Roy’s our boy! Roy’s our boy!
This is what the audience chants when Roy, a mysterious red-haired swordsman, is winning a match in Super Smash Bros. Melee. It was a memorable cheer; any Melee player could chant it even today. But back in 2002, Melee fans had little explanation about who this character was or why he was swinging a fire sword. He spoke in Japanese, which offered a clue. More detail-oriented players may have noticed when they read the explanation of his trophy that he came from a game series called “Fire Emblem” followed by a sad statement: “Japan only.”
For me, this only piqued my curiosity further. Why was this cool character just available to Japanese players?
If you were like me, then you’re in luck, because today’s the day we look at Roy’s game, Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, as well as its prequel that did manage to make it to the West, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade.
Out of the Ashes
Development of Fire Emblem 64 was a mess. It was scheduled to come out on the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive (N64DD), an add-on to the Nintendo 64 that was supposed to offer CD quality experiences. Not much is known about it, but from interviews at around the time, Shouzou Kaga was intending Fire Emblem 64 to be a game approachable for beginners with an entirely new story. Thracia 776 was intended to be a short follow-up game for veterans to keep them busy in the meantime.
Shouzou Kaga leaving Intelligent Systems wasn’t the only reason why Fire Emblem 64 didn’t even get off the ground. Delays in developing Thracia 776 as well as disaster that was the N64DD hardware itself caused Intelligent Systems to cut their losses and scrap Fire Emblem 64 altogether.
It’s true that Shouzou Kaga made vital contributions to the development of Fire Emblem titles and made defining elements of the series, but to say he was an auteur that had sole creative sway on these games would be disingenuous to the rest of the people working at Intelligent Systems. Tohru Narihiro had been working on Fire Emblem games from the start as well, and he continued to lead the developers in Kaga’s absence. Kentaro Nishimura from Nintendo and Masahiro Higuchi from Intelligent Systems would also become important captains in the next endeavor for the series.
Rather than develop for the aging Nintendo 64, Intelligent Systems decided to set their sights on the upcoming Game Boy Advance for the platform of the next Fire Emblem game. Intelligent Systems could take their time transitioning the series to 3D while they get their bearings. Like Kaga before him, Narihiro and company became preoccupied with trying to make the next entry a clean start that could welcome in newcomers. Intelligent Systems left behind several mechanics such as romance, large-scale maps, and character skills. They focused on the core experience with a more straightforward story. It would become a soft-reboot for the series.
Many Fire Emblem fans make the mistake of thinking that Intelligent Systems “went astray” after the departure of Shouzou Kaga — namely, in their desire of making Fire Emblem more accessible for a general audience. It’s true that you can see a clear difference in Fire Emblem games before and after Kaga, but Kaga himself was on board with this “newcomer-friendly” approach before leaving. The difference isn’t as sharp as a cliff — it’s more like a gentle slope.
Masahiro Sakurai had wanted to include Fire Emblem characters in the original Super Smash Bros. in 1999. However, he didn’t have time to include them. He decided to include Marth in his sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee and asked Intelligent Systems for design documents to include a Lord to compliment Marth. Sakurai received Roy, the protagonist for their upcoming game. However, Intelligent Systems hadn’t actually finished Roy’s game yet. The athletic and bold Roy that you see in Smash Bros. Melee is Sakurai’s interpretation of the character, which turned out to be quite different from Roy would actually turn out.
Perhaps emboldened from the fact that Roy was going to be in an internationally-released game, Intelligent Systems tried to develop a translation for it. Unfortunately, they learned that to do that would end up taking much more time. Perhaps put off from the long development cycles under Shouzou Kaga, Intelligent Systems decided to leave localization alone for the time being. Roy’s game Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade would only be released in Japan. They would end up testing the worldwide market with a game with a much easier script: Advance Wars.
Advance Wars was a hit in the West. It reviewed and sold well. When Intelligent Systems got to work developing a prequel to The Binding Blade, they decided that this game would be made for an international release from the ground up. Initially the team thought of having the player select one of three difficulty levels based on what Lord they chose at the beginning of the game. In the end, however, they decided to tie all three Lords’ stories together. The game would include a prologue tutorial spanning several chapters with Lyn, the first nobility the player would encounter. Then the game would shift to Roy’s father, Eliwood, along with his friend, Hector. In Japan this prequel would be called Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, but in the rest of the world they would simply title it Fire Emblem. To avoid confusion, we’ll be calling it The Blazing Blade.
