Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be taking our time with the turn-based strategy of Fire Emblem. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from the Fire Emblem Wiki. Primary sources, especially interviews with the developers and contemporary reviews, will be cited below. The following secondary sources were critical to my overview, though any errors are naturally my own:
- Edge – The Making of Advance Wars
- Lockstin and Gnoggin – Fire Emblem: A Tactful History | The Complete History Behind the Franchise (1990-2017)
- Kyle Hillard for Game Informer – A Brief History of the Fire Emblem Series
- Martin Robinson for Eurogamer – The past, present, and future of Fire Emblem
- Edmund Tran for Gamespot – The Directors Of Fire Emblem: Three Houses Have No Clue Why The Series Is Popular In The West
Table of Contents
Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi / Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – 1990/2009
Fire Emblem Gaiden / Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – 1992/2017
Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo [Mystery of the Emblem] – 1994
Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu [Genealogy of the Holy War] – 1996
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 – 1999
Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi [The Binding Blade] – 2002
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade / Fire Emblem – 2003
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – 2004/2005
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance – 2005
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn – 2007
Fire Emblem: Awakening – 2012/2013
Fire Emblem: Fates – 2016
Fire Emblem: Three Houses – 2019
The early history of Intelligent Systems Co., Ltd. seems to be a matter of some dispute. MobyGames, one of the internet’s most reliable sources of credits and archival data on video games, identifies 1986 as the year in which this Nintendo subsidiary was founded. Giant Bomb, on the other hand, places its foundation two years earlier. The second party studio’s first co-developer credit is Tennis, published on the Famicom / Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1984/1985. Intelligent Systems went on to become well known within Nintendo for creating development tools before establishing a distinctive public identity with its first entirely solo outing: 1988’s Famicom Wars.
Famicom Wars is a top-down turn-based strategy game released on the Famicom and never localized outside of Japan. The player takes on the role of a leader for either the Red Star or Blue Moon nations as they battle one another across 17 gridded maps. In contrast to more serious war simulation games released on PCs in the 1980s, Famicom Wars plays out like a breezy, sprite-based board game. This series would go on to become a staple of Nintendo platforms in Japan throughout the 1990s before finally receiving its first North American localization, Advance Wars, in 2001.
Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi / Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (1990/2009)
Shortly after development concluded on Famicom Wars, Intelligent Systems’ Shouzou Kaga sought to bridge the gap between the character development of traditional role-playing games (RPGs) – all the rage in Japan following the blockbuster 1986 release of Dragon Quest – and the tactical combat of the war simulation genre. Kaga was successful in his pitch, kicking off three years of development on Fire Emblem.
The game was written by Kaga; directed by Keisuke Terasaki; programmed by Masaharu Tani, Masayuki Imanishi, Kōji Yoshida, Kei Fukura; scored by Hirokazu Tanaka and Yuka Banba; and overseen by Nintendo R&D1’s Gunpei Yokoi. Toru Narihiro, credited in-game with a special thanks under the name Papa Narihiro, would go on to have a profound influence on the series decades later. According to Kaga, in a 1994 roundtable discussion with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi published by Famicom Tsuushin magazine, cited Final Fantasy III (1990/2006) as having a particularly strong influence during the game’s final stage of development.
Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi was released on the Famicom in Japan on April 20, 1990. The player issues orders to his or her characters as they make their way through 25 turn-based chapters. Each chapter features a gridded map, around which the player’s units move and attack enemy soldiers. In contrast to Famicom Wars, units are distinctive characters with unique backstories and stats rather than stock military unit types. Characters grow in strength over time as they defeat enemy units, acquire experience points, and level up in the manner of a traditional RPG.
In keeping with Shouzou Kaga’s vision, the narrative of Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi is emphasized much more than its spiritual predecessor. The lead character is Altea’s Prince Marth, a swordsman living in exile following the downfall of his kingdom. At the game’s start, he allies with Princess Caeda to defend her island homeland of Talys and then establishes a confederation called the Archaneum League with the support of Aurelis’ Prince Hardin. The remainder of the narrative sees the Archaneum League recruiting new characters and attempting to free Altea from occupying forces before battling enemy mastermind Gharnef.
Up to 50 playable characters can join Marth in any given run of the game, though 51 total characters are present; while there are comparatively few story choices available to the player than there would be in later series entries, he or she must choose between two recruits at a certain point in the adventure. In a bold design decision, Intelligent Systems opted to make character death permanent. If any character aside from Marth falls in battle, he or she becomes inaccessible for the remainder of the game. This harsh restriction was imposed to enhance player empathy with each individual character.
Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi was a passion project for Intelligent Systems staff that established many of the series tropes, including the presence of a mystical shield which bears the franchise’s name. Initial commercial performance was quite poor, however; Intelligent Systems’ collaboration with Nintendo R&D1, which saw the creation and implementation of a unique chip added to cartridges to resolve technical hurdles associated with the game’s verbose script, appeared at first to be a failure. The ambitious release grew in popularity over the following months, though, and positive word of mouth eventually led to over 300,000 sales.
This was not enough to secure a contemporary international release. Perhaps due to the challenges associated with localization, or the comparatively low popularity of RPGs outside of Japan, Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi was not translated out of its native tongue until a fan project by Quirino was completed in 2011. In the interim, Nintendo produced a total remake for the Nintendo DS under the name Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (2008/2009). The remake is overall faithful to its source material, though new graphics, side stories, difficulty options, quality of life improvements, and a multiplayer mode have been added. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – localized by third-party studio 8-4 due to its scope – marked the first official release of the series debut in any form outside of Japan when it was released in North America in 2009.
