History of the Emblem, Chapter 1: Marth

I remember feeling the heat from my desk lamp on my cheek. It was comforting, in a way, as I stayed up late into the night sketching out mountain ranges, archipelagoes, and the names of kingdoms. I had always loved fantasy, but when I was thirteen, the Lord of the Rings trilogy lit a fire inside of me hotter than my desk lamp me to create my own worlds with their own histories and conflicts. I imagined a continent where the evil kingdom lay in the north, and was on the verge of winning a war against the southern kingdom, when a courageous youth would make his way deep into enemy territory with a band of misfit companions and stop the evil at its source.

I wrote chapter after chapter of sloppy and derivative prose. But the desire to create something grand was earnest. Sadly these drawings and manuscripts are nowhere to be found among my family’s keepsakes – I must have lost them, or worse, destroyed them. The work was not put to waste, though. I may not have ended up as a millionaire fantasy author, but my unique skillset has helped me play and orchestrate rather fun D&D campaigns. To this day I still participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a hobby, and I still dabble in fantasy map creating software like Inkarnate just to give my map-making brain an outlet.

One of my many fantasy maps I make in my spare time.

It seems like many developers of Role-Playing Games share my same passions. From the genre’s very beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, writers, designers, and programmers alike offered to whisk players away to worlds with their own cultures, lore, and of course, monsters to slay. Despite the split between Western developers on PCs and Japanese developers on consoles, you can see studios across the world attempting to create experiences with more complexity and nuance than the popular arcade action titles of the era. It’s no wonder I gravitate towards RPGs.

However, even among the shelves and shelves of quality RPGs, Fire Emblem stands out to me. The series feels like it was tailor-made for the way my brain works — the maps zoom out to satisfy my visual big-picture thinking, and then the action zooms in so I can focus on specific characters and details. The strategy make me think, while the characters make me feel. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. And today we’re going to be taking a look at the Fire Emblem game that started it all, along with its several remakes across the years. Today we’re going to be talking about Marth.

This emotional investment is, I believe, the core of Fire Emblem. It drives the strategy, it drives the story, and it marries the two together.

The Core of Fire Emblem

Following the success of Famicom Wars, Intelligent Systems released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light in 1990 as an attempt to blend their prior game’s strategy simulation with Role-Playing elements. It was an experiment. The developers even called it “Doujin Soft,” a term used for a hobby game or passion project. No one at Intelligent Systems thought this project would become as renowned or as beloved as Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy.

Fast-forward to 1994, and Fire Emblem’s lead designer Shouzou Kaga is sitting down with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, in a double interview with Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu to celebrate the release of Fire Emblem’s third game. There, Sakaguchi himself confesses his admiration of Kaga’s work and how he played through Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light at work.

It’s true, the first Fire Emblem looks primitive, even ugly at times, and that’s judging by NES standards. Sure, the game lacks many quality of life features like seeing your opponent’s movement range. And yes, the lack of heart-to-heart conversations between characters make the game seem anemic compared to its modern descendants. That being said, there’s still something compelling at the core of Fire Emblem, something that makes it unique from its contemporaries: emotional investment. In other words, from the very beginning, Fire Emblem seeks to draw the player in and make them care about their units. These aren’t simply chess pieces that I’m moving around — I’m controlling Ogma the Mercenary, Jagen the Paladin, and Caeda the Pegasus Knight. I can’t help but feel a paternal instinct kick in whenever I issue them my orders, a feeling I don’t get when I play other Strategy games like Advance Wars or Starcraft. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light seeks to create tension, drama, and tragedy with every move, every attack, and every defeat.

And that’s just the start:

  • Thanks to its permadeath mechanics, Fire Emblem creates high stakes, not unlike a Pokemon Nuzlocke challenge. You actually have something to loose.
  • Thanks to Fire Emblem’s RNG mechanics, you can never be entirely sure of any outcome. Even if you do manage to defeat an enemy and level up, your characters aren’t guaranteed to grow the same every time.
  • Thanks to the ever-expanding roster of recruits (even some enemies can be recruited if the right person talks to them), no two playthroughs will ever feel exactly the same.
  • Thanks to the formidable enemies, you need your units to work together and rely on each other.
  • Thanks to several terrain, movement, and formation options, you can win each map in a multitude of ways. Whether you want to play aggressively, defensively, or somewhere in-between, you can feel satisfied that you came up with the solution on your own.
This may be one of Fire Emblem’s most powerful tool, outside of the permadeath mechanic, for getting players to invest emotionally into their armies.

At the beginning of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, I couldn’t tell you much about my roster of characters. And yet even without the fancy cutscenes and complex relationships, I can tell you about how each and every unit on my team pulled their weight by the end of the game. The strategic RPG gameplay provides its own story structure that was just as memorable to me as any heartfelt Support Conversation.

An Archetype Is Worth a Thousand Words

So who exactly is Marth?

Well, if you look at the very first game, it’s hard to decipher much about him other than he’s a young noble Prince that forms an underdog army to stop an evil Dolhr empire. He’s certainly somewhat of a “blank slate” for the player to insert themselves onto. However, if we read more into the game’s manual and lore, we can find a bit more info about him. His journey begins on the remote island of Talys, where he has lived as a refugee for several years. When he was a child, his home kingdom of Altea was betrayed by their neighboring nation Gra. His father, Altea’s king, was killed as part of the betrayal. Only a handful of Marth’s closest friends and retainers, such as Jagen, Draug, and Gordin survived with him. When Marth manages to drive back a pirate invasion on Talys, the king decides Marth is ready to embark on his journey of taking back his kingdom and hopefully free the rest of the continent from Dolhr’s clutches. Caeda, Talys’s princess, accompanies Marth and helps him recruit the rest of the various scattered kingdoms to his cause. The most notable of these are Nyna, the princess of Archanea; Hardin, the ruler of Aurelis; and Tiki, a mysterious girl who can shape-shift into a dragon at will. Marth’s journey takes him across barren deserts, through war-torn countrysides, and inside mysterious ruins.

