Fire Emblem has entered into the public spotlight with its recent surge in popularity with Awakening, Fates, and the large cast of Fire Emblem characters in Smash Bros. What's more, #FireEmblemWarriors has been announced for the Switch, and #FireEmblemEchoes is on its way for 3DS. We even have a full blown Fire Emblem title confirmed to be in development for the Switch. And, of course, #FireEmblemHeroes has appeared on mobile. It's Fire Emblem season, folks.
But not everyone gets the hype behind the series. What makes Fire Emblem so good? What is it? Allow me to enlighten you. I won't cover every game in detail, but I will attempt to give you the gist of what the series is all about, as well as the best (and worst) places to start as a newcomer to the franchise.
What is Fire Emblem?
Well, to put it simply, it's one of Nintendo's best franchises—even before its popularity exploded in recent years, it's been supported by a passionate fan base that loves turn based RPGs.
Like most westerners, my first experience with Fire Emblem was with Marth and Roy, two characters from Super Smash Brothers Melee. Reading their trophy entries revealed that they came from Japan-only titles, which made them feel exotic when compared to the cast of otherwise familiar characters, like Mario and Pikachu.
If it weren't for Marth and Roy in Smash Brothers, I doubt we ever would have seen this franchise in the west. Thankfully, Nintendo decided to include them in the American and European versions of the game—believe it or not, they were almost removed.
When Fire Emblem was first translated for western audiences, I played the series and fell in love instantly. If you don't have a Gameboy Advance, the title is available on the Wii U virtual console (and, hopefully, soon for the Switch as well). It makes for a fantastic entry into the series, largely because of the in depth tutorial at the beginning of the game. It also doesn't hurt that it's got one of the most solid cast of characters in the entire franchise. If you're looking to get into the series, give this one a go first!
What Makes Fire Emblem Great
The appeal of Fire Emblem is the heroes—every playable character you encounter has a name, a class, and a face. There are no generic nobodies; every hero has a personality and a history. You never just have "a knight" or "a swordsman." Instead you have Titania, your mentor figure and guardian, or Karel, the man known throughout the world as "The Sword Demon," by your side.
For most of the franchise, the lives of your friends are placed directly in your hands. If they died even once, that was it—they were dead. Gone forever. You really think about where you send that hero, because if you screw up, it's like sending a friend to their death. This led to each cast of characters feeling immensely personal. In newer entries, it's possible to remove perma-death if you want to, but everyone knows that's not the real way to play these games.
Most of the stories revolve around a sacred item known as the "Fire Emblem." The Emblem's history, purpose and appearance changes from game to game, but it's almost always involved in a bid to save your kingdom from an evil invader.
While the series is mostly somewhat predictable, some games do step outside of the series' comfort zone of "little lordling saves the world and rescues his kingdom." In the Tellius duology—Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn—the main character, Ike, is not a lord, but rather a mercenary leader.
However, even in this case, the game is still very much grounded in high fantasy tropes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the story is almost always cliche, but I don't think there's been one Fire Emblem game with a plot that I did not enjoy. The Tellius games even manage to make ye olde Black Knight trope interesting again.
Stuck in The Land of the Rising Sun
Since we didn't start getting these games until the seventh entry, westerners missed out on quite a few gems. The older entries in the series are challenging, but very fun games.
The Japan-only games most worth checking out are the two titles released for the Super Famicom. Fire Emblem 4 is a game most notable for its trademark generational system, while Fire Emblem 5 is notable for being one of the hardest games of the strategy RPG genre. These two games also take a unique approach to storytelling, as Fire Emblem 5 is a mid-quel to Fire Emblem 4, taking place in between chapters five and six of that game.
In Fire Emblem 4, the main heroes are Sigurd and his son, Celice, who takes over in the second half of the game. Watching the plot progress between two generations is one of the game's main appeals - especially because the pairings you choose for the first generation directly affect the stats of the second generation. This makes it feel as if you, the player, are building a legacy.
Sigurd, who can be seen above riding his trademark white horse, has the distinction of being one of the only lords in the series to be an adult, rather than a teenager. Genealogy of the Holy War is known among fans for being one of the more mature games in the series, and is quite beloved because of it.
While no English versions of the games exist, highly accurate fan translations are easy to find. I'd recommend staying away from Fire Emblem 5 until you're familiar with the rest of the series, though - that game is hard. It has mechanics that none of the other games do, like fog of war, so it ends up feeling like a game for experts. That isn't to say it's a bad game, though; it's one of my personal favorites. However, it does expect you to know what you're doing.
Fire Emblem Today
Today, the series has picked up a lot of steam. This is largely due to the series' revival on the 3DS with Fire Emblem: Awakening. Believe it or not, this was the franchise's make-it-or-break-it title. If Awakening bombed, the series would go underground. Thankfully, it did the opposite, and Awakening was wildly successful.
Awakening is probably the most noob-friendly game since Fire Emblem on the GBA, so if you're looking to get into the series and don't feel like playing an older game, Awakening is probably the way to go. The generational system, create-a-character, abundance of side quests, ability to grind levels, and meaty story will provide you with countless hours of user friendly entertainment. It's also fun to go back and play the game with a new main character and new pairings between characters, so there's plenty of replay value here, as well.
Awakening saw a direct sequel with Fire Emblem: Fates, and there's plenty more on the way. Next up on the list is Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Nintendo looks to be capitalizing on the success of the newer titles while also trying to bring back the spirit of the older titles. I'm definitely excited to try it out, as I never really got into any of the original NES titles.
What Game Should I Start With?
So, you want to play the series? Great!
The best entry points are either Fire Emblem (Game Boy Advance or Wii U Virtual Console) or Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS). These two games are very friendly towards players new to the series, and hold up well compared to some of the older installments of the franchise.
Why Does 'Fire Emblem Fates' have three versions?
Fire Emblem Fates (3DS) tried something new for the series by splitting its campaign into three different routes.
- Birthright is the easiest of the three and is most like Awakening
- Conquest is the harder version and is more like classic entries
- Revelations ties up a few lingering plot threads from the other two entries.
Keep in mind that each title is its own game, and must be bought separately. I'd start with Birthright, move on to Conquest, and finish off with Revelations. Be wary of playing Conquest on hard - it's no joke!
How Do I Play The Japanese Fire Emblem Games?
Legally, you need to import the game, extract the file, and patch it. Finding the translations is easy enough with a simple Google search. Remember: patching the game is legal, but pirating it is not!
There's no doubt that Fire Emblem has rocketed from obscurity to becoming one of Nintendo's flagship series. So, if you've only been introduced to the series by proxy - perhaps you've seen the characters in Smash Brothers, picked up Fire Emblem Heroes as the newest mobile fad, or heard about it from your friends - I highly, highly suggest giving the series a shot. You won't regret it.
What are your thoughts on Fire Emblem?