Like many fans of the Fire Emblem series, my first exposure to the franchise came in the form of Marth and Roy’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube. Before that, I had never heard of the series; the extent of my knowledge came from trophy descriptions, which explained that these characters came from a Japan-only franchise.
My next glimpse at the Fire Emblem franchise came in the form of the long-dead magazine Nintendo Power. This particular issue was the December 2003 one, arriving right around the time Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance came out in North America. I remember it fondly to this day with its incredible artwork depicting the main characters fighting against a mighty fire dragon. Little did I know that this game, despite its title, was the seventh game in the series and that there are few Nintendo franchises with histories as long and storied as Fire Emblem.
What is Fire Emblem?
Fire Emblem is a turn-based tactical RPG where the player controls an army of units and pits them against an enemy army of units. You can think about these units in much the same way you might think about a game of chess; each unit type has various strengths and weaknesses, and as the army commander, it’s your job to make the most out of your army and work toward the end goal. Missions in Fire Emblem have various objectives, but the most common one you will encounter is routing the enemy army or defeating the enemy army’s commander. Also, as a series, Fire Emblem is notorious for its permadeath mechanic. There are no Phoenix Downs here; if one of your units bites the bullet, they are gone for good (although some of the more recent titles are a bit more liberal with their application of this feature).
A look at what a map might look like in a Fire Emblem title. You move an army of units across a grid-like battlefield to engage your enemies in combat.
Even with all of this in mind, at its core, Fire Emblem is a series all about resource management. This goes well beyond keeping your units alive; it also includes arming them with weapons, managing money, distributing experience, and so much more. At the end of the day, the way you maintain these resources and leverage them to your advantage is what will lead you to victory… or defeat.
The Fire Emblem series is also known for its narratives, though they vary in quality and ambition. Many characters have a surprising amount of depth, which is uncovered and demystified through support conversations.
If you include both mainline titles and spin-offs, there are 20 games in the Fire Emblem series to date. Some of these games are direct sequels or prequels, but most stand on their own and tell their own self-contained stories. In the interest of accessibility, this guide will only cover mainline titles officially localized for Western audiences. As such, we will not cover the more obscure titles, like the Satellaview’s BS Fire Emblem, the Japan-only titles (Gaiden, Mystery of the Emblem, Genealogy of the Holy War, Thracia 776, and Binding Blade), or spin-offs like Fire Emblem Warriors or Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
As for organizing this primer, I will start with the mobile title, Fire Emblem Heroes, then dive into the mainline titles in chronological release order. If a game has been remade or re-released, I will include both the original and the remake consecutively to highlight any significant updates and differences between them.
My personal recommendations will call on a couple of specific factors. How accessible is the game in terms of price point and platform? How faithful to the core mechanics of the series is each title? And how complex are the various mechanics and gameplay elements? All of this contributes to whether or not I can recommend a specific game to a fledgling tactician.
Alright! Let’s dive right in.
Fire Emblem Heroes
2017 – Android, iOS
I hate “gotcha” games as much as the next guy, but I will admit that Fire Emblem Heroes is a remarkably solid free-to-play title and, in all honesty, a pretty decent entry point to the series. It has micro-maps where players control an army of four units aiming to defeat the opponent’s army. Many traditional Fire Emblem conventions are present in some form, including the weapon triangle, different unit movement types (flying, cavalry, armored, etc.), and, in a more modern sense, skills. Your army is also highly customizable, so it’s easy to change to suit your specific playstyle.
The most exciting and fun part, in my personal opinion, is that your army can consist of countless characters from throughout Fire Emblem’s 30-year history, including heroes, villains, and even some original characters created specifically for Heroes. It’s a great way to get introduced to the series’ colorful and diverse cast, and you might even pull a couple of characters in games the West has never seen! If you want a free-to-play introduction to what the Fire Emblem series has to offer, I think Heroes is a great way to get introduced to some of the series’ broad concepts, as long as you keep in mind that it’s a… well, you know, a mobile title.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light
2020 – Nintendo Switch (Original: 1990 – NES/Famicom)
Please Note: As of March 31st, 2021, this title is no longer available on the Nintendo Switch eShop. If you managed to pick up Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light during its limited run, read on and find out if it’s a good starting point for you!
Nintendo must have been feeling generous for Fire Emblem’s 30th anniversary, as we got a pleasant little surprise in the form of a fully localized version of the first Fire Emblem game, Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, for the first time in 2020. You play as Prince Marth of Altea (in all of his pantsless glory) as he strives to take on the Dark Pontifex Garnef and prevent the resurrection of the dark dragon, Medeus. All of the things that make Fire Emblem awesome are present here in some capacity: lots of units to play with, many weapons to choose from, multiple maps to traverse, and an interesting (if minimalist) plot. It’s a testament to the series that this Famicom entry holds up as well as it does.
