As a big fan of turn-based strategy games, it was only a matter of time until I would get to talk about one of my favorite video game series: Fire Emblem. I have played most of the Fire Emblem games, most of them several times, most of them in every difficulty setting. For the purpose of this article, I could have decided to review the most recent game in the series, Awakening. But that won’t do. Nothing will do justice to Fire Emblem short of a retrospective of the complete series.
Which is exactly what I will be doing for the next few articles. Without further ado, let us being with:
PART 1 – GENERAL NOTES AND THE SNES ERA
Fire Emblem is a series of turn-based strategy RPGs developed by a division of Nintendo called Intelligent Systems (also known for the Advance Wars series, which I’ll cover at some point). Fire Emblem games are usually well-received but still a niche series, although it got a bit more worldwide recognition since the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening. But Fire Emblem has existed for a long time before that, with the first game in the series being released in 1990.
At the time of this writing, there are a total of 13 Fire Emblem games, and many of them were never released outside of Japan. Some games share the same world (most of the games go two by two, as we’ll see below), but even when they have a different continuity, they are always set in a medieval-fantasy universe, with weapons such as swords and spears, as well as magic.
If you want to get into Fire Emblem, here are a few of the things you can expect.
- A plot that is generally above average (especially by Nintendo standards) and that usually involves dragons at some point.
- A large cast of characters, each with their own personality and appearance. Also, as it’s usually the case in Japanese games, a good balance of male and female characters.
- The “perma-death” feature. This is the absolute core of the Fire Emblem design philosophy. Whenever a character dies, they die for good, and there is no way to bring them back (unless you restart the chapter). From a gameplay perspective, it means that each individual unit is important and cannot be easily replaced. From a story perspective, it tends to make you even more attached to your characters.
- Good music, most of the time composed by Yuka Tsujiyoko.
- Very clear character stats and calculations. There is still a lot of randomness involved (hit rates, growth rates, critical chance, etc.) but if you’re willing to put the effort, you can always plan in advance everything that will happen, such as the exact amount of damage you will deal or receive. This means that, unlike other games in which the strategy is mostly based on “odds” (X-COM, Yggdra Union…), Fire Emblem is relatively fair. (Well, to some extent. As we’ll see below.)
- Weapons with a limited durability, that break after a certain number of uses.
Fire Emblem is also known for a few recurring elements that became emblematic to the series.
- A lord (the main character), with blue hair. There is one in most of the games, though not all of them. The original blue-haired lord was Marth, who arguably became one of the most iconic characters of the series. Although, let’s face it, this has probably more to do with his appearance in Super Smash Bros rather than his personality (or lack thereof).
- Pegasus knights. They are one of the most unique concepts in Fire Emblem. Their ability to fly makes them extremely useful, alongside the dragon knights.
- The “Jagen”: a character (usually a paladin but not always) who starts out much stronger than the rest of the team, and thus can help beginners who have trouble in the early chapters. It’s a double-edged sword, however: since the Jagen has a much higher level than the other characters, he or she will tend to gain less experience from the enemy, while the rest of the team would need that valuable experience to catch up. Besides, due to lower growth rates, the Jagen character generally ends up less powerful than the other characters when they’re fully trained. So, it’s usually recommended not to use the Jagen too much. (Unless you’re a veteran trying to do a low-turn-count playthrough, in which case… why are you reading this?)
- The “Est”: pretty much the opposite of the Jagen. A weak and underleveled character you get pretty late in the game, but who, if trained, ends up becoming one of the best characters. Whether it’s worth putting the effort to do so is up to everyone’s opinion.
- The duo of cavaliers. In most games, you start with two cavaliers (as in, knights): one with a green armor, and the other with a red armor. One mostly excels in speed and accuracy, while the other has better strength and defense (though the order varies). Fun fact: the original red cavalier and green cavalier, from the first game, were called Cain and Abel.
- A character called Anna, whose role (usually minor) varies between games, but who is the only character to appear in every single one.
- Something called “Fire Emblem”. “Something” is pretty much all that can be said, since it’s different in every game.
- One last note: speed is the most important stat. There are a few reasons for this, but… just trust me.
Now, let’s talk about each individual game. I never played the first three games (Shadow Dragon, Gaiden, and Mystery of the Emblem, all set in the Akaneia continent), but nowadays there isn’t really any reason to. I’ll explain why in a later part of this retrospective. So let’s start with:
Fire Emblem 4: Genealogy of the Holy War (Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu)
1996 – SNES – Japanese only
FE4 takes place on the Judgral continent, which makes it separate from the first three games in the series. The blue-haired lord this time is Sigurd, and later, his son Seliph.
Interestingly enough, the oldest game that I played in the series is also my favorite one. First of all, it has the best plot by far. The usual comparison is that FE4 is the Game of Thrones of video games; the story is full of political and family intrigues (and yes, incest too, which is surprising for a Nintendo game).
FE4 also introduced the two-generation and love system that eventually came back in Fire Emblem: Awakening (although Awakening didn’t handle it nearly as well as FE4). Simply put, the first half of the game centers on the first generation of characters, until the midpoint in which… err… something highly spoilerific happens. The second half of the game takes place 17 years later, and most of the characters are children of the characters from the first generation. Interesting enough, but that’s not nearly all. You see, whose children they are is entirely up to you. During the first generation, for every turn that a male and a female character spend adjacent to each other on the battlefield, their relationship level increases (I guess the idea is that they spend a lot of time together). When the relationship level between two characters reaches a certain point, they fall in love. And depending on which couples get formed during the first generation, the children from the second generation have different stats and weapons, which they inherit from their parents. Not only is it a great system from both a story and gameplay perspective, it allows for a lot of replay value, since you can try different couples to get different results in the second generation.
