In The Beginning…
Change. It’s a fickle thing in the gaming industry. Sometimes change is warranted, bringing about new prosperity for a declining franchise. Other times it can derail the experience entirely, leaving you wondering if you were even playing the right game. Walking the fine line between the two is a treacherous job for video game developers, as without innovation a series can never progress and without progression comes death by obscurity. Intelligent Systems was about to walk this line. Their previous effort had received mixed reception at best and was critically panned at worst. Even though it would pave the way for a new genre of gaming, this was not the standout title that they had hoped to create. Now they could just take the feedback to heart, make up a sequel, and call it a day. The creator of the franchise didn’t wish to see it done in that way. Instead, he would go bolder, farther than anyone else would think to go. He would change everything yet nothing. He wouldn’t just tell a story, he’d tell a side story.
A Drastic Change
Intelligent Systems had grossly underestimated the ambitions of the original Fire Emblem. It wanted to be so many things yet failed to have the manpower and funding that were needed to make them a reality. But they had proven that Fire Emblem was a success worth saving with its newly cemented cult status, enough to warrant a sequel. This time around, instead of inhibiting Shozo Kaga by having someone else direct what was essentially his game, they gave him the director’s chair in all its glory. Now the director, game designer, and writer, there was no one stopping him from making his dreams into reality. Aside from Kaga the majority of Intelligent Systems development staff were onboard with the sequel with only Daisuke Izuka leaving the mantle of character designer behind for now. The team building the game wouldn’t be an issue, what they would make of a sequel would take precedence over all. Kaga’s goals from the very beginning were to address all the concerns players had with Shadow Dragon. The story would be elevated to a higher plane, honing in on the connections between the characters and the players themselves. The world would be far less tedious to navigate. And the gameplay would be made far less confusing and derivative. He went even so far as to order the creation of an entirely new memory chip, the MMC4, just so that the game would never face the same memory issues again. Kaga wanted to do everything he could to create a stellar title, and his main focal point would be that story.
Following dual protagonists Celica and Alm, both created to give the game a stronger narrative purpose, it would tell the tale of their separate journeys to reclaim their homeland of Zofia from the militaristic Rigelian Army. Alm’s path would start out in his humble village. After a knight enters his village and pleas for his grandfather, Mycen, to join the war effort, Alm takes up the mantle instead, leading an army throughout the whole of the continent of Valentia to put an end to the war. Celica, on the other hand, chooses to take a different route. Sensing something is wrong with the gods of their lands, she sets out to uncover what fates has befallen Zofia’s god Milla and what that entails for the land of men. A separate yet connected plot, it was something wholly unique to Fire Emblem, and had never been truly done before. And the characters would be even more pronounced than before, with in-depth conversations between heroes and villains finally being possible. But one fact would always be clear, this was a side story, a companion piece to Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light taking place in the same world around the same time. Fire Emblem Gaiden, as it would be called, was meant to further flesh out the world of Fire Emblem and also tell a great tale to boot.
What of the gameplay though? Kaga wanted to improve on that too by radically changing it and adding in a multitude of RPG mechanics. Leveling up became even more crucial as each class could evolve into a more powerful version of themselves while the villager could choose to be any number of classes that you so wished them to be. Weapons no longer had a breaking point with special versions only enhancing a unit’s power. Spells became a risky option, as they’d drain the user of their health whenever they unleashed it on a friend or foe. Explorable towns became commonplace and strewn throughout the map, with each providing useful items, sidequests, and even characters. Above all else, the most fascinating addition were the dungeons. Optional, for the most part these were only meant for the intrepid gamer. Delving deep and fighting through the monsters within treasure lies throughout, rewarding players who’d risk life and limb in a game where death could be all but permeant. Combined, it was very much a different piece.
A Side Story
At times taking its RPG inspirations to heart all too often in the face of continuing the legacy, this was a bold direction for Kaga to take the franchise in. If it failed, Fire Emblem would never reach the lofty heights that it so desperately wanted to reach. Fortunately, this was a step in the right direction. Critically praised for its reinvention of the series both with the critics and fans alike and selling over 324,699 copies as of today, on its release in March of 1992, Fire Emblem Gaiden was a knockout hit in every single way. And development had been as smooth as can be. The gameplay, the new mechanics, and the narrative all just meshed so well into one cohesive piece. This is what Fire Emblem was meant to be… or was it? Was this franchise, a hybrid of strategy and role-playing mechanics, meant to more of one or the other? Would Fire Emblem Gaiden be the foundation for the future of the franchise or was there some hope still left in the original? That was a mystery in an of itself.