A Crossover Unlike Any Other
Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. One was hailed for its strategic depth and equally compelling narrative while the other shared similar success with its own unique quirks for its many multi-faceted franchises. Comparing these two gaming goliaths on the surface, it would seem that they would be completely incompatible with one another. But on the contrary, one person inside of Nintendo thought differently then the rest, one Kaori Ando. Ando, a producer at Nintendo, had confided in Fire Emblem producer Hitoshi Yamagami that she wanted to create Fire Emblem’s first crossover title but with Pokémon being its collaborative partner. It was an incredibly intriguing idea at the time, as Fire Emblem’s popularity was waning around then, but Nintendo still rejected the project outright as Pokémon Conquest, a strategy RPG take on the Pokémon formula, was already too far into its own development cycle for anything to be changed.
This didn’t dismay Ando, however, as she had a backup plan waiting in the wings, a crossover between Fire Emblem and the Shin Megami Tensei mega-franchise. Nintendo had some history working with Atlus, the developer of the series, so it seemed like an easy enough fit at first. That all changed when Ando actually pitched her concept to the developers, as they seemed completely uninterested or even bored at the very idea of the concept she was presenting, declaring they were to busy to even undertake it. Thus the idea was shelved, seemingly for good, until one year later. Out of nowhere, Atlus began inquiring about the then long forgotten project, wondering if there was a chance that they might be part of such a collaboration. Their workload had been so immense and taxing for the past year that the mood had dampened so much that they couldn’t really get excited about anything new and interesting. But with all the busy work out of the way the team showed their true colors and was actually incredibly enthusiastic about the idea of working with the Fire Emblem developers, as they felt they were their equals in the gaming industry.
None thought this more then Shinjiro Takada, the new titles producer, who saw Fire Emblem not only as a rival but as a goal to strive towards in his work. The team he’d gather together would feel the same. Veteran directors from the Shin Megami Tensei series, Mitsuru Hirata and Eiji Ishida, were both brought on due to the sheer amount of work that the project would entail, a project that would take 5 years to complete. From conception to production, the overarching ideology of the project would change regularly. At first it was a toss up between Intelligent Systems or Atlus and who exactly would be taking on the production. Atlus, in the end, did most of the heavy lifting. Originally it was planned that the title would be similar to Fire Emblem but with an Atlus twist. The game was to be a simulation game with classic grid based tactical combat and reincarnated protagonists from the series past playing the lead roles. But Ando wanted Atlus to be bolder with its decision-making and not simply make a Fire Emblem clone. The fact that this was their first title in the genre wasn’t helping. However Takada had a simple solution to their problems, why not let the developer known for RPG’s make an RPG? And thus the true form of the project finally began to take shape as a more traditional Atlus RPG in vein of the many Shin Megami Tensei titles before it.
The Idol Industry
With full production came the introduction of the team who would attempt to combine the two radically different franchises into one cohesive unit. Yo Hadazuki and Makoto Miyauchi, with Hadzuki being in charge of the main narrative, would write the scenario for this creative effort. For a time Hadazuki struggled with how to incorporate the classic Fire Emblem characters into the Atlus mythos but then an idea struck him, Japanese Shamanism. More specifically he took the concept of “kami oroshi” to heart, a notion wherein a deity attempts to communicate by possessing a priest or ritual dancer. Elaborating on this further he borrowed from the kagura ritual dance which brought about the story’s central focus on the entertainment industry, yet another topic that Atlus had yet to tackle. And they would tackle it in many ways. From a narrative that followed one characters rise through the Japanese pop idol industry to side stories that depict the struggles of those trying to make it in the entertainment industry, each was made to help the player better understand and sympathize with the people they see on their screens daily. To round it out, each of the characters we would follow would be involved in a different sect of the industry from action heroes to pop idols, and even budding child stars. This was a delicate balance that Atlus had to maintain. Should they hone in on the story or the character drama? To combat this they introduced an Intermission between each chapter where players would be free to tackle as many side stories as they’d like. But as entertainment became an increasingly crucial part of their storytelling it required Atlus to do something they hadn’t done before. A break from Shin Megami Tensei’s traditionally dark storytelling was needed and in its place would be the more upbeat atmosphere that the J-pop industry tried to maintain.
