Feature: 12 Days of Christmas - Fire Emblem's Awakening

Long-running strategy RPG dodges permadeath with one of the year's best

There were greater commercial and critical successes than Fire Emblem: Awakening's in this Year of Luigi, but none could be as sweet. The underdog series finally saw the acclaim that it deserved from a mass audience for a banner year, one in which the stakes couldn't have been higher.

Little did we know it ahead of time, but Nintendo was this close to shelving the Fire Emblem series of tactical RPGs. Having made its début on NES in Japan, Fire Emblem was perhaps best known in this part of the world for originating a handful of Super Smash Bros. fighters until its first entry released to western audiences on Game Boy Advance in 2003. Ten years and four games later, the series' dwindling sales forced an ultimatum on developer Intelligent Systems: move a quarter of a million units, or the series would be put on indefinite ice.

It isn't difficult to see why Fire Emblem had previously failed to set a mass audience ablaze. The series had rightly acquired a reputation for hardcore challenge and high-stakes gameplay in a relatively intimidating genre that itself barely lifts a finger to ease new players into the fold. Fire Emblem particularly was sink-or-swim: losing a unit on the field meant that the character you had spent so much time learning about and grooming on the battlefield was dead and gone forever. New characters would enter the picture with regularity, but refilling your ranks couldn't bring back a beloved character from permadeath. Not only did the series smack you around on the battlefield, it would regularly try to break your will in the meantime. Only the strongest players needed apply, and only the strongest of strong would stick around for another go.

Now Fire Emblem itself was surrounded and overwhelmed in hostile territory, facing its very own permadeath scenario. As the potentially final entry, it was time to put up one hell of a last stand.

And what a spectacular fight it was. Intelligent Systems lived up to its name with a downright miracle of game design, and Nintendo put its full weight behind marketing the thing. So, so much could have gone horribly awry with Fire Emblem: Awakening, and it's amazing how with such elegance the game dances above it all. To survive, the game had to expand its audience, which meant making one of Nintendo's most devilishly challenging and mature expressions palpable for somebody who had never played a turn-based strategy game before. To please long-time fans, that same level of intensity had to be present while evolving and adding on to the formula in satisfying ways. To encourage players to stick around, Nintendo devised a strategy for downloadable content — an area relatively new to the gaming giant, and at the time it remained to be seen whether the Big N would repeat or learn from the DLC growing pains of other consoles. Nintendo wanted the game to succeed so much that they even released a special-edition themed 3DS to put at the forefront of their advertising campaign.

Accomplishing all of this would be no small feat, and for all of the numerous new directions that Intelligent Systems pushed the game into, the studio pulled off each and every one. If the rise of Nintendo's beginner-friendly Super Guide experiments have taught us anything, it's that by allowing players to skip the most egregious challenges a game can make said challenges even more demanding. Giving players the choice between a softer path — one in which defeated characters would sit out the fight instead of keeling over forever, and allowing mid-battle saves — or the traditional one filled with booby traps and cold-hearted punishment meant that players of all skills and commitments could enjoy Awakening on their own terms.

The real-world narrative surrounding Fire Emblem: Awakening's development, release, and subsequent commercial success is fascinating in and of itself, and were the game itself simply good then the end product would still have produced one of the most compelling feel-good stories of 2013. (A beloved franchise on the brink was saved to fight another day! Hooray!) But the flesh and bones of Awakening aren't "simply good." They are engrossing, compelling, captivating, punishing, rewarding, encouraging, and a whole host of other hyperbolic adjectives that our incredible enthusiasm for the game just can't seem to stop pumping out.

Awakening is remarkable for its expanse, yet the game never feels as if it is stretched too thin. The campaign is impeccably balanced, constantly upping the ante and challenging you to dig deeper into your strategic arsenal. First looks at battlefields are often designed to be intimidating, but through careful consideration of the map and enemy units you'll find yourself after 10 turns pushing forward in ways you wouldn't have predicted eight turns prior. Awakening doesn't play around but is always fair, so the sense of accomplishment that comes with vanquishing a map's final foe can be incredible. You did that, it credits.

There is more strategy to keep in mind than simply how to get the drop on an enemy unit. By positioning characters to fight side by side they can help each other out with team attacks for more powerful offensive and defensive results. Characters who fight together develop bonds and become more powerful when fighting together, so figuring out who works well together and eventually marrying them off is a deep mini-game in and of itself and is the game's emotional anchor, weighted by 8-4's fantastic localization. Characters are brought to life with strong personalities, great senses of humour, interesting histories, and, through it all, gentle humanity. Attachment is easy, which makes it all the harder to see them killed in action. If you're anything like us, you'll have shouted an expletive and slammed the soft reset combo to restart the game more times than you'd care to admit because of the untimely death of a unit.

Even if a challenge seems too steep for the time being, Awakening's side activities are more than able to keep you entertained for hours. There is always something new to learn, strategize or tweak, which is why nearly a year after its release — in the U.S., it arrive slightly later in Europe — we're still hooked. Well, that, and the stream of fun downloadable content. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 first led the charge on 3DS DLC, Fire Emblem's plans were far more ambitious. On offer weren't mere level packs like Mario's expansions to Coin Rush mode, but instead miniature stories that fit within Awakening's fiction as well as the greater Fire Emblem universe at large. Characters and conflicts from every game found their way in, creating a great opportunity for long-term fan service while introducing the older games to new players in memorable ways. DLC was perhaps somewhat costly, but Nintendo played it smart by offering the first one free — both as a show of good faith, but also to get people to connect their 3DS and find out exactly where to throw more cash. In addition, the execution showed that Nintendo is capable of keeping a game alive and well with worthwhile add-on content, lessons that have informed subsequent releases like Pikmin 3.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a shining example of character empathy, empowerment and excellent game design. Honouring the series' hardcore legacy while expanding its audience and helping establish the benchmark for downloadable content, all while delivering one of the most rewarding campaigns of the year. That's some feat, and audiences recognized it: total sales in the U.S. alone breached 390,000 by September, according to Nintendo of America.

2013 may have been the Year of Luigi, but Fire Emblem: Awakening stole the show.