Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

Me and Fire Emblem are not buds.

Strike one: these games are tactical RPGs. I don’t hate TRPGs, exactly, but I’ve liked and completed far fewer than I’ve gotten bored with and quit. I love Final Fantasy Tactics, as any right-thinking person, but it doesn’t crack my list of top ten Final Fantasy games.

Strike two: these games are the most anime-ist of anime. Again, I don’t hate anime, exactly, but I find a specimen has to be something truly spectacular to wake me up. You certainly can’t do it by spooning a serving out of the Big Barrel of Anime Tropes, and that’s exactly the barrel Fire Emblem swims in.

Strike three: this is predominantly a handheld series, and I don’t play games on handhelds. There was a time back in the early ’10s where my PSP and 3DS were all I had to game on at the office, but I was never wanting for something to play on them to the point where I would take a chance on Fire Emblem.

Strike four: this is a vast series, with something like sixteen mainline entries, with intertwining timelines and character arcs and geography and who knows what else. The first, uh, six (?) of which didn’t even get released in my region. Jumping into the middle of a long-standing series and trying to play catch-up with the story and characters is exhausting, and only worth it if the pay-off is a setting you’ll cherish for life.

But.

I’m an NES kid, and I have great fondness for that particular era of gaming. Having grown up in the ’90s cutting my teeth on stuff like Ultima: Exodus and Destiny of an Emperor, I’m insulated to a lot of the weird jankiness of that bygone era. I can pick up an 8-bit console game released in 1989 and appreciate it as an historical artifact, but I can also see how a younger me might have responded to its merits and flaws.

My first exposure to Fire Emblem, as I expect is often the case in North America, was Marth’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Melee. I had a vague awareness that he was from some Japanese game we never got, and some light sleuthing at the time revealed his game was a lot older than I’d expected. (His companion character Roy was from the then-newest title, which hadn’t been released as of Melee. Including the newest Fire Emblem protagonist would become a sort of Smash tradition, leading to the proliferation of “anime swords” in the game today.)

My experience with TRPGs at that point had been, well, Final Fantasy Tactics and a couple other titles here and there, mostly on the Sega Genesis. A friend and I had played most of the way through Warsong, and I’d rented Shining Force II once. These were complex games that seemed to be at the far edge of what the 16-bit consoles were capable of, so I was intrigued as to how an 8-bit progenitor could even work.

The solution: romhacks. Lots of old Famicom and Super Famicom JRPGs had terrible-to-middling fan translations at the time, done by hackers who thought they were being grown-up and character-accurate by making the heroes say “bitch” and “ass”. I’d already played Final Fantasy V, Mother, and some of Seiken Densetsu III that way. But the romhackers hadn’t gotten around to Fire Emblem yet. It was 2001, nobody knew what a Marth was.

I told that story on stream a couple years ago, stating the only Fire Emblem game I’d had any interest in playing was the original, and the one time I’d looked, nobody had translated it yet. Of course, by the end of the night, my viewers had located and patched a rom for me. I booted it up to confirm, yep, it’s in English alright, and decided to save it for a rainy day.

Then I forgot about it.

Sorry, Princess Whoever! Must have slipped my mind.

Then a thing happened the ring did not intend: Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light for the Switch. Not a remake of the game, you understand. There is a remake, on the DS I think, but that’s not what they released. No, they were giving us the Famicom original, with a fresh new professional localization. And it wasn’t being dumped into their NES ghetto app; Blade of Light was a stand-alone title with some modern bells-and-whistles added in. You could experience the game in all it’s 8-bit jank and mean-ness, or you could smooth your playthrough with new fast-forward and rewind options not present in the original.

I bought the game immediately, then I forgot about it again. For a while. Then, this past couple weeks, I played through it twice.

You’ll Eat Your Perma-death and You’ll Like It, Mister

I’ve never really needed a fifth reason to stay away from the Fire Emblem games, but here’s one anyway: most of the early games in the series features perma-death as a mechanic. When a character dies in battle, they’re dead for good, and this can happen through no fault of yours if the dice rolls just happen to fall a particular way. The choice here seems to be whether a player embraces this system and rolls with the punches, or meticulously replays levels until all units survive. Both of these options seemed pretty stressful to me.

