Review: Fire Emblem: Mystery Of The Emblem (SNES)

​All Hail Prince Marth! (Yes, that Marth)

Ask any western gamer who Marth is and they will quickly reply something along the lines of "That cool sword-wielding guy from Super Smash Bros." - something that is understandable since the Fire Emblem series that began all the way back to 1990 on the Famicom only reached the West in 2003. But behind his killer move set in Smash there is still much to discover about his epic origin story, which brings us to Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo ("Mystery of the Emblem") - not an original game, but a 16-bit remake of the original Famicom title that began the whole franchise.

Mystery of the Emblem made SNES history by becoming the very first 24 megabit ROM cartridge ever to be released, months prior to Super Metroid achieving the same ROM size. Nintendo did not believe there was an audience in the west for strategy RPGs and - like so many other examples of the genre - it remained locked away from the west as a Super Famicom exclusive. Remember that the video game audience in Japan at the time was arguably an older one than in the west, with young Famicom gamers coming into their late teens and adulthood with the Super Famicom, and therefore the varied and mature offerings on the system were perfectly suitable to this maturing audience. Sadly, Nintendo in the west didn't share the same viewpoint.

Mystery of the Emblem takes place in the realm of Akaneia. You control Marth (the only unit in the whole game to be classified as "Lord" - no pressure, then) and his small group of knights in the standard turn-based movement and combat warfare that typified the series. Marth has been exiled onto the island nation of Talys after the invasion of his homeland by the forces of Medeus, a Manakete (dragons with humanoid appearance) who - after centuries of human oppression - has revolted, causing fresh conflict between the two races. As you might have guessed, there is more plot in this particular branch of the series than the regular "hero kills villains" trope, but the game's introduction does an excellent job of getting the player up to speed on developments. One of the many improvements to be found in this 16-bit update is the introduction of conversations between battles, with many more story-focused cutscenes than were found in the Famicom original.

The user interface has also recieved a facelift, with the most noteworthy addition being the ability to see exactly how far a unit can move once you have selected it - something that we take for granted nowadays but was not available in the original Famicom outing. Another new feature is the ability to make mounted units dismount from their steeds, trading in their lances for swords. In levels that take your team underground, they will be automatically on foot, which is a nice little touch. The rest of the commands will be familiar to Fire Emblem fans, with the player deciding what weapon to attack the adversary with if in range and picking which items to use. Shockingly absent from this entry is the now-standard weapon triangle system which Fire Emblem as a franchise has become synonymous with - it would be implemented in the next Super Famicom entry, Genealogy of the Holy War. This will make the game seem a little odd to those who joined the franchise on the Game Boy Advance in 2003; just beware that arrow projectiles remain lethal to your airborne units.

Your task is to clear the map of bad guys and capturing their stronghold, making sure that you distribute enemies evenly among your units since experience is attributed in each attack and if you just keep using the same characters over and over again, you will end up with a dangerously unbalanced party. Visiting villages and castles mid-battle along the way is optional but rewarding for both money and items, so you should make sure you try to do so every chance you get. Only Marth can do this, but the benefits make it worth expending a few extra turns. Keeping a look out for particular enemy units is also a must, because if they have a nonstandard unit portrait, there is a good chance they can be recruited by standing next to them and having a chat - the option shows up on the menu if you are using the correct character to recruit them. Filling your ranks early will help you on later missions.

Once you complete this quest, Book One is done and you have effectively revisited a much prettier, overall better version of the Famicom original - but this isn't just a (welcome) graphical update of that game. Fire Emblem has a reputation for great music and this remaster is no exception. Composer Yuka Tsujiyoko scored over eighty individual compositions that perfectly convey the whole epic medieval ambience needed to perfectly round off the whole experience. From tragic melodies to timpani-driven battle anthems, there is a bit of everything here, including a three-minute redemption of the iconic Fire Emblem theme.

Brand new content is provided with Book Two. Filling up the rest of those 24 megabits is a brand new chapter of Marth's tale, one that takes place after the events of Book One. Hardin, Prince of Aurelis and ally during the events of Book One has ascended to Emperor of Akaneia and has begun seemingly invading neighboring countries with no apparent reason. Marth comes back from retirement to gather his allies and rally against his once former friend. This extra content will give you even more hours of added game value; it is the equivalent of finishing reading a really good book and immediately discovering an addendum filled with juicy new plot twists.

If you live in Japan or have a Japanese Nintendo ID, you can grab this from the Virtual Console service since it has been available from very early on. It is a shame that the original adventures of Marth remain locked away from western players, since it was his popularity in the Super Smash Bros series that eventually lead Nintendo to give Fire Emblem a try in the west. If you still intend on grabbing this for your Super Famicom collection, you should know that unless you are fluent in Japanese you will miss out on much of the game's plot and will not fully appreciate the complete experience. Fortunately, an English fan translated patch was released in 2008 and last revised in 2013 by RPGuy96 and VincentASM, so if you own a RetroN 5 or Retro Freak you can enjoy the game in English - and with an excellent translation to boot.

Conclusion

Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem is a stunning example of how to update a great 8-bit title into a 16-bit masterpiece. You will find no need to worry about marriages or petting your companions here; this is the purest example of a series where the true challenge is in managing your units effectively to ensure victory in whatever conditions the game throws at the player. You might be wondering why we are not giving the game a higher score considering we wrote nothing but praise about the game - this is because we can't ignore the fact that the Super Famicom was blessed with another two Fire Emblem games that surpass this one: 1996's Seisen no Keifu (the aforementioned Genealogy of the Holy War) and 1999's Thracia 776 (that is not a typo, there were still Super Famicom games being released as late as 2000). Don't let that put you off on what remains one of the finest, purest entries in the series and an absolute masterpiece as far as tactical RPGs go on the Super Famicom. If you have access to the Japanese eShop, know that this and the sequels have been re-released in Japan for the Wii, Wii U and will very likely soon show up on New 3DS Virtual console services.

Oh, in case you were wondering: yes, everyone has feet here.