Name: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon
Genre: Tactical Role-Playing
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a remake of the original Fire Emblem for the NES. Since the original game (and its first remake, Fire Emblem: Monsh? no Nazo) never made it to US shores, this is the first chance most western gamers have had to play what is considered to be the first tactical RPG. Its visuals have been upgraded and online capabilities have been added, but for the most part, this is a 19-year-old game. In the age of fully 3D RTS games, can a classic like this capture gamers’ hearts?
Being a remake of one of the first tactics games, Shadow Dragon is somewhat prototypical of the genre. For those unfamiliar with the genre, tactics games place you in charge of a group of soldiers that reside on a grid. Different types of soldiers have different abilities, like increased movement range, ranged attacks, or special attacks, like magic spells. By strategically moving units around the board, players must defeat opposing units in automated battles that take into account units’ weapon types, terrain, and attack and defense ratings. The Fire Emblem series is known for its melding of the tactics genre with elements from RPGs, like leveling up characters, upgrading or replacing weapons and armor, and a complex storyline. The game that Shadow Dragon is based on was the first to mix these game types.
Being nearly two decades old, the plot of Fire Emblem is a bit on the simplistic side when compared to modern RPGs. The main character, Marth, is an exiled prince who has returned to his kingdom of Altea to save his sister, avenge his father, find the legendary sword, Falchion, and the Fire Emblem that will allow him to wield it, defeat the evil Gharnef, and reclaim his throne. During his quest, Marth meets many allies who not only help him on his adventure, but also have stories and side-quests of their own. At the outset of the game, a set group of adventurers join Marth, but as the quest continues, more warriors of different types join your party. There are even optional allies who only join when you find them and request their services.
Apart from the normal trappings of tactics games, Fire Emblem features a few unique game elements. A “Rock, Paper, Scissors” mechanic determines the outcome of most battles; lances beat swords, swords beat axes, and axes beat lances. While this is the case most of the time, stronger enemies pop up later in the game who ignore the mechanic, requiring superb strategy or overwhelming numbers to overcome them. Further tactical skills are required when the game throws you one of its many curve balls. For instance, certain enemy troop types may suddenly decide to stop fighting for the enemy force, requiring players to adapt strategies quickly to take advantage. Keeping an eye on units’ weapons is a must, too, as they deteriorate over time, and must be replaced when thy break. Fortunately, many of the 25 levels include weapon and item shops within the battle grid, allowing players to make quick changes on the fly. You’ll likely need to make those changes often, or else face the possibility of a unit’s death. Once a soldier’s hit points reach zero, he is dead. No reviving, no extra lives, no Phoenix Downs; once they’re dead, they’re dead permanently. Permanent death is probably the number one frustration most people find with tactics games, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is one of the few tactics games to do something about it. Many battle grids include a single checkpoint, which allows you to save once during a fight. While it doesn’t decrease the difficulty too much, it does help to prevent players from having to restart battles after losing a unit 85% of the way through it. Finally, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is the first Fire Emblem game to include online functionality. While the novelty of playing the game against a friend via wi-fi may entice some gamers, the mode is pretty threadbare and unsatisfying.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon has seen a significant upgrade in its visuals when compared to the NES original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly pretty game. 2D sprites represent the game’s characters, and while they generally look okay, there’s nothing here to get excited about. Whether on the battle grid or watching a battle scene, characters are relatively low resolution. Environments look somewhat better, but the whole visual presentation lacks a certain polish. It looks nicer than the Game Boy Advance game, Fire Emblem, but with so many great looking DS titles out now, Shadow Dragon’s visuals are noticeably dated. Fortunately there is some epic music backing up the affair, as well as some decent Japanese-to-English translations of the game’s dialogue.
In the modern realm of tactics games, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is most definitely a throwback. It’s a bit simpler than other tactics games, like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics, and likely a bit easier. It’s still a lot of fun to play through the single-player campaign, if only for the nostalgic value. For many, the multiplayer won’t be worth the effort, but many of the other added features will be welcomed by tacticians both new and old. This is the first chance Americans have gotten to see where this classic franchise got its start, and upon playing it, it’s easy to see how it became so beloved.