So you saw the trailer for Fire Emblem Engage back in September, and, after laughing at the protagonist’s hair, you thought: “Why are they summoning Smash Bros. characters like Marth to fight for them?”
Judging from the fact that you’re reading this article, I’m assuming that you’re interested in Fire Emblem Engage. Maybe you played Three Houses and you recently became a fan, or you’re thinking about playing a Fire Emblem game for the first time. Regardless of the circumstances, I would be more than happy to help you out!
Fire Emblem is a JRPG series with a long and detailed history. The first game made its debut in 1990 in Japan, and it laid the groundwork to the Strategy RPG subgenre. Since then, over sixteen mainline games have been released, some only in Japan. It appears that Intelligent Systems, the developers of Fire Emblem Engage, are planning on celebrating their decades of history by having the player summon characters from past Fire Emblem titles to assist them in battle. Marth, the protagonist of the first game, was featured heavily in the trailer, but other royalty such as Celica, Sigurd, and Lyn were also featured.
If you’re sitting there thinking, “Okay, I know Marth, but… who’s Celica? Who’s Sigurd? Do I have to do homework to play this game?” Don’t worry. Intelligent Systems knows that many of their past games haven’t been played by the modern fanbase, especially the early games that are still locked to Japan. I’m 100% positive that you’ll be able to enjoy Fire Emblem Engage without playing any other Fire Emblem game. Think of Engage as your introduction to the history of the series, giving you a character or two to represent the many, many epic stories that Intelligent Systems have created over the years.
That being said, now is the perfect time to look back through the history of Fire Emblem and explore what each game contributed. Learning about the history, even if it’s just through a video game blog like mine, would only deepen your enjoyment of the game. And so over the next several weeks, I plan on playing past Fire Emblem games and creating a post for every character that’s going to be summoned in the upcoming Fire Emblem Engage.
For the remainder of 2022, I’m going to write a post for each of the first 7 characters featured in the game, starting with Marth and ending with Eirika from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. Then we’re going to take a break for the Holidays, and then we’ll pick back up with the final 5, starting with Ike from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and ending with Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses. If my timing works out right, we will be ending Three Houses a few weeks after Fire Emblem Engage’s release date.
But before we dive deep into the “History of the Emblem,” as I like to call it, allow me to provide you a quick TL;DR overview of series to give you some context about how far Fire Emblem has come.
Fire Emblem’s gameography can be broken down into four distinct eras. I will do the best I can to whittle down these eras to the bare essentials so that we don’t have a textbook on our hands. That being said, this is Nintendo’s longest-running RPG series, so there’s a lot to cover. Let’s start at the very beginning:
#1 – The Shouzou Kaga Era
For most of the 1980s, software company Intelligent Systems provided tech support for Nintendo. They even helped convert games made on the Famicom’s floppy discs to the NES cartridges that we used here in the West. However, by the end of the decade they decided to make their own video games. The first was 1988’s Famicom Wars, a turn-based strategy game (it was the first game in the Advance Wars series). Encouraged by its success, the team began to combine elements of Famicom Wars with console RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. In 1990 Intelligent Systems released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Nintendo offered a helping hand in its development as well. It was even produced by Nintendo’s legendary Game Boy designer, Gunpei Yokoi. A young man named Shouzou Kaga is the game’s originator, and worked as its writer and designer.
Shouzou Kaga went on to be the director and creative lead for the next five entries in the Fire Emblem series. These games include:
- Fire Emblem Gaiden (Famicom) in 1992
- Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem (Super Famicom) in 1994
- Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (Super Famicom) in 1996
- BS Fire Emblem: Archanea Saga (Satellaview, a peripheral to the Super Famicom) in 1997
- Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 (Super Famicom) in 1999
This era was highly experimental. While the basic Strategy RPG elements remained the same, Kaga gave each game its own unique cocktail of mechanics. These experiments, such as an overworld map, a castle hub, and marriage between units, would later be used in more modern Fire Emblem games. We can thank Kaga for planting the seed for the series’ eventual mainstream success.
Unfortunately Shouzou Kaga left Intelligent Systems shortly after the release of Thracia 776. The reasons behind this departure could make an entire blog post on its own, but suffice to say he left and has been an independent game developer ever since. The drama behind it all feels like a royal betrayal coming right out of one of the games.
None of these early Fire Emblem games were released in the West. The only way to play them is through emulating fan translations, though any computer or phone you have should easily be capable of playing these games. I can’t tell you where to find them, but a quick Google or Reddit search should help you along. Since Nintendo isn’t apparently interested in localizing them, I see no issue in emulating them. However, I understand why some people might not want to do this.
#2 Back to Basics and The Western Invasion
Around the time Kaga left, Intelligent Systems was working on a Fire Emblem game for the N64, but ultimately the team cancelled it. They shifted to the Game Boy Advance instead and decided to make a “soft reboot” for the series. They stripped many of the complex mechanics introduced in Genealogy of the Holy War and Thracia 776 in favor of a more streamlined approach. The first of these games was Roy’s title, Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade. Masahiro Sakurai included him and Marth in Super Smash Bros. Melee, marking the West’s first exposure to Fire Emblem characters and establishing a long-held tradition of Smash Bros. adverting the latest Fire Emblem game. Intelligent Systems was encouraged by the positive reception of Advance Wars in the West, and they decided to translate their next game and release it worldwide: Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, known to us here simply as Fire Emblem. While the story was more complex, the gameplay still retained its simplified approach from The Binding Blade.
