Fire Emblem is bigger than it’s ever been, and Nintendo’s celebrating with a special anniversary release of the Famicom game that started it all. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, out for a limited time on the Nintendo Switch eShop, is the first time the game’s available in English! It’s also packed with some extra features to make the game a bit more playable.
But don’t get us wrong! It’s the first game in the series, but you shouldn’t start with it. This is historically important and interesting for franchise fans. But it’s still a late NES game that could use more buttons and a better user interface.
This first game in the series follows Marth as he returns from exile and saves his homeland. It’s a story you may already know! Intelligent Systems has remade it twice, and the second — the Nintendo DS’ Shadow Dragon — was a worldwide release. That version’s a lot easier to play. It has modern mechanics and menus. (And it’s available digitally on your good old Wii U!) Shadow Dragon sports different combat systems and balance, but if you’re just wanting to know about everyone’s favorite Super Smash Bros. character, that’s a much easier way to do it.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light has the technical limitations you’d expect from an NES game. The menus are clunky, and it takes learning and multiple screens to get to what you want. Inventory management is a big problem, and you’ll have to hand over weapons mid-battle rather than carefully put all the items where you want between chapters.
Of the previously unlocalized Fire Emblem games, only the two Famicom entries really have this problem. (And we’d be doubtful of a Fire Emblem Gaiden release after the much-nicer Echoes remake, but… well, we’d also say the same for Shadow Dragon a few months ago!) If The Binding Blade, Genealogy of the Holy War or Thracia 776 ever make it to the West, they’ll be unearthed gems. We’d shout from the rooftops that everyone around should experience their gameplay. They’re modern enough to enjoy and have interesting ideas of their own that weren’t always retained later. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a vanilla first release that’s already been upgraded.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t play this! Or buy it. (Unless you’re taking a principled stand against Nintendo’s limited-release trend.) It’s just important to come into the game with the proper expectations. This is a quirky old game. It’s got some weird faces! Honestly, the weird faces are a lot of the entertainment value of the game. Its stripped-down-in-comparison stats and mechanics mean you’ll use different strategies. Without visible movement ranges or combat previews, it’s a game without training wheels, and some players love that challenge.
Even with all this, the effort made to make playing easier is commendable. Context-sensitive fast-forward lets you speed through enemy movement but enjoy the proper pacing and music on your own turn. Automatic turn bookmarks decrease the frustration of a random critical hit, miscalculation or late-map realization that you totally could have recruited that one guy.
It’s not meant to make Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light a modern game. It takes out some of the pain points in a way many players have achieved through emulation, but in a player-friendly console context. We’ve played through this game on a handy Famicom cartridge, and with this as an option, we won’t be doing that again.
The new localization is welcome and interesting. The Nintendo Treehouse approach wasn’t to mimic games from 1990, instead bringing in more complex sentences and lowercase letters. It’s still a game that would run on the hardware! But it carries the awareness that this is 2020 and games don’t do those sorts of things anymore. The names all match the standardized lineup from Shadow Dragon and Fire Emblem Heroes. Which is expected, we suppose! But it’s honestly weird to see an NES game without typos or truncated names to fit a letter limit.
In terms of difficulty, this first Fire Emblem isn’t particularly punishing. Which is nice! You’ll still need to play smart and probably rewind occasionally, but organically finding which units to use and building them isn’t going to mess you up. Do you like the flexible movement of the flying Caeda and water-walking Darros? They’re more fragile, but you can do it if you’re careful. Or would you rather focus on tight choke points and hold them with beefy soldiers like Draug? You can do that too, with a more aggressive push toward certain objectives. You should still narrow down your crew so you don’t waste limited experience points, but who in particular you pick can be comfortably a matter of taste. (Maybe check out the PDF manual, though? It’s helpful when you start.)
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is available now on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $5.99. It’ll stay available through March 2021. And then disappear for some reason?