To bring the J-pop industry to life Atlus brought in many professionals who had worked in and around the field. For the soundtrack they hired Yoshiaki Fujisawa, know for his work on the multimedia project Love Live. Even though he had never worked on a video game previously he tackled the problem head on, designing a track that gave each area its own unique feeling to it with plenty of groovy tracks on the side. For the pop idols themselves George Aburai, an in-house composer, brought in many famed singers and actors from around the industry to sing the songs themselves and make the experience more authentic in the long run. After forming his team, Aburai worked to analyze the personalities and traits of the main cast, determining how their performances would play out in addition to other factors such as their professions’ impact on their portrayal. These performances weren’t limited to vocal ones as Fire Emblem’s Studio Anima and Studio 4°C came together to animate them all in either traditional 2D animation or full motion captured 3D animation.
The animation set a certain tone that would resonate throughout the project with its setting directly related to this. Helmed by the game’s art director Fumitaka Yano, it would take place in modern day Tokyo, a familiar backdrop for any Atlus title, although the team’s center of attention was aimed squarely at Tokyo’s entertainment districts such as Shibuya and Harajuku. At first they tried to mimic these real-world settings to a tee, going on many scouting trips to get their exact realistic proportions. However, as development continued they soon realized that their expectations had to be trimmed back considerably, as travel times between locations were ludicrous at their ambitious levels. Overtime they incrementally reduced the size of the environments to make them more enjoyable for players while still keeping the aesthetic that they had yearned for, juxtaposed by their choice of color. The real world locations revolved around bright colors, emulating their focus on the entertainment industry. Each main character designed by famous Japanese artist toi8 also reflected this with each character given a feeling of both friendliness and splendor.
The reverse of this came with the games dungeons, the Idolaspheres. Dropping characters in medieval armor into a modern day setting just felt strange to the design team, making an area just for them a necessity. And the Idolasphere’s weren’t without their own quirks. All of them were designed with their real world counterparts in mind with Illusionary Shibuya 109, for instance, being themed around fashion. Color too was an important factor with its much darker tones fitting of a dungeon. The Mirages themselves were the reason why these even existed and that was mostly due to their design. As Hideo Manaba, the Mirages character designer, wanted to remain true to the original characters while emulating the sharp and dark character style of Atlus games, he gave them a more battle hardened appearance. Their armor was meant to reflect the dark events they had faced, with any part unneeded for survival being degenerated.
Two contrasting worlds were colliding, however, their impact had yet to be given a name. Over the 5 years of production the title had changed rapidly and was very different from what they had originally intended. No longer a Shin Megami Tensei game and no longer a Fire Emblem one, it was something else completely. And so Tokyo Mirage Sessions was born but with one caveat, its subtitle: #FE. A standard musical notation, it was meant to denote that Tokyo Mirage Sessions was a unique hybrid and something all its own at the same time. Even the inclination of the logo was meant to represent the game’s altered perspective on the two series. But would this new perspective even find audience? The only way to find out was after release.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE
Releasing on December 26th, 2015, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, seemed like any other Shin Megami Tensei title on the surface. You play as Itsuki Aoi, your everyday average high schooler, who’s his normal life is quickly turned upside down after the game begins. His friend Tsubasa is kidnapped during an open audition for pop idols by monsters called Mirages forcing him to give chase into their own dimension, the Idolasphere. Carefully exploring the new and twisted world he finds Tsubasa being drained of her life force or Performa. His friend in trouble, Itsuki awakens his own Performa, cleansing two of the Mirages revealing classic Fire Emblem characters Chrom and Caeda. With their newly obtained power and allies the two become fully-fledged Mirage Masters and finally fight back against their new foes. As the story goes on, the two enter into the entertainment industry and in turn Fortuna Entertainment, a ragtag group of actors and Mirage Masters, and attempt to discover the truth behind the Mirages existence while solving their fellow actors problems along the way. Tokyo Mirage Sessions was all about the side of showbiz that made Japan, Japan. This was all meant to build a picture of the entertainment industry for the player, both the good and the bad. Atlus wanted to show how difficult it is to work in a field where millions of people watch your work daily and how rewarding it can end up feeling. There was nothing but sheer admiration for the industry, and it even showed up in the combat system.
