By now, Fire Emblem has become a household name for plenty of gamers. Outside of Japan, the series has six mainline entries, two remakes, and several spin-offs. In short, it's become a big franchise for Nintendo, but its popularity wouldn't have become possible were it not for Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, the seventh release in the series—known simply as Fire Emblem in the West. 15 years after its release, we take a look at one of the most important games in the series.
Journey to the West, 15 years of Fire Emblem
With quite a few entries in the series before its localization, Fire Emblem was largely unknown to the Western audience besides a few hardcore fans. 1990's Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light and Gaiden appeared on the Famicon. Several others were released on the Super Famicon, and lastly The Binding Blade on the Gameboy Advance. All of these tactical RPGs came with a large cast of characters within a unique fantasy universe.
While some Westerners may have gotten their introduction to the series with one of these games, most got their first taste through Super Smash Bros. Melee. I know what I was thinking when I unlocked Marth: "Who is this guy?" And the same could be said for Roy.
They quickly became popular characters in the Smash world, but they and their source material games were largely unknown. Interestingly enough, Roy was introduced first in Melee, then a year later he appeared in his own game, The Binding Blade. It was even longer for Western audiences to play Marth in 2008's Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.
The popularity of these characters was one motivating factor for Intelligent Systems to localize this series. The second was due to the Western release of another longtime series of theirs: Wars. 2001's Advance Wars was the West's first taste of Intelligent Systems' strategy game prowess.
It was received incredibly well at the time, and the game shared similar elements to Fire Emblem. Edge magazine interviewed several Advance Wars developers in 2010. Director Kentaro Nishimura (who worked on the Fire Emblem series too) said:
"And it seems that Advance Wars’ success shifted Nintendo’s attitude over western tastes.” Nishimura, who also worked as director on Fire Emblem, makes it clear that game would never have been released in the west had AW not paved the way.
The Quintessential Tactical JRPG
Come November 2003, players got their first real taste of Fire Emblem with The Blazing Blade. A prequel to The Binding Blade, the game followed three lords of Lycia: Roy's father, Eliwood; the Ostian royal, Hector; and Lyn, a plainswoman of Sacae.
Like previous games, Fire Emblem featured a large cast of characters which you command on various maps. Overall, its gameplay holds up, and the series has made improvements throughout future iterations. The fundamentals, however, remain the same. This is why it remains a classic to this day.
There are over 30 different maps filled to the brim with enemies, environmental factors, and more. Players select a set number of units per battle, and units all have different looks, personalities, stats, and more. Think of it kind of like Pokemon, where there's some distinguishing factor to each character even though some may appear to have similar abilities.
One of the most shocking and unique aspects of the game at that time was the concept of permadeath. If you lose a unit, they are gone forever. For everyone to survive, you'd have to meticulously plan out each move so you don't end up a man short, which can have devastating consequences later on.
Units can have several different weapon types including swords, axes, lances, bows, magic, and staves. Combat involves exploiting the weakness of the enemy. The series' iconic weapon triangle comes into play here, meaning swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. That means you need to have plenty of each unit for every map or else you'll have a tough time. Throw in the fact that bows destroy flying pegasus units, magic obliterates armored enemies (or your armored allies!), and you've got yourself a simple but deep strategy layer.
Maps in Fire Emblem are littered with foes, but environmental factors also come into play. For example, if you put ground units on tree tiles, they move slower but enemies are less accurate against them. The desert maps make it so all units except fliers move at an agonizingly slow pace. Fog shrouds most of the map unless you have a torch that can reveal the area, otherwise you'll have to get closer to enemies to actually see them. Often times moving forward in fog maps with reckless abandon can be your doom.
Most maps came with pretty simple objectives: take over this castle, kill all the enemies on the map, or defeat this boss. Others had you defend a set number of turns. Whatever the objective may be, there are often far more enemies than you have units. Making matters worse, many later maps have reinforcements, throwing even more enemies at you.
Although Fire Emblem may not be as difficult as some of its predecessors like Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, the game still remains a reasonable challenge today, even to those who are experienced with the newer entries.
If Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade sounds like every other game in this series, that's not far off from the truth. Though, it doesn't have a support system as robust as Fire Emblem: Awakening and beyond, nor does it share the difficulty of its predecessors.
