Today: We begin Fire Emblem Gaiden.
First off, we’re taking a brief pit stop to put the game in the context of its publication, or at least what little we know of it. And then I bet you’re just dying to know what a gaiden is, too.
The Conservative (Lack of) Movement
The first Fire Emblem hit shelves to the tune of brutal reviews. According to the designer himself, critics’ opinions of SD&BoL were universally bad, dinging the game for looking dated (this in 1990) and being impenetrably tough to just pick up and play (more understandable). Sales were at first correspondingly tepid, until—again, as Mr. Kaga tells it—a prominent game reviewer for the venerable Japanese gaming rag Famitsu enthused about the game in his column. Word of mouth spread, and SD&BoL‘s sales started to climb.
And climb. And climb. Within twelve years, it had sold over 329,000 copies. Not bad work for a critical flop. I think its ultimate success has far less to do with some review from the ’90s and far more to do with the acquired taste that is Fire Emblem as a whole: it’s tough to learn, and so naturally a bit off-putting at first, but it’s infinitely more rewarding the more about it you know.
SD&BoL‘s heyday, however, coincided with an event that stole quite a bit of its gradually expanding spotlight. Fire Emblem debuted on April 20, 1990. Seven months later, nearly to the day, Nintendo introduced the SNES (or, as it was known in Japan, the Super Famicom). It was an instant success. Beginning a long tradition of Nintendo’s supply grossly underestimating its demand, the initial SNES shipment liquidated completely in a matter of hours. Further SNES sales quickly blew past those of competing products from Sega and TurboGrafx. Although the legendary Sega Genesis hit North American shores first, Nintendo fans will be proud to know that, between the two rival systems, the SNES ultimately outsold its competition on this side of the Pacific too. It continues to be the benchmark video game system for stodgy old gamers who pine for the good old days of classic game design. Oh hey, that’s me!
As SD&BoL began to take off against the backdrop of the booming success of the SNES, IS found itself in an unprecedented situation: how could it best capitalize on the success of the original Fire Emblem given the advent of the new platform? Two years later, in early 1992, IS answered that question in a way that has since become a hallmark of the series’s approach to new frontiers.
It stayed on the NES.
Where virtually every other prominent series was moving its next release over to the SNES and slapping “Super” in front of the title, there was to be no Super Fire Emblem. Mr. Kaga seems to have been more concerned with refining the fundamentals of the game engine that premiered in SD&BoL than in cashing in on something marketable. Alternatively, and rather more prosaically, the decision to stay in eight bits might just have been a product of inertia: Ms. Tsujiyoko is on record saying that her involvement in post-SD&BoL soundtrack projects was truncated because she had to turn quickly to work on the next Fire Emblem. It may well be that Gaiden was in production nearly immediately after SD&BoL was published, and that IS didn’t much want to dispose of seven months of sunk costs producing a NES game just to change gears to put the same thing on the SNES instead.
It’s also worth noting that, at the time, game companies (1) had no wisdom to draw from as to which games should go where in the rollout of a new system and (2) were still grappling with what it really meant to make a video game sequel. The latter of these points will come to bear heavily on the nuts and bolts of Gaiden; the former may offer some additional color as to why it was placed on the system it was. And it was hardly alone in its persistent NES-hood: new games were being released for the NES as late as 1994. (Contrast the relative harmlessness of Fire Emblem‘s conservative choice here, when the gaming universe was moving from the NES to the SNES, with the disastrous shot in the foot Fire Emblem gave itself when it made the same conservative choice in 2000, while the gaming universe was moving from the SNES to the N64. We’ll get there in due time.)
Whatever the reason for the choice to stay on the NES, the result was quintessential Fire Emblem conservatism: a product that retained most of the mechanics and play style of the previous entry, but with subtle and incremental refinements all around and a few new ideas that don’t change all that much by all that much. From a hardware perspective, IS had already learned an important lesson from SD&BoL: that the NES basic package couldn’t contain its amibitions. Gaiden is one of only three games in the NES library to use the memory management controller chip “MMC4,” a then-new chip included inside the game cartridge that gave a game the ability to expand on the NES’s built-in memory. No more would the Fire Emblem design team have to cram too much content into too little memory by virtue of programming tricks. The pedal was to the metal now. The familiar faces were reassembled: Mr. Kaga as designer, writer, and (newly minted) director, Mr. Yokoi in the producer’s chair. Ms. Tsujiyoko returned as the one-woman sound and music department, taking the reins for good from her former teacher and the only senior staffer not to return for Gaiden, Mr. Tanaka. The result, well, you’re about to see.
One word more, though. If you’re in this discussion of Fire Emblems for the long haul, get ready to see a lot of this kind of conservative decision making throughout the history of the series. This is not a series to make bold decisions for the sake of turning the tables on its genre. When something works in a Fire Emblem game, you’re going to see it used again and again over time. And true to form, Gaiden, for all it’s touted as the most radical departure from the Fire Emblem formula, is chock full of stuff that will be instantly familiar to anyone coming out of a playthrough of SD&BoL. You’ll just have to read more of these entries to see why.
Fire Emblem What Now?
A word on terminology before we get started. The second Fire Emblem‘s title is typically translated into English as Fire Emblem Gaiden, which the astute gamer will note is still not entirely in English. This is because that last word of it, gaiden, is a Japanese term with no good English parallel. Wikipedia suggests a good approximation is “‘side story’ or ‘tale,'” but to me that doesn’t quite capture the entire connotation of the term (as I, a non-Japanese-speaker, understand it).
A gaiden is (1) a fully developed storyline (2) that derives some thematic importance or relevance from a prior, better recognized story, (3) that also occurs at the same narrative time as that other story and (4) in the same world. It’s in essence a sidequel that acquires additional meaning because it occurs in such a close parallel to some other story.
That in mind, it’s important to recognize—and bear with me, because this is about to sound like one of the more pedantic points I’ve ever written—that Fire Emblem Gaiden has no colon in the title. It is a gaiden to the first Fire Emblem: a story told about events going on in the same world and at about the same time as the original. What it is not, as far as that lack of colon is concerned, is a sequel. With our 20-20 hindsight it’s easy to conceive of Gaiden as the second entry in a big long Fire Emblem series, but I’m not at all sure the development team thought of it that way at its publication. SD&BoL had a colon in the title to evoke a grand sense of epic storytelling; Gaiden has no colon in the title because it’s just a gaiden to Fire Emblem, a largely independent side story, not necessarily the first step from a groundbreaking game into a series. It’s not clear, after playing Gaiden, whether Mr. Kaga intended to make any more games with a Fire Emblem in the title, at least not as of 1992.
Whether that conception of Gaiden is accurate is likely lost to the annals of gaming lore, but I like to think it adds a sensible sort of understanding to how IS approached the design of this game. Where it deemed it appropriate to be conservative—which, given its typical practice, was very frequent—it hewed to essentially the same stuff SD&BoL had done before. Where IS wanted to make changes, those changes were pretty big in scope, as befits a one-off title loosely based on a previous story. Because if this wasn’t an entry in a continuing series, there was no need to design a game that stuck to the core standards of that series, whatever those standards were shaping up to be.
Paradoxically, of course, Gaiden ended up setting a lot of those standards itself, as the second entry in what did, after all, expand into a chain of Fire Emblem games. We’ll turn to that later.
For now, let’s cut to the continent of Valentia, far over the ocean to the west of where we left Marth in his campaign. Meet me in an idyllic country town in the southern reaches of the country of Zofia, and prepare to face the rumblings of some tired old gods and the ways humans try to understand them. The next adventure is beginning.