If the former, you’re going to inevitably lose a powerful fighter you’ve dumped a lot of resources into. This feels bad because you lose a character you’re attached to, yes, but also because those resources are just gone now, and you have to complete the rest of the game without them. The more you rely on a unit, the greater the chances this is going to happen, probably multiple times.

If the latter, you’re going to be replaying content repeatedly until you get the outcome you like. There are already individual moments in lots of JRPGs where I do this sort of thing, and it’s never fun. I tolerate it because it’s just one thread in the broader tapestry of experience, but in Fire Emblem the tapestry only has this one thread. It sounded exhausting.

Neither of these options feel right to me in a game that’s easily going to take twenty or more hours to complete. If Fire Emblem were a quick five- or six-hour jaunt, it’d be acceptable to play through it multiple times as you experience slightly different outcomes on each pass. But these games are heavy and dense. I’m not a man who plays a heavy, dense game and then immediately hits reset to play again.

I knew Blade of Light had new features to mitigate this, somewhat, but I was also very interested to experience the game as closely as I could to how it would have played in 1990. I resolved to not use the turn rewind feature, and to simply write off any dead units. I had two big questions:

1) Is the game even winnable if too many units die?
2) Do dead units really detract from the experience that much?

Before I started playing, I reasoned the answer to #1 was “it must be, somehow” and the answer to #2 was “probably not”. And it turns out, I was wrong on both counts… but that might be okay.

The game has 25 maps and something like 50 total recruitable units, 15 of which can be assigned to a given map. In some maps you’ll be assigning fewer, because they introduce new units, which count against your total, even if they’re terrible and you’ll never use them again. On my first run I was losing about one unit per map, and sometimes an unlucky two, so it wasn’t likely I’d ever be completely unable to field a full roster of 15. The game dumps more units on you than you can use specifically to patch up the holes left behind by the fallen.

Each unit is a named character with a hard-coded class, though, which means you have a finite number of units to fill a given role in combat. There are only so many heavy horse in the game, and they tend to form your army’s vanguard. As they drop one by one through the tough mid-game maps, the new horsemen you’re meant to replace your old ones with are likely not as strong as the ones you’ve lost, nor as well equipped. So, the more you lose, the more you tend to lose, and some of the late game maps are particularly brutal.

The situation I found myself in was reaching map 21 (of 25), a large open field with no healing tiles, choke points, or obstacles, which sent enemies at you in three waves and then spawned a fourth.

So like is there a rock I can hide behind, or…?

I believe the design intent of this map is a sort of knowledge checkpoint: you have to really know what each unit is capable of, and bait out each wave of enemies in turn, just on the strength of your army alone, without any assistance from the terrain. By the time I reached this map, I was really down to the dregs. I think I could have won the map, though I’d have suffered heavy losses doing so, and the most brutal maps are still to come. So, I reasoned that was about as far as I could reasonably go on that playthrough. I still wanted to see the game through, but I felt like I’d had my fill of the oldschool hardcore experience. I reset the game and allowed myself to use the turn reset feature to savescum any dead units back to life.

What happened, though, was that each map went much smoother on my second pass. I was able to use what I’d learned on my first attempt to really put some stank on my second run. Having prior knowledge of map layouts and reinforcements allowed me to position my units better and earlier, and I had a much better grasp on equipment types, movement ranges, and secondary objectives. I’d lost a lot of units on my first play learning lessones I was able to apply on my second, and when I did inevitably lose a unit to an unforseeable crit, I decided to just replay the map instead of reset the turn. Just as I imagine I would have back in 1990.

I arrived back at map 21, the open field that had defeated me previously, with a much stronger army of more balanced classes. I was able to use my flying units to bait out the opposition’s wyvern knights and bring them down with well-positioned archers. I used my horsemen to tank their line of generals, then their paladins, while my mages attacked from the back rank. By the time their reinforcements rolled up in the form of heavy ballista, I’d advanced Marth and my heroes deep enough into enemy territory, armed with lightning swords, that I was able to stop them in their tracks.

