Hello my loves. It has been a little while.
Y’all surprised me by opting for Fire Emblem over Final Fantasy, and I shall oblige. I’ve been working through the older, never-localized FE games, which I’m going to shove into one post because no one can stop me.
Inside: Shadow Dragon, Shadows of Valencia, New Mystery of the Emblem, Genealogy of the Holy War, Thracia 776 (but not really), Binding Blade
Shadow Dragon (DS)
I played the remake of the first three games, largely for my own sanity. This was a very bland game. I honestly have been struggling to even know what to say about it. It’s plotting, characters, and gameplay are all solid but unremarkable. It was kind of boring, but also I played through it. Like all the early games, it was far too easy to have units fall behind and become irrepairably useless, and if you’re a dipshit like me you do it with Marth and make him too weak to beat the final boss, who only he can fight. And then you give up and watch the ending online because while you’re happy to play it once, no way it that a slog worth doing again.
It is easy to see why it was such a big deal when it came out. Like Pokemon, it was an early genre-definer, back when every time something new happened it defined a genre.
Shadows of Valencia (3DS)
Poor Valencia. This is a game of a series trying so hard to find its footing. The weird, highly unfun dungeon-crawling, the bizarre quest system, the unbalanced plotlines.
Though perhaps nothing was worse about this game than the entire story relying on Celica being so fucking stupid that it was honestly hard at times to believe the game was playing it straight. To say this was an idiot plot is to understate how stupid she was. “I know I’m an evil demon priest who’s been trying to kill you your whole life and murdered your family but look if you just trust me, everything will be fine!” and she’s like “Oh, okay!” And then there’s Alm’s plotline about how the nobles need to follow him because he’s good and capable even though he’s a commoner but PSYCHE! He’s a prince! Turns out his plot was actually about how to tell who’s morally inferior, because bad people don’t recognize the Innate Betterness of the aristocratic. The story in this game was such a fucking mess.
There is a lot of complaining online about the map design in this game, but IMO the real problem is how absurdly overpowered ranged units are. Unlike in other FE games, they don’t have a +1 or 2 range, they have massive like 5++ ranges, and stupidly high attacks even with low-level bows, so you can just plant yourself in one spot and snipe everyone without ever having to meaningfully interact with the map. I did this on the final boss.
The cutscenes were pretty though, that’s something, depending on your interests.
New Mystery of the Emblem (DS)
Unlike all the rest of these, New Mystery is a game I’d actually give a general rec for, with the caveat that it does rely on you knowing some of the main characters from the previous games. But it was far and away the most polished, with the most clearly deliniated characters, most solidly written (though not nearly as ambitious as FE4) story, and best mechanics. It was just a clean, enjoyable game.
It also is the only one of this bunch to feature a player characrer, which was interesting, since from my nooby vantage point that was something I thought would be more of a feature throughout the whole series. It’s really well done here — I thought it did a good job of balancing ‘silent protagonist’ with giving you choices about who to interact with and how. I also found that I liked the idea that resolving the whole assassin plot was optional. The game did a good job of having it not tied in so tight that if you didn’t do it the story felt incomplete, but not so loose that it felt totally random and unrelated. I also really liked the party chat being in a separate post-battlefield menu; I’m not a fan of the version where you have to maneauver to characters next to each other over and over to build relationships and have conversations. They’re too missable that way, and learning about the charcaters is like 70% of the point in these games. Objectively, that’s fact, you can check.
There was nothing really groundbreaking or even noteworthy in this game, it was just pleasant and well-constructed, which is something I can get behind and also possibly a testament to how low my standards are.
Genealogy of the Holy War (SNES)
For all its flaws, I think this is the best of the pre-localization games, if only just because of how ambitious it is. As its title implies, “Genealogy” follows a political crisis across two generations, starting with the young Prince Sigurd, who is the victim of a massive conspiracy that results in the entire continent falling to the hands of an oppressive empire. The second generation follows Sigurd’s son Seliph as he tries to free the continent from tyranny.
