Original blog post here.
First things first: Nintendo has been around since 1889. Yes, really. Obviously, they weren’t making video games back then. That didn’t happen until the 1970s.
Nevertheless, Nintendo has had plenty of time to get good at what it does. In this case, it was almost exactly a hundred years between Nintendo manufacturing handmade Japanese playing cards and the first entry in the series I’ll be recommending in this post.
Some Nintendo franchises, like Mario and Pokémon, have become ludicrously, stupendously popular all around the world — in fact, Mario and Pokémon are 1 and 2 on the list of bestselling video game series. And the wider Pokémon franchise (including the anime, the merch, and the card game and other stuff) is the single highest-grossing media franchise of all time. Which is especially impressive because Pokémon has surpassed iconic franchises that have existed for decades longer than it has.
Some Nintendo franchises, though, have been notably more successful in North America than Japan. This has historically been the case for Zelda and Metroid. On the other hand, some of their franchises have done the opposite and proven much more popular in Japan.
For a long time, it seemed like Fire Emblem was destined to be one of those franchises. Luckily for those of us outside Japan, Fire Emblem has managed to break out of Japan and settle itself into a comfortable little niche among Nintendo’s long-running franchises.
The series goes back to 1990, with the release of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Six subsequent games were released exclusively in Japan before the series made its worldwide debut with Blazing Blade in 2003.
Outside of Japan, it was basically treated as the first entry of a new series, to the point of being released as just Fire Emblem. Since then, the series has remained something of a cult classic, especially compared to Nintendo’s other major franchises. Several Fire Emblem games have still never been released outside Japan, though characters from these games have begun appearing with updated designs and English voice acting in the mobile Fire Emblem Heroes, which is sort of like Fire Emblem‘s equivalent of an All-Star Game.
Fire Emblem has also proven itself something of a cause of consternation for Smash Bros. fans, given the abundance of playable Fire Emblem characters making their way into the series, especially relative to the series’ comparative obscurity to Nintendo’s heavy hitters.
For example, Byleth, whose reveal video had a frankly hilarious like:dislike ratio before Youtube went and disabled dislikes…
The “too many swordsmen” line in the video is a direct reference/cheap shot towards one the major complaints about Fire Emblem characters in Smash.
I probably can’t be counted as a “real” Fire Emblem fan, because my first exposure to the series was through Marth and Roy in Smash Bros. Melee and the first game in the series I played to any meaningful degree was Awakening in 2013. The same applies to a lot of other people.
Awakening was responsible for a renaissance of the series and a major influx of new players. Of course, if you ask many of the fans of the earlier games, it’s also the game that ruined the series forever, but that’s neither here nor there.
So, what is Fire Emblem?
Despite the name, it’s rarely on fire and only occasionally an Emblem. Still a great series, though.
When my parents asked me that very question, I floundered around for a minute, before managing to stammer “It’s like Dungeons & Dragons! Sort of. Not really.”
On a fundamental level, that’s true. It’s a Fantasy strategy game that plays out in alternating turns that involves moving your dudes around a grid. The comparison falls apart under closer scrutiny, but it works to explain the series in general terms.
And, to clarify, the “Fire Emblem” referred to in the title of the series is basically the world-saving object the heroes need to save the day in any given game. What exactly it is varies between games: sometimes it’s a shield, sometimes it’s a sword, sometimes it’s a more abstract source of divine power. Sometimes it’s even actually an emblem.
I don’t want to get into too much detail describing the individual games in the series (I might do that later as a follow-up), but I do have some thoughts on the games I’ve actually played.
Awakening is a good entry point into the series and seems to have been designed as such on purpose, it’s pretty intuitive, not especially difficult on the default difficulty level, and gives the option to turn off the series’ infamous Permadeath mechanic.
The plot is nothing special (“There’s a evil dragon who wants to eat the world, kill it” — pretty standard for a Fire Emblem game), but the characters are all pretty fun and are all voiced by actors that range from good to excellent.
