Until about five years ago those outside Japan never got a chance to play the Fire Emblem series which began on Famicom in 1990, but with the one-two punch of success for Smash Bros. and Fire Emblem’s sister series Advance Wars, we’ve now seen two GBA entries (Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones) and another two console entries (Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn). But regardless of the platform the gameplay is the same: deep strategy built around a fantasy setting and a war-torn world. But this is where is all began, as Shadow Dragon remakes the Famicom original with a DS face-lift.
Above: That's the Famicom version on the left
FE’s battles all play out across grid based maps, with combat based on a rock-paper-scissor variation called spear-sword-axe. Understanding who to attack, where you want your unit placed with respect to your enemies’ range and how to predict what the enemy will do on the next turn sounds easy. And like all great strategy games it’s quite easy to understand, but difficult – and worthwhile – to master.
Each character is a unique person, which is great compared to the faceless drones of other strategy games. Not only do you have to work to fulfill certain conditions if you want some enemies to become members of your growing army, but when an ally dies in battle you feel real regret. Mostly because they’re gone. Forever. Dead, like Bambi’s mom dead.
That’s where the real difficulty comes in. If you’re a collector at heart and don’t want to lose even one of the characters, then get ready for a rough time. Even on the normal difficulty it isn’t an easy game, but if you refuse to lose someone in your party or let a prospective party member just fly away, you’ll be restarting often.
Perhaps a little less frustrating, items also employ a hardcore mechanic that centers on scarcity. Any item can break after all its uses go to zero, with some more fragile than others. On top of that you can have a weapon forged at the local Smithy to make it more powerful, but if you favor it, it will break faster. Just another thing built into Shadow Dragon that ultimately becomes intensely deep.
One shortcoming Fire Emblem’s got at its heart is the story. Every game has a simple collection of warring fantasy elements based on a plain story of a child becoming an adult. Plus the story is nearly always told by static images of two characters’ heads chatting about what’s going on. It only makes the story told between the expansive maps even more forgettable, though you should pay attention anyway, as important battle conditions are occasionally discussed in these tete-a-tetes.
Okay, so all Fire Emblem games are great and similar enough to make broad statements regarding the whole series. What sets Shadow Dragon apart? Well first of all it stars Marth, probably the only Fire Emblem character you could call well- known. And second, thanks to nearly two decades separating the original and the remake, many helpful fixes have been made to soften its harsh edges.
The best addition is save points on the maps. Previously, while you could always suspend a game and pick it up later, you could only save your progress between battles, which made prospects of playing a map over and over without losing a fighter even scarier. But the save points on the map are one use only, thus keeping some of the notorious difficulty without kicking you in the junk about it.
Aside from that, and the obvious graphical fixes, we feel safe in assuming this is fairly similar to the first Fire Emblem, mostly based on how all the others after it we played are the same too. FE feels like a new experience even if it isn't, and despite small compromises made in the interest of a friendlier experience for newbies, it still plays like the hardcore series Nintendo fans desperately need right now. But do you think it could be a new game next time?
Feb 9, 2009