This felt good. I mean, very good. I felt like I was applying a level of proficiency that isn’t often demanded of me. It was a kind of clairvoyance, to be sure; the game was easier now because I was better at it, but also because I knew what was going to happen on each map. It’s a bit like going into The Legend of Zelda and already knowing which bushes to burn. At this level play I was able to accurately predict how each enemy turn would play out before the computer played it, as though I were controlling both our units.

I enjoyed stumbling through the process of learning the game, and I enjoyed curbstomping it too. And I’ve concluded that is the intended form of play in Blade of Light. You’re supposed to play as far as you can, losing the units you lose to bad decisions (and sometimes bad luck), until you can go no further. Then you reset, start again at map 1, but you know now. This is how I used to play these kinds of games, back in 1990. I did not clear Adventure of Link or Crystalis or Faxanadu on my first try, either, in the bad old days.

I was expecting Blade of Light to be a history lesson. I wasn’t expecting it to rekindle the feeling of resetting Quest of the Avatar with a new hero because you know where some of the good hidden stuff is now. I enjoyed being caught by surprise.

I think, all told, I spent about forty hours with Blade of Light, across those two playthroughs. And I can’t advise whether the way I played would be right for you. Maybe you’ll have more fun making liberal use of turn reset to save every unit as you go. I can say the game gets a lot friendlier after you’ve learned it, though, and that’s a chance you might consider giving yourself.

Jagen is the Best Jagen

I’ve learned a little about Fire Emblem tropes these past weeks, dipping my toes ever-so-slightly into the wikis and fansites and subreddits. And I can say with some confidence: Jagen is a pretty good Jagen.

Let’s unpack that.

Jagen is one of your first units in Blade of Light. He’s available from the very start and is Marth’s stalwart supporter for the entire adventure, or at least until he gets cut down by a BS critical hit. He is stupidly strong on that first map; he’s already a paladin (which is the promoted form of your heavy horse), he has good HP and defense, and he starts with a silver lance, easily the strongest weapon your army has access to early in the game. You could concievably use Jagen to cut a bloody path through the first several maps of the game, and this is of course exactly what I did.

But ah, I was told, by viewers and well-wishers far better versed in the Fire Emblem mythos than I, I should not fall for the trap. For you see, every Fire Emblem has a Jagen, of which Jagen is merely the first. The Jagen is a character who starts out very strong, but who has little room for improvement. If you use the Jagen overmuch early in the game, he merely serves to soak up EXP for other characters who could level up and surpass him.

There are three aspects to a Fire Emblem unit you have to consider, when it comes to their stats. The first is the stats themselves, which determine what a unit is capable of. Units with higher Strength deal more damage, units with higher Speed are capable of attacking twice, units with higher Move can traverse the map more quickly. The Jagen (and therefore Jagen) is quite good in this regard, at least at first. However, each unit also has a hidden “growth rate”, which determines how quickly their stats increase as they level up, and this is where all of Jagenkind falters. Their stats go up only infrequently, and a Speed that’s excellent on the first map is only merely “good enough” on the tenth. The third consideration is whether a unit can promote, but the Jagen comes out of the gate already promoted. Units reset their experience level to one upon promotion, and the level cap is twenty. This means your un-promoted horse units have 38 potential level-ups, whereas your Jagen has only 19.

I’m here to tell you though, at least where Blade of Light is concerned, none of that really matters.

On my second successful run of the game, I still used Jagen to cut a bloody path through the first few maps, soaking up a bunch of EXP and basically just making a nuisance of himself. It ended up not mattering. There are enough enemy units in the game to spread EXP around to everyone who wants it, and while it’s true you will notice your other horse units surpassing Jagen in the late game (especially after they promote), he remains a viable unit all the way through to the end.

I don’t know whether this is true of every Jagen in every Fire Emblem entry, or not. Maybe you’ve played a bunch of these games and are just in the habit of stealing your Jagen’s silver lance and benching him at first opportunity. You can do that here, if you want, but I think all you’ll accomplish is making the early game a little harder for yourself.