But despite its excellent story and its ton of interesting ideas, I wouldn’t recommend FE4 as a first introduction to the series. It’s annoying enough to have to read a translation of the script or use a patch (unless you can read Japanese), but FE4 also has a lot of game mechanics that feel clunky and definitely didn’t age well (for example, the fact that you can’t directly trade items between your characters). FE4 is also pretty different from the other games in the series. For example, while most game have somewhere between 20 and 30 chapters, FE4 only has twelve. But the maps are huge, and have multiple castles to conquer as well as other objectives, which makes the game just as long as most of the others.
In term of challenge, FE4 is built around the existence of the twelve legendary weapons (which are also very relevant to the plot). They all give a huge stat boost and each of them can only be used by a specific character, from a specific bloodline. The catch is that your characters have access to some of those legendary weapons, but so does the enemy. So in the end, it all balances itself out in some weird way. Characters also have different special skills: for example, the skill “Pursuit” allows a character to attack twice if they are faster than the enemy. The usefulness of your characters is greatly affected by the skills they have, as said skills range from “not very useful and sometimes even dangerous” (Duel) to “hilariously overpowered” (Astra). Most of the skills can be inherited through the generation system, which can allow the children to obtain some interesting skill combinations from their parents. FE4 also introduces a mechanic that only appears in FE4, FE5 and (for some reason) FE10: the “leadership stars”. All the leaders, including your main lord and all the enemy commanders, have a certain number of stars that give a hit and flee bonus to characters nearby (characters of their own army, of course). It can (more or less) be inherited as well: Seliph will get the leadership stars of his father, plus one additional star.
Lastly, one noteworthy fact is that the final boss of the game is insanely difficult… Unless you use the Narga Tome, in which case he goes down in one round, with no effort required on your part. Huh. Talk about all or nothing. Still, it’s not exactly obvious how to get the Narga Tome, so if you ever play FE4, do yourself a favor and look it up. (And while you’re at it, also look up how to recruit Ayra.)
Fun fact: FE4 was the first Fire Emblem game to introduce the weapon triangle (swords are superior to axes, axes are superior to lances, lances are superior to sword). Rock-paper-scissors types of systems are pretty much the norm in strategy games, and this weapon triangle became the standard in all the following Fire Emblem games, as well as some other series (for example, Yggdra Union).
Fire Emblem 5: Thracia 776
1999 – SNES – Japanese only
In case you were wondering, the 776 in the title refers to the year it takes place in the Judgral chronology. This places this game sometime during the second generation of Genealogy of the Holy War. So Thracia 776 is an “interquel” of FE4, so to speak.
The first thing anyone will tell you about FE5 is that it’s extremely difficult. And indeed, FE5 is without a doubt the most difficult game in the series (while some of the highest difficulties in other games might be harder in some cases, keep in mind that FE5 doesn’t give you an option). But at the same time, the difficulty is justified by the setting. Your main character is Leif, who 1. is Seliph’s cousin, 2. was also playable in FE4, as well as several other characters, and 3. for once, doesn’t have blue hair. But while FE4 has a very epic feel, with massive battles going on and changing the face of the world, FE5 has a much smaller scale. You are pretty much fighting a losing battle most of the time, always surviving, escaping, and just generally trying your best despite the limited resources that you have.
In term of gameplay, FE5 is absolutely superb. You have varied objectives throughout the game, many ways to deal with any given situation such as the newly introduced “capture” system (which never came back after this game, unfortunately), and the characters are mostly balanced, with ways to influence their stat growth and give them new skills. You have more characters with leadership stars, and there is also a new system of “movement stars”, which gives characters a chance to move a second time during their turn. Character skills are more balanced as well; thankfully, every character has “Pursuit” by default now, as it was the one skill in FE4 that was absolutely essential for any character to even be considered worthwhile. Astra is still completely broken, though. Then again, you most definitely won’t figure out how to get Astra in FE5 without looking it up.
But FE5 also introduced a few things that got… let’s say… mixed reactions. The main one being the “fatigue” system, which is very frustrating as it would regularly prevent you from using your best characters. Sure, it’s more realistic, and with some planning it’s relatively easy to deal with the fatigue system, but really, it’s no wonder this mechanic never came back in the following games. FE5 was also the first Fire Emblem game to use “fog of war” in some chapters. It’s much worse in FE5 than in any of the following games, since it doesn’t just conceal the enemy: you literally cannot even see a general outline of the map. And one last thing that I find noteworthy (I can’t remember if it was already used in FE4 but it sure was very blatant in FE5): enemy reinforcements that are able to move immediately after they appear. This is as infuriating as it sounds, since there is no way to see it coming and prepare for it. This cheap tactic came back in the other games, but fortunately, only in higher difficulties most of the time.
I usually talk about the story first, but here is the thing. One day while I was playing FE5, a friend asked me what the story was about, and I realized I had no idea how to answer that. This isn’t because of the language barrier and having to read a translation at the same time; I remember the story in FE4 and FE6 very clearly. But this is probably the problem with interquels: nothing major can happen, otherwise it would have been mentioned in the main plot (in this case, Genealogy of the Holy War). Still, it seems that people who actually can remember FE5’s story generally praise it, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Fun fact: Thracia 776 was the last game ever made for the SNES (or at least the Japanese version, the Super Famicom), and came out as late as 1999.
Next time: the GBA era.
– Number 5