Today: A few final thoughts on The Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.
Come on, Malledus, you say. The dragon’s in the ground, the world is saved, Marth’s gone back to Altea, and there’s no more story to overanalyze. Tell us what you really think about the game. Enough analysis and excuses for ’90s gaming. Does it hold the same weight today that it did when it was released?
… The answer, in my view, is after the jump.
Before I answer that question, though, I’ve been saving one of the game’s greatest songs for last. If you’re a thorough Emblemier, you know just which one it is—no doubt you’ve noted its conspicuous absence from the moment I started dropping links to tunes at the top of these entries. Because what would this and every entry in the series hereafter be without the Fire Emblem theme song? (Fast forward to 0:28 to reach the melody you know.) Like so many an NES series-spawning theme, it’s since ascended to iconic power in the Nintendo discography. Maybe it’s not a Mario or Zelda theme, but if you’ve ever played any Fire Emblem, you know the whole thing by heart. There are even recordings of it with lyrics sung by full choirs now, if you look at the Super Smash Bros. series. Maybe it elicits a tear or two hearing it in a new game for the first time. (No? Just me? OK.) It has the same military marching character as all the rest of the soundtrack—of course—but it’s a little something more, too. Where other tracks from SD&BoL are all pressure, pacing, and flow, the Fire Emblem main theme is relaxed, comfortable, sweeping, epic. Hearing it I get the sense of whole, round stories playing out over entire ages, rather than just the desperation of a single moment in battle. Whether that’s intentional or just me, I can’t say. Only give the nod to Ms. Tsujiyoko for composing one of the most consistently heart-swelling video game tracks I know.
And yes, when this comes up in future entries, I will be tearing up, thank you very much.
The Test of Time
OK, I’ve been putting this off, but I’ll say it. I have to, right? To close this discussion out?
By today’s standards, SD&BoL isn’t a very good game.
Phew. Now that’s off my chest. Granted, I’ve spilled a lot of ink on the interesting parts of the game here and there: cool ideas it’s had, principles that guide its design, themes its story points at, the works. But in the end, I just don’t think it holds up well against the games of today. For that matter, it doesn’t even hold up well against the games of a few years after its release. (They’ll redo this very game on the SNES in a couple entries’ time to address some of its mistakes, and it’ll make a big difference.)
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not for lack of trying that SD&BoL falls flat to my modern sensibilities. There’s a ton it does right. The very idea to make a computer run the fiddly bits of a tabletop war game is bold and innovative. At the time, recall, it was the only thing of its kind. And it added more cool parts to that basic idea, telling a story as it went with some really elegant themes, putting in some memorable chapter maps that really pop, and letting the player develop characters over the long game to invoke a sense of authorship across the campaign. I’ve managed to focus on all the mechanical and plot-related points that I did throughout this journal entirely because the game I was writing about commits to a lot of genuinely interesting stuff.
The problem is that its flaws really cripple the fun of the whole enterprise (again, at least as compared to other Fire Emblems later down the line). Worst of all is the phenomenon of the SD&BoL black box: you have no clue how to determine the results of combat or movement. You’re given pages and pages of numerical statistics, yes, but without the key data on weapon attributes and hit rates, you’re left with no way to put them together into statistics that have meaning to your decisions. Nobody ever gives you any straight answer about what all that different terrain does, because you can’t tell how units move from one place to the next or what terrain affects in battle. In a game focused so much on making interesting tactical decisions, the fact that you can’t actually tell what tactical decisions you’re making is really damaging to the amount of fun you can have.
The story, too, is lackluster. It’s developed in places, of course; you’ll remember a few of its characters after you put it down. But it’s also formulaic, and the hardware confines the text that makes up its building blocks to terse blurbs before and after battles. (Nor, as Nyna can attest, is the translation any too kind to the integrity of some of those blurbs.) The game gestures at bigger, more interesting themes, but it doesn’t reveal them particularly well. It tells more the bare bones of a plot, less a story. When Mr. Kaga gets a second and third chance to tell the thematic adventure he wants to tell, it’s no surprise that he takes them, and says what he wants to say rather better than he ever did in SD&BoL.
And special mention must be made of the necessary but (mystifyingly) skippable Falchion quest, which lets unsuspecting players careen down an unwinnable path for hours on end just to tell them to try the whole freaking thing over again at the last possible minute. To the unaccustomed eye, it might look like this game hates players. This is not an impression that a game should give unintentionally.
So, sure, up against today’s games, SD&BoL isn’t a great one. But remember, any judgment like that has to fall in a little bit of context. It wasn’t up against today’s games in 1990. Back then it was a little engine (in a chassis that nearly didn’t fit it) that drove IS’s brand-new idea to stunning completion. It deserves major, major points for trying something new and getting it to stick. There are many parts of it that could be improved, but that’s the case with virtually every brand-new invention. At the task of bringing a complex board game to the NES, it roundly succeeded. To SD&BoL we owe at least that recgonition. And let’s give thanks to it too for the many hours of Fire Emblem fun that its descendants have given us since. It started a mighty fine thing.
That fine thing continues in the next installment of this blog.
One last note, though, before I go. Why, asks the astute gamer, am I blogging as “Malledus?”
I mean, in a sense I’ve been Malledus the entire time I’ve played through this game. He’s the tactician of Marth’s army. He tells soldiers how to operate on the battlefield. When we play through the War of Shadows, we’re stepping into his shoes and giving commands in his voice. SD&BoL makes us all, constructively, Malledus.
But I picked his name for a deeper reason. Malledus—and this is made much more clear in later retellings of the War of Shadows—isn’t just the man who develops the army’s strategy and offers snippets of insight into history and lore. Malledus is the one who stands by and oversees Marth as he grows from a frightened boy into a conquering king. Under Malledus’s guidance, Marth learns to become an adult.
I think that’s a beautiful little summation of how stories in any literary medium can transform who we are. (The literary media unquestionably include games, as they do books, drama, and cinema.) Through a well-told story, we learn something about ourselves. We grow from who we are at first instance to someone more mature, more capable, more in command of our thoughts and our role in the world. If I can help shepherd transformations like that for you, as I write and you read and we play good games together, I’ll have done my job. If I live up to Malledus’s name, I’ll rest easy. That’s my goal here at Airsrock.
So with that in mind, let’s move on to new games. The stories are more profound and moving, and the journeys are wide open. They’re just waiting for you to take them. And when you do I’ll be there at your side.