See, that’s what’s fun about going tback to the first game in an established series with its own little galaxy of tropes and expectations. A lot of times, those expectations haven’t solidified yet. Maybe Jagens are bad now, because the playerbase got wise to their trap and so the developers started feeding into that by making them worse and worse over the years, but this first Jagen — Jagen Prime — is just what he is: a strong early game unit they probably expected you to use until his untimely death, at which point you’d replace him with one of the other horse you’ve been leveling up.

There are other things “missing” from this first game, if you’re a Fire Emblem veteran. Weapons have properties, but there’s no RPS “weapon wheel” where swords always necessarily beat axes, or whatever. There’s no sortie screen, no dating mechanics. Healers don’t level up by healing, and largely don’t need to. And who even knows what else.

What I’m saying is, I don’t know how you should manage your expectations if you’re go into this game after years with the 3DS and GBA sequels. All I can tell you is, it’s safe to use Jagen. Jagen is good. Jagen will get the job done.

Cutting Edge Hi-Def Graphics!

Blade of Light isn’t one of the last Famicom games, but it’s one of the later ones. 1990 was the year of Final Fantasy III, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Mega Man III. So, uh, a lot of threes, really.

I think the game is gorgeous, as a man who has a fondness for old 8-bit pixel art. The game does lean heavily on function over form, ensuring that unit types are distinct from each other and terrain is clearly conveyed. As a result everything skews towards the simplistic, especially on the map screen where you’ll be spending most of your playtime. But it also has great little flourishes, in those places where they were able to sneak them in. It probably doesn’t sound like much when I tell you Blade of Light’s mapmen have three frames of idle animation, but most of Marth’s contemporaries have only two, and the second was often merely a reflection of the first. See how much livelier Marth looks in comparison:

Left to right: Dragon Warrior IV, Ultima: Quest of the Avatar, Final Fantasy III, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

Once you actually engage the enemy, the battle sprites are big and detailed. I loved Marth’s cocky flourish before delivering a critical hit, and I grinned pretty wide the first time I saw the original 8-bit version of what is now his signature run cycle in Smash Bros. There’s an option in the menu to turn off combat animations, but I never wanted to do this.

Listen, I understand not everyone is enamored with 8-bit graphics. I don’t know what to tell you. I was there, in 1990, when these graphics were cutting edge. To this day I love pixel art and pixel games. I think this art style has a character to it that modern hand-drawn high-def sprites just don’t have. I don’t want every game to look like this, but I’m very happy that some games do.

Dat Jank Doe

Part of why I was interested in playing the earliest known console TRPGis, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how you could map everything the game needs to be able to do to just four face buttons. The answer is, well, they tried, god bless ’em.

This game has some pretty severe jank. The first major shock to my system was being dumped directly onto the first battle map from power on; there’s not even so much as a prologue scene or a sortie screen. Shops and NPC interactions are directly on the battle map, and only one unit can be on a tile at a time. This means if you have three new units who each need a silver sword, it will take at least three player phases until it’s all taken care of, as each of them waits for their turn to move to the shop tile and spend some gold. And the whole time, the enemy is closing in on you. Often you’ll be building a defensive perimeter with your already-equipped units so your new guys can get sorted, and just as often you’ll have a daisy chain of units stretching back to the start of a map as units who needed a turn or two to get organized spend the whole battle playing catch up.

Everything is mapped to the A button. Selecting a unit for movement, action, or even just to look at their equipment is all handled by highlighting them and pushing A some number of times. It’s not confusing, exactly, but it’s very easy to double-press and end up at the wrong menu depth, and get lost in the interface for a moment. I spent a lot of time hitting B to back all the way out to the main map view in order to “try again” rather than just elegantly address my units. It was also very easy to accidentally issue the wrong command, and such mistakes are very costly in this game, since it can be several minutes in between issuing commands. Selecting the wrong command, or the wrong target unit, or picking the wrong square to move to, can put you behind in action economy. Play carefully.