I also really enjoyed the ability to make my characters fall in love and get married. A lesser man would pair up his characters to ruthlessly maximise the effectiveness of their children. That is incorrect. As far as I’m concerned, the proper way to play a Fire Emblem game with this sort of support mechanic is “cutest couple wins.”
It’s not just a gimmick, either. It’s plot relevant, as the second arc of the game’s stories involves your characters’ children from the future back in time to assist them.
Sidebar: this element of Awakening also inspired one of my short writing exercises:
Fates is a lot like Awakening with several gameplay tweaks and quality-of-life improvements, but was criticised pretty widely by the fanbase. It has three separate plotlines that were released as three separate games (not unlike Pokémon).
It also became infamous as “the one where you can marry your sister.” Except none of them are actually your biological sister, a development which was extensively mocked in its own right. And the plot as a whole was criticised for being largely dependent on contrived plot twists and reveals that came out of nowhere.
On the other hand, Fates‘ art direction and especially its soundtrack were widely praised, and several individual levels are remembered fondly for making use of some novel gameplay mechanics.
For the record, I liked Fates a lot more than the fanbase at large did. But, then, I’m pretty easily-entertained. I especially like the relationship between the two main characters: Corrin (your character) and Azura (basically, a combination of a Han Solo and Princess Leia to your Luke Skywalker). Azura’s voice acting, and especially her singing (which is a major element of her character; her class is even called “Songstress”) is phenomenal.
Echoes is a weird one. It’s a remake of the NES (technically, Famicom, as it was never released outside of Japan) era Fire Emblem Gaiden. It carries over a lot of the old-school mechanics, particularly concerning how magic and character classes work, which can feel jarring and even daunting coming to it after playing one of the newer games. It also has dungeon exploration segments that are like nothing else in the other games in the series.
On a more positive note, it looks very pretty. In particular, the character designs are about infinity times better in the Echoes remake than in the original Gaiden. Take a gander over at the Wiki and compare what Alm and Celica looked like in the original game (i.e. like total dorks) to what they look like now (i.e. not like total dorks). The in-game cinematics are excellent. The music is very good. And the dialogue of the game is fully-voiced, which is a welcome change of pace from the earlier games.
I’ve mentioned Fire Emblem Warriors already. There’s not really anything to add that I haven’t already said. It’s a pretty good game which is also fully-voiced, which I feel elevates the overall experience.
That brings us to the most recent Fire Emblem, 2019’s Three Houses.
Three Houses is a masterpiece.
The gameplay is probably the best and purest distillation of the traditions of the series, combining elements from both the older and newer games. The story, like in Fates, is divided into multiple routes, but delivered in a single game, plus a DLC side-story, which is unconnected to the main game, but not without charms of its own — each level of the DLC has a pretty complicated gimmick that makes the whole thing of a pain, but it’s worth playing at least once (if only for the benefits it unlocks in the main story) and culminates in a pretty cool boss fight.
Overall, the story of Three Houses is probably the most intelligent and mature a Fire Emblem story has ever been. The simplest way to describe it is that it’s Fire Emblem‘s version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Like in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, none of the three factions are clear bad guys or good guys (the non-playable faction that are bad guys are the bad guys for everybody else), and most of the emotion of the story comes from people who used to be friends coming into conflict to realise their ambitions for the world.
The decision of who to side with is supposed to be hard, but it should tell you something about where my allegiances lie that I’ve done Edelgard’s route four times, think Dimitri’s overrated, and can’t stop accidentally calling Claude “Clive” — incidentally, there is a Fire Emblem character named Clive.
The cast of characters is small enough that all of the characters get enough screentime that nobody ends up feeling entirely irrelevant and they all get enough opportunities to let their personalities shine. The voice acting is very good, the soundtrack is very good, including several songs that are what I believe the Cool Kids refer to as “bangers”.
If there’s one criticism to be levelled against Three Houses, it’s that you can’t marry Indisputable Best Girl Anna.
Honestly, if Three Houses is going to be the foundation for the games going forward, I’m thrilled to see where the series is going in the future.
Especially if they let me marry Anna again.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman.
Adapted from a post originally written 2020.
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