Fire Emblem Gaiden / Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (1992/2017)
Much of the staff who had worked on Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi returned to develop its Famicom sequel. The most significant change was the expansion of Shouzou Kaga’s role from scenario writer to director. Despite the continuity in personnel, Fire Emblem Gaiden would prove to be an idiosyncratic series entry in the style of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (1987/1988) or Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987/1988).
Players again move units around gridded battlefields turn by turn while exploring a politically charged narrative, but many of the supporting mechanics are dramatically revised. Between combat missions, the player can move his or her army around nodes on an overworld map. The army can explore towns, fortresses, and other locations in real time while talking to non-player characters (NPCs) and purchasing items in a manner reminiscent of contemporary RPGs. Certain maps can be re-challenged at the player’s will, too, allowing them to level up party members in anticipation of harder main story battles. Once characters acquire enough experience points, they can be upgraded to a new class with higher base stats at an in-game shrine. This class system would be among Fire Emblem Gaiden‘s few elements retained by later series entries.
The plot occurs simultaneously with Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, though it is set on a new continent called Valentia. Valentia is divided into two kingdoms, Zofia and Rigel, respectively founded by feuding gods Mila and Duma. When Zofia falls into anarchy following an attempted coup by its chancellor, Rigel invades. A villager from Rigel named Alm and his friend, the exiled Zofian Princess Celica, take up arms to restore order in Zofia and discover the whereabouts of the missing god Mila.
In contrast with Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, the player has the opportunity to play separately through Alm and Celica’s interlinked journeys. Though the two protagonists are both working towards a similar goal, and are traveling on the same continent, their paths are largely independent until a fixed point late in the narrative. This introduces to the series a storytelling technique which would be explored in more depth during later Fire Emblem plots: viewing the same events from multiple perspectives.
Fire Emblem Gaiden was commercially successful in spite of its drastic departure from the previous game’s mechanics. Its high level of challenge proved an impediment for many players – including some on its own development team – but others were disappointed when later series entries took their cues from Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi rather than its sequel. The game’s unique approach to its source material was finally revived in 2017 as an interim project produced by Intelligent Systems between wrapping up development on the 3DS’ Fire Emblem Fates (2015) and beginning work on the franchise’s first title created for the Nintendo Switch. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadow of Valentia was a full 3DS remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden directed by Kenta Nakanishi with an eye towards recapturing what made the side story unique without reproducing its punishing difficulty level. The project was highly successful, with its distinctive approach to real-time navigation of 3D spaces and abandonment of Fire Emblem‘s traditional weapon triangles (more on this later) establishing trends that would be revisited in 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo [Mystery of the Emblem] (1994)
As had been the case with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991/1992), Fire Emblem‘s first series entry on the Super Famicom represents a look back and attempt at perfecting the concepts introduced by its Famicom debut. Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo (often translated into English as Mystery of the Emblem) was created by many of the same staff who had worked on Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi four years earlier. Shouzou Kaga was still the driving force on design and script-writing, Gunpei Yokoi was again the producer, Yuka Tsujiyoko contributed another rousing soundtrack, and Keisuke Terasaki returned to the role of director following an absence during Fire Emblem Gaiden.
Monshō no Nazo had begun development as a direct sequel to the series’ first entry, but during production shifted to become a two-part epic: the first half is a more or less faithful remake of Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi while the second half tells the story of protagonist Marth following his first adventure. This ambitious scope necessitated the implementation of the Super Famicom’s first 24 MB cartridge, but it still proved impossible to integrate the full breadth of Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi. A handful of maps were cut without compromising the overall narrative.
While gameplay generally takes its cues from the original Fire Emblem, abandoning the between-mission overworld navigation and town exploration of Fire Emblem Gaiden, a few new elements are introduced here. Units riding flying creatures, which are highly susceptible to damage from archers, can now dismount; this reduces their mobility but also protects them from arrows. For the first time, players can also see the total potential movement distance of enemy units. This update may seem iterative, but is actually a major quality of life enhancement present in all later Fire Emblem titles.
Perhaps most importantly, storytelling opportunities are unshackled by the Famicom’s text limitations. The overall plot of Monshō no Nazo‘s Book One is the same as Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, but its nuance is enhanced through interstitial character dialogue between missions. The lore of Archaea and its factions, along with the individual personalities of Marth, Caeda, and their companions, are much more heavily fleshed out than they could have been on Nintendo’s earlier hardware.
Sadly, no version of Monshō no Nazo has been released outside of Japan. Text-heavy RPGs were still a commercial gamble in North American and European markets during the early 1990s. A 2010 remake released for the Nintendo DS in Japan, somewhat inexplicably, also remains unavailable in English. Consequently, the only way for fans to access the second half of Marth’s story is to find a fan translation; this project was originally released by VincentASM and RPGuy96 in 2008 and then heavily enhanced in a 2014 revision by Quirino. A fan translation of the remake is likewise available to those who seek it out online.
Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu [Genealogy of the Holy War] (1996)
The second Super Famicom Fire Emblem would be the most influential on the franchise’s future since its inaugural entry. Its staff was largely identical to Monshō no Nazo, though Shouzou Kaga again traded places with Keisuke Terasaki to direct the game. Katsuyoshi Koda, who had spearheaded character illustrations in Monshō no Nazo, returned with assistance from newcomer Mahumi Hirota. Kaga’s disappointment in Koda’s art would lead to Koda stepping away from the franchise after this 1996 entry.
Set on the distant continent of Jugdral hundreds of years before the events of Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, Seisen no Keifu (popularly translated as Genealogy of the Holy War) is the first series entry to depart entirely from its predecessors’ narratives. Jugdral is home to eight countries, some bearing mystical weapons passed down from twelve legendary heroes. The kingdoms of Issach, Grannvale, and Verdane go to war during the game’s early hours, setting the stage for a political struggle between them and the continent’s five other nations. The narrative centers initially on hero Sigurd and his mysterious lover Deirdre.
