The story of Fire Emblem’s development takes us back all the way to 1973 in the early years of Nintendo’s development as a game maker. The company had decided to expand its ventures into a new frontier, electronics. To do so they split their newly founded electronics department into three branches, R&D1, R&D2, and R&D3. Out of all of these though R&D1 would prove to be the most prominent. Shigerui Miyamoto, the iconic Nintendo game visionary, got his start here where he worked under Gunpei Yokoi, the eventual creator of the Gameboy. Several years after Miyamoto left due to the success of Donkey Kong, a group of R&D1 programmers formed their own company, Intelligent Systems, and was almost bought on the spot by Nintendo. This new group under the tutelage of Yokoi would strive to create new games that were far different from any standard Nintendo affair. Their first effort was Famicom Wars. Releasing in 1988, Famicom Wars became the first in a long line of strategy games for the company. Taking control of two warring nations, Red Star and Blue Moon, players were tasked with fighting off the enemy faction and destroying their headquarters completely. It was a standard strategy game in all but name. Now with their feet wet in the genre the team was bent on creating a franchise worthy of their name.
After Famicom Wars’s release Intelligent systems had diverted its attention to more simulation based games. They wanted to do something like Famicom Wars but with a new spin on it that was wholly original. But who would craft this new masterpiece? One man would answer that call, a man by the name of Shozo Kaga. His idea was never meant to be a commercial project according to him, a dojin if you will. But he still had a vision and with it and a vast knowledge of game design to boot, Shozo quickly put the studio to work to develop his creation. Along with him his team would consist of game designer Tohru Narihiro, characters designed by Daisuke Idzuka, and the iconic music provided by composer Yuka Tsujiyoko. Unlike Famicom Wars before it, Shozo’s game would add new mechanics in to differentiate itself from its predecessor and other strategy games on the market. Combining the strategy and role-playing genres inner-workings to mold its own unique hybrid there would be nothing quite like it for a time. Even though it wasn’t the most technically advanced game on the NES it was still groundbreaking in more ways then one. And on April 20th, 1990, after 2 years of hard work, Japan would be the first understand this. Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu To Hikari No Tsurugi, roughly translating as Fire Emblem Dark Dragon and Sword of Light, was the first mainstream strategy rpg on the market, beating out other titles such as Sega’s Shining Force and Super Robot Taisen for the claim.
Fire Emblem also ditched the military setting that Famicom Wars was known for and decided to go for an environment set in medieval times with swords, magic, and fantastical beasts throughout. Its story would follow this fantasy route too. Our lead protagonist was Marth, a prince of the nation Altea and a descendant of Anri, the warrior who slew the dark dragon Medeus. All is well in the kingdom until the neighboring kingdom of Doluna attacks, forcing Marth to become an exile in the nation of Talys. With his sister Elice taken hostage and his father killed by the evil priest Gharnef, Marth must gather an army to retake his homeland and find the sacred sword Falchion and mysterious Fire Emblem to vanquish a resurrected Medeus once and for all. Fire Emblem was a remarkable story for its time with few games being able to hold a candle to it. Games with stories were hard to come by but the unique battle system that Fire Emblem had was even scarcer.
It still held close to its roots in a few ways. Fire Emblems system was similar to Famicom Wars with battles being totally automatic and decided by offensive and defensive numbers alone on a grid based system but after that it started to branch of into its own beast. Battles took place against individual units instead of huge groups of troops attacking each other. It was also less about building troops and sending them off to their deaths like in Famicom Wars and had a deeper connection to its troops. Fire Emblem’s characters were unique in their own right with each and every one of them having their own purpose. Their were your classic mages, knights, and spearman alike but their were also pegasus knights and dastardly thieves to wield at your leisure. Nearly all of them could be promoted to more powerful classes like the dragon knight and leveled up with standard rpg mechanics. It was an interesting system that Shozo and his team had created but these weren’t what Fire Emblem would be truly known; its difficulty was the reason.
This difficulty was the side effect of Fire Emblems creates creation, permadeath. Permanent death, or permadeath as it is so affectionately called, meant that when a character fell in battle he was dead for good. There was no way to bring him or her back from the brink. This is of course affected the story tremendously with cutscenes changing depending on who lived or died with some of them not appearing at all if someone was lost. Fire Emblem became a careful dance with death as you tried your very best to keep your favorite characters alive and kicking. Many Japanese fans even took the time on top of strategizing each and every battle to make sure every character makes it to the endgame. Death wasn’t the only form of difficulty. Enemies were ruthless in their tactics, the arena forced you to risk both life and limb for a reward, you couldn’t save in the middle of a chapter, and the victory condition of every chapter required you to have Marth in the lead. Fire Emblem was one of the most difficult games of its era and proved to be a great challenge for gamers.
After the games release sales remained flat for a time. A new ip had just released and no one had heard of the new kid on the block. Two months later, with word of mouth at a fever pitch, the game was a success, a success that Nintendo wanted to replicate. But this entry would behave like many of Nintendo’s other franchise. Super Mario Bros 2, Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, and many more were all vastly polarizing compared to their predecessors. You either loved them or hated them. Fire Emblem Gaiden, or Fire Emblem Side Story, released in March of 1992 was more of the same with a bunch of added twists. Instead of being a truly direct sequel it took the side in its name to heart, paralleling the events of the first game on the completely original continent of Akanea. Fire Emblem Gaiden follows the story of two protagonists Celcia and Alm. Both hail from the kingdom of Sofia in the land of Valencia that is in constant war between neighboring kingdom Rigel. Dropped in between these two warring nations its up to the childhood friends to build their own army, save the peaceful nation of Mira, and invade Rigel to finally bring peace to Valencia. A complicated plot to be sure Fire Emblem Gaiden was still a proud successor of the series.
While many things changed some decided to stay the same. Comparing battles between the first two games it wouldn’t be hard to mistake one for another. But a deluge of RPG elements would try to help it stand on its own. Instead of a whole slew of battles spread across a linear world map, Gaiden introduces a navigable one where each step represents a new location such as classic Fire Emblem battles as well as town exploration similar to other iterations of the genre. The battle system changed around too with characters now being able to attain different classes, allowing you to mix and match them to your own liking. You could turn a soldier into a spellcaster or an archer into a thief. Difficultly was ramped even more then ever before. Permadeath was as brutal as ever. If you lost enough units at a certain point you couldn’t even complete the game, something that many people found out the hard way. Fire Emblem Gaiden was even tougher to beat then the original Fire Emblem, and that was saying something.
Somehow even amongst all of this Fire Emblem Gaiden had managed to outsell its predecessor, shaking the second game curse that had plagued many Nintendo games before it. Intelligent Systems had a winner on its hands. A company that had formed from just a group of close colleagues had grown into its own, competing on the level of many of the Nintendo greats. The creation, Fire Emblem was innovative for its time, molding the tactical rpg genre into what it is today. But its story and characters are what helped it to stand out in a crowd of knockoffs and copycats. There was nowhere to go but up for the company and its new proud vision. It was time to go Super.