Two years ago, Nintendo released a small video set 20 prior. For anyone who owned a GameCube, it might seem very familiar. Two unnamed voices play Super Smash Bros. Melee, which would go on to become the best-selling GameCube title, a bright spot for a company struggling to figure out how to compete with Sony and Microsoft. No longer with a pure technical advantage, Nintendo began relying on the strength of its characters, especially for a free-for-all game like Melee.
“You don’t know Marth?” one voice incredulously says to the other, after the battle is over. The two begin exploring the backstories of Marth and Roy, Fire Emblem characters who weren’t available to Western audiences at the time. The voices are intrigued, which matches the response players had back then.
Curiosity, as well as a growing trust that American audiences could understand complex turn-based combat, led to the 2003 Western release of Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade on Game Boy Advance. Blazing Blade was technically the seventh game in the series, but because Americans had no context, it was simply titled Fire Emblem. You can play it right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
Fire Emblem makes sure you understand what is happening at all times. The player character doesn’t speak or fight. Instead, you’re a tactician who guides other characters on the battlefield. Specifically, the player is guiding characters through the continent of Elibe, a thousand years after an event called The Scouring ripped apart an alliance of humanity and dragons.
But in the present day, a young warrior named Lyn has just found this young tactician, who is given the default name Mark. Lyn is a girl from the rural plains of Sacae who has lost her parents. After helping Mark recover, the two decide to travel together. They run into two knights: the flirtatious Sain, and the upstanding Kent. They’ve been sent out to the plains from Caelin, a territory within the federation known as Lycia, and they have a shocking announcement: Lyn is actually the granddaughter of Lord Hausen, the Marquess of Caelin.
Together, they decide to head for Caelin so Lyn can claim her birthright. Along the way, they begin to make friends and face foes. Early on, at least, the latter mainly consists of bandits, the same type of ruffians who murdered Lyn’s parents. Lyn hates these bandits with a passion, and she takes it out on the battlefield.
The game makes sure that players understand a few crucial components: how turn-based combat works, and the weapon triangle that determines the strengths and weaknesses of various classes. Swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. It’s a little like Rock, Paper, Scissors, something to always keep in mind as decisions are made on the battlefield. Terrain can differ some fighter to fighter, and hiding in the bushes can give the advantage of surprise.
While these facts and figures can be deduced through an info box by pressing the R button, they can also be seen on the main screen, encouraging a player to study the map carefully before making any sudden moves. As the combat expands from axes and swords to include bows and magic, the game starts to feel deeper.
The joy of turn-based combat comes from the logical deduction of chess, except it’s a chess game that actually allows you to see the fights. Fire Emblem presents attack animations that aren’t quite as deep as the gameplay itself, but still offer some excitement. It’s especially satisfying to see Lyn go in for a second attack on some bandit.
As the game develops, the royal intrigue grows alongside the complexity of the combat. Forces are gathering to stop Lyn from claiming what’s hers, and one-time bandits become loyal friends. Fire Emblem wants to make the battlefield feel alive, not just in terms of engaging combat but also in making sure that everyone present is actually felt. It blends well with the series’ permadeath mechanics.
Fire Emblem had a lot to do, and a small screen to do it in. It’s no coincidence that Takehiro Izushi, the game’s writer, was recognized alongside other now-iconic games like Beyond Good & Evil and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It had the tricky mission of staying true to its series while also being the first time many got their hands on it.
If you’ve ever played some of the more modern Fire Emblem games, this compliments them wonderfully. If you never have, this is the perfect time to tactically guide your party like it’s 2003.