Shouzou Kaga wanted to expand on the scope of the series by focusing on the evolution of human conflict using real-world medieval European history as a reference point. To that end, Seisen no Keifu introduces a multi-generational plot to the series for the first time. Characters of the opposite sex who frequently fight alongside each other in battles grow emotionally close, eventually culminating in a romantic relationship between the units and – during the second half of the game, which shifts forward 17 years – children taking up arms to continue their parents’ war. These partner support mechanics would become a core element of future series entries as, even in titles where no children are born to the first generation of player characters, stat boosts and character conversations when in close proximity to friendly units deepens the sense of camaraderie and personality among members of the player’s army.
The increased size of maps likewise supports Intelligent Systems’ new approach to the franchise. Though the total number of chapters are scaled back to 12 from Monshō no Nazo‘s 42, each individual map is much larger than those of any previous title. Military sizes are expanded and the player must plan longer-term strategies based on occupying fortresses across each battlefield.
Perhaps the most noteworthy update, with regard to the future of the series, is the integration of a weapon triangle based on rock-paper-scissors. Swords are strong against axes, axes are strong against lances, and lances are strong against swords. Certain unit types had had weaknesses since Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi (e.g. armored knights being weak to magic, flying units being weak to arrows, etc.), but this update forces the player to more carefully calculate the risks and rewards of bringing any given unit onto the field.
Seisen no Keifu was a major critical and commercial success, establishing most of the tropes which would define the franchise for the next twenty years. Until 2013’s Fire Emblem: Awakening, it would remain the highest-selling title in the series. Fans may rightly remain baffled, then, that the game has never been localized outside of Japan. Perhaps its status as a text-heavy RPG in the waning days of the Super Famicom prevented it from being a good bet for Nintendo of America in 1996; the Sony PlayStation, after all, had made its North American debut eight months before Seisen no Keifu arrived in Japanese stores. Unlike Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi or Fire Emblem Gaiden, no remake has yet been announced for this seminal release in the Fire Emblem series.
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 (1999)
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 is the last of three Fire Emblem titles produced for the Super Famicom, and is likewise the last series entry developed by series creator Shouzou Kaga. Responsibilities for character design passed on to Mayumi Hirota following the departure of Katsuyoshi Koda while a Fire Emblem script was co-written for the first time by Masayuki Horikawa. Takehiro Izushi took over as producer following the 1997 death of Gunpei Yokoi.
Thracia 776 went through a particularly strange development cycle and release, which reflects its unlikely status as one of the last Super Famicom games ever produced. Originally planned as a part of Seisen no Keifu, that game’s expansive scope precluded the inclusion of this story without incurring major delays. Kaga and his team instead opted to create another side story in the vein of Fire Emblem Gaiden, albeit one more directly connected to its predecessor. It would be published in 1999 through a Nintendo Power program in which Japanese players could take rewritable Super Famicom cartridges to kiosks and download new games to them temporarily. The game was so popular, though, that a limited retail release followed in 2000.
Thracia 776 is mechanically similar to its direct predecessor and is set during the intermission between Seisen no Keifu’s bifurcated time periods. It follows the story of Prince Leif, a character who joins the party during the second half of Seisen no Keifu, as he fights to expel invaders from Jugdral’s Kingdom of Leonstar. This results in some mild continuity errors, as some of the events of Thracia 776 contradict the preceding title, but it largely serves to expand the already-epic scale of the series’ fifth entry.
Several updates set Thracia 776 apart from its predecessors. The first, a new ability to rescue wounded allies or capture wounded enemies, helps to mitigate against the frequency of permanent character deaths and allows the player to recruit new units from opposing armies. The second new mechanic, a fatigue system which causes characters to exit the battlefield if their ever-rising fatigue gauge overtakes their current number of health points, would not recur in any future Fire Emblem game. Fog of war likewise makes its debut as an impediment to long distance sight on night missions. Finally, Thracia 776‘s graphics represent a significant step forward for the series and establish the look for the next three releases; the series had, at last, moved away from the relatively simplistic sprites necessitated by earlier releases’ technical compromises.
As with all other Super Famicom series entries, no localization of Thracia 776 was produced for North America or Europe. Even the Japanese retail versiom has become exceptionally rare due to its limited print run late in the life of its home platform. A highly successful fan translation was published by a European collective called Project Exile in 2019, however, finally making this enigmatic series entry accessible to Western fans nearly two decades after its initial release.
Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi [The Binding Blade] (2002)
A Nintendo 64 Disk Drive (64DD) series entry was announced by Shigeru Miyamoto under the working title Fire Emblem 64 in 1997 but was subsequently canceled with little information provided. The Japan-only Making of Fire Emblem book, according to webmaster VincentASM on longtime Fire Emblem fan site Serenes Forest, shed light on what few details of this game are extant 25 years after its abandonment. No gameplay or screenshots are known to exist, though concept art and an interview with the developers confirmed that a small number of elements – including protagonist Roy – were carried forward to the next series entry.
Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi (known to English-language fans as The Binding Blade) was originally announced at Nintendo’s Spaceworld 2000 trade show under the name Fire Emblem: Maiden of Darkness. It then underwent a name change during development and was released on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) in Japan on March 29, 2002. Though it is the first series entry to be published on a portable device, it maintains visual parity with its direct predecessor.
In courting a new audience of GBA owners, Intelligent Systems sought to reduce the high difficulty level that had characterized its Fire Emblem franchise since 1990. Permadeath is still present, but multiple difficulty options allow the player to tailor enemy strength to their own preferences. Mechanics are otherwise identical to Thracia 776, though the player is encouraged to work their way through the story multiple times due to branching story paths and three alternate endings.
