FIRE EMBLEM: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi / Nintendo / NES

If you grew up along with gaming in the 80s and 90s, you likely considered Shining Force to be the pioneering SRPG series at some point - at least until the Interbutts became common in households. That's because Nintendo never released any Fire Emblem games outside of Japan until the Game Boy Advance entries in the early-mid 2000s. Though there are certainly a bunch of computer games with similar gameplay mechanics that you can point to that predate this 1990 release, Fire Emblem's particular blend of grid strategy and RPG elements was really the game to set the basic template for console SRPGs for decades to come.

It's a little more "strategy" than "RPG" at this point, as the game just shuttles you immediately from battle to battle with no extracurricular activities or interstitial plot development of any kind. However, units do gain EXP, level up and promote to a more powerful class when they hit level 10.

For those of us gaijin coming back and playing this first entry long after having played later games in the series, it's pretty remarkable how closely Nintendo preserved the gameplay and tone throughout all the later entries. The menu system in this game is somewhat unpolished and primitive, and it's lacking some of the features like the "support system" and in-battle conversations, but otherwise it's really not much different from playing the SNES and GBA entries other than having Mother-caliber graphics and music.

It's the same basic system the later entries would replicate - the core is a "rock paper scissors" combat system in which swords trump axes, axes trump lances and lances trump swords, but there's also other little considerations, such as archers usually destroying pegasus knights in one shot and armor knights barely being scratched by anything but the heaviest weapons and magic. You also usually want to keep a thief handy as they are the only ones that can unlock treasure chests and pick locked doors.

All these little considerations are super important, however, because when characters die, they're dead for good. There's a fairly regular stream of 2 or 3 new ones to acquire on each map, but these can be accidentally killed before you can convert them, or missed entirely if they're in a town that an enemy thief reduces to rubble before you can reach it. All in all this gives the game more of a chess-like vibe than most other RPGs, in that units tend to have very specific uses and have to be deployed carefully in very specific ways.

As is usual for a first outing, though, the overall design isn't as polished here as it would be in later entries. Fire Emblem games are always at least a little frustrating due to the possibility of accidental perma-death due to making just one very simple oversight, but there are some other problems present here that later games would take measures to iron out.

The first of these is simply expecting you to read along with a strategy guide or be psychic to recruit new characters and properly divide the finite amount of EXP available among your army. Recruitable characters can be easily identified right off by scanning the battlefield before your first move, as they have a proper name rather than a generic enemy name like "Macedonia." However, one specific character will have to talk to them, and you're usually given no clue who that is until they attack you (at which point they might get killed off by counterattacks). There's also no real mechanism to level-grind, the EXP you get from the enemies on each map is all there is for the game and you get a hell of a lot of units to spread it between. It's quite possible to either spread your forces too thin, or level too many of the wrong unit types and be screwed in the later reaches of the game. There's also the issue of perma-death striking a character you've taken pains to give a lot of EXP to, which usually precipitates a reset of the game and starting the map from scratch. Oh, and while we're on the general EXP subject, the only way for healers to gain levels is to take damage, which is needlessly risky and crazy in a perma-death game.

Though the AI in these games tends to be praised over other SRPGs, really it's just due to enemies behaving like reckless pawns with no fear of their own mortality. The enemy AI routine is actually pretty simple - charge any character they think they can kill with one attack, then charge the character with the lowest defense/HP, charge the main character if available, or charge anyone they can gang up on. This means enemy horsemen and pegasi will happily go solo behind your ranks to ululululu a healer or mage they can get next to, totally uncaring that they will get swarmed and violently dispatched in the next turn by the rest of your forces. Jihad AI basically. The only enemies that display a modicum of real AI are the thieves; after they complete their initial task of hustling to any open towns and ruining them for you, they may charge one of your units if they see a good opportunity, but if they don't like the odds they'll retreat and hide in forests or forts.

Final gripe -- managing the inventory. No interstitial inventory menus means having to frantically sort inventory between characters (who carry 4 items/weapons each with no central inventory other than a storage you have to manually access from a map location) on the fly. After killing the Big Bad at the end of each map, the game gives you seemingly limitless turns to move about trading items and going on shopping runs before Marth formally "seizes" the enemy keep to end the map. This works as a stopgap measure but is needlessly time-consuming and irritating.

Fire Emblem's perma-death has always lent a rather creeping pace to the game, as advancing anyone too far without lots of support usually leads to losing that unit forever (sequential attacks by only two enemy units is usually enough to kill someone off from full HP). Here it's actually not as bad as later games, though, simply because the maps tend to be small. Other issues would take Nintendo a longer time to work out, as this game is actually significantly easier on the whole than the sadistic Fire Emblem 4 (my only point of reference other than the GBA games thus far).

Though it isn't stellar, the first Fire Emblem is at least solid and a good start for the series. It's been re-released for the SNES and the Wii/3DS with improved graphics and dialogue and added gameplay elements, however, so you might want to give those versions a run instead.

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