Today: We begin The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.
But first a little positioning in a broader context. The big achievement of Fire Emblem is to make a lot of complex logistical calculations look simple as you ponder high-level questions of tactics and strategy. For this, we have the genius of a small team of truly dedicated professionals to thank.
The idea of the turn-based strategy game wasn’t new in April 1990, when the first Fire Emblem showed up on the scene. Wikipedia’s list of notable turn-based strategy video games dates back to Empire in 1977, but the turn-based strategy game wasn’t a new idea then, either. People have been playing turn-based strategy games on physical boards for centuries. The tradition is as old as Chess, Go, and Mancala; it’s as iconic as Risk, Monopoly, and Settlers of Catan; it’s as fresh as Pandemic Legacy, Terra Mystica, and whatever’s the most recent chart topper at BoardGameGeek.
Play some of those chart toppers, if you get a chance. They’re incredibly rewarding. As of this writing, we’re in a golden age of board game invention. It’s wonderful.
Point is, much as Fire Emblem may have been the first console game to do what it did, it was already standing on the shoulders of giants when it arrived. It was only a matter of time before the genre ended up in electronic form. Up against all the classic board games in the world, its challenge was to give some reason why you’d want to play something like it on a TV screen rather than on a table. The insight that made Fire Emblem something special, accordingly, wasn’t so much that it put turn-based strategy into an NES package, but that it recognized that it could do some really complex stuff with the game now that a computer was in control of all the fiddly parts.
Permit me a little history here. Like any game, the first Fire Emblem was the product of a development team of programmers and designers. The brunt of the development effort came from the company that still captains the series today: Intelligent Systems. Founded in 1986, IS had worked on programming for a few NES/Famicom releases by 1990 (among them the groundbreaking Metroid), but it was better known as the author of “development tools” for the NES. These were pieces of hardware made for use by other programmers in coding games for the NES, made necessary by the fact that NES coding interfaces were starkly different than the PC interfaces of the day. So IS’s work was important, but also very technical.
The company began to change tack in 1988, when Nintendo’s lead development team, then known as Nintendo R&D 1, joined with it to produce Famicom Wars, a war simulation game. IS wanted to move from its reputation as a hardware maker to a new identity as a software developer, and its effort paid off: Famicom Wars earned a warm reception and has since spawned a number of sequels. Encouraged by this success, IS decided its next project would blend the war-sim mechanics of Famicom Wars with the role-playing elements made outrageously popular in Japan by 1986’s Dragon Warrior and 1987’s Final Fantasy.
R&D 1 again signed on to supervise, with no less than former toy designer and veteran Nintendo thinker Gunpei Yokoi in the producer’s chair, but its involvement was minimal at first and the IS team was small. The ranking creative staff were all IS employees with programming backgrounds, and the workload meant that everyone on the team took on responsibilities across departments as they went. Musically trained electric engineer Yuka Tsujiyoko took on the task of composing the soundtrack. IS programmer Shouzou Kaga, a military history buff with no prior creative credit, wrote the game’s story and designed the structure of its battles. (Kaga has since ascended into game designer legend.) The final product was so massive that it overran the main memory of the NES; the team dipped into a portion of the memory the system typically uses for battery save files to fit everything in.
And on April 20, 1990, the game hit shelves: Fire Emblem: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. As fellow game design celebrity Hironobu Sakaguchi once remarked to Kaga, “there was nothing like it.” Even the colon in the title, so prevalent among the pretentious RPG names of today, was unusual for the time—not, I like to think, because it necessarily contemplated a sequel, but because it wanted to bill itself as more fantastorical record than conventional game. Genre-establishing and engrossing, the game allowed players to approach battles in numerous different ways, use different soldiers in their armies from playthrough to playthrough, and watch those soldiers develop in remarkably different ways over time.
More importantly to me, the game does with computational arithmetic what would be painfully long to do by hand in a board game. There’s just a ton of die-rolling and number-crunching. Consider any given interaction between opposing units: it involves (1) a comparison of two speed stats, (2) a multi-layered calculation of attack strength, (3) a roll to determine accuracy, (4) a roll to determine whether the unit lands a critical hit, (5) repetition of steps 2–4 for the second unit, (6) potential repetition of steps 2–4 for one of the units as determined by the outcome of step 1, (7) awarding of experience points according to an entirely separate set of criteria, and (8) potential resolution of level advancement as determined by the outcome of step 7, which involves another set of multiple die rolls.
Those tasks are all perfectly possible using dice, pencil, and paper, and maybe some miniatures. But imagine performing them a dozen plus times per player turn—and tracking individual unit stats and current HP and experience totals at the same time, and adding in the effects of map terrain, and rolling in healing mechanics—and you begin to see all the things Fire Emblem is doing under the hood to make a complex gaming experience flow remarkably smoothly. That, I think, is the real genius that elevated Fire Emblem from just a good game into the birth of a genre. It makes possible a complex war game that would be prohibitive to arrange in real life.
So here begins my adventure into the game that started it all. Come with me into the lands of Archanea, where the empire of Dolhr is advancing to conquer the last free kingdoms to oppose it in the east. The prince of fallen Altea has some other ideas about the fate of the world, and it’s time he put them into action.