Fūin no Tsurugi centers on the newly introduced continent of Elibe as hero Roy of Lycia assembles an army to defend against the invading Kingdom of Bern. Roy’s quest involves seeking out and obtaining eight Divine Weapons, which had been instrumental in banishing Dragons from Elibe a millennium before the game begins. In contrast to the dense political machinations and morally ambiguous characters of earlier Fire Emblem titles, Roy and his journey are comparatively archetypical.
This game remains un-localized outside of Japan nearly two decades after its original publication. Unlike any preceding Fire Emblem title, an unreleased version was in development for China during the mid-2000s. While the prototype that began circulating online in 2019 included no precise translation credits, it seems to have involved Chinese companies Phoenix Publishing & Media, Inc. and Jiangsu Electron Audio And Video Publishing House. It would have been distributed by the Suzhou-based iQue, a technology firm which served as the third-party distributor and manufacturer of Nintendo products in China between its founding in 2002 and its evolution into a Nintendo subsidiary in 2013. The cancellation of this localization meant that Chinese fans would have to wait until 2017’s Fire Emblem Heroes to play a franchise title in their native tongue.
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade / Fire Emblem (2003)
A handful of developments in Nintendo’s software portfolio at the turn of the century finally made a Fire Emblem localization possible in 2003. With regard to the former, the North American commercial success of Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars (2004/2001) – a GBA iteration of the aforementioned Famicom Wars franchise – assured Nintendo that turn-based strategy games could perform well outside of Japan. Characters from Fire Emblem were simultaneously featured in the hugely popular crossover fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001), introducing Western players to swordsmen Marth and Roy for the first time. The moment seemed right for Fire Emblem to finally make its first leap across the Pacific and Nintendo of America translator Tim O’Leary was assigned to localize the series’ second GBA entry.
The development team for Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade included many of the same personnel from Fūin no Tsurugi, befitting its status as a prequel. The latter’s director, Toru Narihiro, joined Takehiro Izushi as co-producer and was replaced by co-directors Taeko Kaneda and Kentarou Nishimura. Fūin no Tsurugi character artist Eiji Kanada returned in an uncredited capacity to assist new artists Sachiko Wada, Ryo Hirata, and Daisuke Izuka. The script was written by Kouhei Maeda, who had worked on Fūin no Tsurugi alongside Masayuki Horikawa, and newcomer Ken Yokoyama. The Blazing Blade would include composer Yuka Tsujiyoko’s final contributions to the Fire Emblem series, augmented here for the first time by the work of Saki Haruyama.
Gameplay resembles Fūin no Tsurugi, but a fair share of new wrinkles sets the stage for the series’ future. The most significant is the introduction of an on-screen player character who takes the role of tactician. In all prior games, the player had been a semi-omniscient figure who existed outside the game world’s fiction and ordered around units as though he or she was inhabiting them. In The Blazing Blade, the player character names a tactician character who appears on all in-game maps and often converses directly with the characters he is implicitly directing. A tutorial is also introduced for the first time, likely due to the game’s status as its franchise’s first North American entry.
The Blazing Blade‘s story is more nuanced than Fūin no Tsurugi but still falls short of earlier titles’ complexity. The tactician joins up with Lyn, a heroine who is attempting to prevent her evil great uncle from ascending her kingdom’s throne in Elibe two decades before the events of Fūin no Tsurugi. Lyn and the tactician are joined by Eliwood and Hector, two characters from Fūin no Tsurugi, as the conflict expands to include a plot by the dark wizard Nergal and a faction of assassins known as the Black Fang. The game proceeds linearly from one chapter to another, though some chapters focus specifically on one of the tactician’s three primary allies.
Multiplayer makes its Fire Emblem debut with a duel mode facilitated by the GBA’s link cable. Players can either challenge friends’ teams or take part in non-story battles with teams controlled by the AI. While this feature is relatively simplistic, it would inspire similar mechanics in later series entries.
The Blazing Blade, upon its release in North America under the title Fire Emblem, confirmed that Western audiences had a taste for strategy RPGs. Its commercial success would lead to all but one future series entry being localized outside of Japan. Happily, the series’ new North American fans would not have long to wait for a sequel.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (2004/2005)
Development on the GBA’s Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones took place concurrently with Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (2005), the series’ first home console entry since 1999’s Thracia 776. The Blazing Blade‘s co-director Kentaro Nishimura returns with the help of series newcomer Taiki Ubukata. For the first time since 1996’s Seisen no Keifu, Toru Narihiro’s co-producer Takehiro Izushi is absent and is replaced by Hitoshi Yamagami. The Blazing Blade co-writer Kouhei Maeda is now accompanied by no fewer than five other staff members in scenario development. Jack-of-all trades Sachiko Wada, who had been responsible for The Blazing Blade‘s art alongside Ryo Hirata, returns to assist in direction, art design, and scriptwriting for The Sacred Stones.
The third of the series’ GBA titles is the first to take major cues from Fire Emblem Gaiden outside of the class advancement system present in all post-Gaiden titles. The player’s army moves around nodes on an overworld between battles and can re-challenge maps, making what is already one of the series’ easier entries easier still if the player grinds experience points. Three trainees – in the style of Fire Emblem Gaiden‘s customizable villager units – likewise offer the ability to fill in gaps in the player’s army by wielding lances, axes, or magic as the player desires.