“Not Your Grandpa’s Marth”
So who is Roy? And who is Lyn?
Roy is a young prince from the Kingdom of Lycia, whose political structure is more like a confederation of nobles. He is the son of the duke Eliwood and is set to inherit the Pherae territory. If you were hoping for a strong and confident person like in Melee, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Roy is more studious in nature. In fact, he was studying in Ostia, a neighboring dukedom, when Lycia becomes invaded by Bern. Roy’s inexperience in combat shows — he is typically one of the weakest Lords in the entire series. While most Lords can hold their own, Roy consistently needs aid from his allies to help him pull through.
While the comparisons to Marth are easy to make, Roy carves out his own coming-of-age story, made all the more interesting due to just how unprepared for combat Roy really is. However, as the war wages on, Roy begins to lose people he can fall back on, and it makes him steel himself for navigating the treacherous political world. He encounters the lost princess of Bern, deals with double-crossing nobles, and begins a search for sacred weapons that could end the war much quicker.
I find Roy a wholesome protagonist. He’s easy to like, and it’s easy to cheer for his budding romance with Lilina, the princess of Ostia who was there with him during his years of schooling. The Binding Blade is the first game in the series where we see the Support Conversation system crystalize into the form that we know and love today, and I quite enjoyed seeing these two childhood friends grow closer as the game progressed. But once again, the villains are the characters who truly capture my interest. The King of Bern is a formidable opponent that the game makes sure to show you early on in the game. His aims for world conquest are actually more philosophically-oriented. He truly believes humans are unfit to rule fairly. Currently in my country, not a day goes by when I see injustices flipped on their head, domestic terrorism becoming acceptable among the extreme far-right, and politicians seeking to undermine the democratic process, I can’t help but agree with him a bit.
My head spun with questions: how did the King of Bern get this way? What tragedies could have given him this mindset? The Binding Blade answers some of these questions, but to truly understand what made Roy’s world the way it is, we have to play the prequel, The Blazing Blade. And this is how we get to Lyn.
Lyn is a wandering woman on the plains of Sacae. It is a flat part of the continent inhabited by wandering tribes. Lyn is the last of her tribe, as the rest had been destroyed by a bandit raid. She encounters you, the player, on these plains and rehabilitates you back to health.
That’s right, The Blazing Blade also introduced the very first Player Avatar character, known in this game simply as The Tactician. This was Intelligent Systems’ first attempt at helping the gameplay and the story fit each other better. They have you play the role of this tactician helping Lyn uncover the mysteries of why her village was destroyed, which explains why you can scan the terrain and order troops about as you do. Personally, I find the tactician character in The Blazing Blade a bit annoying and unnecessary. I had been role-playing as the Lord of the first few games, and while as a player I do get more god-like access to information than any normal leader would have, it didn’t seem to bother me. The tactician seems like Intelligent Systems trying to fix a problem that didn’t exist in the first place. The tactician does, however, help keep the player grounded in a connected story thread as Lyn meets Eliwood and Hector, and the story shifts focus to take on a grander scale.
I quite enjoy the dynamic between Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector. Eliwood acts more as the “typical” Fire Emblem Lord, while the other two act as counterpoints to him. Lyn is more conscientious and caring, while Hector is a brash character with a soft underbelly. Alone they aren’t quite as interesting, but it’s their interactions between each other that makes them feel more dynamic and interesting. Since the villains in the prequel are much more generic, this trio’s chemistry is what kept me hooked through the game’s plot, which admittedly, is a bit unfocused in trying to set up every kingdom’s affairs before the events of The Binding Blade.
Like Advance Wars before it, Fire Emblem The Blazing Blade proved to be popular in the Western market, and thanks to its prologue chapter, Lyn remains popular among many Western players. Since the West still can only access Roy’s game through a fan-translation, I would also love a remake of The Binding Blade released on modern consoles. I have no doubt that Roy’s star power would make it one of the highest-selling Fire Emblem games in the series.