History of the Emblem, Chapter 2: Celica

Sunlight fills the cathedral windows, causing Celica’s red hair to glow. She bows her head. Her hands are clasped together:

“Mila, our Mother Goddess, please hear my prayer. Our crops are dying. Abominations are rising from their graves. Rigel has invaded our homeland. I can no longer stand idly by. What must I do?”

Celica opens her eyes in realization. She looks up. Her prayer changes,

“Mother Goddess, I am on my way to you in your temple. Guide my voyage, steel my blade, and protect my companions.”

Celica stands up and leaves the chamber. She is resolute — a direct audience with Mila is the only choice. Mila created this continent. She has defended Zofia for centuries. She can solve Zofia’s crisis.

Right?

A Giant Leap, A Great Divide, and a Black Sheep

Following the modest success of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Intelligent Systems began working on a Fire Emblem sequel. Shouzou Kaga was not married to the original game’s formula, and he wanted to keep experimenting with gameplay systems in the hopes that he could craft a stronger experience. At first he tried creating a two-player Fire Emblem game, where each player would control a different protagonist, both experiencing a similar story from two different perspectives. Kaga ended up scrapping the multiplayer component, but he kept the dual protagonists and the story idea, having the player alternate between them as the game progressed.

Intelligent Systems didn’t stop there. Inspired by other RPGs, the developers began implementing several different elements that made this new game drastically different from its predecessor. These changes included:

  • A world map showing the progression from one encounter to another
  • Dungeon and town exploration
  • Enemies that respawn, allowing players to level grind
  • Changes to hit rates, making terrain even more important when fighting
  • Removing breakable weapons
  • Units that can summon reinforcements onto the map

The end result is a Fire Emblem game that reduces the emphasis on resource management and, for lack of a better term, feels more like a “typical JRPG.” The game was called Fire Emblem Gaiden and was released on the Famicom in 1992, over a year after the Super Famicom had been out.

Many fans over the years have made it clear that they dislike the changes in Fire Emblem Gaiden. It has gotten a reputation as the Black Sheep of the series, especially since Kaga left many of these changes behind in later games. Some have even gone as far as say it’s not a real Fire Emblem game, or that it’s not even a Strategy RPG. I’ve even heard a YouTuber dismiss it as “just an RPG on a grid.”

I understand that these changes create a slightly different experience, which a Fire Emblem fan may like or dislike, but I disagree with the more extreme opinions. First, there are many other Strategy RPGs that use similar mechanics to Fire Emblem Gaiden. For example, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance also has a world map, allows you to level grind, and has no breakable weapons. I don’t see anyone arguing over the “Strategy RPG” status of that game. Second, fans focus too much on what Gaiden lacks and not on what Gaiden keeps. It’s true that you don’t have to manage as many resources, such as gold, weapons, and experience points. However, Gaiden doesn’t throw Strategy out the window entirely. You still fight enemies on a map (though the random encounter maps are rather flat and boring). You still have to consider your units’ movement and positioning. You still have to consider weaknesses, RNG, and permadeath. You still have to create a back-up plan if a character misses, or worse, if a character dies.

I appreciate that the Fire Emblem series has experimented so much over the years. It keeps the series feeling fresh. I can marathon them together without getting tired of them, which isn’t something I can say about every video game. I appreciate both the “linear, resource-intensive” Fire Emblem games as well as the “open map” Fire Emblem games for slightly different reasons. And yet, I see them as two different interpretations of the same core experience: emotional investment in characters across a string of strategic role-playing battles. One type isn’t “better” or “more pure” than another.

I find this argument amongst fans particularly ironic because the story of Fire Emblem Gaiden; and consequently, the story of its 2017 remake Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, goes to great lengths to show two opposing protagonists learning how to see eye to eye.

With or Without Mila’s Divine Protection

So who is Celica?

Celica is a priestess of one of the biggest churches on the continent, dedicated to the goddess Mila. But Celica doesn’t just chant hymns in a monastery all day; Celica takes up her sword and her fireball spellbook and embarks on a pilgrimage to seek an audience with the goddess Mila herself.