The plot follows two heroes, twins Eirika and Ephraim, who spend much of the adventure on separate journeys across the continent of Magvel. Eirika and Ephraim are split apart when their home nation of Renais is invaded by the neighboring Grado Empire and both must gather allies among Magvel’s remaining states. Undead beings and monsters soon proliferate the continent, heralding the return of Demon King Fomortits following his 800-year imprisonment. As in The Blazing Blade before it, the plot is simple by series standards but still features compelling characters deepened through support conversations on the battlefield.
Once the main plot is complete, replay value is added through the inclusion of two multi-leveled dungeons to conquer. These have no significance to the story but do allow the player to unlock hidden characters and further engage in the series’ beloved tactical combat. Multiplayer returns from The Blazing Blade. As with its predecessor, The Sacred Stones has subsequently been made available internationally on the Wii U Virtual Console.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (2005)
The Fire Emblem franchise returned to home consoles for the first time in six years with the Gamecube’s Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. Though much of the staff working on the game differs from The Sacred Stones, both included writer Kouhei Maeda, composer Yoshito Hirano, and co-producers Toru Narihiro and Hitoshi Yamagami. The game’s artist, Senri Kita, is entirely new to the series.
For the first time since Thracia 776, the series has received a noticeable graphical update. Characters and maps are now rendered in 3D as textured polygons while the battlefield perspective can be shifted from a top-down to an isometric point of view as the player prefers. Muddy textures contributed to a less colorful look than the series’ earlier pixel art, while combat transitions to a non-interactive close-up depiction of the characters in combat when one unit attacks another – as had always been the case in the series – feature stiffer motion-captured character models than the more fanciful animations of prior games. Polygonal character models would remain the series’ standard in battle scenes despite this criticism, though pixel representations of units would return to the series in the 2010s.
Gameplay represents less of a seismic shift from 2D Fire Emblem games, broadly taking its cues from recent GBA releases. 40 skills, which can be equipped to individual characters, allow individual units to distinguish themselves from others bearing the same class designation. These skills are further broken down into three categories: general skills, which any unit can learn; class skills, which can only be learned and equipped by certain classes; and occult skills, which must be taught to units through consumable scrolls acquired during the campaign.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance‘s story is similar to earlier titles, insofar as it emphasizes political machinations within a supernaturally-heightened medieval milieu, but differs in the economic station of its protagonist. Main character Ike is a mercenary rather than the royalty which had characterized earlier heroes and heroines. Following a brief prologue, Ike and the Greil Mercenaries become embroiled in a long-simmering conflict between the Beorc (humans) and Laguz (shape-shifting beastmen) of the continent Tellius; while dragon/human hybrid characters had been an aspect of the series since Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi‘s popular character Tiki, shapeshifters would become more prominent in the series following the introduction of the Laguz.
Path of Radiance was quickly localized outside of Japan. Its positive critical reception and strong commercial performance, according to Nintendo’s 2006 Annual Report, confirmed that Fire Emblem could be successful in the West even on home consoles. A follow-up was soon in the works for the Gamecube’s successor.
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (2007)
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is the only core series entry to serve as a direct sequel to its predecessor. In spite of this uncharacteristically high level of continuity, reflected in a staff drawn almost entirely from Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn would be released on Nintendo’s new Wii console rather than the Gamecube. Strangely, the development team opted not to use the new generation of hardware to improve on Path of Radiance‘s divisive graphics or make use of the Wii’s distinctive motion controls.
The plot is set three years after Path of Radiance and begins in Tellius’ nation of Daein. Daein, which had been a belligerent power in Path of Radiance and was defeated during that game’s climax, is in the process of rebuilding amid an occupation by the corrupt military of the Begnion Empire. The player first controls protagonist Micaiah and the Dawn Brigade, a Daien vigilante outfit, as they rebel against their oppressors. Three additional chapters open up as the game progresses, offering new perspectives on the widening conflict and leading to an apocalyptic final act. While the overall plot is the most complex since Thracia 776, a proliferation of characters unfortunately prevents the dialogue from focusing heavily on any given unit’s personality.
Gameplay is broadly identical to Path of Radiance with a few noteworthy exceptions. Archers can now use crossbows to attack adjacent units at a high risk to their own health, new Laguz-specific skills have been added, and elevation differences between units now confer advantages or disadvantages in combat. In the most influential update, with regard to later series entries, the addition of a new dark magic weapon class establishes a secondary weapon triangle based on color-coded spell types. A higher-than-usual difficulty level is also mitigated through the debut of a mid-battle save feature in the international version.
Interestingly, Radiant Dawn remains the only series entry at the time of writing to allow the player to load in completion data from its predecessor in order to unlock new support conversations using the backwards compatibility of the Wii hardware. No later re-release has been produced, however, leading copies of Radiant Dawn to become relatively rare alongside Path of Radiance. This is a shame, as Radiant Dawn would be the last truly traditional Fire Emblem title at the time of writing in January 2020. Major changes were ahead for the franchise in the 2010s.
Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012/2013)
Following Radiant Dawn, Intelligent Systems spent the remainder of the 2000s releasing Fire Emblem remakes for the DS. The first of these, Shadow Dragon, was localized in North America while the second, New Monshō no Nazo [New Mystery of the Emblem] (2010), did not leave Japan. Dwindling sales convinced Shinji Hatano, the head of Nintendo’s sales department, to plan Fire Emblem‘s 3DS debut as the franchise’s final release.
Series producer Toru Narihiro returned but leaned heavily on project manager Masahiro Higuchi, who had held the same position for New Monshō no Nazo, to lead development. Kouhei Maeda likewise returned as director. The biggest change in staff leadership was the addition of art director Toshiyuki Kusakihara and character designer Yusuke Kozaki, leading to an updated look for the franchise as it entered its third decade.
