Fire Emblem is a strange series; much loved and well known, yet still a relative outsider when compared to the likes of Kirby or even Star Fox. Released first as a Nintendo Power exclusive deluxe pack in 1999 and then again in more standard SNES packaging in 2000, Thracia 776 has the dubious honour of being the very last SNES title released in Japan — its late launch meaning that it would have been seen in stores next to N64 and even Dreamcast games.
Surely coming so very late to the party means that they would have wanted to make it as inclusive as possible to ensure it sold enough to make this oddball release worthwhile, right? Wrong. Thracia 776 is difficult. Really difficult. Of course, most Fire Emblem titles are, but this is in another league entirely – just four battles into the game you’ll find yourself imprisoned, stripped of all your equipment and desperately struggling to escape with your life. This map also has several groups of civilian prisoners to consider; not just capable adults but children and the elderly too – do you waste precious time unlocking their prison doors too? Do you help fend off the endless guards that pour in and try to snatch these people away or do you leave them to it? You’re outnumbered, ill-equipped, and running out of time.
At first it’s frustrating as a gamer to experience battles like that because we’re used to looking for the little “trick” that helps us get everything our own way first time, but it’s helpful to think of Thracia 776 not as an SRPG, but as a war simulator. Not the usual simulator that deals with the dry minutiae of things like ammo weight and armour statistics, but a war simulator that deals with the raw difficulties of conflict – where things aren't always balanced in your favour and you will lose a friend to an unlucky blow – but you’ll have pick yourself up and carry on regardless.
RPGs are fond of giving you some tough choices to make, but rarely do they also force you to genuinely put your own life and success on the line to make them happen. Thracia 776 is a perfectionist’s nightmare in that regard, the difficulty forcing you to give up on some promising equipment stashed in a far-flung corner of the map or watching your favourite healer get captured and carried off by enemy forces.
But these events also create a meaningful narrative too, in addition to the already well thought out story that runs through the game. How many RPGs have you mindlessly attack groups of indistinct enemies until you reach the one boss monster that actually matters? Not so in Thracia 776; a game where just about any enemy can steal treasure from under your nose, run away with that one civilian you really needed to save or ambush you in the dark. A first run through the game will be slow going and full of reloads after critical errors, but there’s no doubt that by the end you’ll recall every skirmish and hard-won victory – a claim that most RPGs can only dream of.