The Definitive History Behind Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990)

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Throughout the long and heralded history of Nintendo there have been many interesting and unique franchises that have been created by their hand. Each and every one of them was highly innovative in their genres with some even shaping their own. The Legend of Zelda created the adventure genre giving the masses a compelling story that they had never seen before. Metroid would further innovate on the platformer genre adding horror and exploration elements into the mix. On top of all of these sat Mario, everyone’s favorite plumber, the character and franchise that had revitalized the platformer genre and the industry as a whole. But these were just a few of their successes. Some franchises, for a time, just got left behind. Fire Emblem was one of them. A series that starkly contrasted with the cartoony and lighthearted characters Nintendo was known for, Fire Emblem would brave new ground with a darker setting and even more devious gameplay. A brutal franchise for only the most hardcore of gamers. For a time, no one outside of Japan even knew of its existence let alone how it was created. But with the series rising popularity and newly christened mainstream status maybe it’s time to shed some light on the matter? This is the Definitive History of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.

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. This would be the start of something greater as they had aspirations for the genre that exceeded far above and beyond what they had already created.

These aspirations were all coming from one man in particular, Shozo Kaga. A game designer and writer from all the way back in the Nintendo R&D1 days, Kaga had been a defining force at the developer for years yet never had the chance to truly shine, not with Famicom Wars or any project before. Intelligent Systems was looking to take on new horizons, however, and tackle more simulation games akin to their previous work whilst shying away from the hardware development they had originally been known for. Seeing an opportunity, Kaga came forth with a proposal for the project, of a title that he had originally meant to be a dōjinshi that he worked on in his spare time. He had liked the idea of Famicom Wars, a strategic simulation that had players fighting with massive armies on massive battlefields yet felt something was missing from the genre as a whole. Players didn’t care whether the soldiers lived or died, they would just be replaced by more units in the end. There were no true consequences for losing most of your men and Kaga thought there should be. He wanted players to miss soldiers that were lost in battle, to mourn over their loss and regret any misplaced tactics they used. He also felt that the stories in these types of games were sort of lackluster and on the back burner when compared to the gameplay. His solution was to look towards a completely different genre entirely, the RPG. Kaga always felt that stories in these types of games were spectacular and were well thought out compared to others yet something still nagged at the back of his head. The characters always followed a singular protagonist even if their multiple party members on hand. It was that one person’s narrative, everyone else was usually just along for the ride. Seeing both genres faults and strengths, Kaga sought to combine the two into one superior title. Submitting his work to Intelligent Systems, and getting the go ahead from them rather quickly, his opus would be called Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem.

Taking direct inspiration from his favorite series at the time, Final Fantasy, Battle Fantasy Fire Emblem was meant to evoke many meanings from its title.  Drawing from a medieval setting, the battle fantasy was simply based off the fantastical fantasy battles that would be had in his new title. The other phrase, Fire Emblem, had a much deeper meaning. Emblems were common across wars with many sides having multiple symbols to differentiate themselves from their enemies. These distinctive icons of the medieval era inspired Kaga’s creative title and many of the later design quirks it would come to be known for. But what of the fire that was so distinctively apart of the title? Its inspiration comes from a more mythological source, dragons. Kaga drew insight from classical mythology for his tale from the weaponry, tactics, and fantastical elements that would pervade the game, so dragons seemed like a natural, and prominent, addition to the narrative. However, there was a slight problem, Final Fantasy. Even though Kaga and Final Fantasy creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi had admiration for each other’s franchises keeping the similar names just wasn’t going to cut it, and Final Fantasy wasn’t going anywhere. So, the Battle Fantasy had to be dropped and the title finally was greenlit for development.

Kaga wanted absolute control over his project, since it was his own personal endeavor for several years, but instead of putting him in the directorial chair Intelligent Systems chose Keisuke Terasaki to direct, a more well-known former member of Nintendo R&D1. Terasaki would reign in any inane ideas that Kaga would have, and he would have plenty. Multiple scenarios were initially planned to divert from the linear narrative expected from classic RPG’s, set piece graphics were intended to be played out at key story moments throughout the campaign, and actual kanji and katakana were to be displayed in full. None of these were possible on the current Famicom and some would be just impossible and were far from Kaga’s reach. Kaga’s ambitions were so ludicrous that Intelligent Systems and R&D1 had to work on developing a brand-new memory chip just to accommodate some of his wishes, culminating in the MMC4 memory chip. This was one of the most highly advanced memory chips the Famicom had ever seen and was only for Intelligent Systems themselves, allowing them to show more detailed text on screen and have a far greater level of fidelity then many titles at the time. However, this new chip came with as many setbacks as it did innovations which decimated the design team more than anyone else.

Tohru Ohsawa, Naotaka Ohnishi, Satoshi Machida and Toshitaka Muramatsu were all responsible for the games graphics, which were set to be some of the most advanced the console had ever seen, with Daisuke Izuka giving them the inspiration they needed as the games main character designer, drawing memorable characters left and right. The memory chip, though, was causing quite a hassle. With only a single megabyte of memory if they wanted to have any game at all inside the Famicom cartridge they would have to scale back, they would have to streamline everything they had worked on up until that point; resulting in muddled textures, a lost save slot, and an uninspired sense to things. The lost development time was one thing but this was a slap in the face to the vision of the entire project. There was no salvaging this, they had to move on.