Celica’s world is divided in two – to the north lies Rigel, an empire devoted to the god Duma. Celica’s country, Zofia, lies to the south. The two countries enjoyed relative peace, until Zofia’s crops started wilting, and the country of Rigel saw its opportunity to strike. Celica has complete faith that her pilgrimage will show the goddess Mila her devotion and that she will right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon her country.

Celica’s journey takes her across the sea to Zofia’s capital. There, she meets an old childhood friend, Alm. As kids, the two were inseparable. However, to unforeseen circumstances, Celica had to be a whisked away to the monastery for her own protection, and she hadn’t seen Alm since. The reunion, at first touching, turns sour when Celica learns what Alm has been up to. Alm was recruited by a band of freedom fighters who fought back against Rigel and, against all odds, he won back the capital from the Rigelean army. Knowing that their enemy won’t take the loss lightly, Alm was in the capital preparing the army to march to the border, and hopefully, confront the Rigelean king himself. Celica protests Alm’s actions. It was not only dangerous, but a reckless act of violence. Mila was the answer to their problems, not some senseless war. But Alm holds his ground. Mila has done nothing to protect Zofia; and if she won’t lift a hand, then he will. Celica storms away, the heat from their argument still lingering in the air.

Fire Emblem Gaiden spins a beautiful tale about duality, how two seemingly contradictory ideas end up complimenting each other — they are two halves to a whole, and both are needed to have balance. You have the two nations embodying opposing ideals: Zofia’s pacifism and Rigel’s power. You have two paths through the game: Alm to the West, and Celica to the East. You have the two protagonists embodying opposing worldviews: Alm’s pragmatism, and Celica’s idealism. The game makes sure you take your time in each protagonist’s shoes so that you never feel too attached to one over the other, and these paths take their natural courses to their tragic extremes before showing how they can become whole.

Celica’s bright spells reflect her fiery personality. She is zealous, kindhearted, and devoted to both Mila and Zofia’s people. She is willing to fight, yes, but her ultimate goal is to create true peace by appealing to the deity that created and safeguarded the land in the first place. From her perspective, embarking on a war campaign without the Earth Mother’s blessing is a recipe for disaster.

As someone who grew up in a high-demand religion, I feel a strong connection with Celica. I imagine she embarked on her pilgrimage with the same mindset I had when I packed up my belongings and left the United States to work as a missionary in my late teens. Just like me, she let her bright zealotry blind her to reality. During her pilgrimage, Celica comes across many disturbing discoveries, and those world-shattering revelations cause her to make some pretty costly mistakes. I’ve seen a few fans criticize Celica’s decisions near the end of the game; but to me, these decisions make perfect sense. Celica takes her faithfulness too far; it’s her biggest strength and her biggest flaw. Conversely, Alm’s determination to take matters into his own hands also comes at a cost later in the game. It is only after our protagonists come to terms with their extremism that they can finally understand each other.

Echoes of the Past, Marching to the Future

You may or may not get all of that from playing just Fire Emblem Gaiden. As an NES game, it also shows its age thanks to its limited features and limited dialogue. Thankfully, Intelligent Systems created a remake of the game and released it on the 3DS in 2017 called Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. This is without a doubt the definitive way to experience Celica’s story. It improves the game in every way, save for the map design. The maps were taken directly taken from the original game, and some of those designs really could’ve used some tweaking to make them more interesting.

Fire Emblem Echoes doesn’t just stop with remaking the game, either. Plenty of new mechanics were added in to make the game feel more modern and to keep pushing the series forward. The most notable of all of these mechanics is the free exploration of certain areas. During the development of Fire Emblem Fates, Intelligent Systems had prototyped this free-roaming mechanic but did not have the time to complete it. Thanks to Gaiden already having top-down dungeon exploration like in the old Dragon Quest games, Intelligent Systems thought that it would be the perfect fit for the remake. Coupled with the superb voice acting, revamped combat animations, and intricate art direction, Fire Emblem Echoes remains one of the most visually impressive RPGs on the 3DS. It was an important stepping stone for the series to make the jump to the Switch with the fully-explorable monastery in Fire Emblem Three Houses.

But I guess we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit with that.

In conclusion, Celica may not be the most popular protagonist in the series, with few cameos outside of her games, but to me she stands out with her satisfying character arc and the way she highlights the overall themes of the game. I hope more people can experience her game and see what I mean for themselves.

Further Reading / Sources:

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