Today marks 30 years since the release of the first Fire Emblem game for Famicom, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light! That means it also marks something else: 30 years of Nintendo thinking Western fans don’t want to play Fire Emblem. Let’s look back at how this belief kept the franchise away from most outside Japan, and what strides have been made in recent years.
The 1990s: Where Are You, Fire Emblem?
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990, Famicom) Japan-only
Fire Emblem Gaiden (1992, Famicom) Japan-only
In the beginning, Nintendo of America’s anti-Fire Emblem stance was simple and, perhaps, justified. The local arm of the company had tried with some fervor to get the JRPG to catch on in the West like it had in Japan, pushing hard to market games like Dragon Warrior to little effect. Fire Emblem, a game with JRPG DNA but also rooted in the strategy genre that had taken hold in the PC market but struggled on consoles, was a tough sell. And by 1990, starting to translate and release a Famicom game would have meant a 1991 launch or later on a platform that had already been replaced.
It was a bad time to launch a franchise that brought with it a high barrier to success.
Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem (1994, Super Famicom) Japan-only
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (1996, Super Famicom) Japan-only
But then we move on to these and the absence is a little less excusable. The SNES had become a welcoming home for Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger in the mid-1990s, and the opportunity to give Fire Emblem a larger audience through a game that retells the first game’s story seems like a blown call.
Nintendo’s known for a particular pattern of innovation, one that leaves inattentive observers constantly frustrated at its reticence to embrace new ideas. Those with a keen eye will see that it’s often too eager to jump onto new things, getting there ahead of time and ending up burned. It jumped into online services in the 1990s with the Satellaview and 64DD. It had a headset display in 1995. Those went very, very poorly, and management remembered. It means Nintendo waits – often too long – to return to these efforts.
The same is true with genre. After trying and failing to market RPGs in the NES era, it generally left those efforts to other companies for the 1990s. It’s why the N64 was so devoid of these games when Square shifted to other consoles. It’s why even the Mario RPG was made by another company. And it’s ultimately why we didn’t get these two Fire Emblem games.
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 (1999, Super Famicom) Japan-only
We’re going to set this one aside. This is excusable. While it’s a fascinating game design that shows the franchise’s transition from old ideas to what would succeed so well in the GBA era, no one was buying SNES games in 1999 and the infrastructure for the downloadable-cartridge Nintendo Power service just didn’t exist outside Japan.
The Early 2000s: Don’t Scare Them Away
Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade (2002, Game Boy Advance) Japan-only
Many give Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai a lot of flack for how much he likes Fire Emblem and includes more characters (often unjustly as it’s not always his call), but it’s the appearance of Marth and Roy in Melee that gave the franchise a new opportunity. It’s weird, then, that… well, Roy’s game was out and on a modern platform and it wasn’t the one given a chance.
That’s it! It’s weird. Moving on.
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade (2003, Game Boy Advance)
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (2004, Game Boy Advance)
Based on the Smash Bros. exposure and, arguably, the surprise Western success of the Advance Wars games, a Fire Emblem game was finally localized in 2003! Progress!
Here’s the first Western commercial for Fire Emblem. Take a look:
To be fair, many game commercials during that era didn’t show a lot of gameplay. Still, look at what little is here: a couple of attack animations. It’s telling that you can’t figure out that this thing’s a strategy game from what’s shown, because even years later, Nintendo simply didn’t trust that you’d buy a Fire Emblem game if you weren’t tricked into doing it by thinking it had different gameplay.
Just to show that this isn’t a worldwide phenomenon, here’s the Japanese commercial for the same game:
In roughly the same number of seconds of gameplay, what’s there? Grids. Numbers. Text. An honestly representative slice of the experience you’d get playing Fire Emblem.
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (2005, GameCube)
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (2007, Wii)
Yep, it was still a problem.
Meanwhile, in Japan:
It’s a subtle difference, sometimes, but that only shows how meticulous the Western effort to obscure Fire Emblem’s actual gameplay could often be.
Path of Radiance also featured what was the most extreme case of Nintendo’s reticence to make anyone play too much Fire Emblem: a new Easy Mode. Replacing the super-hard Maniac Mode in the Western releases, this option (one that caused a lot of technical headaches later when Radiant Dawn offered save transfer) scaled down enemy numbers and strength. While later releases would capitalize on more casual options to find new fans, that this was only added outside Japan showed a particular method of thinking within Nintendo.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (2008, Nintendo DS)
Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem (2010, Nintendo DS) Japan-only
Shadow Dragon, a DS remake of the first game, was the first in the franchise to be brought Westward with the help of an external team. Localization house 8-4 is known for quality work, but that quality generally scales with that of the original Japanese text, as an outside team is less likely to take liberties with the source material than an internal Treehouse group. The added attention and investment in the game’s success that comes with wanting contract work to make a good impression would pay off in a few years, but Shadow Dragon’s writing was a bit bland and based on the limited character count and memory space of the Famicom game. (And the art matched.) So when it came time for the direct sequel two years later, its gameplay and story improvements weren’t enough to give it a proper chance at Western release.
