History of the Emblem, Chapter 3: Sigurd & Leif

I often wonder how the Western video game market would’ve been different if we had Japan-exclusive games like Mother 3 released here. As infamous as that game is, its actual audience will forever remain limited to diehard fans. Only the fans willing to find the fan translation and emulate it will actually experience the game. Mother 3‘s general impact is diluted just because the general population will never see it on the eShop.

Outside of Mother 3, no game makes me consider this “What if?” scenario more than Fire Emblem’s fourth game: Genealogy of the Holy War, along with its sequel, Thracia 776. Back then, JRPGs might not have been at their worldwide peak (Genealogy came out a year before Final Fantasy VII), but I’m positive they would’ve been received warmly by fans of the genre. In fact, I think the way we talk about RPGs on the Super Nintendo in general would’ve been much different had these region-locked games been brought over. Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War would have been highly regarded, perhaps even rivaling the juggernauts of the day like Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy IV. It might not have become a definitive part of everyone’s SNES memories, but it would’ve taken up a sizeable corner of the collective “retro JRPG” headspace.

Instead, Sigurd and Leif — the protagonists of the 4th and 5th Fire Emblem games — have remained obscure to all but the most dedicated Fire Emblem fans.

Let’s change that. It is time for Sigurd and Leif to have their due.

Not a Fire Emblem Game?

After Intelligent Systems finished work on Marth’s remake/sequel Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem, Kaga and the rest of the developers started experimenting with other game mechanics. They weren’t planning on releasing another Fire Emblem game, but instead trying to make more of a squad-based tactical game. These squads would level up and acquire abilities instead of individual characters. The working title for this game was “Holy Sword Elm Kaiser.” Perhaps it was supposed to be a spinoff. Perhaps Kaga envisioned that this new direction would mark the end of Fire Emblem and the beginning of something else. He had completed a trilogy, after all. However, for one reason or another, the team couldn’t get the gameplay to work how they wanted to. The squads were scrapped and the game morphed back into a Fire Emblem entry, after all.

Because of these ever-evolving shifts in game design, Genealogy of the Holy War took longer to develop than anticipated. It was released in May of 1996, just a month before the Nintendo 64’s Japan launch. But thanks to the team’s meandering path towards that release date, the game implemented several ground-breaking mechanics that would later become very important for Fire Emblem’s later survival. These include:

  • A castle home base where you can visit a market, participate in an arena, and manage your resources
  • Skills that offered units special bonuses while in combat
  • Support conversations that deepened the bonds between units
  • Units falling in love, giving each other stat boosts in battle, and passing down their skills and weapons to their offspring
  • Massive maps with continuous shifts in the story as the battle progressed, complete with multiple side objectives

Intelligent Systems made ambitious strides forward as well as risky gambles with such an experimental title. While not as massively popular as Mystery of the Emblem, it was still a highly-esteemed title. It would seem natural that the next game would release on the Nintendo 64, right?

And that’s where the real trouble begins.

There are many rumors about the reasons why Shouzou Kaga left Intelligent Systems, but they all seemed to have surfaced during the development of his follow-up game, Fire Embem: Thracia 776. Kaga set this next game in Thracia, one of the continents of Sigurd’s world, to tell the story of Sigurd’s nephew, Leif, as he fights for survival during the time skip portion of Genealogy of the Holy War. It was supposed to be a short side-story with a return to more traditional Fire Emblem gameplay. However, development took longer than anticipated — much longer. Rather than just pairing game elements down to the basics, Kaga also added in new features, such as capturing enemies, rescuing friendly units on horseback, and fog-of-war scenarios. Kaga was a notorious perfectionist, so implementing and perfecting these systems ate through months of development time.

