RPGs aren’t necessarily the first thing you associate with Nintendo, but I’ve become a fan of the genre through Nintendo’s efforts. My fate was sealed after a friend loaned me Fire Emblem Awakening, and it didn’t take long for me to beat him twice. By giving me control of an army and building supports between its generals, Fire Emblem immediately clicked, and I’ve remained a huge fan ever since. Once I started exploring older entries, I realized that Fire Emblem had a richer history here than you might expect, and it all started on the NES.
Originally envisioned by designer Shouzou Kaga, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light marked a joint development effort between Intelligent Systems and Nintendo R and D1. Seeking to create a story-driven RPG, Shadow Dragon took us to Archanea, playing the role of Prince Marth. Kaga and the team wanted us to care about these characters, making them unique with different unit classes. If you behave recklessly, they can die permanently, and the development team wanted players to deal with that as well. All of this helped define tactical RPGs – even if you wouldn’t know it in the West. Aside from the DS remake, Shadow Dragon wasn’t localized until 2020, following a (now deleted) Switch 30th anniversary digital release.
But here I am moving forward. In the 90s, Nintendo realized it had a hit, and sequels soon followed. Two years later, we had Fire Emblem Gaiden, a game tied to Shadow Dragon but mostly offering its own adventure. This time we visited the neighboring continent, Valentia, a land shared between two warring nations. Adopting new gameplay mechanics like an explorable outer world, Gaiden was not as well received and its new changes were largely scrapped as a result. Although Gaiden remains unlocalized, there is a fantastic 3DS remake, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, which largely redeems these perceived flaws.
In 1994, Intelligent Systems returned to Archanea on SNES with Fire Emblem: Mystery Of The Emblem. Remaking Shadow Dragon and calling it “Book 1”, this included an all-new story known as, you guessed it, “Book 2”. Two years later, Emperor Hardin has begun aggressively invading other countries, and it’s up to Prince Marth to stop him, bringing Marth’s saga to a fitting conclusion. The end result was the best-selling Fire Emblem game until Awakening. Like Shadow Dragon, there was also a DS remake, New Mystery of the Emblem, which remained exclusive to Japan. Basically, it introduced Casual Mode to disable permadeath, and it later became a staple of modern Fire Emblem games.
Fire Emblem on SNES wasn’t finished yet, Intelligent Systems had other stories to tell with the Jugdral duology. Starting with Genealogy of the Holy War, it took us between two generations, as the cultists of the Jugdral continent seek to revive an ancient dragon, Loptous. Fans consider it one of the best early games, which makes the lack of localization criminal, and there’s no remake to fall back on this time around. Completing this duo was Thracia 776, located between the generation gap, and it was Kaga’s last time working on Fire Emblem. Finally, we had Archanea Saga, a four-part downloadable episode set via SNES’s Satellaview service, which later appeared in New Mystery of the Emblem.
It wasn’t long before Fire Emblem returned, but it never graced the Nintendo 64, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. Dubbed Fire Emblem 64 or Fire Emblem: Ankoku no Miko, details are sparse on this canceled entry and only one screenshot has ever been made public. 64 would have featured Roy as the main lord, who oddly enough was first known as Ike. Other notable names like Ephraim and Idunn have been seen here, but these characters otherwise bear little resemblance to their final versions.
Ultimately, difficulties with the hardware led to that project being cancelled, and Ankoku no Miko served as a very early release for 2001’s first GBA entry, The Binding Blade. Taking us to a whole new continent, Elibe, Roy finally got his chance to shine, and we saw him resist an invasion of the Kingdom of Bern. Originally developed as a companion game, it soon received a prequel with The Blazing Blade, focusing on Roy’s father, Eliwood.
Both were well received, although Blazing proved to be a major turning point. For the first time in its history, Fire Emblem had been localized in the West. That’s largely thanks to Super Smash Bros. Melee, which included both Roy and Marth as playable characters, as game director Masahiro Sakurai wanted more sword-wielding fighters. Fire Emblem had its big Western breakthrough and convinced by that success in Melee, Nintendo has localized (almost) every entry to North America and Europe since.