That being said, I don’t think this particular title is the best point of entry into the series for a couple of reasons; mainly, the gameplay is incredibly dated. Combat is slow and cumbersome, and while there is an option to speed up the game in the Switch release, it comes at the cost of compromising the audio quality. Item management is kind of a pain here, too. I recommend you stick to a more modern title to get started with the Fire Emblem series.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
2009 – Nintendo DS
Released in North America in 2009, Shadow Dragon is an enhanced remake of the very first Fire Emblem game. I remember when this game was first announced; I was so excited to play as Marth for the first time. While Shadow Dragon is undoubtedly a faithful remake of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, there are some additional features that make it more modernized and player-friendly, such as being able to change a unit’s class and the ability to trade more than one item at a time with other units. Shadow Dragon can still be pretty punishing at times, but it’s a great introduction to the series if you can get past that.
2003 – Game Boy Advance, Wii U Virtual Console
Fire Emblem, also known as The Blazing Blade, is the seventh entry in the series and the first Fire Emblem game to be released In North America and Europe. The success of similar series like Advance Wars paved the way for Fire Emblem to come to the West, and boy am I glad it did! Fire Emblem plays out over 30 chapters, including a full-blown tutorial story mode where the player learns all of the major conventions of the series. While it can feel hand-holdy at times, there’s no doubt that it is an effective tool to help players understand how the game’s many mechanics and features work.
The story itself is a classic amongst fans — at least for those of us who did not have any exposure to the franchise until this point, which is the majority of the Western fanbase. Fire Emblem is a prequel to the events of The Binding Blade (released only in Japan on the GBA) and sees Eliwood, son of Marquess Pherae (and father of our boy, Roy), set out on a journey to find his missing father and bring him home. Joining Eliwood is his best friend, Hector of Ostia, and Lyn, the protagonist of the tutorial’s story. Along the way, they discover a dark plot to unleash a terrible power upon the world of Elibe. Overall, I’d say that the story is middling in terms of quality when compared to some of the other titles, but I have a lot of personal nostalgia for it, as well as for the above-average cast, so I would personally rank it amongst my favorites in the franchise.
For these reasons, I would say that Fire Emblem is a solid choice for beginner Fire Emblem players. You get all of the unit variety and deep strategic combat, but without some of the more complex features that more recent games are notorious for, like skills and multiple branching promotion paths bogging things down. There is something to be said for simplicity, and despite my nostalgia goggles fogging up over here, I am still confident that Fire Emblem for the GBA is one of the more solid entry points for newcomers to the series.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones
2005 – Game Boy Advance, Wii U Virtual Console
As the second game in the Fire Emblem series released outside of Japan, The Sacred Stones looks and feels just like the previous title in the franchise. It focuses on the siblings and two lords, Eirika and Ephraim of Renais, as they seek answers to the Grado Empire’s sudden invasion of their homeland. The big difference between this and the previous game is that The Sacred Stones has a shorter campaign and a much larger post-game with world-map skirmishes you can use for grinding as needed. There are some other minor differences, including branched promotion paths and a rudimentary skill system for specific classes, but the skills are nothing to write home about (except for maybe Slayer, a skill that gives Bishops the ability to hit monsters for effective damage).
I don’t understand why, but many folks have a love or hate relationship with The Sacred Stones. Sure, it’s a bit on the easier side, but that doesn’t make the game bad, per se. In fact, I would say that The Sacred Stones is a pretty great introduction to the Fire Emblem series thanks to the ability to grind levels and equipment, which makes it virtually impossible to soft-lock your progress by killing off too many important characters. Most of the cast is perfectly usable, so if one unit kicks the bucket, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace them. If you choose to begin your Fire Emblem adventure with The Sacred Stones, I think you will be in for a pleasant experience.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn
2005 – Nintendo GameCube / 2007 – Nintendo Wii
If you are looking for a fantastic story, look no further than Path of Radiance and its sequel, Radiant Dawn. These games exploded in popularity following the inclusion of Ike, a mercenary-turned war hero, in Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Nintendo Wii. Path of Radiance follows Ike and his father’s mercenary company as they fight back against the warmongering country of Daein. In contrast, Radiant Dawn zooms out a bit and focuses on multiple armies across the continent of Tellius, exploring different perspectives of the same conflict. Suffice to say that it did the whole “fighting your friends” thing long before the most recent entry in the series, Three Houses, ever did.