Thankfully, other parts of the project weren’t falling apart at the seams. In fact, they had found a master in the making with composer Yuka Bamba, later Yuka Tsujiyoko. Bamba had only recently joined Intelligent Systems after Famicom Wars release and was the only composer they had on staff. They had no choice but to have her compose the game, her first at that, having only worked as a computer programmer at a software company for a time. Someone like her could never compose the classic that Kaga had envisioned, though, she did have one trick up her sleeve. Bamba was an apprentice of Hirokazu Tanaka, a legendary composer in the ranks of Nintendo who’d composed the iconic themes of Duck Hunt, Metroid, Kid Icarus, and so much more. Working in tandem with her mentor, the two came up with the theme that would define the project going forward, the theme of Fire Emblem, an instantly memorable piece. Combing through the rest of the soundtrack, it’s hard not to say that Bamba is yet another stellar addition to Nintendo’s lineup of composers, crafting not only a defining theme but adventurous battle tracks, calming chapter intros, and devilishly entertaining villainous pieces. If Kaga’s ideas were meant to help the game standout from the crowd, Bamba’s tracks were meant to call everyone’s attention to it.

Fire Emblem was shaping up to be something unique, albeit a little too ambitious for the current gaming landscape. It’s story, though, was much more advanced from many of the tales of the time. Taking place on the continent of Archanea, our lead protagonist would be Marth, an exiled prince of the kingdom of Altea. Having narrowly escaped months prior from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Gharnef, Marth has been steadily gathering an army in the neighboring kingdom of Talys, hoping to reclaim his homeland and save the life of his sister Elice. To do so he’ll have to gather many friends and soldiers throughout the land, drive back the evil Dohlr empire, recover the sacred sword Falchion and the titular Fire Emblem, and vanquish the shadow dragon behind it all; Medeus. This was the setup for the story, however, the many colorful characters you come to meet along the way were meant to be just as important as Marth. He wasn’t supposed to be the main character, everyone was the main character. His presence was only meant to keep the adventure going. Greater emphasis was only put on him as the games ambitious ideals were dialed back over time. Be it as it may, the end result was a rarity among Famicom and, in turn, NES titles, boasting an extensive story that most couldn’t claim to have.

The same could be a said of the gameplay. Staying true to its strategic roots, Fire Emblem’s battle system was a close match to that of Famicom Wars albeit with a more personal duel between foes. Taking place on a grid based system, battles were completely automatic with offensive and defensive numbers deciding each bout. While the numerical data did exist, Kaga specifically deemphasized it to appeal to a wider audience and go along with Nintendo’s “pick up and play” philosophy of the decade. As it was a medieval fantasy setting many of the units took inspiration from this becoming classic knights, mages, clerics, and even a pegasus knight or two with some promoting to become even more powerful classes at certain points with standardized RPG mechanics. However, certain mechanics of its original genre flew in the face of many of its new additions. In strategy games, units can die but they always will be replaced; that is not the case with Fire Emblem. If a character were to die on the battlefield they would be gone for good; there would be no way to replace them. This was meant to evoke a deeper connection between each unit and the player, making every battle a dance with death were one wrong move could result in defeat. There were no multiple lives to save you in the world of Fire Emblem which made it just all the more unique. 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. A hybrid of strategy and role-playing mechanics with a deadly twist, it was unlike anything that had ever been seen before on the console; and it was an absolute failure at first.

Releasing on April 20th, 1990, after 2 years of hard work, Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu To Hikari No Tsurugi, roughly translating as Fire Emblem Dark Dragon and Sword of Light, was the first mainstream simulation RPG on the market, beating out other titles such as Sega’s Shining Force and Super Robot Taisen to the claim. Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon was ambitious, too ambitious in nearly all aspects. With the marketing, originally it was called Honō no Monshō or Emblem of Fire and used the majority of the graphics and character concepts that had to be scaled back for the final release instead of the ones that would appear in the main game. This caused some confusion and misplaced many of the expectations the game had, causing critics to critical slam the title on release due to its poor graphics and unwieldly gameplay mechanics. Intelligent Systems tried to combat the bad press with a stunning commercial for Fire Emblem but this to was too ambitious for its own good with actors overheating because of their costumes, lighting and sound effects making the horse skittish, and nearly 20 retakes being needed as a result. In the end, it was a mess. Sales were low, critics beat the game relentlessly from left to right, and no end seemed in sight. Kaga’s vision seemed to have shattered right before his eyes. But then sales started to increase, word of mouth grew, and months later everything seemed to have surprisingly turned around. Fire Emblem was a cult hit. It wasn’t the knockout that Kaga had been expecting but, for a new IP, it was nothing to snuff at.

Fire Emblem’s ambitions may have been overblown but they were all in the right place. Shozo Kaga had wanted to meticulously craft a world that was far beyond anything that had come before it. One where every single person that inhabited the world had their own personality and motivations that invited players to get to know and relate to them. While brutal in nature, its inner workings were accessible to all who took the time to appreciate them for what they were and what Intelligent Systems was trying to achieve. They had started a new trend in the gaming sphere and gave an old genre new legs to walk on. Ambitious yet practical. Deadly yet simplistic. Fire Emblem had walked onto the stage and shown the nation of Japan it was here. Now it was time to solidify their new foundation.

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