Fire Emblem: Awakening‘s status as a culmination of the series’ history made its development process particularly fraught. A year of pre-production saw the team pitching radically divergent settings, including modern Japan and Mars, with the knowledge they’d not need to follow up on them. In the end, the team opted to return to the setting of the original Fire Emblem and reintroduce Seisen no Keifu‘s romance mechanic to a new generation of fans.
The game is set 2000 years after the events of Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi on the continent of Archanea, which is now known as Ylisse. Ylisse is divided between three nations – the Halidom of Ylisse, the Kingdom of Plegia, and Regna Ferox – which are in the process of recovering from a holy war 15 years earlier. As war threatens to break out once again, Plegia’s King Gangrel captures the Halidom’s Exalt Emmeryn and threatens her life.
In a nod to The Blazing Blade, the player takes on the role of an unseen Avatar who is directly involved in the game’s plot and serves as his or her army’s tactician; unlike that earlier game, the player character never appears on the battlefield and instead issues orders from off-screen. The player’s ally Chrom, who eventually takes control of the Halidom of Ylisse, acts as a more traditional Fire Emblem hero. A masked warrior named Marth appears in the game’s early chapters, referencing both the series’ history and a time-travel mechanic which informs one of Awakening‘s most divisive features.
The second half of the game explores a supernatural threat to Ylisse posed by the reawakening of a monstrous dragon called Grima. Teenage descendants of the main cast – who take on the traits of parents romantically joined through support conversations by the player during the game’s first half – arrive from a disturbing future where Grima has successfully subjugated the continent and work with the Avatar to prevent that outcome. The flexibility of this mechanic offers an impressive amount of replayability and nuanced character development, though some longtime fans criticized the game for emphasizing romance over political intrigue.
Another controversial addition to the series gameplay palette is an option to disable permadeath. Permanent loss of characters through defeat in combat had been a defining feature of Fire Emblem since its first release on Famicom, and the decision to allow players to turn it off was a point of spirited debate among the development team. The success of the end result is impossible to argue, though, as three different difficulty levels (Normal, Hard, and Lunatic) combined with the opportunity to play the game with permadeath on (Classic Mode) or off (Casual Mode) ensures that the game scales to whatever experience the player wishes to have. The integration of multiple difficulty levels, like the inclusion of descendants based on which characters fall in love, likewise enhances the game’s replayability.
Finally, Awakening is the first series entry – and indeed the first game published by Nintendo – to receive paid downloadable content (DLC). As with most other updates introduced by the franchise’s twelfth core entry, Intelligent Systems internally interrogated itself over whether this would cheapen the experience or otherwise compromise Fire Emblem‘s identity. Development on the DLC began late enough in production, however, that the base game was already complete and the staff decided that it would not be negatively impacted by bonus content. 20 additional maps and new characters were thus made available over the weeks following Awakening‘s release.
Intelligent Systems’ gamble paid off handsomely with the strongest commercial performance in Fire Emblem‘s 22-year history. Critical reception was universally strong, in spite of the aforementioned reservations among some portions of the fan community. The series had been saved from its projected demise, and Awakening would become known as a new beginning for Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem: Fates (2015/2016)
Work on a follow-up to Awakening began as soon as Nintendo realized that the game was a hit, but the scale of Fire Emblem: Fates required a comparatively lengthy development cycle. Many of the previous game’s personnel returned with one key addition: author Shin Kibayashi was brought in to pen the script. Fates‘ increased focus on political intrigue was a direct response to criticism over Awakening‘s central plot, though Intelligent Systems simultaneously sought to maintain the romance elements which had popularized the preceding title among new fans.
Fire Emblem: Fates is an experimental game which was released in three parts. Two of these parts, Birthright and Conquest, were published as separate physical editions while a third, Revelations, was made available as DLC for either retail version of the game. A physical package that contained all three parts of the game was also released in very small quantities. Each part begins with the same inciting incident but branches out into a distinct perspective based on a pivotal decision made by the player character. Birthright articulates as a relatively straightforward series of battlefields, Conquest ups the difficulty with more complex objectives, and Revelations serves as a blend of the two.
The central plot of Fates concerns a war between two rival powers, the Japan-influenced Hoshido and the Europe-influenced Nohr, when the leader of the former is assassinated. The player character is a Hoshidan heir and half-dragon shapeshifter named Corrin. Corrin is in Nohr at the start of the game, having been raised in the Nohr royal household as part of a hostage arrangement, and must choose whether to support their homeland or their adoptive family. This decision impacts the allies, maps, and plot beats that the player encounters. Each version contains a full story but the true conclusion can only be encountered by playing all three releases.
Gameplay is overall similar to Awakening, though a handful of new mechanics are present. The most conspicuous of these is the My Castle feature. My Castle is a small customizable map that Corrin can explore in real-time from an overhead perspective between missions, adding buildings to it as resources are accumulated from winning battles. Buildings allow the player to improve their units and purchase items. Members of Corrin’s army likewise appear in My Castle and can be engaged in conversation, deepening Corrin’s relationship with them and opening up new support conversations. My Castle also serves as the gateway to Fates‘ asynchronous online multiplayer component, where players can challenge one another’s AI-controlled teams.
Map alterations using a new feature called Dragon Vein constitute another update to traditional Fire Emblem gameplay. All members of the Nohrian and Hoshidan royal households, including Corrin, have the ability to change the topography of certain maps by activating magical nodes on the gridded battlefield. These often open or close routes, enhancing the player’s opportunities to control the flow of combat.
Finally, the popularity of Awakening‘s new Casual Mode laid the foundation for a still-more newcomer-friendly setting called Phoenix Mode. This causes all fallen units to be resurrected on the turn following their defeat in combat. While Casual Mode had already prevented any characters from suffering permadeath by returning them to the player’s roster at the end of a mission, Phoenix Mode ensures that players are never left without a sufficient number of units to win any given battle.
