After 12 deaths, 30 hours, and enough regret to fill a vulnerary flask, I have just beaten my first Fire Emblem game. With the series being more popular than ever and a recent sale on the Virtual Console, I decided I would try and get into the series. I picked up the self-titled GBA game (known as Fire Emblem 7 in Japan) on the Wii U a month ago and fell in love with it. It clicked from the first few chapters and I enjoyed the emotional rollercoaster all the way to the end. I had initially dismissed this series as something I wouldn’t enjoy, a blunt tactics game driven by RPG grinding with a typical cliche anime story. To be quite honest, I didn’t understand it. As soon as I started playing this game, I felt a warmth of forgiveness. As it turns out the gameplay had a ton of depth and surprises waiting for me, and the wonderful story and characters made every aspect of the mechanics feel strong and important. After a full hearty playthrough of the game, let me tell you what Fire Emblem now means to me.
First I have to emphasise how awesome this game is on the Wii U. It was initially released on Game Boy Advance in 2004 as the first Fire Emblem game to come outside Japan, and I still felt that big eventful feeling on the TV in 2016. One reason is the music, it is AMAZING and deserves to be played loud and proud. This soundtrack put Fire Emblem up there with the Zelda series for me in terms of music quality. Every single track is meaningful, and there’s a lot of them. The melodies have this prestigious structure, but it’s more like a celebration than an assembly. The emotions range from triumph, curiosity, sorrow, reflection, to the hype and energy of meeting a new ally on the battlefield. The music just does an amazing job projecting the feel of the game at any given moment.
As well as having glorious GBA music pierce into your ears, this is the only GBA game that I think benefits from Wii U’s screen smoothing. It makes the text look a bit funky but the art looks AMAZING, almost like a painting. I didn’t use this all the time, but a quick click of the right stick brings the art to life on the TV. Here’s an example with the normal GBA picture first, and the screen smoothing below it. It looks almost the same but if you enlarge them you see how the GBA pixels look a bit comfier with smoothing on.
Onwards to gameplay. The unique strength of Fire Emblem is that the character’s gameplay abilities are a reflection of their personalities. For example Sain is introduced as a dopey clown who tries to impress Lyn and fails. Then in his first fight he acts as a tutorial to show you what NOT to do, using a lance against an axe. Lances are weak against axes, and his attack misses on top of that. This little skit established the importance of the weapon triangle in gameplay (swords > axes, axes > lances, lances > swords), and also that Sain is a bit dumb. Both very important. I think this was the interaction where I discovered what Fire Emblem is all about. The tactical warfare of Advance Wars, with the added element of personality and character development. Sain also represents an eager gamer who dives in, mashes buttons and almost dies. I can relate to that.
Florina is quite a majestic unit who rides a Pegasus. She has a lot of movement options but low defense, and in her dialogue you can tell she’s really scared of archers and doesn’t like them at all. This is because they are super effective against flying units in gameplay and do double damage. She’s even scared of the archer on our own team even though he’s done nothing wrong. This might not seem important, but the consistency meant I took every line of dialogue seriously and it never really felt like I was not playing this game between chapters. By this I mean, there was seemingly no interruption of flow even during long dialogue sequences. The story and gameplay have the same feeling.
A fun aspect to the gameplay structure is how you can have your own personal sub-goals for a particular map. I found myself with no gold at one point, and I needed to buy new weapons because my existing ones were wearing down. I equipped somebody with a blue gem and red gem to sell at the Vendor on this particular map. Part of the challenge of that map was getting this person to the vendor without dying, and it pretty much defined that chapter for me. If I was smart I would have done that earlier, and that would have made a previous chapter different. The nature of the “growing” mechanics make the game unfold differently for each person playing, and that’s what makes Fire Emblem different to SRPGs like Advance Wars and Code Name S.T.E.A.M. which technically would give everyone the same unit opportunities on a given chapter. What you do in Chapter 5 could give you a completely different team in Chapter 16 (random example) with no going back.