It was a success, and it began a long stream of international releases. Intelligent Systems developed 1 more game on the GBA and 2 games on Nintendo home consoles, marking the series’ transition into 3D. These games were:
- Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (GBA) in 2004
- Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (GameCube) in 2005
- Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Wii) in 2007
There’s a solid portion of the fanbase that got their start with these games and hold a strong nostalgia for them. This was a time when the series was relatively simpler, focusing on protagonist-driven stories and straightforward yet rewarding strategy scenarios. While Intelligent Systems did eventually start experimenting again, particularly with Sacred Stones‘ diverging paths, games in this era still had relatively few differences between them, especially in how they looked.
Unfortunately, while sales for the Fire Emblem games were positive on the GBA, the series never grew after that; in fact, Fire Emblem kept declining with every passing entry. Even though Radiant Dawn was released on the Wii, one of Nintendo’s most popular home consoles, it couldn’t break the series into the mainstream. Nintendo was so disappointed that they asked Intelligent Systems not to make another Fire Emblem game for a home console. Intelligent Systems had already started work on a new Wii game when they heard the news, so they had to scrap it entirely. This second Wii game’s cancellation was a portent of future difficulties for the series.
#3 Death and Rebirth
Intelligent Systems decided to go back to their roots by remaking the first game and putting it on the DS, another popular system, hoping that Marth’s popularity would help revitalize the series. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. 2008’s Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon did not perform well. Perhaps spooked by the poor sales, Intelligent Systems decided to retreat from localizing games worldwide. They tried again with yet another remake, this time with the 3rd game (which was the series’ most popular up to that point) as a Japan-exclusive release. But 2010’s Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem flopped. Western fans were scared as well. Would they ever get a new Fire Emblem game localized again? Nintendo told Intelligent Systems that the next game after Mystery of the Emblem had to sell 250,000 units, otherwise the series would have to be shelved. It was a desperate time for the studio.
Thinking that their next Fire Emblem game would be their last, Intelligent Systems put in everything they liked about the series into one “greatest hits” entry. In New Mystery of the Emblem, the studio had experimented with making an avatar character for the player to insert into the story, as well as making an optional Casual mode where the series’ iconic permadeath mechanic would be turned off. Units killed in battle would no longer have to die forever. They reused both of these newcomer-friendly mechanics, threw in the marriage and child systems from Genealogy of the Holy War, and the world map from The Sacred Stones, and called their game Fire Emblem Awakening.
Fire Emblem Awakening not only met the sales goal, it exceeded it fourfold. Fire Emblem Awakening received impressive review scores and even more impressive sales across the world. Many new players tried the game out and fell in love. Fire Emblem was saved. To this day, no video game series has ever had a turn-around this dramatic — from nearly dead to astoundingly popular.
Encouraged by the sudden success, Intelligent Systems moved on to expand the mechanics of Fire Emblem Awakening and embarked on an ambitious project of multiple game releases. Fire Emblem Fates is what came from that ambition. This pair of games sold even better than Awakening, and by the end of 2016, Fire Emblem got its first ever spinoff title, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (the story of that game also deserves its own blog post), and Nintendo claimed that Fire Emblem was now a “Major IP.” Within the span of 6 years, Fire Emblem went from being a peasant on the streets to being the king of Nintendo’s RPG franchises.
Despite its overt success, Fire Emblem Awakening and Fates were quite controversial among the fanbase. Many fans of the classic games disliked the inclusion of the avatar character and fanservice; furthermore, the addition of casual mode and ability to grind levels like in other RPGs undermined the strategy elements and tough decision-making so clearly defined in older entries. Some fans even looked down on the newcomers as “Awakening Babies” or “Fates Babies.” Discourse was ablaze with controversial opinions and mixed feelings. It was almost as if the fandom itself was drawing the battle lines and participating in their own simulated war of opinions.
With a divided fanbase, how would the series move forward? Could it keep its success momentum?
#4 The Mainstream Era
In 2017 Intelligent Systems released a mobile spinoff game called Fire Emblem Heroes as part of Nintendo’s new endeavors to enter the mobile gaming market. The game was an instant success and remains one of Nintendo’s highest-grossing mobile games ever. The game utilizes a gacha system where the player randomly rolls units from past Fire Emblem games to join their army. Many new players had their first introduction to the series through Fire Emblem Heroes, and I suspect Intelligent Systems is designing Fire Emblem Engage to bring that crowd over to play the mainline games on Switch. If you’ve heard about fans speculating whether or not Fire Emblem Engage is going to use a gacha system, Heroes is the reason why they’re saying that (side note: I doubt Engage will use gacha).
The 3DS also received its last Fire Emblem games in 2017 with the Gaiden remake called Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia and the cross-platform release of Fire Emblem Warriors. Thanks to the success of Fire Emblem Warriors, Intelligent Systems hired the company that worked on it, Koei Tecmo, to spearhead the development of Fire Emblem: Three Houses for the Nintendo Switch.
When Three Houses was released in 2019, it marked a new high for the series – it received widespread critical acclaim, sold even better than Awakening and Fates, and brought in another wave of new fans. It even managed to satisfy most fans across the board and unify the fanbase, at least for a while. Then following Tokyo Mirage Session‘s 2020 Switch port, Koei Tecmo got back to work setting the next spinoff game in the world of Three Houses and used its same characters. 2022’s Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes marked the 4th spinoff in a 6-year span. In this modern era, Fire Emblem received just as many spinoff games as it did mainline entries.
And with that, our history of Fire Emblem comes to a close, at least for now. Who knows what Fire Emblem Engage will bring to the table, and how it will be received by fans? The future has never been brighter for Fire Emblem, and I hope even more people will come on board and enjoy this unique franchise.
With our Prologue now complete, next week we will begin Chapter 1 of my History of the Emblem series, starting with an in-depth look at Marth, the default ambassador for Fire Emblem.