What I find particularly impressive about Marth’s story is that at no point does he or anyone else become a one-man army. He is constantly trying to form a collaborative effort — from the wise counsel of the sage Gato to the brute strength of the pirate Darros, every unit has a role to play, however small that may be. In an era when one-man armies were all too common, even in other RPGs, it’s refreshing to have a game of an “army-sized army.” In fact, Kaga went so far as to say that there’s no single “protagonist” of the game. He hoped to convince the payer to empathize with everyone, that they see every unit is a protagonist in their own way.

To help minimize confusion as the player meets this complex cast of characters, Intelligent Systems used a series of archetypes that they would implement in future games as well. These archetypes would serve as starting points for players to understand characters and their roles, with later games expanding and playing with these expectations. Some of these archetypes include:

  • Pre-promoted units that act as guardians of the main Lord and serve as an early-game crutch (Jagen)
  • A gregarious duo of cavalry units (Cain and Abel)
  • A tragic yet noble captain that ends up opposing you simply because war forces good people to fight each other (Camus)
  • Nefarious sorcerers bent on manipulating others (Gharnef)
  • Ancient civilizations and long-lost powerful weapons

Fire Emblem is at its most dramatic when it either makes these archetypes interact in interesting ways, or they use a character archetype that undermines your expectations. Conversely, Fire Emblem struggles the most when these archetypes don’t create synergy with each other. For example, many villains of the series struggle breaking out of their formulaic archetypes; however, the games that stand out to me the most usually make the villains do more than just scheme by themselves behind the scenes.

Sequels, Remakes, Cameos, and Conclusions

Being the first game in the series, it makes sense that Intelligent Systems would return to Marth’s world as the years went on, making Marth the de-facto “representative” of the Fire Emblem series as a whole. Following Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Intelligent Systems released Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem in 1994. This entry was the third game in the series, and it’s an odd game. The first half, Book 1, is a remake of the original with a few missing maps to abridge the experience. The second half, Book 2, is a direct sequel that tells the story of Marth after the Dolhr empire is defeated and Marth seeks to rebuild the world after such a lengthy conflict. Many of the characters from the first story return, with their own developments and changes. In fact, the new main villain of Book 2 is a former ally. I find the Marth of Book 2, caught unawares by this change in allegiances, a more believable and compelling character than in Book 1. His initial reaction is denial, as would any of us feel in that situation. However, that denial proves costly to his friends and his kingdom. It gives Marth a much-needed flaw to make his growth feel more dynamic. From a gameplay standpoint, Mystery of the Emblem introduces quality-of-life features such as seeing enemy movement ranges that make it significantly more accessible than the first game.

In 2008 Intelligent Systems released another remake for the first game on the DS, simple titled Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. The DS game expands on everyone’s characterization, including Prologue chapters that set up Gra’s betrayal of Altea and young Marth’s evacuation. Because this game got a physical release worldwide, this is probably the easiest game for modern players to experience Marth’s story, although I’m not going to lie, its steep aftermarket price is pretty deterring. Furthermore, it’s only the first half of Marth’s journey.

In 2010 Intelligent Systems created a remake for Book 2 of Mystery of the Emblem called, New Mystery of the Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow. While it was released on the DS, it was sadly only released in Japan. While Shadow Dragon introduced a few new mechanics, like save points being physical locations on the map, the game overall was a fairly faithful experience to the original. New Mystery of the Emblem, on the other hand, was almost a reimaging of the third game. It introduces an avatar character with their own Prologue chapter, along with sidequest chapters that Intelligent Systems developed for the Super Famicom’s Satellaview peripheral back in 1997 called BS Fire Emblem: Archenea Saga. New Mystery of the Emblem practically replaces the avatar character as the main protagonist of the story, with Marth almost just tagging along for the ride. Both remakes have mixed opinions among fans, both for the first being “too faithful” and for the second being “too different from the original.” Regardless of your preferences, players interested in New Mystery of the Emblem, along with the first and third games, can use the fan translation patches available on the internet. Nintendo actually released an official translation for the first game on the Nintendo Switch in 2020. However, for whatever reason, Nintendo released it as a limited-time offer only on its digital store. There are no physical copies of this game. If you have not already bought it, you cannot play it. So for my money, the easiest way to get Marth’s complete saga is through a fan translation of the third game, Mystery of the Emblem, though Shadow Dragon is also a decent alternative.

Of course, due to Marth being the de-facto ambassador for Fire Emblem, he and his companions have found their way into many other spinoffs and cameo appearances, including:

  • The Super Smash Bros. series (obviously)
  • Fire Emblem Warriors
  • Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (for Caeda at least)
  • Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
  • DLC in later Fire Emblem games

Regardless of how he appears, Marth is a character that at first seems a bit bland, but becomes much more interesting the deeper you dig. His games created a winning structure that still appeal to me despite later games expanding these concepts and smoothing out the gameplay. His games serve as a reminder that the most important part of a game is having a compelling core concept. And Fire Emblem’s core remains emotionally resonant even to this day.

Further Reading / Sources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s