is very real in this game, and outside of your main characters and a rare exception or two, every character can die. If they were a prominent member of your group, their absence is noticeable. In some endings, a character’s afterword may change because someone they were friends with or loved was killed in the war that you are taking part in. It has a certain weight to it, especially in later games where characters have more personality and connections to one another.
“All right, so permanent death is a defining feature in this series. Anything else?”
Much like plenty of other games of it’s kind, Fire Emblem does not have a continuous story. Rather, it has clumps of games that are related to one another. For instance, the first three games make up the “Archanea Saga”, named for the land that the games take place in. They are all related in some way and some characters make repeat appearances. I’ll make note of each “clump” as they are explained, but knowing that playing the second or third game in a saga might take away from the game itself without playing the first part of the saga is important.
“What about the difficulty? I’ve heard the series is tough…”
With good reason. The games aren’t easy, though they definitely fluctuate. I’ll try to give impressions on difficulty and easier entries to join the series on when they come up. If you don’t feel like waiting for the recommendations, I would recommend The Sacred Stones or Awakening as a good first entry that came stateside. I’ll discuss where these recommendations come from as the overview progresses, but for the quick and dirty of it, those would be the best entry points to see if you enjoy the gameplay, style, and general feel of the Fire Emblem series.
Of course, like I said- that could all be subjectivity speaking.
That should answer most of the preliminary questions. It’s tough to confine the games to certain conventions because the game continues evolving, changing features (or going back to old ones), and while they all play in similar fashion, they are all distinctly their own.
Knowing where it all began, though, is the only way to see how it has become what it is today.
Part One: The (Original) Archanea Saga
Fire Emblem (1990, Famicom)
When Fire Emblem came out, there was very little to compare it to at the time. Subtitled Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi (Dark Dragon and Sword of Light, roughly), the story follows Prince Marth and his group of soldiers as they attempt reclaim their homeland of Aritia. The game opens its very first level on Talis, where Marth and his men have already lost their homeland and they are attempting to stop the same thing from happening to Princess Sheeda and her nation. When mutterings of the return of Mediuth, a dark dragon once slain by the legendary hero Anri, arise, it falls onto Marth, Sheeda, and any allies willing to rally to their cause to put a stop to the potential catastrophe on the horizon.
The story takes place over the course of 25 or so chapters as your troops are bolstered and they face the dangers that other kingdoms of Akaneia are being tormented with. The story has definitely not aged terrifically, as it is fairly cut and dry ‘good against evil’ plot most of the time. Many of the characters that join you during battle start as enemies, which is about as gray as most of the subject matter becomes for intention, but this becomes a fairly common occurrence throughout the series and is a welcome addition of depth that many of the characters in this first entry do not obtain otherwise. You tend to get a piece of story at the beginning of the level and another piece at the end to segue into the next level. Dialogue is presented with static portraits to convey what is happening- a convention that has lasted throughout most of the series with little deviation.
As a given, since this entry did not officially release in the states, this is mostly going to focus on the gameplay and presentation itself rather than dialogue or story choices. A group did put out a pretty stellar translation patch, should one find themselves in possession of the right tools to make use of it, and given recent revamps that have actually been released here, they did a bang-up job of getting everything out that needed to be. In fact, a huge thanks goes out the dedicated teams and people that put the time and effort into getting these fantastic games into the hands of the public, one way or another. With that, I may use some of the wrong terms and translations in some of these explanations, since Awakening did a lot to offer the correct naming conventions (but only for certain characters, places, and groups).
As your adventure continues, maps that you encounter can have certain terrain “elements”, which will slow characters down, give them extra defense, or even heal them. This is another standard feature that continues throughout the series, making strategy even more valuable. Your characters that can travel on foot may be able to stride across a mountainous area, but your cavaliers won’t dare to bring their horses over the same land. Frail as they may be, pegasus riders can take to the skies and travel more ground than any of your other units. You certainly don’t want them to be alone, though, since one stray arrow may bring them to a swift end. This is made doubly important because in this entry, you do not have any indicator as to how far your character can move aside from moving your cursor until you cannot move any further.
This does bring us to another interesting part of the game- character classes. For the most part, you have pretty standard faire for a fantasy game: cavaliers (social knights, as the original calls them) who ride into battle on their horses, thieves, and armored knights take to the front. Archers, mages, and healers tend to the back. There are some interesting unique classes, such as the above pegasus knights. Some other classes- Shooter and Commando, for instance- only appear in rare supply and have their own unique abilities. One other class does stand out, however- the Manakete.
Well, in the original translation, they are called ‘mamkute’, they are another staple of the series, absent only from a couple of games here and there. The Manakete are a race of dragons who can take the form of humans and, with the help of Dragonstones, can tap into their dragon form to join the fray. They always have a deep connection to the stories that they appear in, and the two in this game- Banutu and Chiki- are no exception, though they are not nearly as pivotal as other characters comparatively. They can still die and act as your other troops do, but the Manakete will appear more as the series overview goes on.
Another theme that carries from game to game is, of course, the titular Fire Emblem. In each game, the Fire Emblem serves a grand purpose in bringing the heroes to their goal. In this game, Princess Nyna, entrusts the emblem to Prince Marth upon her being rescued. So far as the emblem’s story is concerned in this entry, that puts an end to it. It is said to mark a great hero, but it does not do much more than enforce that Prince Marth is, indeed, our story’s protagonist.
