I’ve been a Fire Emblem fan for a long time—perhaps not necessarily a “die-hard” fan, having never played any of the games that have thus far stayed outside of the States (excepting Fire Emblem: the Binding Blade), but the series has had a pretty powerful effect on my life nonetheless. Its mix of addicting gameplay, deep strategy, beautiful art design, and powerfully written characters had earned it what at first was a fairly small but dedicated fanbase, at least out West; now, however, the series has enjoyed an incredible burst of popularity. With two very successful games (we’ll consider Fates as one game for this) on the 3DS, a recently released mobile game, and three games (two main series additions and one spin-off on the horizon) Fire Emblem is thriving, and perhaps one of Nintendo’s most popular current franchises—hell, even the most recent iteration of Super Smash Brothers features six characters from the series!
With all of its recent successes in mind, it’s always important to remember where it came from—to return to its roots, in a sense. That isn’t meant as a criticism of the direction the serious has taken on its rise to mainstream popularity, I simply want to dedicate this time to looking at the game that has had the single most significant impact on my video game journey: Fire Emblem: the Blazing Blade.
It seems like many of those who played Fire Emblem when it first officially found its way to western Gameboy Advance systems first encountered the series through the introduction of Marth and Roy into Super Smash Brothers Melee—something I’ve always found somewhat, considering neither character would have a game featuring them released outside of Japan for quite some time (and even then, only Marth truly got his due). Still, the curiosity inspired by these mysterious swordfighters brought quite a few people into the series once it found itself trickling outside of Japan late in 2003. For me, however, Fire Emblem came into my life totally by surprise.
I remember hearing a few of my friends talking about it on the playground in grade school. I’d found myself confused at the time: I’d always hear them discussing the “chapters” they had gotten stuck on. How do you get stuck in a book, I would think to myself—it was a little while before I realized they were talking about a game, and that these “chapters” were merely levels. These discussions piqued my interest, but as I was a fairly casual gamer—I played Pokémon, some N64 games, and whatever games my uncle… acquired for our hacked PS2—I never made an effort to seek it out. So what happened on my next birthday came as an absolute surprise.
My extended family had all come over to our house to celebrate that February day some 13 years ago, and I dug through the pile of gifts I had received. I picked one up, and immediately recognized the shape of the packaging: a GBA game. Confused, I opened it—after all, I hadn’t asked for any games. What could it be? I read the words on the packaging: Fire Emblem (the game lost its subtitle in the English release, and I'll refer to it using the simplified Western name). And I sat. And I thought. And slowly it dawned on me. This is the game! This is the one with the chapters! My aunt and uncle came up to me later that night and told me that they saw it in the store, and it just struck them as something I would like. I just looked at them in amazement. I had never told anyone about it—I didn’t even know what the game was called! It seemed too good to be true, like fate had brought that game and I together. That feeling only grew stronger when I finally booted the game up for the first time that night.
I fell in love pretty much immediately. I mean, immediately. As soon as I saw the title screen and heard the intro music—which, in all of its iterations, never fails to give me chills—I knew that this was going to be a special experience.
I’d have to write a book to cover every little thing I adore about Fire Emblem so, in the interest of saving time and to avoid prattling on like your senile grandfather, I’ll break down the elements that really resonated with me; the classes, the art direction, and the characters.
The Fire Emblem games feature, I think, a deceptively complex gameplay system. No, they aren’t hardcore strategy games, but as you dig and understand how the different mechanics (classes, weapon types and advantages, stat growth rates, Support conversations, etc.) play together, you start to realize just how many different paths there are to success and failure. As a kid, I never tried to understand it all very much. Sure, I got it all just enough to beat the game—AND BEFORE MY FRIENDS DID, I MIGHT ADD—but I didn’t really get it. Certainly, in my countless playthroughs since that first experience I’ve begun to really appreciate all those systems, but my simple little child brain was much too focused on all of the totally badass character classes. The lethal yet fragile Myrmidons; the enigmatic Shamans and their dark magic; the three Lords, each bringing their own set of skills to the table—I was absolutely obsessed with them! Maybe it was the Pokémon player within me, but I just couldn’t wait to get my next new unit and see what new classes awaited me.
Of course, a new character wasn’t the only means of getting a new class: promoting my units gave me just as much excitement as getting new ones did. I promoted every unit as soon as I could, not caring that I was missing out on important levels—I just wanted to see what was next! Every new Crest or Seal I found was an exciting new event, seeing as they were fairly rare, and each one present the opportunity for one of my units to finally achieve their potential. A Hero Crest promoted my Fighters to powerful bow-wielding Warriors; with an Ocean Seal, my Pirate became a Berserker with a propensity for extreme violence; from a Knight Crest I received a General, the cornerstone of my army.
