I recently started playing Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the Nintendo DS, and thought I’d post my thoughts on the game and its design. This was my first time playing a Fire Emblem game (well, second really, I played one briefly when I was much younger, but didn’t get how the game worked, leading to me returning it without playing much.)
I kept going back and forth on what my actual opinion on the game was. There are some very interesting elements of the game that I like quite a bit, and some other elements that drag it down. I also tend to have rather high standards for turn-based tactics game, always mentally comparing them to X-COM. While doing a bit of research on the game, I found out it was a remake of the original Super Famicom Fire Emblem. I think viewing it as a game of its time is helpful in thinking about this game. Ultimately, the game left me with a desire to see later Fire Emblem games and how they improved upon the foundation in the original.
But right now, I want to talk about a few elements of the game that I found particularly interesting.
First is how the game sets up your characters, and their relative importance. Other than Marth, none of the characters really have any story importance. Any of them could die in one of the battles, and be permanently out of the game, so they don’t have much story past, in some cases, their character introduction.
Character’s importance is thus only determined by what they offer you in terms of gameplay value. In this way, characters (other than Marth) can be split into two groups: The handful of high-level characters with powerful weapons that have special qualities and/or have been forged for improved stats (let’s call them “the badasses”), and the army of various other characters who fill out your army. Or, to put it another way, the guys who can deal damage to the bosses, and the guys who can’t.
To explain, each level has a boss guarding the point on the map Marth needs to capture. The boss is unlike other enemies in that he/she doesn’t move. The boss also usually has heavy armor which shields it from most damage. The only characters who can damage it are people with the class of weapons that have a bonus against armored opponents (these weapons are rare) and characters who have weapons forged to deal more damage. Because both of these are in short supply, the only ones carrying these are generally your badasses. So the goal of each level boils down to: Get your badasses to the boss to defeat him, then have Marth seize the square that the boss was sitting on.
There was one level which I think gave the perfect example of this mode of gameplay. The player starts in the South-Western portion of the map. To the north, there is an open area. To the east of that area is a bridge that leads over to an island on the North-East, where the castle sits unguarded except for the boss. However, before you reach the bridge there are two side areas to the North of the open area. Each of these areas contain armies, as well as forts which will spawn more units. If you send everyone into the open area to fight before crossing the bridge, it’s easy for even your badasses to get overwhelmed by the large numbers of enemies, leaving you with no units actually capable of dealing significant damage to the boss. The strategy that worked for me, on the other hand, was to have my army hold back the enemy armies, while my badasses and Marth made their way across the bridge to fight the boss.
This plays into a design philosophy prevalent in many games of that school of SNES era Japanese console games, particularly Nintendo games. In Legend of Zelda, the selection of weapons was limited, but each one felt important, in part because of the fact there weren’t many weapons. Fire Emblem adds an extra layer to this by making it so that not only are the items with special abilities and improved stats rare and thus special, but you have to choose who to give them to, thus making the characters you choose also special. This is reenforced by the fact that the powerful characters with these special weapons are pretty much required for victory. Through this, it makes a few characters who have little to no place in the written story of the game stand out in the player’s mind as important.
And, of course, I have to bring it back to an X-COM comparison. In X-COM, you could name your troops, which could help keep them individualized in your mind and make them feel like they have a personality despite not having any written story about them. In Fire Emblem, you can name the weapons you improve in the forge.