The side stories in this entry are fleeting, as one would expect. You have your lead love interests, Marth and Sheeda. You have Rena, a kidnapped healer, and Julian, an earnest thief, who are in love, despite Rena’s brother, Machis, and his detestation of this idea since she fled from her original marriage. Midia and Astria, two knights who are separated when Midia is imprisoned and brought back together by Marth’s intervention. Minerva and Maria, the two princesses of Medon who desperately want their kingdom to be free and fight to be free themselves. There are a lot of stories that appear for the entirety of a level and result in the characters fading into the background as soon as they are brought into the army. While this makes sense, given the nature of how fleeting some characters could be, this early on, the series does not find a way to circumvent this. With such a large cast, however, many of the characters do not even get to speak, let alone play a part in the story.
Where the story leads these characters, however, is fairly direct, but still a noble tale. Marth and his comrades travel to various locations hunting down Garnef, the priest attempting to bring Mediuth back into power, including the magical kingdom of Khadein, Gra, the kingdom that directly opposes Aritia, and the Lefcandy Mountain Range, home to a dangerous group of bandits and assassins. Marth, also attempting to save his sister, Ellis, from Garnef, is after the Falchion, a legendary sword used by the warrior, Anri, in the original felling of Mediuth. As expected, he faces various trials before finally getting the Falchion, the only weapon that can put Mediuth to rest.
In the grand scheme of things, the story was actually very deep for the time and while the pace of the game can hit crawling speeds at times during battles, the constant addition of new characters to use and the fact that the maps that you battle on are rarely too vast to traverse in a few turns keeps things interesting. The game was revolutionary in its time, and as the progenitor of the series, it set the standard high for the ever changing titles that followed it. For better or worse, the Fire Emblem series started with an ambitious bang, even if age has done nothing positive for the original.
Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992, Famicom)
Nintendo must have known they had a good thing with the original Fire Emblem. Unlike some other role-playing hits of the time, they decided to place the second game as more of a side story than a true sequel. As Fire Emblem Gaiden was created, small and somewhat vague links were made to the original, but aside from a few overlapping characters from the first, the allusions to the first game are all but non-existent.
The story of this game centers on the continent of Valentia. On one side of the continent, a young warrior named Alm, adopted grandson of the great war hero Mycen, trains idly in his small village of Ram. When Ruka, a member of the liberation army, approaches looking for Mycen to help fight against the forces that have turned against their country of Zofia, he is turned away. Alm and his friends take up his reins, venturing to join the liberation and free Zofia of its insurgence.
On the other side of Valentia, a young priestess by the name of Celica resides on a small island, studying the teachings of Mila, a goddess whose influence has all but disappeared from the land. Concerned, she appeals to Nomah, the bishop of her temple, to go on a journey to find out what has happened to the Goddess. She, along with a small group of disciples, begins her journey from her secluded island to restore Mila’s power to the land once again.
The story is split into five chapters and, as would be expected, the stories of Celica and Alm entwine and become one as the story progresses. Five chapters may not sound like a lot compared to the previous game, but unlike its predecessor, Gaiden does not spirit you from battlefield to battlefield. You travel over locations via an overworld map, much like Super Mario World, where you may or may not find random battles, towns, and other interesting surprises. While each chapter has certain beginning and end points, what you choose to do in the midst of these chapters is less linear than the prior entry. Not everything is mandatory, but you can find some powerful items by exploring- and occasionally powerful enemies.
By traveling to some of these side areas, however, you will find many of your potential allies and some interesting side stories. Once you’ve cleared Zofia Castle of the initial siege party, if you don’t actually enter the castle, you won’t meet Clair, your first Pegasus Knight and sister to the Liberation Army that Alm is journeying to join. Traveling to an optional fight (that is constantly spewing random battles onto the world map, for the record) will have you meet one of the more powerful healers in the game, Teeta, and will open up a somewhat tragic love story with a returning character from the original game. There is something to be said for exploring, especially once all of your characters are together.
Where the game improves on the original is that the characters can equip weapons, giving them an advantage and making them powerful mainstays in your party. It is the first real bite of autonomous customization that the series offers. The way that the games plays out- being able to travel between locales- also means that you can grind for the first time, so your characters, be they under-leveled or otherwise, can find ways to grow in strength.
While Fire Emblem Gaiden does not appear to take any steps back, it does keep some nagging issues. Some of the character portraits are still just palette swaps, which is less intrusive and less frequent than the original. You also still can’t see your movement range, which presents issues in trying to situate and employ strategies throughout your battles, some of which can take quite a bit of time and give no way of saving throughout.
This game almost universally improves on the formula of the original, and any nitpicks are exactly that. The tone and story of the game are steps above the original, the music, for what little there is, also excels over the original. Fire Emblem Gaiden, as a sequel/side story, is a very serviceable entry and has only legitimately fallen to the wayside due to time and technological advance.
Thankfully, due to the translation communities on the Internet, this, the original, and numerous other entries from this series that did not make it to the North American shores have been pieced together with hard work and determination to ignite the flame of interest that may have given titles like Fire Emblem: Awakening the chance to flourish.
(Thanks for looking at the first of four parts of this overview. The next entry will look into an interesting and somewhat early remake and the two games that make up the little known Jugdral Saga!)