Happy late holidays to you all! I hope whatever you were doing during our week off at 3PStart, it was great and you somehow got everything you wanted, celebrations or not!
In this part of the Overview, we get a look at some of the most well known Fire Emblem games in the series, a trilogy of titles that ran rampant in the days of the Gameboy Advance. We finally get to see the series make its American debut, and we find out who that strange red-haired swordsman in a popular Nintendo fighting title is and where he came from.
All that and more after the jump!
Binding Blade (2002, Gameboy Advance)
As with most games that continue pushing innovation after innovation over time, the Fire Emblem series found itself boomeranging back in its sixth iteration, Binding Blade. With the series being a no-show on the Gameboy and Nintendo 64, it may have surprised some to see the next entry materialize on the Gameboy Advance, a nice piece of hardware that was still young at the time. Binding Blade- or Sword of Seals, depending on the translation you can find- did a lot to cement the Fire Emblem formula, however, and of the entries that did not cross the ocean to US shores officially, it is probably the one that most people have desired due to the release of one very prominent piece of information released here.
In another new saga, there are tales told of Elibe, a continent where war waged between humans and dragons. When man emerged victorious, they flourished while the dragons (read: Manaketes/Mamkutes) went into endangered isolation. While many years have passed with peace, upheaval begins when the kingdom of Bern begins to invades countries across the land, a young man named Roy, son of a hero now on his sickbed, takes the reins to fight back against Bern and their king, Zephiel, hoping to stop whatever dire plot they have devised which is somehow connected to the dragons of ancient history.
After many iffy systems being presented in the last entry- the Fatigue system being a glaring example- the game returned to a more basic and streamlined format. Supports were kept in, though only available to certain people and a certain amount of times, and this is the first game to offer a tutorial toward the beginning- something that should have been a no-brainer for such a difficult game. Difficult as it may be, Binding Blade was also the first to have an overt way to change the difficulty from normal to hard, should the player decide they would like the extra challenge.
For those reading who recognized one key name above, Roy, the main character of the game, is a character who was introduced in Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube. While this indicated to people that Fire Emblem might actually find its way to American consoles, they were proven wrong when the series did not debut in this country until the following entry. In a lesser known fact, Smash Bros actually appeared on store shelves four months before Blinding Blade, as production was still being wrapped up on the latter when Roy, added to Smash Bros to promote his game, appeared to audiences prematurely.
There are notable differences between Binding Blade and Thracia 776 that go beyond the systems they inhabit. For instance, the tone does not feel as dark, despite the topics and situations being similar. This appears to be due to the fact that Binding Blade is graphically much brighter. The character art feels straight out of Japanese animation, and it is indicative of the style that permeates the following entries for a few years to come. The game also, at least in its Normal difficulty, does not feel as vicious as its predecessor. It is by no means a walk in the park, but with Thracia‘s infamous cutthroat challenge, Binding Blade does take a step back while maintaining nail-biting moments throughout.
Where does all of this leave this piece of Fire Emblem history? Sadly, outside of Roy appearing in Super Smash Bros, gaining notoriety among fans, this is a solid and somewhat unmemorable game. Much like Mystery of the Emblem, you cannot progress through the story unless you retrieve a bunch of specific items- in this case, legendary weapons- that can only be sought out by reaching gaiden chapters. The characters come in interesting spurts throughout the game, but comparatively, they do not feel as vivid or unique as the characters in past iterations. It may have something to do with how memorable the other entries are for various reasons, but like a good foundation to a house, Binding Blade does a great job of setting the stage for games to come and is by no means a terrible game.
Blazing Sword (Gameboy Advance, 2003)
Whether you recognize the name or not, if you have been on the American Fire Emblem train since the game graced our shores, you will recognize this game. Simply titled Fire Emblem, this was the first entry to being officially translated and given to us by Nintendo. Following directly on the coattails of Binding Blade, this game retains a lot of the features of the previous title. Perhaps due to the official translation by the creators, it also retains a lot of charm that the series has since built on.
In the fields of Sacae, a territory in Elibe, a young woman named Lyn travels, righting wrongs and stopping nefarious plans as she comes across some important people, namely a noble by the name of Eliwood, his friend and battle partner, Hector, and a traveler who becomes a tactician for the three of them to stop an ever-growing danger across their continent. As the four of them travel together, gathering a group of noble would-be heroes, they find that the conspiracies of the plot unfolding behind the scenes threatens everything they knew about their lives and worlds.
Anyone who got the chance to play Binding Blade before this will recognize some of the names involved: Eliwood is the ill father of Roy, Hector makes an appearance, and various characters have some relation to members of the previous game. As this game acts as a prequel, there is a feeling of knowing how things will play out to an extent. That said, the game being split into “three stories” does take a step in the right direction so far as keeping the player interested. Lyn’s story acts as a prologue and tutorial for the player, while Eliwood’s story serves as the main length of the game with events that unfold a year later. Hector’s story is a third playthrough that extends the story presented in Eliwood’s chapters with a twist here and there.