Fire Emblem: Fates was another critical success for the series. The massive install base of the 3DS, which had only increased since the release of Awakening, also contributed to Fates‘ status as the franchise’s second consecutive commercial blockbuster in the 2010s. Additional maps were offered as paid DLC on top of the multiple versions, contributing to a sense that the full package was priced a bit too high, but this was not enough to diminish enthusiasm among major press outlets. Fire Emblem had gone from near-cancellation to being one of Nintendo’s most reliable properties in just a few short years.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019)
In spite of its previous two entries’ success, the staff on Intelligent Systems’ latest Fire Emblem release represents the series’ greatest break in continuity yet. Designer Naoko Hori took over for Yuji Ohashi, Masayuki Horikawa, and Ryuichiro Koguchi, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fates art director Toshiyuki Kusakihara replaced Kouhei Maeda as Genki Yokata’s co-director (Kusakihara had been tapped to direct a second Wii series entry but it was canceled early in development), Chinatsu Kurahana took over art direction, and the script was written by series newcomers Yuki Ikeno, Ryohei Hayashi, and Mari Okamoto. Chinatsu Kurahana, who is best known for Japanese visual novels, served as a new character designer.
For the first time since the involvement of Nintendo R&D1 on 1990’s Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, Intelligent Systems turned to another studio for support. Koei Tecmo, famous for the epic sweep of its action-heavy Musou/Dynasty Warriors and strategic Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchises, produced the game with only limited involvement from Intelligent Systems. This collaboration was based on a strong working relationship established between the two developers during Koei Tecmo’s work on spinoff title Fire Emblem Warriors (2018). Though Three Houses was initially planned for the 3DS, the commercial success of the Nintendo Switch made it a natural fit for the series return to home consoles and production shifted to the new platform after Intelligent Systems’ finished Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadow of Valentia (2017).
Three Houses is primarily set on the continent of Fodlan at an officers’ academy called Garreg Mach Monastery. Fodlan’s three states – the Adrestian Empire, the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Leicester Alliance – are respectively represented at the Church of Seiros’ academy by the eponymous three houses: the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer. Though the three states exist in a tense peace at the game’s start following a tumultuous history, that harmony is eventually shattered by complex political machinations set against a backdrop of religious strife.
Players take on the role of Byleth, the son or daughter of an esteemed mercenary captain who rescues the three houses’ leaders – Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude – in an introductory battle. A critical visit to the monastery then sees Church of Seiros Archbishop Rhea take an interest in Byleth and appoint him or her as a professor at Garreg Mach. The remainder of the first half of the game involves Byleth raising one of the three houses’ officers while the latter half, set several years later in a direct reference to Seisen no Keifu, depicts the continent’s descent into armed conflict. Byleth’s choice of house in the first half determines which perspective he or she sees in the second half. Three total stories are present, though one of the three splits into a fourth side story based upon another key mid-game decision.
Gameplay is a combination of the familiar and the novel. With regard to the former, battles play out in turn-based fashion on grids as they have always done throughout the series’ history. Support conversations likewise bolster Byleth’s relationship with his or her allies and the relationships of those allies with one another.
Outside of these traditional fundamentals, though, much has changed. Battles depict entire battalions assigned to each unit, which confer combat abilities on characters and enhance the game’s sense of scale. Byleth teaches at the academy between missions, raising unit stats and directing them toward several layers of advanced class upgrades. Byleth’s real-time exploration of Garreg Mach Monastery during these interstitial sequences dramatically expands on a similar but smaller-scale exploration mechanic in 2017’s Shadow of Valentia, as the player can take on sidequests and engage in character conversations or minigames. Careful use of the limited time available within Garreg Mach allows the player to accumulate resources and recruit characters from other houses. Romance is comparatively de-emphasized – though it is still possible for characters to fall in love with one another – and the child mechanic present in Awakening and Fates has been omitted.
Time progresses throughout the game in a manner reminiscent of the Persona series. Weekdays are generally reserved for activities at Garreg Mach, while Sundays allow Byleth to participate in optional or story-driven combat encounters. Automating between-battle sequences is possible but precludes the recruitment of new characters or the ability to directly manage units’ advancement.
Finally, the weapon triangle is absent for the first time in a new series entry since 1994’s Monshō no Nazo. The absence of this system in Fire Emblem Gaiden remake Shadows of Valentia two years earlier had not hurt that entry’s critical reception, so it seemed less inherent to the franchise’s ongoing identity than ever. Director Kusakihara pushed for this update based on his concern that the weapon triangle felt too artificial, instead favoring the ability of distinct units to learn skills which give them an advantage over enemy units wielding certain weapon types.
Three Houses was released to massive critical and commercial success on the Switch in July 2019. Series purists who had lamented the franchise’s emphasis on romance elements were pulled back in by Fire Emblem‘s most complex plot so far, while fans who had joined in the 3DS era were thrilled to have even more opportunities to deepen character connections through the Garreg Mach Monastery sequences. DLC released as part of a subscription package in the year after the game’s initial publication adds numerous maps and a fourth house with its own unique side story. Against the odds, Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo had produced one of the most popular entries in the series’ history 26 years after its introduction and 15 years after it had come to the West.
The first Fire Emblem spinoff, BS Fire Emblem: Archanea Senki-hen, is a collection of four missions produced by Intelligent Systems for Nintendo’s Japan-only Super Famicom Satellaview peripheral in 1997. The stages serve as a prologue to Monshō no Nazo (1994) and share many of that game’s assets, though new music and art were respectively created by Yuka Tsujiyoko and Rika Suzuki; the latter would not return to the series until Fire Emblem: Awakening 15 years later. While BS Fire Emblem: Archanea Senki-hen was only temporarily available through a broadcasted livestream, as was the case for all Satellaview titles, its content was remade and released as DLC for the Japan-only Fire Emblem: New Monshō no Nazo on the DS in 2010.