These games didn’t have impressive animations or cinematic sequences, and the good things they did have – the gameplay things – weren’t what Nintendo wanted to show. This was the same thing that doomed a lot of projects in this era, like Golden Sun: Dark Dawn and Glory of Heracles: if it wasn’t easily marketed at young kids (like Pokémon and Kirby) or busy adult professionals (like Picross 3D and Professor Layton), it often wasn’t marketed much at all.
The, Well, Awakening
Fire Emblem Awakening (2012, Nintendo 3DS)
The aversion to showing any actual gameplay to people before they start playing hadn’t stopped by the release of Awakening. Once again, the only glimpses here are the time-consuming attack animations that many turn off after a map or two:
Even with the game’s wild success in Japan, it was easy to tell that it wasn’t a huge part of Nintendo’s Western strategy. In Nintendo’s E3 2012 festivities, it held four separate events to show off upcoming games. Fire Emblem’s only presence, though – despite releasing within a year! – was in a likely-mistaken offhand comment to Kotaku confirming the game’s localization.
Still: the game did very well, the franchise continued, and the question permanently shifted from whether a game would be brought over to how it would be handled.
Fire Emblem Fates (2015, Nintendo 3DS)
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (2017, Nintendo 3DS)
Once the franchise made it big in the West with Awakening, all was well and it was smooth sailing from then on! Okay, not quite. Despite selling in two versions, Fates fell short of Awakening’s sales total, and… well, with little marketing and a release after the Switch was out, Shadows of Valentia never stood much of a chance and managed a small fraction of those games’ reach.
With its meager sales numbers, it’s not exactly the shining case study fans would want, but Echoes has come the closest to being marketed honestly. It did so largely as a means of distinguishing it from its peers: it launched in the same window as the original Tokyo Mirage Sessions release, mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes and spinoff Fire Emblem Warriors, so “this is the one that has traditional Fire Emblem gameplay” was mentioned a bit more often. Again, though, with its release timing, it didn’t get much of a marketing push at all, so the core fan focus makes more sense when you’re betting fewer dollars on its success.
Fire Emblem Heroes (2017, Mobile)
Strangely, the Fire Emblem game that has put its strategy elements front and center in its Western marketing is Heroes, the mobile entry that continues to be a cash cow for Nintendo despite dwindling sales and a mostly-disgruntled player base. Perhaps that’s because what it offered that distinguished it from the rest of the gacha game market was its style of tactical gameplay. The marketing campaigns have certainly been happy to focus on character art first and foremost, but just not actively obscuring what the game is like is clearing a bar that Fire Emblem rarely manages.
The Here and Now
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019, Nintendo Switch)
Now that Fire Emblem’s such a big international success, everything’s good, right?
“Hey! I like Fire Emblem! I don’t care how it’s marketed, since I know I’ll play it anyway. How is this at all relevant to me?” Sorry, comments, we’re already anticipating you and we’re ready to provide an answer. Analyzing Nintendo’s marketing for the most recent game in the series isn’t going to provide much of a different view from the earlier ones, but what may be more useful is looking at the game Three Houses became as a result of this marketing focus.
This need for more footage that doesn’t look like the actual game leads to the new zoomed-in view that most genuinely forget exists but renders more soldiers on the battlefield with a more dynamic camera. It leads to more time spent on attack animations that many just turn off because they make battles take too long. Would those development resources be better spent on… map variety? Making more tactically interesting environments? Optimizing the engine so that the character scene backgrounds are less pixelated?
A fifth route focusing solely on Dedue? The point is that something more material to the game experience got cut because international marketing needed the parts they were going to display instead to look better.
It also puts a focus on big, momentous anime cutscenes that can serve as what players see first. For you as a player, that means… say… being spoiled on a big mid-game twist in an E3 trailer? Because the big, spoilable moments are the ones with the animation budgets. It also means that it often feels like the game drags in the long stretches between big story moments, because focusing on making those look too good makes for a narrative that only makes big things happen when absolutely necessary.
Maybe Nintendo will realize that players don’t need to be tricked into buying Fire Emblem. Maybe even next time! There’s… no evidence to suggest that will happen, but it doesn’t hurt to be cautiously optimistic.