It wasn’t just the potential power from each class that excited me, though: they all just looked so cool. I adored the art direction in Fire Emblem, with its flashy animations and simple, yet wonderful, sprite designs. While the game plays out through turn based battles, with the outcomes dependant on nothing more than character stats and proper placement by their trusted tactician, the animations always lent a sense of excitement and power to the quick matches, and really managed to portray how each unit fought. As a General swung his giant chained axe (!) towards an enemy, I could somehow feel the weight and the strength he carried with him (and yes, there was a time when Generals actually looked great!)—in the exact same moment, I marveled at the sleek moves of his opponent, a Swordmaster, who dodges the axe with a simple shrug before striking back in the blink of an eye, moving so fast as to appear to vanish from view. I had no input in these fights, but I still felt as though I was watching great one-on-one duels play out before me.
The animations for standard attacks from the characters were always beautiful, but the real treats were the critical hits. There are different animations for standard and critical attacks, and I don’t think anything really gets a player more excited than seeing the first few frames of an animation that meant their unit was about to deal three times the damage to their opponent—and of course, the recognition of the beginning of one of those animations in the enemy unit inspired a similar level of fear.
Hector lands a critical hit on an enemy General
However, even considering the strategic depth and the beautiful visual-work present in just about every Fire Emblem game (don’t even look at me, Shadow Dragon), this next aspect, and I would argue the most important one, is what really won me over: the characters.
Much is made of the permadeath mechanic present in the Fire Emblem series, but I don’t think its significance really becomes apparent until you’ve played with and met the characters. When one dies, It isn’t just that you’ve lost a powerful unit, but you’ve lost a person. They aren’t just soldiers, they’re your friends. It helped that Fire Emblem actually placed the played in the role of a tactician. As opposed to being some nameless force controlling the units, you had a presence in the world. You didn’t make story decisions or anything, but you had an overworld sprite, some characters turned to face you in dialogue scenes, and you chose your own name. It gave the feeling that you really were a part of this army, that everyone was relying on you to lead them to success, and that you were truly a part of their group.
Just a few of the characters we'll come to know in the game
More than the player’s presence in the world, however, character interactions were phenomenally done, and it was the development of these characters that really brought the world to life. Characters would build up “points” if they fought next to a compatible unit, and these points would eventually reveal themselves in the form of Support conversations. Upon player initiation, events would play out or two units would speak to each other. Now, there were no cutscenes—it was just a character portrait (or a “mugshot,” going by the Spriter’s Resource category, which never fails to make me laugh) but an elaborate visual element was never necessary. All you needed to know was what the characters were saying. Eventually, if done correctly, these conversations would become relationships. Characters would become close friends, or perhaps they might fall in love. There were certain practical reasons to do this: support characters together and they would gain stat boosts if they fought near each other. It was the aforementioned character development, however, that always meant more to me than statistical advantages. I felt like their happiness was in my hands, and the power of these relationships really shown through, I think, with one of my favorite characters: the Assassin, Jaffar.
While Jaffar is only capable of Supporting with three units, these conversations go a long way to establishing both himself and the other characters. With the mage Nino (who is used to recruit him), Jaffar finds first friendship and then love. It’s perhaps a somewhat cliché turn—the emotionless killer finds the one person who cares for him—but nonetheless, it’s a touching development for two characters whose lives have been marred by tragedy. However, Jaffar’s relationship with the Thief Matthew, a unit the player has had since the beginning, is compelling in its own tragic way. To keep it short, prior to his recruitment, Jaffar kills Matthew’s lover, Leila. The relationship between the two then centers around Matthew’s desire for revenge, but ends as a display of the strength of the love between him and his lost beloved.
A-Rank Support between Matthew and Jaffar
Jaffar: ...... Matthew... Is that your name?
Jaffar: That woman... There was a name clinging to her final breath. She said “Matthew.”
It’s a tragic relationship, but it’s something that helps us to understand Matthew more, and even Jaffar, to his own extent. Events like this one are the crux of Fire Emblem’s character development, and with around 40 playable characters, there was just so much for me to learn about them. As someone who has always found it difficult to meet new people, Fire Emblem was like a godsend in that respect. Everyone felt so real to me, there was so much depth to every character, that as I got to know them, I began to feel like I was really making friends. I simply couldn't feel lonely as I was playing it. It was the first game that was ever able to do that for me.
Now then, we arrive to the most important part, as my professors were so kind to impress upon me—so what? Yes, I love Fire Emblem, but what has that meant for me? As it would turn out, my experience with the game has had wide-reaching consequences on me as a gamer, much farther beyond my strong love for the series itself.
