April 20, 1990 — Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Tsurugi released in Japan. While other SRPGs had been released prior to Fire Emblem, this game was the one to popularize the genre and expand its appeal outside of the established fanbase.
December 3, 2001 — Super Smash Bros. Melee releases in the West and includes the unlockable characters Marth and Roy. For many outside of Japan, this is the first time they have ever heard of Fire Emblem.
November 3, 2003 — Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken is released as Fire Emblem in the West. The seventh game in the series overall, this is the first time Western fans were able to experience the series for themselves.
April 19, 2012 — Fire Emblem Awakening releases in Japan. After a decade of financial failures, Nintendo was ready to retire the series. Awakening was meant to be the final installment, so Intelligent Systems poured every idea they ever wanted to use for the series into one game. With a sales target of 250,000 worldwide, Awakening sold over 240,000 copies after its opening week thanks to positive critical reception and word of mouth. In the West, Awakening sales skyrocketed as many picked up the series for the first time after positive reactions spread.
July 26, 2019 — Fire Emblem: Three Houses releases worldwide. Three Houses received critical acclaim and, as of December 2020, has sold over 3 million copies, making it the best-selling game in the franchise.
December 4, 2020 — Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Tsurugi releases as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light in the West.
For over 30 years, Fire Emblem has captivated fans with its endearing cast of characters, strong tactical gameplay, and classic stories of good versus evil. While the West did get the DS remake of the original Fire Emblem game, we never got the game in its original form until now. For those who missed out on the DS remake, this is the chance to experience Marth’s story for the first time.
For those who have never played Fire Emblem before, the series is a tactical role-playing game where you control a squad of individual units against another army. There are multiple classes that each have their strengths and weaknesses. You have traditional medieval units like swordsmen (myrmidons), axemen (fighters), and cavalry (cavaliers) in addition to mages and healers (curates). Positioning and an understanding of your units is the key to success in these games, and Fire Emblem is no exception. Terrain plays a role in combat as well. Tiles like mountains and fortresses offer a significant boost to evasion and defense, so prioritizing those are important.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light stars Marth, the prince of Altea as he leads his army against the the Dolhr Empire’s forces. Dolhr is planning on creating an army of dragons (Manaketes) to rule over the continent of Archanea using the influence of the shadow dragon Medeus. Along the way, Marth recruits various individuals willing to fight with him against the Dolhr Empire’s influence.
As reflected in the timeline above, Fire Emblem‘s general plotlines have stayed consistent ever since the start of the series. The story feels familiar, and this is truly Fire Emblem at its core. However, with a couple of exceptions, Fire Emblem‘s cast of characters is the unique hook that brings me back time and time again. This is where Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light shows its age.
Without the series’ signature support system, it’s hard to get to know most of the cast of characters. With the exception of important story characters like Marth and his lover Caeda, most of the cast don’t have dialogue for any actions. No conversations in the story, no fun quip when they level up, nothing at all. This made me feel detached from the characters and the narrative as a whole. I started thinking of these characters more like traditional no-name units I would use in RTS games: units that weren’t much more than stats to use in battle to accomplish my objectives. It felt wrong for me to think that way, but I really struggled without dialogue. The best I could do is rely on my knowledge of them from other sources like the mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes.
Nintendo has more or less preserved the game in its original form from the NES/Famicom days, adding in a few adjustments like fast-forwarding, save states, and redoing turns. That does mean including the game’s original UI, which doesn’t preserve many of the quality of life changes added to the series over the years. Staples of the series, like combat previews and the danger zone, are absent in this game. Without these important mechanics present, I spent a lot more time carefully planning out my moves and memorizing enemy movement and attack ranges based on knowledge I’ve gained over the years playing Fire Emblem. The game does have save states and the ability to redo turns if you do make a mistake, which can help erase errors, whether they are your own fault or because you weren’t sure if combat would go favourably for you.
Fast-forwarding was both a blessing and a curse. While it’s nice to speed up the game (since it is pretty slow otherwise), it also tends to skip over dialogue if you’re fast-forwarding through enemy turns. Unit deaths in this game aren’t treated nearly the same as in other games in the series. For most of the units here, there are no final words as they are slain in battle. You might not know you lost a unit if you look away from the game for even a few seconds, and regrettably, this happened to me a couple of times throughout. For me, losing units in Fire Emblem games is unacceptable. After a certain point, I began counting all of my units to make sure I didn’t miss a random death.
Inventory and shopping work differently from other Fire Emblem titles since there is no ‘base camp’ to speak of. Shops and convoys are present on each map to take care of your shopping in the middle of battle. The good thing about this is that most victory conditions in this game involve capturing a point on the map instead of the usual “kill the commander” to clear the map. After defeating the boss of the area, you can shop and take care of business as you see fit.
For a game released in 1990, the sprite animations for the units in this game are well done. Each class truly feels unique, with their own attack animations and effects. Since this is an older game, I can excuse them using the same sprite for the same class of unit, regardless of whether it’s an enemy or ally. It just takes longer to select a unit to see who it is before moving them. You have to do this whenever you start a mission, as there’s no way to rearrange units before the battle starts.
If you want to listen to the classic Fire Emblem songs you’ve heard over time and/or from Super Smash Bros., you need to keep the game on normal speed. Like with other games played on emulators, fast-forwarding in this game will also speed up the music. This was a real bummer since I do enjoy the original game’s music quite a bit. There’s not much else to listen to besides the stock sound effects during attacks.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light shows how much and how little the series has changed over the past 30 years. It was fun experiencing Fire Emblem‘s origins for the first time in the original format. For a game released in 1990 on the Famicom, it indeed has a grand story with beats reminiscent of games from that era. However, I do know the third game of the series, Monshou no Nazou (Mystery of the Emblem), is a remake of this game and features a lot of improvements. It makes me wish we got that game instead; it would have been closer to how the series is today. If you’re curious about how the series got its start, pick up this game before it leaves the eShop on March 31st, 2021.