Intelligent Systems was also working on a game for the Satellaview, BS Fire Emblem, as well as a Fire Emblem game for the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive, or N64DD. Supposedly, Kaga disliked Nintendo’s 64-bit machine. Perhaps the controller felt incompatible for his game, perhaps he wasn’t ready for the jump to 3D, or perhaps the console was too difficult to develop for. We don’t know for sure. Complicating matters further, Kaga’s long-time friend and executive at Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi, left the company shortly after the release of Genealogy, and it was not an amiable departure. Then, suddenly in 1997, Yokoi passed away in a car accident. Likely a combination of all of these factors finally took Kaga to a breaking point. Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 reached the finish line in early September of 1999. Its release was just a week before Sega would launch the Dreamcast, and just before Sony unveiled the PlayStation 2. Needless to say, the game had the poorest sales in Fire Emblem history, and Shouzou Kaga left Intelligent Systems.

Shouzou Kaga’s story as a game developer didn’t end there, though. He quickly developed a spiritual successor to Fire Emblem on the Sony Playstation called Tear Ring Saga. This game would bring down the ire of Nintendo with a vicious lawsuit, but thanks to Kaga winning the first part of that lawsuit, we now can enjoy spiritual successors prevalent in the indie game scene today. Kaga still makes video games, the most notable of these being the Strategy RPG Vestaria Saga released for PC in 2019 and its sequel released earlier this year, 2022.

Intelligent Systems would thankfully carry on the Fire Emblem series, but that’s a story for another time.

Inheriting Greatness

So who is Sigurd? And who is Leif?

Sigurd is a son of a duke who is loyal to a fault, maybe even naïve. He appears to be Intelligent Systems taking Marth’s “Kind Lord “archetype and extending his traits to farther extremes than Marth ever went. Generals and dukes are scheming all around Sigurd, and yet he remains steadfast in defending his kingdom of Grannvale. He marries a woman he only recently met, and the two have a son named Seliph. Unfortunately Sigurd can’t stop and stay home with his son as he has more battles to face, with an ever-mounting legion of schemers bent on making him their scapegoat. Like with Marth and Celica before him, Sigurd’s flaws catch up with him. Only this time, the consequences are much more dire than before. I was genuinely surprised by the way Intelligent Systems handled the end of Genealogy’s First Generation.

After a time skip, we see Sigurd’s son Seliph carries on the cause as a refugee in Isaach, a kingdom far to the north regions of the continent. It is there that Seliph embarks on the underdog campaign that, by now, you should be familiar with. Along the way he meets his cousin, Leif, who has been making a name for himself on the continent of Thracia, and the two join forces to take down the villains of the game.

Leif, like his cousin Seliph, is a Lord used to living in hiding. His game opens with enemy captains trying to pursue him and his band of freedom fighters on the Thracian Peninsula. Many Fire Emblem games put their protagonists in desperate situations, but Leif’s feels particularly dire thanks to the steep difficulty of this game. It’s the least forgiving Fire Emblem game that I have played so far — though I reserve the right to change my mind after I play Radiant Dawn. It’s certainly one that I’d recommend playing after you’re familiar with Fire Emblem and are ready for a challenge. But that being said, it is one of the more rewarding games of this classic Kaga era.

What I find most interesting in this pair of games, however, isn’t Sigurd’s or Leif’s character development — it’s the villains’ character development. While their methods are clearly unethical, we learn more about them as the story goes on, making them much more fleshed-out and sympathetic than their mustache-twirling counterparts in earlier games. Some of them even have rather sad endings that made me think twice about my actions. It’s the villains that introduce this dynamic level of nuance to the games; you could easily see them as protagonists in their own stories. This morally gray area elevate this pair of games above their predecessors and they would’ve impressed Western audiences, though I wonder if Nintendo of America would’ve softened their sharp edge in the dialogue and in the scenarios.

There’s been rumors circulating in the Fire Emblem community for some time that Genealogy of the Holy War is going to get a remake. The first three games now all have remakes; it should be the next game in line for it. I think Genealogy would be an excellent candidate for a remake. It could tighten up slow pacing of its large maps as well as give a quality AAA polish to its epic tale. Fans of Fire Emblem Three Houses in particular would enjoy its more serious story, the romance system, and the castle management, among other things. If anything else, I’d love to see the mainstream gaming community finally experience this game for themselves. Time will tell if Genealogy actually gets that kind of treatment, but I’m optimistic about it.

Further Reading / Sources

















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