Swords and Zippers: The Fire Emblem Phenomenon

A phenomenon is literally defined as an observable fact or event. Its adjectival form phenomenal is by extension not as great as it sounds, but to call Fire Emblem a “phenomenon” is a perfect application of the word. A JRPG series that dates back to 1990, America only saw anything related to Fire Emblem in 2001 – as a part of Super Smash Bros. Melee, which included two characters from the series: Marth and Roy. According to common knowledge, the decision to include these characters in the NA release of the popular fighter was not a simple ‘of course,’ but their introduction to America sparked a turning point for English-speaking gamers.

The title screen of only the second Fire Emblem game to grace North America's shores.

The title screen of only the second Fire Emblem game to grace North America’s shores.

It is of interest to note that Roy does not feature in any Fire Emblem games available outside of Japan and only in the latter two Super Smash titles and Marth was not featured at all until Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon was remade for the Nintendo DS (they are available as bonus characters in the latest Fire Emblem game, but are not actual “characters” in that they are only marionettes). The decision to localize a Fire Emblem game in English – creatively titled Fire Emblem – must then be treated as something of a risky choice.

Fire Emblem, related to Marth and Roy in name only, featured the adventures of other heroes Lyn (who features only as a random trophy-attach in Super Smash Bros Brawl), Eliwood and Hector in a game that could be at times brutally difficult. Bringing permanent character death to the table, it was a tactical turn-based RPG that took a player’s skills to their limits and beyond if they wanted the outcomes they desired. Complete with terrain adjustments and a rock-paper-scissors weapon and magic system that proved far more strategic than its surface indicated, the title was a gamer’s simultaneous dream and nightmare.

Enter Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones. Slightly more polished, a tad less difficult with the inclusion of a couple training grounds and unit class upgrades, the game still retained its hallmark permanent character death and challenging tactical battles. Shared between the two games, however, were branching storylines that featured different characters in the spotlight.

Fire Emblem featured a prologue/tutorial for Lyn, but the primary heroes Eliwood and Hector dominate the other twenty-odd missions. Each of the two get their own “tale” for the game, featuring different events depending on who is selected as the main character. This game also was the first in the series (anywhere in the world) to use the player as the “tactician” character, some of whose traits were determined by the player despite none of these having a visible effect. The tactician is also not a part of combat, and simply serves as the player’s “hole in the fourth wall.” Naturally this increases the player’s involvement and attachment to the characters, who do interact with the tactician in pre-ordained cutscenes in between missions.

Lute the mage incinerates a skeleton at melee range. Lucky for her, she kills it.

Lute the mage incinerates a skeleton at melee range. Lucky for her, she kills it.

The Sacred Stones was more organic in its branching and also more traditional in its JRPG mechanics, eliminating the tactician altogether. The choice in “main character” is made as part of the story between the siblings Erika and Ephraim, who choose separate missions to complete as part of their military campaigns. Either choice leads to opportunities to recruit different characters and experience different plots; furthermore, these disparities are definitely great enough to warrant a separate playthrough for each. Even though the overall plot remains the same, the Sacred Stones shines as an intense, character-driven strategy game.

Fast-forward and two more Fire Emblem games make it to English in addition to the Super Smash playable character, Ike, also a hero of those two games Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, Gamecube and Wii releases respectively. Originally a Japanese-only release, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon also gets localized as a DS remake and Marth finally makes his official Fire Emblem appearance. The franchise has now become synonymous with difficulty, depth, and character. It is with this frame of mind that both Japan and English-speaking countries greeted the hype that was generated in the imminent advent of Fire Emblem: Awakening

The title image of the latest Fire Emblem game, proving that the character-driven focus was still ever-present.

The title image of the latest Fire Emblem game, proving that the character-driven focus was still ever-present.

For a JRPG released in a franchise that wasn’t Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, this game was met with quite a great deal of hype, expectations, and subsequent critical acclaim. For a series that English speakers knew nothing of outside of two characters that was relegated to statuses like “not Final Fantasy Tactics” and “Intelligent Design’s tactical RPG that wasn’t Advance Wars,” it was a very exciting time. Making full use of the power of the 3DS, the game arrived with a bang and stole the hearts of many a gamer – and the game had barely changed a thing.

Fans of the series were not surprised. Present and accounted for were difficulties ranging from “enjoy the story!” to “break your 3DS in half,” the old spectre of permanent character death, and a character-driven narrative for the ages. Also returning was the Tactician in a completely unprecedented way (which we’ll get to in a minute), but what the game newly boasted was something gamers love: choice. Want a lower difficulty? No problem. Don’t feel like losing a character forever if they die? Don’t have to! Want to mix those two settings together in any combination? Be our guest.

Fire Emblem: Awakening gave fans exactly what they wanted while at the same time providing an easy way for newcomers to see what all the fun was about. Players both new and old to the series were also treated to the new Tactician, this time in a fleshed-out role with the player choosing not only gender and name but also appearance and voice. The tactician this time was a fully-fledged character, capable of active battle and interacting with the characters at the player’s discretion. While still a well-written character with a definite personality that wasn’t truly alterable, the effect of the player’s actions on the game’s story and characters was revolutionary (to the series).

Given the history of Fire Emblem outside of Japan, it was a pleasure to see it receive such praise in this latest rendition. Awakening took the history of the series and made a game featuring it at its best, no compromises. Without a doubt, this one will go down as a classic for years and years to come.

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