The mountains of Renais were usually peaceful. However, their calmness was interrupted by a horse rushing through the trees. A proud but wounded knight rode upon it. A princess clutched the knight’s waist. In the distance the burning castle of Renais was getting smaller and smaller.
Exhausted, the knight Seth stopped and to dress his wound and get his bearings. As the princess Eirika dismounted, she glanced around her. This mountain pass would soon be swarming with Grado troops looking for her. Questions swirled in her mind:
Why would Grado invade? What caused our peaceful relationship with this nation to collapse?
More importantly, where is my brother, Ephraim?
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a unique point in the Fire Emblem series. Most games in the franchise end up becoming duologies where a follow-up game helps flesh out the world that the first game established. The Sacred Stones, however, is the only one of its kind. No other game revisits the continent of Magvel.
This uniqueness doesn’t end with its setting, either. Eirika’s game ended up being one of the most important experimental titles in the Fire Emblem series. It set mechanics introduced in the Kaga era in stone (pun intended) that would become pivotal in later Fire Emblem titles. It’s an important stepping stone (pun intended) worth revisiting all these years later.
An Odd Placeholder
The development of Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a rather odd one. Encouraged by its resurgence in popularity, Intelligent Systems had started development of a full 3D game for the GameCube. However, development for this game was taking a long time. Intelligent Systems found themselves with a gap, and they decided to use the engine of Roy’s game for one last title on the Game Boy Advance. Thanks to its placeholder nature, the development team felt free to experiment with past mechanics from the series. They created a world map, where the player can take part in optional battles; as well as diverging paths, where the player can pick between Eirika, the princess of Renais, or Ephraim, her twin brother.
If you’re familiar with my post about Celica, you’ll realize that Intelligent Systems ended up making The Sacred Stones a sort-of spiritual successor to Fire Emblem Gaiden. There were a few things left out, like the dungeon-crawling, but it’s hard to not see how the 8th Fire Emblem game shares a lot of DNA with the 2nd one. If you remember, though, Gaiden was a bit of a black sheep in the series. To this day, there are fans that disparage The Sacred Stones — some even say it’s the worst game in the series — thanks to its similarities to Gaiden.
To illustrate my feelings about Fire Emblem, allow me to draw an analogy to Mario. 3D Mario games are divided into two flavors: A) linear Mario, as exemplified by Super Mario 3D World, and B) sandbox Mario, as exemplified by Super Mario Odyssey. Both are Mario games. Both are 3D Platformers. Both can be appreciated for their different approaches. Fans may have their preferences, but no one is calling Super Mario Odyssey a “bad Mario game” just because it’s less focused on pure Platforming than 3D World.
Fire Emblem is the same way. For Flavor A, you have linear Fire Emblem, a straightforward progression of chapter to chapter, with some story content padded in-between. It has a stronger emphasis on pure Strategy and resource management. For Flavor B, you have open-map Fire Emblem, where you can explore some of the continent and “level grind” against hordes of monsters. It has a stronger emphasis on the role-play elements. Fire Emblem The Sacred Stones was vital to the series because it codified Gaiden’s one-off experiment with the yet-unproven “Flavor B” of Fire Emblem. Just like with 3D Mario games, I appreciate both flavors of Fire Emblem. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I appreciate the variety that both offer. If I have to pick one, I guess I’d choose open-map Fire Emblem, but in the real world, I don’t have to pick, and I’d rather not. Both flavors are better when they contrast each other than by themselves.
My Kind of Underdog
So who exactly is Eirika?
Eirika and her twin brother Ephraim grew up in a peaceful time when all five of the major kingdoms of Magvel coexisted harmoniously. In fact, Eirika and Ephraim were childhood friends with Lyon, the crown prince of the Grado Empire. They studied and played together for years. This makes Grado’s invasion of Renais particularly confusing to Eirika. To make matters worse, her brother ends up going missing during the invasion, though she has heard rumors that he has launched a sort of counter-offensive within Grado territory. Upon her escape from her kingdom of Renais, Eirika finds herself in the allied kingdom of Frelia, where the king tries to convince the exiled princess to stay safely within Frelia’s borders.
However, Eirika is determined to find her brother and talk with Lyon face to face. Despite how much others underestimate her, Eirika pushes forward regardless. After a few chapters the player is given the opportunity to either continue exploring Eirika’s route or to change to see what Ephraim is up to. A good one-third of the game is exclusive to that twin, encouraging you to replay the game and see what the other has to offer.
To further encourage this replayability, The Sacred Stones employs a different type of class system. Upon promotion, each character can choose between one of two branching classes. This allows for many additional layers of customizability and different permutations to the player’s army. This branching class system is, honestly, one of my favorite parts of The Sacred Stones and is the perfect compliment to its army-building RPG elements.
I find myself becoming a bit of a “Sacred Stones Apologist,” for lack of a better term. I can’t help myself. I see a lot of the conversation around The Sacred Stones putting down the story and the “easy” gameplay, and I’d like to put my two cents in. I understand why people say it’s an easy game. The game doesn’t really challenge your strategy skills much, but the fun of seeing your army grow and become stronger shines brilliantly.
And as for Eirika, I can see why some players might say she’s uninteresting in a vacuum, but it’s the way that other characters continuously underestimate her or try to shelter her that pulls me into her story. Watching a cross-country skiier trek across flat terrain isn’t particularly interesting — it’s the way they overcome the hazards of hills and valleys that makes it interesting. The same goes with Eirika. Her character development from damsel on the run to army general makes me want to root for her every time. And her relationship with Grado’s prince Lyon is especially tragic. Lyon didn’t end up how I thought he would, and I found that both refreshing and heartbreaking.
Eirika is among my favorite characters in the entire Fire Emblem franchise. And to be honest, The Sacred Stones is my favorite Fire Emblem game from the GBA era. Hopefully some day Nintendo comes to their senses and puts Game Boy Advance games on the Switch Online service (or whatever comes after the Switch). I hope some day players experience this remarkable game on modern consoles.
And with that we have finished with the first half of History of the Emblem! We’re going to take a break for about a month with the holidays and everything. When we reconvene for History of the Emblem, we’re going to move forward with Ike’s game Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance as well as the entourage of games on the 3DS and Nintendo Switch.