A hybrid in more ways then one, Tokyo Mirage Session’s combat was eminently familiar to anyone who had played one of Atlus’s past titles and even Fire Emblem in some cases. After triggering a battle with a Mirage in the Idolasphere Itsuki, and whomever you have in front of the party at the time, are transported to a stage for battle. From here on the system begins to play out like any other Shin Megami Tensei title. Each character has their own distinct fighting styles and magic spells like Zio and Bufu whereas enemies have similar strengths. Determining the exact weakness of your enemies, whether it be magic or weaponry, is critical to victory along with the various buffs, debuffs, and healing that is standard for any RPG. Hitting one of these weaknesses triggers a session attack, a move borrowed and slightly altered from Persona, where all the party members attack a given enemy. Sessions quickly become crucial to success, making most enemies undefeatable without it. On top of this, Fire Emblems weapon triangle was added in, enhancing the battle system with the rock-paper-scissors like gameplay fans of that particular franchise had grown to love. And even still, more Fire Emblem mechanics were layered on. Traveling to the Bloom Palace where Tiki, a character from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, resides characters can perform unity with their Mirages after collecting enough Performa. Unity allows you to upgrade your Mirages ranging from new skills via the skill system from Fire Emblem to class changes such as generals and sorcerers. Weaponry played a crucial part in the process with each character gaining a variety of upgradeable weapons overtime with distinct advantages and disadvantages. All in all, Tokyo Mirage Sessions battle system was the perfect blend of the two franchises, not overshadowing one or the other but instead complimented their weaknesses and strengths.
But battling wasn’t all there was to do in Tokyo Mirage Sessions, there was an entire world to explore that the team at Atlus had painstakingly created. From Shibuya to Harajuku there was much to explore with a plethora of side quests and shops to visit and complete. In addition to these side stories were another part of the experience, offering further insight into many of the characters that you just wouldn’t get from the main game. Conversations during these little story bits throughout the game are usually done with a system similar to visual novels with characters speaking to Itsuki alone with a variety of expressions.
Considering this and the overall experience you’d think both Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem fans would be clamoring for the new release. You’d be thinking wrongly, however, as Tokyo Mirage Sessions sales were barely scrapping the bottom of the barrel. In Japan it’s critical success was average at best, only earning slightly above average scores, while financially it could only break 50,000 copies, an amount that paled in comparison to either of its inspirations. However, Nintendo and Atlus still believed in the property and decided to release it globally albeit with some minor alterations to characters ages and outfits. This didn’t go over well with the few fans who would by such a heavily Japanese influenced title and with a less then stellar localization by Nintendo Treehouse many simply refused to buy the game based on that premise. Even with all this controversy sales in North America ended up being double that of Japan’s and Europe’s. And the majority of critics on all sides seemed to agree that Tokyo Mirage Sessions was a fantastic celebration of the two franchises, just not something that exceeded either one. But wasn’t that it’s true purpose? At first it was more Fire Emblem then Shin Megami Tensei. Then, for a time, it flip flopped praising one franchise more so then the next. But as time went on the two found a commonality, a sort of kinship between the two, and began building on that newfound friendship to build something more. Something that glorified the two for their many storied years in the industry while being its own unique creation. Even though the series may never continue on again from this point the talented team at Atlus can rest assured that they at least accomplished that one small feat.