Last year, I fondly reviewed the history and saga of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. As you are probably aware by now, I am also an ardent fan of the Fire Emblem franchise. With the recent release of Fire Emblem Heroes, I want to explore the fantasy and mystery of the Fire Emblem series. Let’s fight on, dream warriors!
1990-91: The First Tactical Role-Playing Game
The story of Fire Emblem begins with Intelligent Systems Co., Ltd., a video game developer founded in December 1986. In the big, booming era of the Nintendo video game renaissance, any deal with Nintendo was a sweet one indeed. A developer by the name of Tohru Narihiro took a job with Nintendo to port software from the Famicom to the NES. Narihiro and his small team soon found themselves regularly programming and porting Nintendo software. Curious as to what they themselves could do, the people of Intelligent Systems began fiddling with simulation games. Their work culminated in the development of Famicom Wars, a turn-based tactical military game, in 1988. After this, Intelligent Systems developers began to wonder what it would be like to try their hand at a role-playing game.
Getting Off the Ground
Shouzou Kaga, an employee at Intelligent Systems, dreamt up the idea of a game that took the tactical aspects of Famicom Wars and mixed them with traditional RPG elements. Kaga liked both genres but found each one wanting: RPGs had few protagonists and strong stories, whereas strategy games had multiple characters but minimal story. He drafted a concept called “Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem.” Kaga himself admitted that the concept of the game was made on a lark, being more of an entertaining side project than something made for mass consumption in the vein of some of Nintendo’s bigger franchises. Since RPGs back then heavily focused on stats and numbers (and still do today), Kaga wanted to de-emphasize such things to make the game more accessible. Kaga and Intelligent Systems pitched this quirky project to Nintendo. In response, Nintendo sent ace producer Gunpei Yokoi (best known for producing the Game & Watch, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Kid Icarus, Metroid, R.O.B., and the Game Boy) to oversee production of this bold, new concept.
“Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem” was not only bold but big. An RPG of epic magnitude, at least by today’s standards, would have been impossible to condense onto a Famicom disk in the Eighties. However, even “Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem” was too big to fit onto the Famicom disk. Necessity being the mother of invention, Intelligent Systems improvised accordingly and invented hardware workarounds to solve the problem of limited space on Famicom disks, similar to how Argonaut Software invented the Super FX Chip to resolve the processing power problem for StarFox. Indeed, like StarFox, multiple scenarios were planned for the game. However, there were only so many clever fixes to the ultimate problem of a lack of memory and the game was streamlined to a single campaign route. Likewise, Kaga wanted to have artwork of key scenes inserted into the story to enhance the game (such as Julian fleeing bandits with Lena). Memory issues continued to plague Intelligent Systems, and these scenes had to be cut too. The whole game was as big as it could afford to be, but so much of Kaga’s initial vision was stripped that he felt pangs of regret.
Not As Planned
Despite these setbacks, “Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem” continued production. Inspired by classical Greek mythology, Kaga fleshed out a colorful world of high fantasy swords and sorcery. The highly story-drive approach of the game, advertised early on as simply “Emblem of Fire,” was unusual at this time in video games; most games simply could not fit that much story into tiny cartridges. In keeping with Kaga’s grand vision, “Emblem of Fire” was advertised with an operatic commercial featuring actors in costume, singing the iconic Fire Emblem theme. As with many things about the first Fire Emblem, things did not go quite as planned for the commercial. The actors were so burdened by the hot, heavy costumes that some collapsed. The horse was startled by the lighting effects to the point that the commercial required twenty takes.
At last, it was time for “Emblem of Fire” to make its grand appearance. Kaga initially envisioned two dragon bosses in the game: Neptune the water dragon and Gaia the earth dragon. Again, however, because of memory limitations, the plan was scaled back. Neptune was cut and Gaia was remade into Medeus. The earth/water motif was also scrapped and replaced with a light/dark motif instead, resulting in the game’s final title, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.
A Shaky Launch
Even with all the sacrifices made in the name of technological limitations, the game still had to overcome hurdles. Since no game like this existed before, critics were unkind and claimed the game was difficult to understand and ugly to behold. Of course, you know my opinion on professional critics and they were demonstrably wrong here. Popular opinion and commercial success overrode critics’ patrician condescension. Sales picked up after a shaky launch and the game sold well enough that a sequel was commissioned.
Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light mustered enough sales to justify a follow-up title, but what would that look like? Kaga spent 1991 charting the course of the next Fire Emblem game…
To be continued…