While I would say that these two titles are probably among my favorites in the entire series (and they make up one of the strongest Fire Emblem stories), the price point and hardware requirements make them inaccessible for many. A quick Google search shows that Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn on their own are quite pricey, not to mention that finding a functional GameCube becomes harder and harder with each passing year. Since I highly recommend playing Path of Radiance before jumping into Radiant Dawn, I cannot recommend you start with these games; the price is simply too great to justify it for any newcomer to the series.
Fire Emblem Awakening
2013 – Nintendo 3DS
There was once a time when the Fire Emblem series was on its last legs. With the threat of impending discontinuation lighting a fire underneath Intelligent Systems, they produced perhaps the biggest, most ambitious game in the franchise to date. That game was Fire Emblem Awakening, released on the Nintendo 3DS, which could have very well been the final game in the Fire Emblem franchise. However, its commercial success brought about a renewed vigor and interest in the series, resulting in its continued growth as one of Nintendo’s biggest and most beloved franchises to date.
Awakening follows the story of Chrom, prince of Ylisse and the inheritor of the Falchion. He embarks on a journey to protect his homeland from a myriad of invaders, including the neighboring kingdom of Plegia and the warmongering conquerors of Valm. The story has plenty of twists and turns, so I don’t want to spoil much more than that, but there is a good reason why it is considered one of the better entries in the series — and the fact that Super Smash Bros. has not one, not two, but three representatives from Fire Emblem Awakening means that this game was a big deal at the time.
One of the most notable features in Awakening is the “Avatar,” a unit customizable by the player to a certain extent, canonically named Robin. This is not the first time that this kind of character (called “My Unit” in Japan) has appeared in the series; the previous game in the series, Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem (a remake of Mystery of the Emblem, and neither have ever been localized for a Western audience, unfortunately), was the first game in the series to introduce a playable avatar character. Thanks to Awakening’s robust class change system, players can technically customize Robin to suit whichever playstyle they prefer, so that you can experiment with classes and combat skills to their heart’s content.
It is also worth mentioning that Awakening introduced casual mode, an option that flies in the face of the permadeath feature as it brings back fallen comrades at the end of each battle. While this mode has been quite controversial within the fanbase, it also makes the game much more accessible by giving players the ability to play on their own terms. If it was a forced feature, I might have more of a bone to pick with it, but as it stands, casual mode is entirely optional, and I will never complain about having more ways to enjoy a game.
All of this makes Fire Emblem Awakening an excellent starting point for any newcomer to the franchise. It strikes a nice balance between the complexity of its systems and its combat difficulty (provided you’re not playing on Lunatic mode — seriously, don’t do that), and being on the 3DS, it’s accessible to boot. So definitely consider checking out Fire Emblem Awakening. You won’t regret it.
Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation
2016 – Nintendo 3DS
After the smash hit that was Fire Emblem Awakening, Intelligent Systems followed this up with Fire Emblem Fates, a rather controversial set of games in this franchise. Much of the controversy surrounding Fates comes from the fact that, while it has three separate campaigns, each of these campaigns has to be purchased separately, meaning you are essentially buying three games to get the whole Fates experience. However, each game does tell its own self-contained story, but at what cost?
The difference in the three storylines is significant, though the main characters are primarily the same. They all revolve around Corrin (an avatar character who is customizable to suit the player’s needs), an heir to the nation of Hoshido, kidnapped and raised as a member of Nohr’s royal family. The struggle between these two countries defines Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation, but the stories take different twists and turns depending on which version you are playing. In Birthright, Corrin sides with the Hoshido royal family and takes the fight to Nohr. In Conquest, Corrin allies with Nohr and attempts to put a stop to the bloodshed from within. Finally, in Revelation, Corrin sides with neither, choosing to take a neutral stance and creating even more hostility between both. Sounds neat, right? Well, it’s not as cool as it sounds.
I want to make one thing clear: if you are playing Fates for a good story, you will probably feel let down. Each Fates game feels like a part of a fractured whole, and as a result, each of the three ends up being fairly unsatisfying from a story perspective. Fortunately, gameplay-wise, they are traditional Fire Emblem fare for the most part, but each has a different design philosophy. Birthright is more beginner-friendly, whereas Conquest has some of the best maps in the entire series and is tough as hell. Revelation is… odd. A lot of the maps have weird gimmicks that make playing through them incredibly frustrating and not necessarily rewarding, kind of like the game doesn’t respect your time, but that’s just my two cents.