When it comes down to it, Fire Emblem is not a unique entry in the series in terms of combat, but it has exciting, challenging maps with plenty of variation that keep the game fresh to this day. Some maps are even optional, and there are branching paths, so replaying the game is worth it for those who want to see it all. With that said, Blazing Blade stands out more in its story.
Royals, Dragons, and Deadly Foes
Make no mistake, although the game is technically a prequel to The Binding Blade, you need no prior knowledge to play. This game introduced the West to the Fire Emblem universe, so proper world-building and even a tutorial are a part of this entry.
This is the first in the series to include a tutorial, which functions as a way for newcomers to understand the basic fundamentals of the series. It also served to acclimate players to the game's universe without being overwhelming.
The tutorial follows the story of Lyn and your player character. Lyn finds you on the ground unconscious and takes care of you until you're well. Your role in this story is that of a tactician, although this plot device is used really only to justify how the player manages character movement and the inventory. During several instances throughout the story, the player character is spoken to, but it is relatively inconsequential to the plot.
As for Lyn, she's part of a nomadic tribe that lives on the plains of Sacae, but she is soon attacked by brigands. She discovers she is royalty and goes to save her grandfather, the ruler of Caelin. Along the way, she meets several companions, like Eliwood, and saves the day. Lyn's story isn't very impactful to the plot either, other than providing players with a tutorial and placing her in a situation where the main story can proceed.
This section is one of the most dreaded parts of the entire game. Those who are familiar with the series but haven't played Fire Emblem would likely find the tutorial mostly useless and likely boring. Others who have played it are handheld through boring instruction sections and simple maps. Unfortunately, this part of the game did not age well.
This main story, however, is more interesting. Like the games that came before it, Fire Emblem has elements of war, dark magic, dragons, and camaraderie in battle. After Lyn's intro, the main game proper beings. Lord Elbert of Pherae goes missing. Elbert's son, Eliwood, goes on a quest to discover the fate of his father. Hector, a lord of Ostia, joins Eliwood on this quest.
Soon, our young heroes get way in over their heads. Nergal, with the help of a nefarious mercenary group known as the Black Fang, are a legitimate threat to the welfare of Lycia. Nergal wants to become extremely powerful. To do so, he wants to summon dragons back into the world and use their power. A quest that began as a simple search for a father turned into something much darker indeed.
Overall, the story holds up. Nergal is not the most interesting villain, but his motivations are clear. It feels like a fantasy novel in both its worldbuilding and familiar plot, which makes it accessible for first-time players. It's not overwhelming or extremely complex in the plot. There's no world-ending conflict to the story, which is an overused trope in the genre.
The story still wouldn't be nearly as good without its characters. Hector and Lyn remain fan favorites to this day, even though there are literally hundreds of other characters in the series. Hector's writing ditches the expected refined, royal gentleman stereotype and replaces that with a blunt, brutish youth.
Eliwood by comparison is rather plain, but his dynamic with the dragon Ninian is a fantastic arc. Along the way, you'll pick up dozens of other companions too. Besides serving as combat units, they all have unique personalities, appearances, and quirks.
The pegasus knight, Florina, is extremely shy around men. Throw the womanizer Sain into the mix and things can get a little interesting. Nino is an innocent and illiterate mage with a tragic character arc. Then there's Dorcas, who just wants to buy medicine for his wife. Besides him being a good axe unit, what would normally be an extremely plain character turned into a meme due to this infamous commercial.
Fire Emblem's writing is not perfect by any means. There are some conflicting opinions among fans as to whether the game's story is actually good or not, but as an introduction, it serves its purpose well. It's not something that will necessarily stick with you for a good time after, but it is engaging during the playthrough.
Fire Emblem set a solid foundation for the rest of the series. The game was received very well in the West and allowed for many more entries in the series to release, and was followed soon after with Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones in 2005 for the Game Boy Advance. Although the Tellius series on the GameCube and Wii were arguably a high point in quality, the popularity eventually declined. Fire Emblem: Awakening was Intelligent Systems' last game in the series if it under-performed.
Luckily, it performed beyond expectations and paved the way for even more titles. With Fire Emblem: Three Houses on the way, the series is looking better than ever. But, without The Blazing Blade, none of this would have been possible. It's been 15 years since its release, and it might not be this extraordinary masterpiece, but its impact on the genre deserves recognition.