Another dynamic aspect of the gameplay are the “survive” chapters where you simply need to last a certain amount of turns by defending something. These can actually be shortened if you take out the head honcho of the map, quite an enticing option for an aggressive player like myself. In these maps I like to highlight the boss enemy and look at its stats and weapon type, to see how I can take it down. Some aren’t so bad while some are incredibly powerful. When taking this approach it feels like you’re scouting an enemy from afar on the battlefield and I just imagined myself there as a tactician, hovering my cursor across the hills.
Maps will have enemies, different terrain and also other characters. Sometimes there will be a third team that helps you, and there are also NPCs in the houses and villages you can visit. They sometimes give you a special item, and always have something to say. I made sure to visit every house I could just to see what people had to say, because the text can be quite charming.
Sometimes you can even find people to recruit, whether they be in a house or on the battlefield. To do this, you need your General to be close to them and select “Talk”. There’s an element of risk involved because you might accidentally kill them, they might kill you, or you might lose sight of the main objective of the map. It might seem a bit random whether you CAN recruit someone or not, but this is where the story comes in again. You’ll probably see them say something before the battle that hints that they don’t really want to slaughter people, or they’re just on the battlefield for the money or some other reason. If there’s a hint of doubt in their dialogue, I would always try and recruit them and see what happens.
This game has some of the typical stats you would see in an RPG, like strength, magic and speed. You level up your characters by fighting, and this is good motivation to use different people, depending on who you want to be strong at the end of the game. I really enjoy this structure, but the accuracy stat is something I have mixed feelings about. It makes me angry when I miss, but it can also make an unlikely character feel like a hero when they get a critical hit. I had a few people die because of this, but I just considered the “luck” as part of the story and went with it. I prefer the played-controlled aiming in Code Name S.T.E.A.M., but this is just something else to think about in Fire Emblem while making decisions. For that reason I still consider it a worthy gameplay mechanic since a lot of decisions would be too easy without considering accuracy, and some terrain would not have benefits.
The difficulty of this game surprised me a lot. It starts very easy but gradually ramps up the intensity until you are an emotional wreck on a floor of dead bodies. I struggled BIG TIME in the final chapters, some of them taking me hours just to complete. This was partly because I had a very rough journey through the game with many deaths. In Fire Emblem, death is permanent and to get the “real Fire Emblem experience” I did not restart any chapters when somebody died. 6 of them had already died midway through the game, and even though things were rough I had faith the game would be beatable. This was my test for the game design, and it just laughed at me. With my poorly balanced army, I had to kill even MORE people in one of the final chapters just to make it beatable. It was hell, quite frankly. I had no way to fight a strong boss character without sending some people to die, distracting the reinforcements. I felt so bad for them, but none of this tarnished my love for the game. They became fucking HEROES, man. It’s quite simply an end result of all my actions and made the final chapters very different to what a seasoned Fire Emblem player would have experienced. This game is your own personal journey.
Fire Emblem has a lot of ups and downs, but they all combine to make the experience whole. It just feels good when everything matters. I thought this game was AMAZING and now I’m very excited to play every Fire Emblem game I can get my hands on. I’ve already started Sacred Stones, and have Awakening on the way. It’s just an amazing experience that forces you to invest emotionally. The music, art, story and gameplay are all incredible and this is just a GBA game. It’s rich in design with SO MANY unique characters, by the end of the game I was struggling to keep up with all the different names of people. The story has such an enormous scope and never stops being interesting. Fire Emblem is a top tier Nintendo series and the success it’s finally having is well deserved. I hate Super Smash Bros. a little less now too. With a comfy, pleasant introduction, and the opening chapters being somewhat of a tutorial, I think Fire Emblem on GBA is a very good introduction to Fire Emblem and I’m very happy I played this one first. It’s just a few bucks on the Wii U Virtual Console, but you might end up surrendering a few tears as well.