Being that this entry is immediately on the heels of Binding Blade, there isn’t much that changes between that title and this one. One of the interesting changes is the insertion of a ‘Tactician’ character, another character who Lyn comes across in her chapters and plays a large part in the war. The Tactician serves as a player surrogate that you can name and give a gender and birth date to. While this character won’t be engaging in any combat, the characters constantly talk to the player as though they are the Tactician, so the story feels like it involves the player more than any past Fire Emblem game did. It is not a far stretch to see how this affected games like Awakening or any other title where the player gets to engage in making a character to participate.
Graphically, things look a little sharper than Binding Blade, but there is not a marginal difference in the gameplay graphics. Where the game’s graphics do shine is in the cutscene art that is inserted throughout the game. Certain events pop up with sepia toned depictions of the events unfolding, and they have a fantastic and historical feel to them that sets this title even further apart from its brethren. Those scenes are where the game’s front end really shines, as the music also, while not bad, is about on par for the series.
Blazing Sword doesn’t fall short in many areas, and any issue players take with the game- especially fans of the series as a whole- is more of a matter of taste than technical. The game moves at a steady clip content-wise, and it is still difficult. It is a small step back from Binding Blade‘s difficulty, so it is easy to see why this was the first entry that was translated by Nintendo to come over to the US. The characters are interesting and leave an impression, given the length of time and different stories the player gets to use them through. For better or worse, Blazing Sword is the best representation of the series a fan could ask for, mixing a combination of older features while streamlining for the modern day of gaming.
The Sacred Stones (2005, Gameboy Advance)
The third and final entry of the Fire Emblem series to hit the Gameboy Advance came in the form of The Sacred Stones. This game is arguably a personal favorite, and it is one of the more polarizing members of the Fire Emblem family. It takes a lot of steps in the right direction, even if they aren’t entirely uncharted, but it has a few features that made fans of the series unsatisfied with the end product.
The only entry to be part of a self-contained saga, this story revolves around Eirika and Ephraim, royal twins whose homeland of Renais is finding itself under duress due to its neighboring nation and thought-to-be ally, Grado. After an attack on Renais, Eirika goes on a quest to find her brother. Ephraim, however, has run into problems of his own, having not been heard from in some time. The twins quickly come to the realization that the Sacred Stones, protective relics of the five major kingdoms, are the key to holding back a long sealed evil, and they are now in danger.
It is easy to see the resemblances between Sacred Stones and Fire Emblem Gaiden. Both have branching paths, as in this title, you get to choose whether Eirika or Ephraim is your main character (though they meet up later, so the story is the same after a time), the movement around the world map via nodes is back, and characters have branching promotional paths. One really interesting idea that plays out here is almost like the ‘Villager’, a class in Gaiden that could promote multiple times and acted as sort of a base class. In Sacred Stones, you receive a few characters who come in a bit weaker with titles like ‘Recruit’ or ‘Pupil’, but they can promote up into a regular starter class and then into one of branching paths available to the rest of your roster. As a result, these characters can become mighty powerful, and it gives a sense of growth to ‘lesser trained’ characters joining your troops.
Another fun addition that also only showed up in Fire Emblem Gaiden is that there are monsters in this game. Throughout the series, you may have noticed that there is not a lot about monsters or creatures that you fight, save for the possibility of an end boss here and there. Something unique about Fire Emblem as a series is that is tends to focus on humans against humans. Manaketes appear rarely, but still qualify as people, and Wyverns and Pegasi are presented as mounts, but you do see them attacking or acting on their own. Gaiden and Sacred Stones buck the trend of the rest of the games by having zombies, demons, and other monsters in some of their chapters. It adds a distinct flavor to the games that set them apart.
With everything that Sacred Stones gets right, a lot of people are not fans of the game for a couple of major reasons. First, it pretty much clocks in as one of the shortest games in the series, if not the absolute shortest. While it never feels like it drags as a result, it also feels like it ends a bit too soon. Another complaint, mostly from people more familiar with the series as a whole, was that the game difficulty is too easy, even compared to Blazing Sword. While this means that this entry is a great starter for anyone interested in the series, the masochists that play to struggle through the game may find themselves disappointed.
With what there is, though, the game is incredibly well packaged. The character portraits have feel more vivid. The artwork is the same, but it feels more fresh and crisp, and the music delivers the same driving feel that most of the games’ soundtracks do. The characters are also probably the most memorable, as they feel distinct and uniquely designed. Really, the game doesn’t do poorly at anything, it feels like. It falls to the wayside as a matter of taste more than of quality, but it is well worth checking out and using as a gateway to the rest of the series, especially considering that the story is self-contained. Sacred Stones is one of two entries in the series (the other being Awakening at the writing of this article) that does not have a related game set in its world. That could be even more of a draw, seeing as how the player gets the entire story in one game.
Whatever the lack of support may be by some for Sacred Stones, skipping this entry would be a chance to miss out on a really good strategy game, let along an entry in the Fire Emblem story.
In our fourth and final part of the overview, we get to watch the jump into 3D with two entries, one on Gamecube and one on Wii, do a quick check in with a couple of familiar looking titles, and give some impressions on the most recent game in the series that is restocking the fire to bring this lengthy and fantastic series into the modern gaming limelight. The Tellius Saga, Archaneia Saga Redux, and Awakening all round out the overview next time!