No spinoffs were produced throughout the 2000s as the series’ commercial prospects grew dimmer, but Fire Emblem‘s 2010s revival brought more spinoff opportunities than ever before. The first, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, is a Wii U crossover with Atlus’ popular Shin Megami Tensei franchise. Produced by Atlus rather than Intelligent Systems, Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a traditional Japanese role-playing game in which the player takes on the role of a young man as he navigates pop idol culture and battles mysterious supernatural forces in modern Japan.
The player character and his friends can each summon a linked Mirage to fight for them in a manner reminiscent of the Persona series’ core conceit, though these creatures’ appearances and personalities reflect popular characters drawn from Fire Emblem‘s lengthy history. Gameplay alternates between wandering the streets of Tokyo, chatting with allies, exploring dungeons, and battling enemies in visually lush but mechanically conservative turn-based combat. Sales were limited by the small install base of the Wii U, so the game was re-released on the Switch with additional content and technical improvements in 2020.
Fire Emblem Heroes (2017) may be the most significant indicator of the series’ newfound popularity during the 2010s as it represents the second of Nintendo’s tentative forays into the mobile device market. The Intelligent Systems game was produced by series veteran Kouhei Maeda and newcomer Shingo Matsushita in partnership with DeNA, a major mobile game developer in Japan that had previously provided support on Super Mario Run (2016). As with that earlier release, Fire Emblem Heroes runs on iOS and Android devices and requires an internet connection to play.
Gameplay is similar to core Fire Emblem titles, though all maps are small enough to fit on a single smartphone screen. Four characters can be selected from the player’s roster to participate in turn-based combat with enemy units. New characters are obtained through a gacha system in which players spend orbs (acquired by paying real-world currency or completing in-game maps) to unlock five randomly selected units at a time. In a concession to the platform, movement is touch-based rather than relying on traditional control inputs.
Surprisingly, Fire Emblem Heroes offers an ongoing plot that justifies its integration of characters from throughout the series’ history. An initial episode introduces players, who take on the role of an unseen tactician, to protagonists Anna, Alfonse, and Sharena. These three leaders of the Kingdom of Askr are embroiled in a conflict with the rival nation of Embla that can only be resolved by summoning powerful heroes from other worlds. Free episodes featuring additions to the game’s plot have been regularly published in the years since Fire Emblem Heroes‘ release.
The latest spinoff at the time of writing is Fire Emblem Warriors, a large scale action game for the New 3DS and Switch in the style of Koei Tecmo’s Musou/Dynasty Warriors franchise. It was produced by Koei Tecmo’s Omega Force team in collaboration with Team Ninja following their successful partnership on Legend of Zelda spinoff Hyrule Warriors several years earlier. Hyrule Warriors Legends (2016) – the 3DS port of Hyrule Warriors – had directly influenced the studios’ decision to work on a similar spinoff for Fire Emblem, as the ability to order AI-controlled officers around the battlefield using the touchscreen reminded its development staff of Intelligent Systems’ flagship IP.
Fire Emblem Warriors, like Fire Emblem Heroes, sees characters from core Fire Emblem titles aiding heroes unique to the game. The story mode features Aytolis’ Prince Rowan and Princess Lianna attempting to prevent Gristonne’s King Oskar from summoning an evil dragon called Velezark by engaging in real-time combat across 22 chapters. Once this campaign has been completed, players can then take part in History Mode challenge maps inspired by noteworthy battles from Awakening, Fates, Shadow Dragon, The Blazing Blade, and Gaiden.
Gameplay is relatively simplistic hack-and-slash action where the player controls a character from their roster and fights thousands of soldiers on vast battlefields in real-time; enemy officers, which consist of named characters either unique to this game or drawn from core Fire Emblem titles, represent more challenging opponents. Playable characters level up with use and gain new abilities and weapons, allowing them to be competitive on still-harder challenge maps. As in Hyrule Warriors Legends, the player can typically switch between several controllable characters and issue orders to have AI-controlled units assault or defend key locations. The addition of Fire Emblem‘s traditional weapon triangle adds a new layer of strategy to this already-popular formula.
Fire Emblem is more popular in 2020 than it has ever been. A slow start belied the series’ potential to entrance both RPG and strategy fans, leading Nintendo to avoid localizing the series outside of Japan until 2002. Though it had threatened to disappear entirely by the end of the 2000s alongside its spiritual predecessor, the Wars series, Fire Emblem: Awakening reintroduced the franchise to a new generation of players eager for a deep experience on the 3DS. The decade since has produced hit after hit, confirming the Fire Emblem franchise as one of Nintendo’s most critically successful properties alongside the more traditionally recognizable Mario and Zelda series. The franchise’s fourth decade is likely to be its best yet.
What do you think about Fire Emblem? Which is your favorite title? How about your favorite character? Do you prefer the traditional or modern entries? Who do you ship? Let’s discuss below!
Here is a tentative list of upcoming Franchise Festival articles:
- #82: Strider – March 13
- #83: Deus Ex – March 20
- #84: Style Savvy – March 27
- #85: Sonic the Hedgehog (2D) – April 3
- #86: Sonic the Hedgehog (3D) – April 10
Please also be sure to check out the Franchise Festival podcast, in which I discuss the history of The Legend of Zelda franchise entry by entry with my co-hosts Spencer and Hamilton. Check it out using your preferred podcast app or online.