As I said, this is a hugely ambitious game. The maps are ridiculously huge, and you progress through entire nations via one map by slowly taking over territory. The result of this is a real sense of progression and accomplishment and a real emphasis on scale and scope that I thought was highly effective. The other, less great consequence is that it’s very easy to get trapped in an unwinnable situation late in a map and end up losing like 6 hours of gameplay when you have to restart. The size of this game pushed up against the limits of the SNES so mitigating this with autosaves likely wasn’t possible, but if there’s ever a remake it desperately needs a feature where you can return to the last castle you took and start from there. The other problem with the game, and this is true of all the early games, is that there’s no catchup mechanism for units who fall behing in EXP, meaning that it’s very easy to have lots of units end up useless with no way to save them.
One odd effect of he huge scope of the plot was that I had a weirdly hard time keeping track of the characters. It’s weird, because in all the other games, even the ones with like 70 characters, I knew who everyone was, but this had a reletively smaller cast for an FE game and I felt like I never had any idea who anyone was or how they were related to each other. I was talking to my brother about this game and he agreed that this was an issue, so it’s not just me, but at the same time I’m not sure why I struggled with this, because everyone is well-drawn with lots of relationships and the background lore of the game was obviously very well thought out, and as a result I’m not sure how it could be fixed.
Overall though, this was a solid game. It was an interesting game. I don’t know that I’d rec it in general — too SNESy — but I’d be very curious to see what a remake would look like.
I skipped Thracia, for which I offer the following justifications: 1) my brother said he thought all the translations were crappy 2) it’s supposed to be stupidly hard, to the point of being unfun, and I just do not have the brainpower for that right now 3) I had no interest in the side story about these characters; I don’t see why it needed to be told.
Anyway, feel free to throw tomatoes.
Binding Blade (GBA)
I did not like Binding Blade. Part of that may not be the game’s fault, entirely. Like many non-Japanese-speakers, I was introduced to Roy, the protagonist, by way of Super Smash Bros., and I suppose I took him to be a more… engaging chaarcter than he actually is. I mean, for a character to make the cut for SSB they theoretically had to have some sort of cultural cache, and for that to be true there must be something interesting about them. So I had some expectations for the protagonist, and thus the game, going in that I might not have had otherwise.
But Binding Blade was actually meant to be a kind of series reset. It was purposely designed to be easier in gameplay than 4 and 5 — which were very difficult — and the developers purposely wanted to give the game clearer, less complex heroes and villains. This means that Roy is, by design, an utterly boring Shonen 101 protagonist. It means all the characters are flat, really. I get that in the GCN/GBA generation was when Nintendo really started to make its push toward games all being friendly to the entry-level, but it was just so jarring after Geneology, which was so richly complex and ambitious. It was just so disappointing. Roy is so boring. The villains are all in it for the evilulz, the good guys are all saints, and all theives have a heart of gold. Blah blah blah.
This presented a real story-gameplay problem for me. It was so hard to trudge through maps when I couldn’t care about anyone, or about their goals, or the stakes. tRPGs are all about micromanagement, but microing is a really tough thing to base gameplay around, because you have to make a conscious, sustained effort to keep it interesting, and by making a conscious effort to make this game basic, the microing lapses back into a chore.
I will say I did like the shift in art style. The bright neons worked, which is a huge testament to the art director, because it could easily have been garish and unappealling. Instead it looks like they were excited to have this new platform and new capabilities and really had a good time with it. It’s also an interesting commentary on the use of non-diegetic elements in visual media, because suddenly I could clearly tell who was who again, but at the cost of what FE4 had, which was a really natural use of phenotype to indicate nationality (which likely contributed to my inability to tell some people apart). On one hand I really like the idea of natural-looking ethnicities in theory, on the other it was nice to have clearly delineated people again. It’s obviously possible to strike a balance (in theory, anyway) but I do respect the art director saying, no, we’re committing to going the other way here. This game had solid art direction.
In basically every other aspect, though, it was a huge disappointment. It just never was able to make a case for itself as worthwhile. And then it was made even worse by its sequel, but that’s another story.