We had another GBA entry in 2004, The Sacred Stones, featuring a different Ephraim with his sister Eirika. However, it wasn’t until the following year that Fire Emblem finally reappeared on a home console, introducing us to the Tellius series. Rather than a prince or some other form of nobility, Path of Radiance on Gamecube had us play as a mercenary instead called Ike, opposing an invasion by the cruel King Ashnad of Daein.
After successfully fending off this mad king, a direct sequel followed for the Wii in 2008, Radiant Dawn. Exploring the post-war ramifications three years later, we discovered that Daein was occupied by a corrupt neighboring empire, exploring several new storylines. Unfortunately, although both were well received, serial sales had gradually declined. A second Wii game was quietly cancelled, which would have been more experimental than its predecessors. It wasn’t until the 3DS that we finally saw another original entry, and it certainly paid off.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Fire Emblem Awakening could have been the last hurray for the series. Taking elements from all previous games, we eventually returned to Archanea and Valentia, now called Ylisse and Valm respectively, which took place 2000 years after the first game. Playing as one of Marth’s distant descendants, Chrom, Awakening has took the dual-protagonist approach, and he was joined by tactician Robin, both of whom later appeared in Super Smash Bros.
Creating an accessible entry point into the series, Awakening became a commercial and critical success, revitalizing the series. New social elements were introduced through an extensive support system, pairing characters for marriage who would then have children, who would become playable units through the time travel storyline. Work quickly began on Fire Emblem Fates, which introduced a split narrative approach to Fire Emblem, letting our new protagonist Corrin choose which royal family he would like to side with.
It would be four years before we saw another mainline entry, but Fire Emblem fans didn’t exactly miss between the two. Aside from the Shadows of Valentia remake in 2017, several Fire Emblem spin-offs have also appeared. Tokyo Mirage Sessions created an unusual idol-focused crossover starring Shin Megami Tensei, Heroes provided an original mobile entry, while Fire Emblem Warriors took a “best of Fire Emblem” approach, replacing turn-based gameplay with the Musou fight. Overall a mixed selection.
Then came Three Houses, kicking off the Fódlan series. Reusing Fates’ split-narrative approach, we took on the role of Byleth, a former mercenary-turned-teacher at Garreg Mach Monastery, and the house you chose determined your storyline, with no cannon paths given. selected. Pushing the social elements further, it retained the marriage system of the 3DS games but incorporated more activities outside of battles, such as fishing and cooking. Questionable fruit visuals aside, Three Houses was widely praised, becoming the best-selling entry to date. It’s no surprise, then, that Nintendo followed it up with Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes, another musou spin-off set in an alternate timeline.
Looking back, the elements of those early games remain clear even in newer entries. As a player you feel like the invisible tactician, literally in The Blazing Blade and we still use that turn-based system now, commanding individual generals and assessing enemy weaknesses. Casual mode has become a mainstay, but Classic mode remains for those willing to risk it all. Every decision counts here and all it would take is one poorly timed crit for permadeath, adding a great sense of accomplishment to the battles.
Kaga’s idea of involving players in this story still influences him now, and it shows best through the support system. Details vary depending on the entry, of course, but Fire Emblem never feels like commanding a group of one-dimensional soldiers. Giving airtime to dozens of playable characters isn’t always possible in the main story, so these supports give our favorites a chance to grow off the pitch. By expanding the social gameplay, Three Houses has taken this to a new level, and you really feel involved in the day-to-day life of this world.
For a series that was thought to be on its last legs a decade ago, it’s amazing to see how far Fire Emblem has come since Shadow Dragon. Each main entry contains a compelling story in its own right and through decades of iterative improvements, Fire Emblem continues to make significant leaps. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or someone who resented all the sword fighters in Smash Bros, you can’t deny the impact he’s had, and Intelligent Systems has rightly ensured the Fire Emblem’s place among RPG royalty.
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