I have never played a Fire Emblem game before, which surprises me, considering how much I enjoy games that let me order people to run around a field while enemy soldiers patiently stand there to get slaughtered as they await their turn. As a guy who gets about as much exercise as it takes to find a charger for my DS and then subsequently lifting the DS, I often like to pretend that I could take charge of Medieval combat and not immediately find myself impaled on the tusk of an any elephant in lederhosen, and what better way to learn strategy than by moving units one at a time across a perfectly ordered grid while everyone else on the field waits patiently for you to calculate risks that you can easily erase by loading your last save file?
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of Marth, a young prince forced from his kingdom when an evil sorcerer, known as the Shadow Dragon, murders his father to steal his throne and his magical sword, Falchion. Fortunately, his pursuers allow him to bring one thing with him into exile: a well-equipped army of highly trained soldiers willing to stop at nothing to restore him to the throne. So Marth launches his campaign which consists of a series of macguffins and convoluted excuses for tactical medieval combat. After a handful of victories, Marth is awarded the titular Fire Emblem, which I assumed must have been pretty important to lend its name to the series. What could this be? Is it a supreme magical macguffin like the Triforce? Perhaps it grants Marth hero powers, such as in Age of Empires? Nope. It lets our hero open up treasure chests, thus allowing a single unit on the battlefield the ability to do what any standard RPG protagonist can do automatically and free of consequence in any dragon’s cave, king’s castle or stranger’s living room.
Bearing a strong Shining Force vibe, Fire Emblem presents a simple, no-frills strategy game with everything you’d expect to find and very little else. Noteworthy features include an insane difficulty and a perma-death system rivaled only by the real world. It is a video game, so it does include some healing magic after all, but there’s only one resurrection item. In the penultimate level. That can only be used by a single character. Once. (Which by the time this entry posts is likely to be the Republican healthcare policy) This is, I gather, supposed to make me more considerate of my actions, more mindful of the risks and more hesitant to throw away lives on crazy maneuvers like I was shooting craps with someone else’s money. However, in practice it only makes me frustrated that there’s no option to re-load save files from the battle menu. At least they had the consideration to give me two opportunities per battle to save progress, lest the dozen or so hours I wasted on resets blossom into two dozen.
The series is known for its difficulty, and Shadow Dragon sticks to that reputation like a tube of epoxy impaled on a porcupine. But the game is organically difficult. It doesn’t take cheap shots. Fire Emblem’s challenge level is being a frustrated parent trying to resolve a fight between toddlers, while other games I’ve played are more like being a bathroom attendant trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Often times the challenge stems from trying to hold yourself back rather than charging in, mages a-blazing. Knights, which have the same offensive and defensive stats as a refrigerator, make good bait, luring enemies into your attack zone, then sweeping forward with all your characters in a slow, methodical, buffet-line style of combat.
The problem with this, though, is that much like a buffet line, some characters tend to pull more weight than others, and they tend to get rather large, while your other combatants whither away by comparison. Early on, the units who dealt more damage began to gather more experience than the defensive units, and the gap between them grew until the endgame when I waged war with one seasoned soldier, a dozen accountants, and three nuclear bear robots with Ginsu claws and laser eyes. Later stages often became a handful of heroes pushing their way through a crowd of people milling about in the middle of a freeway. It got rather tiresome trying to stash characters in safe places, but the mages generally had the firepower of a toaster cranked up to 3, and as far as I could tell the archers were just lobbing plates of wet spaghetti at the enemies.
While mostly just a serving of vanilla strategy game, Fire Emblem has an interesting sugar cone underneath. All chests must be opened during battle, and of course those who are easily distracted by shiny objects while under assault will necessarily need to change their strategy. Furthermore, most characters must be obtained by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as rescuing them from death, schmoozing with villagers, or simply not killing key enemies. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, approaching people for conversation tends to be far more difficult than setting them on fire from a safe distance and hoping they die before expecting you to make small talk, so my ranks tended to grow slowly. Of course, there were also the moments when the game took pity on me as I stood shoulder deep in the corpses of my loyal followers, when it conveniently sent a ragtag group of scrappy fighters to help fill out my ranks without the least bit of concern for why Marth never bothered to learn their names.
In all, I arrived at the end of the game with literally nothing that could harm one of the primary antagonists, and the wise old sage just stared at me like I should probably wear a safety helmet with my cape instead of a crown. Fortunately, my complete incompetence didn’t forever kill any hope of progress like every date I went on in high school. It just changed how I fought the last few battles. Considering, I think I’d have a lot to gain and a completely different experience if I played the game a second time, which I think is a mark of a good game. I’m still not going to play it again, but the point stands that I could if I wanted to.