There is, of course, the love for strategy that it inspired in me. I attribute all of my strategic leanings to my first experiences with Fire Emblem, as the first game that really pushed me to think carefully about my actions. That’s led to my insistence on playing Nuzlocke challenges in Pokémon, the threat of permadeath constantly hanging over me. It’s why I love the crushing difficulty of Darkest Dungeon and its ilk. Why do something if there isn’t a life-or-death risk involved? Everything else just feels boring to me. I crave challenge, I demand that a game force me to really think through every decision I make. I want to be frustrated, I want consequences, dammit! Why is that? That’s because, as Fire Emblem taught me, at the end of every challenge is the chance for victory. All of the anger and the Game Over’s and the restarted levels are worth it once you finally make your way through to the other side. It’s an addicting feeling, an experience unique to video gaming as a media, and Fire Emblem was my first hit.
More than just genres and challenge strategy, however, Fire Emblem has had a strong influence on how I approach RPGs and character creation. I have yet to play a fantasy RPG where my characters and builds aren’t based on a Fire Emblem class. I’ve played Skyrim characters inspired by Heros and Druids (and absolutely played as at least one Jaffar), right down to the statistical breakdowns! I would be lying if I said that my current Dark Souls III character wasn’t based on Lyn’s Blade Lord class in Fire Emblem: all katanas and bows, with a focus on maneuverability and speed over defense. Or my last Dark Souls 2 character, Sir Lambo II, who was, both visually and practically, inspired by the General class (if you haven’t noticed, I really liked the Generals). Even my Monster Hunter characters and their weapon/armor choices are based on my Fire Emblem experiences, like the Switch Axe wielding “Berserker” I try to play as. I adored the classes and their designs so much that I felt compelled to replicate them—in too many ways, they were the only forms I would accept a warrior or mage to take. They formed the groundwork for every character I’ve made. I even tend to give my mages jet-black hair and glowing yellow eyes, in reference to the Morphs found in Fire Emblem.
The Morphs Ephidel, Limstella, and Sonia
You would think that having “my own” characters be so heavily influenced by one game would be limiting, but it’s never felt like that. I’ve always felt such a strong connection to Fire Emblem that playing as though I were a character in it has only deepened my love for it. Honestly, I feel as though I’m a part of it when I use it as an inspiration.
Feeling like I’m a part of it is important, too, because it’s changed me in a very specific way—I simply can’t enjoy a game without characters I feel personally attached to, and that's evolved into the need for world immersion as a whole. If I have no involvement with the characters, if I have no interest in enveloping myself in the world, why even bother? Of course this isn’t some trait unique to me, but it’s even tainted some of my past experiences.
Look, I love Pokémon, but even the franchise which has been with me the longest often feels empty to me. While Sun and Moon really took a big step forward, most of the games just don’t grip me like they would have in the past. Meanwhile, it’s this love of true, strong character development that’s made Persona 4 (I'm sorry, folks, but Rise is still best girl) my second favorite game of all time. Even Bloodborne and Dark Souls, the two games between which Persona 4 is sandwiched, captured me with their own unique means of character development and world building.
I respect what games like Minecraft and No Man's Sky allow the player to do. Their focus on imagination, on creating your own stories and your own worlds really is something wonderful. Still, though, that's rarely ever compelling enough for me. I don't often want to create life in a world, but rather experience what others have created, to see things and meet people I wouldn't have been able to dream of. Again, I know I’m hardly the only one who needs that world and character attachment, so I'll just get to the point: Fire Emblem was my first taste of true, engaging characters, and it changed the way I look at video games.
Now we're back in 2017 and Fire Emblem, the once obscure franchise, is unbelievably popular. It hasn’t been a smooth road, and I believe more than a few fans are dissatisfied with the direction it’s taken, but I can’t say I’m one of them. I still adore the class-based gameplay. I still love the art direction, and, while the characters have changed, they still pull me into their world and refuse to let go. What matters to me is that the series I feel in love with 13 years ago is still alive. Now my friends who never had the chance to play through those wondderful GBA games are being inspired to go back see where it started for many of us Westerners: they can experience Fire Emblem, not as some obscure new game, but a true classic. That warms my heart beyond measure.
Looking at Fire Emblem: Awakening, I see a shift, but I also see a parallel to reality. When I hear Lucina (The Waifu of the New Era) shout “I challenge my fate!” prior to unleashing a devastating critical hit, I can’t help but imagine Intelligent Systems in her place, challenging what must have seemed like the inevitable death of a proud and underrated franchise. But, like doomed one imposed upon the world of Awakening, that future has been overthrown and discarded, in a favor of a new future, in which the Fire Emblem franchise is experiencing a prosperity it never could have imagined. And all I can think of, as I bask in its overwhelming success, is the game that first truly established it in the west; my first real gaming love; my first awkward, earnest kiss—Fire Emblem: the Blazing Blade.
"Well then, take care... I... I hope I see you again. I'm sure I will, someday..."