With 'Fire Emblem Heroes' arriving on mobile this week, a look back at the turbulent history of Nintendo's 27-year-old series
With 'Fire Emblem Heroes' arriving on mobile this week, a look back at the turbulent history of Nintendo's 27-year-old series
After Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run achieved such spectacular success last year, it seemed clear that Nintendo had a pretty obvious strategy for its mobile games: play the hits with the names everyone knows. In that light, its third release – this week's Fire Emblem Heroes, a free-to-play iOS and Android spin-off of its 27-year-old strategy RPG series – perhaps wasn't the obvious next move. But here we are.
While the Fire Emblem series has been steadily gaining traction in the US over the last decade, it's not the first game that comes to mind as an example of something at the forefront of this genre. Developed exclusively throughout its lifespan by Intelligent Systems, a studio closely affiliated with Nintendo that's also responsible for megahits like Advance Wars and Paper Mario, the series has been a known quantity in Japan for nearly three decades. But because gamers in the West weren't really exposed to it until 2003 – largely because some Fire Emblem characters were featured in the Gamecube brawler Super Smash Bros. Melee – it's easy to forget just how important the series really is.
The truth is that Fire Emblem is essentially the progenitor of the Japanese strategy RPG, which encompasses everything from Final Fantasy Tactics – arguably the pinnacle of the genre – to hardcore derivatives like Disgaea and casual fare like the Dotomchi mobile series. The first game was a passion project for series creator Shouzou Kaga and a small team at Intelligent Systems, one that was never intended to see the light of day. Its star began to rise after Kaga was encouraged to present a design document to Nintendo that showcased some of the game's unique mechanics. Nintendo was so taken with Kaga's design that the company helped build a cartridge chip that could better accommodate the game's excessive memory demands.
With Heroes now released on smartphones it's a good time to recap the rich and often bizarre history of one of the most highly regarded role-playing franchises ever to emerge from Japan.
A ROUGH START IN JAPAN (1990 - 1999)
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light – the very first game in the series, only released in Japan – was a labor of love for Intelligent Systems, who had previously worked on 1988's Famicom Wars, a game with a hard-edged military setting. Shouzou Kaga, who would go on to shepherd the first five Fire Emblem games before departing Intelligent Systems in 1999, conceived of the game as a combination of traditional turn-based strategy wargames and story-based role-playing. While this may not seem like such a radical innovation today, it was a bold departure at the time.
The game launched – somewhat disastrously – for the Famicom (Japan's version of the NES) in April of 1990 to weak initial sales and bad early reviews. Critics faulted it for having awful graphics and being far too difficult to understand. At the time the accepted wisdom was that turn-based strategy games were only military-themed, so Fire Emblem's fantasy crossover seemed incongruous – doomed even. After two months of underwhelming sales, word of mouth began to circulate, and Kaga's passion project miraculously started to flourish. Kaga attributed a great deal of this success to a column in the best-selling video game magazine, Weekly Famitsu that ran for several months after the game's launch featuring a post-mortem style interview he gave about the game and its development.
It turned out that the narrative trappings of a fantasy RPG matched very well with the strategic pacing of a hardcore strategy game; simply trade the rifles for bows and the combat knives for long swords. But beyond that, Fire Emblem added some important elements to the strategy formula that ended up not only spawning a new genre but reflexively influencing the games from which it was born.
The concept of permanent death after a character falls in battle was a revelation, making each battle feel important and potentially devastating. It also synergized brilliantly with the other element it pulled from RPGs: persistent character progression. Suddenly, each battle had an element of roulette, gambling the time and energy you'd invested in leveling up a beloved character every time you exposed them on the battlefield. It also introduced a number of key elements that would go on to define the entire series. It sported 21 different character classes, a massive number for that era of games, each with class-specific weapons and armor, and included mounted and flying units each with unique properties and weaknesses.
The first Fire Emblem also introduced players to the heroic prince Marth – arguably the series' most iconic character. Though technically not the main protagonist, Marth proved so popular that he has since appeared in multiple Fire Emblem games as well 2001's Super Smash Bros. Melee and 2008's Brawl. He also showed up in the 1996 Fire Emblem anime, was featured in the trading card game, and as an Amiibo figure that proved so popular it prompted Nintendo to discontinue it to enhance its rarity.
Sales for Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light popped, eventually going on to sell more than of 300,000 copies in Japan – a considerable feat at the time. This guaranteed Kaga and his team the opportunity to make a sequel.
Fire Emblem Gaiden launched in 1992 and represented Kaga's attempt to correct his previous mistakes. As the second and last entry for the Famicom, Gaiden shook off its predecessor's linear structure and gave players an open world to roam and introduced the idea of character classes that evolved as you leveled them up.
Gaiden also introduced players to the continent of Valentia, a brand new setting distinct from the original game's Arachanea. While these two particular settings would appear again in later entries, this marked the beginning of Fire Emblem's ongoing trend of switching things up from game to game, with each new place created around brand new histories and mythologies.