The flip side of that coin is, the Famicom doesn’t exactly have the chops for sophisticated enemy AI. Enemy units move very predictably, and if you know their Move score you will almost always know where they intend to move on their next turn. A lot of the “git gud” aspect of Blade of Light involves exploiting enemy AI, and there are lots of hilarious ways you can do this. Your opponent doesn’t try to build a perimeter or make use of choke points, for example, so it’s easy to divide or surround them. It’s also very easy to tell what target they are going to select; they always try to hit Marth, if they can, even if it puts them in an incredibly disadvantageous position. This means Marth (who is one of your most survivable units) can “escort” a much weaker unit around the map without much worry they’ll be targeted. I frequently sent Marth along with an archer or mage unit to complete some side objective, and the computer just never had a good answer for this.

To win each map, you must defeat the boss unit and then command Marth to take the castle. This means you can full clear a map and then just live there forever, issuing movement and commands one unit at a time, for as long as you care to listen to the cheerful music. I frequently had to do this, since there’s no other opportunity to equip your units in safety. The endgame stats roll reports I spent over 50 turns on one map, using my flying units as go-betweens to load up on equipment in the shop and painstakingly trade one sword at a time to the rest of my units, patiently waiting in a long line.

It took me a very long time to figure out what was going on with the Speed stat. Every unit can be addressed exactly once on your turn, so high Speed units don’t get more turns than low Speed units. Instead, the stat is used to influence which combatant in a skirmish gets to act twice. In a typical round the attacking unit goes first, then the defending unit offers reprisal. Then, whichever unit is faster attacks a second time. (The hip Fire Emblem kids call this “doubling”.) Sometimes, though, my enemy would attack me twice even when I was faster, which made it feel like an element of randomness was involved. There are already to-hit rolls and crit chance rolls in this game, so an extra “who gets to double” roll on top of that felt really unfair. It turns out, there’s a hidden “equipment weight” stat in the game, where the weapon you use deducts from your Speed, and it’s this modified stat that determines who gets to double. This is mentioned in the instruction manual, but isn’t indicated in the game at all. I’m sure I lost a unit or two in my first run figuring this out.

Hmm… I think this last thing counts as jank. Remember my TRPG pedigree is Final Fantasy Tactics where, on a unit’s turn, you can direct them to move and then act in either order. In Blade of Light you can move and then act or you can only act. A unit can’t attack an enemy and then move away from them, nor can a unit buy something in a shop and then step away, freeing up the space for another unit. I don’t know if this is a limitation of the times or just part of the style of the Fire Emblem series, but I know it never felt great to me, and I would have preferred the freedom to take my turn in either order.

This Game Costs $96

That’s not true, it’s $5.99 as a digital download on Switch. And I could have let it end there. But I had a stack of gift cards left over from Christmas and nothing in particular to spend them on. Instead of just whittling away at them using Doordash, I decided to make an extremely unwise purchase:

Pictured: a life decision. Also pictured: award-winning photography.

This is the 30th anniversary ultimate collector’s package, and I am embarrassed to own it. I blame a combination of having too much “free” money on my desk and whatever nostalgia endorphins were still kicking around after finishing the game. But whatever, I bought the dang thing, let’s talk about what’s inside of it.

What I imagine will be the main draw for most people is the big nice art book, filled with character art from a variety of Fire Emblem games and spin-offs. I’m sure an actual long-time fanboy would get more enjoyment out of this than I do, but it’s nice to flip through and it will look handsome on the shelf. I learned two interesting things as I was flipping through it. First, apparently the cast of Blade of Light recurs in a lot of sequels throughout the years; not only Marth, but the whole gang. And second, as the series goes on, it starts leaning harder and harder on the Uncomfortable Jailbait Waifu Index (UJWI). I’m forbidden by law to have an anime waifu, especially not one who looks 14, so probably best to get away from this series while I have the chance.

Next in the package is an incredibly cool Nintendo Power mock-up. Someone actually sat down and thought, hmm, what would the Fire Emblem issue have looked like back in 1990? Not only did they nail the cover layout perfectly, but the flip side of the mockup has a hand-to-god Counselors’ Corner and Classified Information section addressing some of the game’s hidden stuff. The mock-up declares itself to be “Volume 11.5”, so I looked it up and it turns out that would have put this “issue” smack dab in 1990, right after the Super Mario Bros. 3 feature. That’s an incredible attention to detail, and I will definitely have to frame this thing.

