Fire Emblem is a popular and beloved Nintendo franchise, but it's easy to forget the turn-based strategy series was practically unknown in the west before Smash Bros Melee for the GameCube introduced us to Marth and Roy (he's our boy) in 2001.
Fire Emblem goes back to 1990 in Japan, meaning there are still several games that never received official English releases (not to say fans haven't picked up the slack). Nintendo aims to patch up at least one of those story gaps with Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a Nintendo 3DS remake of 1992's Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Famicom.
Gaiden is the black sheep (or black dragon) of the Fire Emblem family, which makes Nintendo's decision to refurb it interesting. Like other "deviant" games in popular franchises – say, Zelda II or Castlevania II – Gaiden has its fans, and they're a dedicated bunch who are happy the remake is happening.
"So what is Fire Emblem Gaiden?"
Fire Emblem Gaiden is a turn-based strategy game from Nintendo, and the second entry in the Fire Emblem series. Long-time Fire Emblem fans should see a lot of familiar elements at first glace: You move your units across the battlefield and engage enemies on an separate screen when you touch them (or when they touch you). You train up your troops and promote them into stronger warriors as you progress through the story.
The Fire Emblem Direct on January 14 started with a summary of Gaiden's story, but here's the gist: There are two gods that oversee two kingdoms with opposing points of view on how mortals should live their lives. A world war threatens to engulf both kingdoms, and its up to the game's protagonists – siblings named Alm and Celica – to lead separate armies and eventually bring peace back to the realm.
As with nearly all Fire Emblem games, Gaiden delivers twists and turns a-plenty.
"What does Fire Emblem Gaiden have in common with other Fire Emblem games?"
Aside from its classic turn-based battle system, Fire Emblem Gaiden also brings back a lot of familiar fighting faces. You command swordfighters, Pegasus knights, mounted cavalry units, and other heroes. Their fighting strength and movement speed depends in some part on their unit type. For example, a swordfighter can pack a punch, but is hindered by difficult terrain like swamps and mountains. Pegasus knights, however, can fly over obstacles – but they're easily brought down by arrows.
"What makes Gaiden 'the black sheep / black dragon' of the Fire Emblem series?"
Gaiden made a lot of changes to the original Fire Emblem formula. Some of those changes stuck around for other games; others didn't. Some notable points:
-You can move freely along the world map. "Traditional" Fire Emblem gameplay occurs when you encounter enemies.
-Similarly, you can walk freely through towns and dungeons.
-Battles are generally won when you clear out all the foes on-screen, not when you capture a throne or a castle gate.
-Weapons don't degrade as you fight. Only special weapons and items can be equipped in a single slot; your units' default weapons never break. As a result, there's far less inventory management in Gaiden compared to other Fire Emblem games.
-Since there's no inventory management in Gaiden, spellcasters don't use Tomes. Instead, they learn spells by levelling up. Spells cost HP to cast, and the damage done or amount of healing performed is dependent on the spellcaster's Power stat.
-Class changes are performed by visiting a shrine, not by using special items.
There are also some Fire Emblem staples that didn't exist in Fire Emblem Gaiden. For instance:
-There's no official Support system. The ability to make friends out of (and babies with) your fighters didn't show up until 2002's Fire Emblem VI: The Binding Blade for the Game Boy Advance. That said, if Alm and Celica fight within close vicinity of each other, their chance for a critical hit goes up.
-There's no weapons triangle, as the weapons triangle made its first appearance in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War for the Super Famicom in 1996.
"What's Fire Emblem Echoes for the 3DS like?"
First and most obviously, Echoes overhauls Gaiden's graphics. Goodbye three-color sprites, hello full 3D models. The music has likewise been overhauled, and there's voicework too. The Fire Emblem Direct claims the world of Valentia has been rebuilt "from the ground up," and that sure appears to be the case.
In fact, the pitch for Echoes assures us everything that makes Gaiden unique is retained (there is indeed footage of a villager being promoted to a cavalry unit at a shrine), which makes it worth wondering if Nintendo has plans to add the features that made later Fire Emblem games more accessible. Gaiden has no support system, but will Echoes? Fire Emblem fans love their waifus and husbandos, especially the fans who came into the series with the relationship-heavy Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS.
What about the weapons triangle? Western Fire Emblem fans have never been without a game that didn't tell us "Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords." Fire Emblem Fates opts out of weapon degradation like Gaiden, but not having access to Tomes may alienate some players.
Then there's the Big Question: Is permadeath guaranteed for Echoes' fallen heroes? Gaiden is as obstinate as Fire Emblem games come. Will Nintendo throw out a few bones to players who are happy players can opt out of having their beautiful anime husbands and wives die forever n' ever (Yours Truly included)?
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is available on May 19. Hope for the best, but steel yourself for the possibility of final goodbyes.