There are, however, a number of recurring themes common to the entire series, many of which originate in these early games. As in Shadow Dragon, where prince Marth sought to retake his kingdom from an evil sorcerer and an ancient dragon, Fire Emblem protagonists are invariably young, displaced royalty that get themselves caught up in some kind of complicated global conflict that's been cleverly engineered by a dastardly puppet master bent on world domination.
Gaiden proved Fire Emblem's potential beyond any shadow of a doubt, cementing the series as a Nintendo staple and Kaga as a key player in the company's growing roster of talent. Three entries followed for the Famicom's successor, the Super Famicom. 1994's Mystery of the Emblem retold the story of the original game and appended a second act, and this was followed by 1996's snappily-titled Genealogy of the Holy War, which featured a story told across two generations of characters and introduced a rock, paper, scissors-based combat system that dictated the strengths and weaknesses of weapons against each other. This game also introduced some romantic shenanigans between characters for the first time, and explored the notion of characters having parents and children – something that impacted stats based on lineage. The last Super Famicom Fire Emblem, Thracia 776 was released in 1999 and although highly praised by fans and critics alike – in part for its great visuals and notoriously difficult gameplay – it was the worst-selling game in the series.
FIRE EMBLEM GOES GLOBAL (2002 - 2007)
It wasn't because of Fire Emblem's own merits that Nintendo ultimately decided to introduce it to players outside of Japan. We actually have Super Smash Bros. Melee to thank for that.
Around the same time as The Binding Blade – the first handheld Fire Emblem game – was released in Japan for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo decided to include its main hero Roy, along with Fire Emblem stalwart Marth in the 2001 release of its Gamecube brawler. The duo, previously unknown outside of Japan, proved so popular as part of the game's roster when it was released in North America and Europe that Nintendo rethought its stance on Fire Emblem in the West.
In 2003, Fire Emblem – significantly, with no subtitle – was released for the Game Boy Advance in Japan and North America, carving out a permanent niche for the series globally. While it continued Nintendo's push to make the series more accessible, it maintained all the core concepts that made it so beloved by the Japanese audience. This included the "support" system introduced in earlier games. Units could build rapport with their allies and receive sympathetic stat boosts based on conversations on and off the battlefield. The support system not only built additional strategy options into each encounter, but it added depth to the characterization – all of a sudden, relationships that didn't involve the primary player characters became meaningful. These ideas went on to inform Fire Emblem's increasingly complex romance and relationship elements – something also seen in Heroes, though in a diminished capacity.
With the ninth installment, 2005's Path of Radiance, Fire Emblem leapt onto consoles for the first time since Thracia 776. Path of Radiance introduced cutscenes and voice acting to the series, breathing life and vitality into characters that had previously been represented by static images and blocks of text. It was one of the true successes of this middle era. The Wii sequel Radiant Dawn incorporated a new phase of gameplay where outside of battles, players could forge weapons, develop relationships and gear up for future encounters. This new layer, which would be adopted in future entries like 2015's Fates, brought Fire Emblem closer in line with contemporary role-playing games, which were beginning to feature significant management elements.
NEARLY CANCELLED (2008 - Present)
After a surge in popularity following the series' migration West, the 2000s brought steady but unspectacular sales. As development ramped up for 2012's Fire Emblem: Awakening, Nintendo's Shinji Hitano announced to the team at Intelligent Systems that dwindling numbers meant that this entry would probably be the last. "I remember when I came back from the meeting and told the team 'my God, what are we gonna do? The end has come!' Hitoshi Yamagami, a producer at Nintendo who oversaw Awakening, told Gamespot in 2013. "Our reaction was clear: if this was going to be the last Fire Emblem, we had to put [in] everything we always wanted to include."
The team committed itself to making Awakening the best and most comprehensive Fire Emblem to date. Building around the long established formulas that defined the series, they added a tremendous suite of new features and systems. Awakening featured a slate of 40 characters, a "casual mode" that eliminated permanent death, as well as "Lunatic" and "Lunatic+" difficulties designed to appeal to veterans. It also synced the time of day to the player's real world location and included multiplayer and online options built around the 3DS' StreetPass and SpotPass functionality.
Luckily for Intelligent Systems and Fire Emblem fans, Awakening touched off a profound wave of renewed interest, going on to sell more than 2 million units – a series record. The newly invigorated team followed up Awakening's impressive performance with a curious triple offering in 2015 and 2016: Fire Emblem Fates, which divided its branching narrative across three separate games. After some understandable suspicion about the divided narrative, Fates found incredible critical and popular success, with 1.84 million sales to date.
And here we are. It's been a long, strange, circuitous road, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Despite a number of obstacles, some development hiccups, and internal strife, Fire Emblem has an unprecedented track record of quality. For a series with so long a history that's survived across so many platforms and creative overhauls, it's an incredible accomplishment that it's more successful now than it's ever been.
On January 18, 2017 Nintendo revealed just how committed to the series it now is. The next wave of Fire Emblem games includes a new tactical RPG for Nintendo Switch due in 2018, hack 'n' slash action game Fire Emblem Warriors for Switch and 3DS, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for Nintendo 3DS called Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, as well as this week's mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes which draws on characters from throughout the series' history.