Considering everything, I don’t think I would recommend that new players start with any of the Fates games. Birthright has some odd class choices compared to traditional series entries, Conquest might honestly be too difficult, and Revelation is just too irritating. Plus, who wants to spend $80 minimum just to get a complete yet subpar story? I’m still kind of annoyed that they Pokémon’ed me into buying all three, and I played these back when they first came out. But if you are dead-set on starting with Fates, I would probably recommend Birthright, as it’s far more beginner-friendly than the other two.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
2017 – Nintendo 3DS
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, the Japan-only second entry in the series. It’s a pretty faithful remake, too, which becomes quite evident when you start to look at things like the map design and the game’s systems. Some things have not aged well, even with the fresh coat of paint, but the game is still fun enough, especially if you have played previous titles in the series. Mechanically speaking, Shadows of Valentia plays much differently from other Fire Emblem titles, which means it’s both a breath of fresh air and a modern gamer’s nightmare.
Unlike its source material, Shadows of Valentia has a fully realized story that is fleshed out in a way that was simply not possible in Gaiden all those years ago. The game stars two protagonists, Alm and Celica, who control different parties of characters as they traverse the continent of Valentia, and their love story is both tragic and heartwarming at the same time. Alm joins a liberation army, the Deliverance, and leads the fight to free his home country of Zofia from the Empire of Rigel. Elsewhere on the continent, Celica searches for why the goddess Mila has seemingly abandoned the world. These two stories play out simultaneously, with the player eventually getting the opportunity to jump between the two parties at will.
To tie these two different narratives together, Shadows of Valentia brings back the world map feature, one that was largely absent up until its eventual return in The Sacred Stones. Since the stories of Alm and Celica play out simultaneously and with entirely different parties of characters, the player can explore both narratives at their own pace, which is an incredibly enjoyable prospect. If you feel like Alm’s story drags on a bit too long, you can jump to Celica’s party to change up the pace and vice-versa. Furthermore, the ability to engage in enemy skirmishes for extra gold and experience points gives the player the ability to modulate their own difficulty level even further, if needed.
To spice up the gameplay formula even more, Shadows of Valentia takes a feature introduced in the original Gaiden and expands on it in a much grander fashion: explorable dungeons. With a fully controllable camera and the ability to break stuff, this type of dungeon crawling is a breath of fresh air for the series, and I hope it returns in some capacity in future titles.
One final note to leave you on regarding Shadows of Valentia: in terms of sheer presentation, it blows all of the other Fire Emblem titles out of the water, including (in my humble opinion) the most recent entry in the series, Three Houses. There is just something about the way that the character models move, as well as the soundtrack and voice acting, that really resonated with me when I played this one. Despite me singing this game’s praises, I cannot recommend it to a newcomer to the series, but I highly recommend you come back to this one after playing some of the other games.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Nintendo Switch)
2019 – Nintendo Switch
The latest entry in the Fire Emblem series, Three Houses, was released on the Switch in 2019, and it’s a hell of a game. To give you some idea, I have well over 200 hours logged into this game, and I still have yet to complete every single route. Three Houses’ main idea is that Byleth, your avatar character, becomes a professor at Garreg Mach Monastery, where you instruct a class of students in the art of war. In between missions, you can explore the monastery, completing quests, managing resources, interacting with NPCs and students, and so on. It’s pretty neat.
Three Houses’ greatest strengths lie in its unit customization and sheer replay value. The game boasts three parties of playable characters right from the get-go: the Black Eagles, students of the Adrastea Empire, led by the heir to the throne, Edelgard; the Blue Lions, students from the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, led by the crown prince Dimitri; and the Golden Deer, students from the Leicester Alliance, led by the crafty grandson of Duke Reigan, Claude. You can recruit most characters from other houses, with some notable exceptions, by leveling up certain skills or building supports with them, as well as some of the other instructors from the Church of Seiros and the Cindered Shadows DLC-exclusive Ashen Wolves house.
While previous 3DS entries promoted character customization to an extent, Three Houses makes a giant leap forward by letting you customize every unit in your party, provided they meet specific class requirements. Of course, some characters are better at various skills and fit particular roles better than others. For example, Dedue of the Blue Lions has low speed and massive strength and defense stats by default, lending him well to a class such as Fortress Knight, but there is nothing stopping you from making him the most buff Warlock out there, save your own patience.
Still, if you have access to some of the earlier entries in the franchise, I think you are better off starting with those so you don’t get too wrapped up in the skill grinding and character customization. (Unless that’s your thing. If so, knock yourselves out with this one.) but the sheer amount of customization might feel a bit overwhelming to newer players, and the sections where you can explore the monastery can distract from the core gameplay of the Fire Emblem series. So if you want the quintessential Fire Emblem experience, I suggest you start by playing some of the earlier titles first.