The actual expensive bit, though, is the NES packaging. It is exactly the right shape and size, and even smell. Inside is a full instruction manual, one of the double-tall ones like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior IV had. Oh, and a fold-out map. Do you have any idea how much good it did my poor crumbling heart to open up an NES box and pull out a fold-out map? I about cried. Then there’s the fake cartridge, a beautiful glass art piece that fits perfectly in the included cartridge sleeve. I have a huge custom display case in my dining room filled with NES carts, and this piece will look incredible once it takes its rightful place alongside all the old classics.

(Interestingly, when I first saw pictures of this cart, I thought it was made of shiny silver plastic. This seemed fitting to me. Imagine if we’d been getting Fire Emblem games all along, starting in 1990; doesn’t it make sense that its cartridges would be uniquely silver, as a counterpart to Nintendo’s other epic fantasy series, The Legend of Zelda, which had always been gold?)

The only part of this package’s presentation that betrays it as a modern replica is all the printed material is presented in French as well as English. This continues to weird me out a little bit on all of Nintendo’s products. I understand why they do it, of course, it’s just, living in Florida, I always expect the bilingual packaging to be English and Spanish, and it never is.

And look, I realize there’s a good chance if you’re reading this, and are active in my Discord, I have made fun of you in the past for buying overpriced collector’s editions of games filled with worthless trinkets. You might be feeling ways about things right now. If that’s the case, I just want you to know, this is totally different because [insert excuses and/or hypocricy here]. I still think amiibos are dumb.

I Will Never Play Another Fire Emblem Game

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was the perfect storm. I approached it as a historical curiosity, it ended up grabbing me a lot harder than I ever intended, and then I splurged on the big fanboy box just minutes before it disappeared into the bowels of eBay for all of time.

I don’t think this heralds a new age of me devouring Fire Emblem games, though. I still think GBA games look kinda dumb and ugly, and the entries on modern consoles look to me like episodes of Super Generic Fantasy Anime interspersed with TRPG maps. I did sample a few of the sequels from through the years by checking out playthroughs on YouTube, and maaaaybe I could see me plunking down for another go if one of the Super Famicom entries gets this same love by Nintendo in the future. But, as with Pok√©mon Shield, I feel like I’ve poked my head into a weird wide world, got a taste of what it was all about, and can now leave satisfied.

I think that about covers everything. Oh, wait, no, I kinda like playing as Byleth in Smash Bros. Ultimate. There, that covers everything.

Thank you for reading about my series of unwise Fire Emblem decisions!

3 comments to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

  • Drathnoxis

    Good read. I’ve only ever played the GBA Fire Emblem and Awakening. I don’t really remember the GBA one at all and Awakening was ok. I didn’t play with permadeath in Awakening because it just seemed like it added a ton of tedium to the game and nothing else. The plot was also very mediocre.

  • GBAboy777

    Roy was not the player character of the GBA Fire Emblem game that was released in America following Melee. In fact, Marth and Roy were actually requested by Nintendo of Japan to be dummied out of all other versions of Melee outside of the Japanese version during localization, however the localization team were able to convince Nintendo Japan to allow Marth and Roy to be left in. At the time, there were no plans to release Fire Emblem outside of Japan however the interest sparked by allowing Marth and Roy to be left in the international releases of Melee changed plans and the next Fire Emblem, Fire Emblem: the Blazing Blade(a prequel to the previous Fire Emblem: the Binding Blade, the entry which was Roy’s game, which stared Roy’s father Eliwood, alongside fellow father to a main character in Binding Blade Hector and newcomer Lyndis) which we in America just know as Fire Emblem GBA, was given international release. Sorry about the history lesson but I get tired of hearing that, more or less, Roy debuted in Melee or his game’s international release was advertised by Melee.
    That being said, I can completely understand and can agree with your opinions on Fire Emblem. I’m content to be mocked by purists for only playing Fire Emblem games on Casual which erases permadeath which I cannot be bothered to care about. It’s a frustrating waste of time and yet some are willing to make it the hill they die on.
    Oh and Byleth is enjoyable to play in Ultimate, though I imagine that your win streak is better with Bowser Jr. Lol.
    alright I’m done.

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