It seems like we just can’t get enough RPG remakes on the DS these days. Square Enix is constantly pulling games from their archives to remake and now even Nintendo is repackaging their older games. The game we have here happens to be a remake of the original Fire Emblem game for the NES. Even though Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon probably isn’t what most wanted for their first Fire Emblem game on the DS, it’s still worth a look for fans of the series, assuming you don’t need a compelling plot to sell you on your RPG gaming.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon features a very generic swords and sorcery tale. The plot is so simplistic that I’m going to explain it in less than a full paragraph. You play as Marth (whom most people know from Super Smash Bros. Melee) the Prince of Altea. He is the descendant of Anri, the wielder of the almighty Falchion, the blade that slew the Shadow Dragon Medeus when Altea was invaded. The Shadow Dragon is now being resurrected and the only person capable of slaying it is Marth because he is capable of wielding the Falchion. The only problem is that the Falchion was stolen when Altea was invaded once again, so Marth needs to get it back in order to slay the Shadow Dragon. There’s your typical back stabbing by kingdoms and a few new allies added in the mix, but it’s nothing when compared to other games in the series. It’s safe to say that you probably won’t care what is going on in the plot, and it is further hindered by the lack of improvements made to the series later on to flesh out the characters (who are basically cardboard cutouts in this game), but luckily for us the gameplay is the meat and bones of this game.
Shadow Dragon is very similar to games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Luminous Arc. The game plays out entirely on grid-based maps that vary in terrain and you get to place your units on any tile on your side of the map at the start (with the exception of Marth, whose position is preset and can’t be changed). You move to an adjacent space in order to attack with melee weapons or one space away for long-range weapons and magic (magic can also be used on an adjacent space, but arrows can’t). There are a few exceptions to this rule though. Longbows can attack from two spaces away and ballistae can attack from a huge number of spaces away (I never counted). The battle system also incorporates the famous Fire Emblem “weapon triangle” where swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords, although in this particular Fire Emblem game it has very little effect on the outcome of the battles because it isn’t incorporated as well to balance everything out as the other games in the series. This wasn’t in the original Fire Emblem though so it has been added for fans accustomed to it.
The other thing famous in Fire Emblem, the permanent death of characters if they are slain in battle, is also present. It adds more strategic depth to the battles and really makes you think before moving your units on the battlefield. The nice thing is that you can click on an opposing unit to see how far their attack/move range will be when they get to go next turn so that you can move around them and lure them into your units rather than the other way around. You can click on as many units as you want and the range overlaps showing you the entire area in which the enemy can attack. It’s a great feature that doesn’t make the player guess how far their opponent can move like in some other strategy RPGs. One of the disappointments with this game though is that in order to unlock the secret “gaiden” missions you basically have to kill off lots of your units since unlocking them requires you to have only a certain amount of units available to you. Most won’t even know about it unless they look online or read it in a review, and even those that do probably won’t care enough about the secret missions to actually kill off their units. It might be easier to do on a harder difficulty setting though, when units are more prone to dying.
There are a few things in this game that aren’t in any other Fire Emblem game to make it over here. First, the game features save points you can use in battle so that if you happen to lose a character you can reload without restarting the battle, another great feature. You can have two battle saves at a time and they don’t count towards your three save files, so it doesn’t replace your game save in case you realize you did something you didn’t want to in that battle save. Secondly, there is a class changing system with which you can change the class of any character to whatever you like from that characters’ specific selection (with the exception of Marth again). It allows you to make your army whatever you like instead of being given a character and not allowed to select his function (although it isn’t nearly as deep of a class system as the Final Fantasy Tactics games have). Nintendo has also added in Wi-Fi support. People can battle their teams online (or locally), there’s an online store with great items that change daily, and there’s an option to loan out or borrow units, which can be used in the single player campaign. There’s also voice chat for the online battles.
There are also some features missing from this game that are in other installments, unfortunately. Support conversations where your units can talk to each other during battle so the player can have more insight to their motives and characteristics haven’t been added in, which is exactly why I stated earlier the characters feel like cardboard cutouts when compared to other games in the series. There’s also no extra experience that you can hand out to whomever you like during battle preparation like in Path of Radiance or Radiant Dawn for those who are familiar with those.
Preparation time occurs before each battle. You can shop for equipment and items, make your own weapons (which is very costly), reclass your units (as previously mentioned), manage the inventories of your units (they can hold up to 5 items at once), and of course view the map to see what you are up against and adjust accordingly. There’s much more preparation to each battle in Fire Emblem games that other strategy RPGs, and this one follows suit. There’s less to do during preparation than other games in the series, but there’s still plenty here to chew on.
The gameplay in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is catered more towards the newcomer than it is the hardcore crowd. Shadow Dragon is definitely the easiest game of the series so far for US gamers, but even then I was still addicted to it. The fact that I, a hardcore fan of this series, still enjoyed playing this game despite missing features I’ve grown accustomed to from other games in the series, illustrates why I think other hardcore fans of the series will like what’s offered. It is a game that’s almost 20 years old, after all.
For the controls, much like in most strategy games on the DS, you can use either the traditional controls or the stylus to command your units around the battlefield. Most, if not all, will use the traditional controls when playing this game. They work absolutely as they do in every other Fire Emblem game and never get in the way. The stylus controls work fine as well, but using the traditional controls seemed easier and more fluid.
The graphics in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon are going to be hit and miss with people. They aren’t bad per se, but I much prefer the old sprites of the GBA Fire Emblem games for the character models to the new ones, which look like a flash video. The sprites had more style and the over the top critical hits have been removed in favor of plain animations that don’t excite the player nearly as much. This is a graphical overhaul for the original Fire Emblem though, and it retains the style and setting of that game just fine.
The sound design for Fire Emblem Shadow: Dragon is also probably my least favorite of the games that have reached US shores, but since it was originally an NES game I’ll cut it a little slack. The soundtrack is decent with some fairly groovy themes during battle and conversation, but I found the soundtrack lacking in variety. The game plays the same songs constantly. Getting a new character plays the same theme every time (the song made famous by Super Smash for US gamers). I can really only recall maybe 5 songs after playing through the game, which isn’t a very big number for an RPG. The sound effects are the same Fire Emblem fare you have been hearing forever.
Ultimately, Fire Emblem DS is most likely going to be considered the worst game of the series to see the light of day in the US among hardcore fanatics, which is doing it an injustice. It’s still a great game, and one that newcomers can play to get their feet wet before they try one of the older games in the series. Remake or not, this is the first time we’ve seen the original game in the series here in the US, and almost 20 years later it’s still worth playing. That’s testament to the quality of this series. This does occasionally feel like a stripped down Fire Emblem, but even that is better than most strategy RPGs these days.