Marth Embarks

Today: The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Ch. 1.

As I arrive on the eastern coast of Talys, I’m struck by how well I already know my way around a fantasy army. This is our first view of the effects of what will become a pattern of Fire Emblem conservatism. It’s also our first glimpse of the vagaries of translation, and the chapter closes out with the first of many scenes across the series that make me all misty-eyed. Yup, it’s going to be a long journey. Forward!

Meet the Old Fire Emblem, Same as the New Fire Emblem

You'll see this one again.
From the very beginning, that one thief was there to remind you that you can’t always get what you want. RIP ruined village on Talys Bay.

I come to this series the American way: by playing other, much younger Fire Emblems before the originals. That means I can’t exactly feel what a kid of ’80s Japan would have felt picking this up for the first time. I can imagine, I guess. Something about suddenly having a small army of different soldiers at my command, maybe, and their all having unique portraits and books of stats. They make a sudden and big impression. (Interestingly, the seven-unit team SD&BoL hands you to hold off the pirate invasion of Talys is among the largest opening-chapter armies you get in the entire series.) Or maybe that first impression would just be how vivid, bright, and colorful the map seems. For a NES game, it’s quite a looker.

But my reaction, as a guy coming to it after playing numerous later entries in the series, is different. What strikes me now is how familiar it feels. From the very first turn of the game I can see all the hallmarks of the conservatism that’s come to define Fire Emblem.

What do I mean by “conservatism?” Let’s see if I can get a handle on that. In today’s gaming franchises, you often see elements of older games recur in later releases. Sometimes a new game will reuse concrete design assets, like sound effects or artwork; sometimes it will reuse practical programming assets, like mechanics and input logistics; sometimes it will reuse more abstract concepts or thematic plot points that you recognize from earlier entries in the series. To my mind, when developers resurrect any element of some precursor in a series, it’s for one of three reasons:

  1. Story continuation. The element returns because the developers conceive of the new game as fundamentally a part of the same story as the older game. The reuse of the element is an organic part of the story itself: it ensures that separate parts of the same narrative share a kind of continuity. The Soul Blazer trilogy, which I absolutely intend to write about sometime, is exemplary of this kind of subtle hint that several games are deeply interconnected.
  2. Nostalgia. The element returns as a design tactic, in order to remind players of the good times they had in prior releases. This is something of a wink to a knowing audience: if you don’t recognize the reference, you don’t miss anything important, but if you do, your appreciation for the new game grows. Nintendo, as a rule of thumb, is really, really good at doing this—although, in cases like The Legend of Zelda, sometimes it’s not clear whether some elements resurface as the story continuation of a larger mythos rather than as just a little nostalgic nod.
  3. Conservatism. The element returns because it worked well in the past, and the developers don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. This is the most practical of the rationales for reuse of an element: it’s not based on more touchy-feely design principles, but on maintenance of the tried and true. This is where Fire Emblem comes in.

Fire Emblem, to me, stands out as the most conservative of all Nintendo series. Where other big Nintendo names have changed in appearance, dimension, and difficulty over the years and over a bunch of different systems, Fire Emblem has kept an unusual number of things constant. Some of that is for nostalgic purposes, of course. If, like me, you teared up a little the first time you entered the Super Smash Bros. Brawl castle and heard that huge choir burst forth with its triumphant rendition of the Fire Emblem theme, nostalgia is the reason why. But a great many of the things that have stayed the same from the first to the latest Fire Emblem are mechanical or structural features that were held over just because they strike a meticulously tuned balance.

I’ll have plenty more instances to make this point as I go. For now, let’s just note that my first impression here is of Fire Emblem conservatism working in reverse. From playing later Fire Emblems, I’ve grown used to how units move around a map, how combat flows, what different weapons and terrain and stats do—all the mechanical stuff. Jumping into SD&BoL, I find that it’s very easy for me to apply the same lessons I learned from the later games to my playthrough of their great-grandaddy. Remember that this is a game that had more than a few players scratching their heads in confusion back in 1990, and you begin to appreciate why the series is as conservative as it is. Its persistence in sticking to its roots smoothes out the series’s notorious learning curve for repeat players.

What’s In a Name?

Has his name ever been spelled the same way twice?
Marusu faces off against the captain of the kaizoku.

By now, the astute gamer might realize that the names I’m using are in many cases a bit different from the names my copy of SD&BoL uses. This is an artifact of (1) translation and (2) my own stubbornness.

Stubbornness first. I played Shadow Dragon, the much more recent (and dare I say improved) remake of SD&BoL, several times before I ever touched the original, so the names used in that one are the names near and dear to me. And this copy of SD&BoL is a fan translation, where Shadow Dragon‘s translation has Nintendo’s sanction and thus is clearly obviously totally 100% unquestionably better because more official. Right? That’s my take, and I’m sticking to it.

That said—translation. Even the later remake highlights some critical issues that come with trying to lift Romanoid names out of Japanese source material. Navarre in America is Nabarl in Europe. Talys is Talis in this translation; Altea is Aritia. The princess of Talys, Caeda to me, is Sheeda to my copy of SD&BoL and Shiida to Great Britain. About the only constant between all of this is the name of Marth—which is perfectly backwards, because I expect the intended translation of the Japanese “Marusu” was actually “Mars,” as in the Roman god of war. Would’ve been appropriate. Oh well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of translation weirdness. As later Fire Emblems become more concerned with story and storytelling, the impact of the hard questions of translation on the end player experience will grow. Sometimes, a translation will even send that experience down paths that the original material didn’t. For now, the impact of translation questions is limited to just some minor disagreements in names, and my names are sticking.

… particularly Caeda’s, which is just far and away prettier than Sheeda or Shiida. Fact.

Be Patient, Steady, Strong

So long, and thanks for all the lack of murderous pirates.
And may the RNG be ever in your favor.

Before we depart for the mainland, let me just add that the send-off from the king of Talys never fails to put a little lump in my throat. There’s no good reason why this should be; it’s mostly just some blatant direction via NPC irony. (More on that term later. You’ve had enough definition for one day.) In this version there’s barely more text to it than that, and yet … and yet. Those feels come no matter what.

Maybe it’s how it marks the first big step in the first installment of what would later become something huge. Knowing that this little game started twenty-five-plus years of tactical gaming, that feeling in the king’s speech that you’re just starting out on a huge journey hits closer to home than the king knows. Or maybe what gets me is the grace with which Marth’s future father-in-law observes that the young man must be bound away. Or maybe it’s the perfect way in which the Shadow Dragon translation years later will close out the king’s speech:

Understood, lad? Then go! The time has come! Be patient, steady, strong: I know you will do great things.

Man, that makes me feel ready for momentous deeds. Concise, solid advice for being a good general, or a good Fire Emblem player, or a good person. It’s moments like this that prove that a game can flip some truly profound switches in players as human beings.

I’ll no doubt come back to this moment when it returns (twice!) later in the series, once even in those words. Let’s get on our way to Aurelis.

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