In Memorium: Fire Emblem's Juicy, Chunky GBA Sprites

In Memorium: Fire Emblem's Juicy, Chunky GBA Sprites

A little bit of sprite art could convey a lot of emotion on the GBA.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is an excellent game. But if I can be real for a moment, I must admit it's not an excellent-looking game. The graphics don't cause any major offense, but neither do they excite me outside the characters' designs (a field Fire Emblem has long excelled at) and some of the character models.

Otherwise, Fire Emblem: Three Houses' environments fall on the meh side, especially the Monastery that serves as the game's central hub. It's a bit muddy-looking, objects fade in and out of your field of vision with the regularity of a PSOne game, and I've experienced some frame rate drops in abbey's open areas. You also clip through animals, which is mystifying to me. It's funny to stand in the middle of a horse and pretend you're cosplaying as Odin's horse Sleipnir, but it makes me wonder why Intelligent Systems neglected to program any kind of collision detection for the beasts.

"It's not beautiful, but I guess it's home." | Intelligent Systems/Nintendo

3D graphics have never been Fire Emblem's strongest field. Remember the Awakening characters' lack of feet? Still, I don't count it as a mark against the games because Fire Emblem is tops when it comes to turn-based battles, story, and character interactions. Besides, Three Houses' graphics aren't beautiful, but they're not exactly atrocious either. They're serviceable.

I don't think anyone will begrudge my warm memories for the big, gorgeous sprites that came to define the Game Boy Advance's Fire Emblem games, though. Even looking back at videos of each class' attack animation lets me appreciate small details that must've taken a ton of time and effort to implement. It's enough to make me hope the next Fire Emblem game will have an option to switch to sprite-based graphics, much how we can in Dragon Quest XI S.

I know that'd be a lot of extra work for a series as content-rich as Fire Emblem, but it's been so long since we've seen the characters move with such weight and purpose. (Outside of Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile, which is a fun game on its own merits, but isn't part of the mainline series.) I love how Archers spin their arrows before they fire a critical hit, or how Heroes throw their shields into the air before slamming their giant swords down on a foe's head. (What's a shield except a prop to help make critical strikes look cool?) Better still, characters' moves become cooler when they achieve higher classes. A magic pupil will stumble slightly before casting a spell, whereas full-blown mages trace deadly sigils in the air before unleashing a powerful barrage of magic.

Intelligent Systems deserves an extra pat on the back for some of its clever labor-saving tricks, too. The Myrmidon and Assassin blur and then "disappear" to apply their killing blows. Even though we don't see the characters' sprites at this moment, the blur and appearance of white impact marks paint a very strong illusion of the attacker moving quicker than the eye can follow. It's really boss.

I think the animals are the real stars of Fire Emblem GBA's show, however. Their movements have the same level of flourish as their human masters', and it's great. Watch how a Pegasus tosses its head as it flies back to its starting point following an attack, or how Wyvern Lords' mounts rear back and pause for a beautiful second before slamming into their foes.

Even plain horses get special treatment. I like how the Cavaliers' mounts take a couple of steps to settle back into their starting position after an attack. I also love how horses for higher-class characters move with a confident fluidity that's missing from lower-class horses. Watch how a Paladin's horse moves almost exclusively with dramatic leaps, or how it gallops in place for a moment before charging directly into an enemy. Bam.

Death by My Little Pony. What a tragic/magic end. | Intelligent Systems/Nintendo, via MobyGames

Finally, make sure to appreciate how different types of horses fulfill different jobs. The aforementioned Paladin's horse is lean and striking, whereas the Clydesdale-like horse that carries the Great Knight is stockier and seemingly better-suited for the job of hefting all that armor.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses demonstrates mind-blowing graphics aren't necessary for an epic game experience. On the other hand, the Fire Emblem's GBA sprites remind us frivolities like dancing horses and assassins that move quicker than light provide that pinch of spice that makes war extra nice. If they don't return to Fire Emblem, I'm sure I'll continue to love the games regardless. Wouldn't it be awesome if they did return, though? There's nothing like a Falcon Knight descending from outer space to assure you "Yeah, your opponent is dead. Great job."

Banner art via The Cover Project

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve,, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

Read this next

USgamer Holiday Gift Guide 2019: For the Traveling Gamer

If your special someone is always on the go, here's some ideas to make those delayed departures sting a little less.

The Game Awards 2019 Nominations: Control and Death Stranding Among Top Nominees

And Smash Bros. gets some belated acknowledgement.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Finally Adds Another Gay Romance Option For Male Byleth

Small spoiler warning: we'll be detailing the new S-Rank character for male Byleth.

New Fire Emblem: Three Houses DLC Has Everyone Thirsty

Maid outfits and Jeritza for all.

The 25 Best Nintendo Switch Games

Our rotating list of the best games on Switch, now updated for the Nintendo Switch Lite release!

More Opinions

Xbox Series X Asks the Question, "What's in a Name?"

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Microsoft not only unveiled its next console this week, but now Sony will start making games for other consoles too?

Once the King of PC Gaming, MechWarrior is Now the Big Stompy Ghost of a Bygone Era

A legacy series returns, and there’s little else like it in gaming today.

Starting Screen | Tyrants, Dollhouses, and Rude Geese: Looking Back on 2019's Great Gaming Moments

There were some great moments in video games this year. Let's look back on some of our favorites.

More on Game Boy Advance

The Analogue Pocket is Bringing Retro Handheld Gaming Back to Life

Analogue's new device looks like a Game Boy Pocket but supports a lot more than Game Boy classics.

Mario & Luigi Series Developer AlphaDream Files for Bankruptcy

The Superstar Saga creator is reportedly in severe debt.

What's Your Favorite Console Revision?

COMMUNITY QUESTION | The Switch Lite is out today, so let's look back on the history of console revisions.

Downhill Jam: The Game Industry Reflects on 20 Years of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater turns 20 in September, so we spoke to people across the industry who remember the series fondly.

A Reminder for Fans Raging About Pokemon Sword and Shield: Every New Entry is Somebody's First

In this exciting issue: I recall dismissing Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire as "lazy" back in 2002.

More Role Playing Games Games

What Was Your Favorite Reveal At The Game Awards 2019?

COMMUNITY QUESTION | It was another packed night for game announcements. What do you think was the best of them?

Pokemon is Getting a New Series of Animated Shorts Set in the Galar Region

The hopes and dreams of Galar region's trainers are coming soon to a small screen near you.

Game Awards 2019 Recap: The Night’s Big Trailers and Reveals

Sizzle reels for everything from upcoming DLC to the next Xbox.