Tips for Getting Started with Fire Emblem
Getting started with Fire Emblem can be a bit daunting, as there are often complicated mechanics that influence how you approach each game. I’ve put together a couple of tips and tricks that you should keep in mind when you get started.
Use your Jagen-type character
In its 30 years, Fire Emblem has recycled various archetypes for its units. One such archetype is the “Jagen” character, named after a powerful Paladin who joins in the first chapter of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Generally speaking, the Jagen-type character will be strong at the beginning of the game with great base stats but will likely suffer from horrendous growth rates that make them less useful later on. They are excellent at getting you out of hairy situations, but they tend to fall off as your other units grow more. They are particularly helpful for weakening enemy units so that others can nab easy experience. So don’t be afraid to use them — especially if it means saving the life of another unit or fulfilling tasks that your other scrubs simply cannot handle.
Examples of Jagens include Jagen (Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light), Marcus (Fire Emblem), Seth (The Sacred Stones), Titania (Path of Radiance), Sothe (Radiant Dawn), and Frederick (Awakening).
Don’t forget to train other units
While it might be tempting to just steamroll through your opponents using your overpowered Jagens, keep in mind that they are only one unit. It is quite possible to make one character overleveled and extremely powerful, but you will have more strategies available to you with a balanced army composed of multiple powerful and varied units. Jagen-type characters will gain experience slowly, and you can better apply that to units with more long-term potential. Distributing experience to those who benefit from it most will make your life much easier as you reach the late stages of most Fire Emblem games.
Good candidates for early-game experience distribution include Lords (main characters), units with high movement (Cavaliers, Pegasus Knights, Wyvern Riders), and magic users (Mages are often quite good in most Fire Emblem games).
Know the follow-up attack threshold
Most Fire Emblem games have a value called “attack speed.” This value is usually calculated based on a combination of factors, such as the unit’s strength of constitution stat, weapon weight, and speed stat. Since each game works differently, suffice to say that attack speed is basically the effective speed of the character and is used to determine if you will perform a follow-up attack, attacking twice in one round of combat. Understanding what this threshold is can help you keep your units alive and eliminate enemies in the most effective way possible.
Utilize the weapon triangle
Depending on what game you are playing, the weapon triangle might be present. You can think of the weapon triangle like you would rock paper scissors, with certain weapon types having advantages against others. Taking advantage of the weapon triangle can grant you additional “hit” and “avoid,” which is helpful against tougher enemy units. The weapon triangle generally goes like this: Swords > Axes > Lances. There is also a magic triangle in the GBA titles: Anima (basically all standard elemental magic) > Light > Dark. Fates has perhaps the most bizarre weapon triangle, as it takes into account Daggers/Shuriken and Bows.
Use your stat-boosters
Many RPG fans tend to hoard their stat-boosting items for use at a later time, but I’m here to remind you that you will get more long-term benefit from them if you use them sooner rather than later. That +2 speed you get from a Speedwing stat-booster might make all of the difference early on in the game, when your characters’ stats are much lower, compared to the late-game when they are all indestructible juggernauts anyway.
1-2 weapon range is extremely valuable
Fire Emblem combat consists mainly of Player Phases and Enemy Phases. You go on the offensive during the Player Phase, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a sitting duck during the Enemy Phase. Equipping a 1-2 range weapon, like a Javelin or a Hand Axe, allows you to counterattack enemies that might try to attack from afar. Doing so can help with crowd control and make dealing with pesky Archers or enemy Mages much easier.
Play the game how you want to play it
I can give you all the advice in the world, but at the end of the day, you should play the game the way you will enjoy it most. By virtue of its gameplay, Fire Emblem gives players an extraordinary amount of freedom to tackle problems in any way they see fit. Want an army of Mages? Want to take things slow because you love indestructible Armor Knights? Want a team full of Cavaliers? You can do all of these things, so long as the game allows it. My point here is that you shouldn’t feel bad about playing the game the way you want to, just because other, better options available.
Build an Army: Trust Nobody!
I know all of that might seem overwhelming, so I want to direct you to a great resource that I always find myself consulting whenever I don’t know something about the Fire Emblem game I am currently playing. Serenes Forest is a dedicated Fire Emblem website with information on various game mechanics, character growth rates, and other important data, which you might find helpful when planning your first or next experience with the series.
Whew! I think that just about covers it. So, whether you are a newcomer to the franchise or wondering where to go from here, I hope this guide helps you decide which Fire Emblem game to pick up.