Before Fire Emblem: Awakening started the Year of Luigi off with a bang, there was a great deal of concern at Nintendo regarding its future viability as a franchise. Sales were at an all-time low, and series producer Hitoshi Yamagami was given an ultimatum: at least 250,000 copies of the latest entry needed to be sold in order to ensure the franchise had a future. Of course, we know now that the 3DS masterpiece went on to sell more copies in the US than any other game in the series, bringing the game to a bigger audience than ever before and cementing the Fire Emblem brand's value.
Newcomers drawn to Awakening's brilliant take on the strategy RPG genre have probably yet to familiarize themselves with the series' first Western entry, especially since there hasn't been a readily available version of Fire Emblem since its debut in 2003. Thankfully, Nintendo's provided Virtual Console support for both this title and its GBA follow-up, so there's no longer an excuse for holdouts. It's worth explaining that this Fire Emblem game is, as previously mentioned, only the franchise's first entry in the West; in Japan, the title — translated as Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword — is actually the seventh. For what it's worth, the fact that there were six previous titles in the franchise certainly shows: Fire Emblem is a masterfully designed SRPG with tight gameplay, impressive graphics and a colourful cast that helps the adventure stay fresh throughout.
The structure smartly allows new players to quickly pick up genre basics while also establishing the foundation of the narrative. While there is an enormous cast of characters to recruit and eventually use in battle, there are three major players whose stories are told across the sprawling chronicle: Lyndis, the granddaughter of a lord who is surprised to find herself next in line to take the throne; Eliwood, a noble who joins Lyn's quest to find her grandfather; and Hector, Eliwood's best friend and frequent sparring partner. The game splits up the first playthrough into two sections: the first, smaller section introduces Lyn's quest to meet her grandfather (and a subsequent battle for the throne with her maligned great-uncle), while the second concerns Eliwood and Hector as they chase down the nefarious Black Fang group and attempt to unravel their sinister plot. After you've completed the main campaign once you can then play the latter half of the tale from Hector's point of view, adding extra challenge and a good handful of exclusive chapters.
Pacing any role-playing game can be a challenge, especially when there are as many things to learn as there are in Fire Emblem. However, the aforementioned structure does a lot to ease the pain for those who want to jump in but are intimidated by some of its harsher aspects (permanent character death, anyone?). In each of Lyn's initial chapters, the game introduces a different handful of concepts and ingeniously matches it up with story events and character introductions that are currently going on. For example, in the first chapter a humorous pair of knights help you fend off bandits while also teaching you about the weapons triangle; in the fourth, a mercenary desperate to make money for his injured wife can be swayed to join your party, illustrating the process of recruiting enemy units.
For all its ingenuity, though, there's likely to be a certain element of frustration early on for players who are familiar with strategy RPGs. The pacing of combat is deliberate - to say the least - and the dialogue abounds with explanation and exposition, but since each successive chapter builds on previous concepts while simultaneously focusing on new elements, there's a definite increase in difficulty and required strategy that keeps things from getting too bogged down.
Once you've completed Lyn's tale, Fire Emblem really hits its stride. It may not have revolutionized the genre, but it certainly mastered its elements in a way which would make most games nowadays — let alone those made in 2003 — green with envy. Like many strategy RPGs, the gameplay boils down to grid-based combat. Playing as the party's hired tactician, you and the enemy will take turns using your knowledge of your party, the terrain, and each other's weaknesses to gain the upper hand. To bolster your strategic choices, you'll have access to a wide variety of unit classes, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. For example, cavaliers have access to both swords and shields, but only so-so combat ability, while pegasus knights can travel across any terrain but are extremely vulnerable to projectile attacks from archers.
There are over 30 classes to master, but only a limited number of troops can enter battle; finding the right combination of characters, and then using their specific advantages successfully in battle, is no small feat. As you might imagine, the game only gets more complex as it goes on, with more characters joining and enemy AI becoming increasingly relentless. It's incredibly gratifying to complete some of the later, harder missions, and the addition of both Hector's story and a Hard Mode for those who complete the main story is a fantastic reward that will help you test your strategy-building skills even more. This is as tight a strategy RPG as there ever has been, and the robust campaign will keep you busy for easily 20 hours (significantly more if you elect to try the game's additional modes). There's a good deal of replay value, too, since you'll likely want to go back to earlier missions and put your newfound expertise to use.
For a game that has to rely on rather small sprites to represent its characters and environments on screen, Fire Emblem manages to cram a lot of detail into each element. You'll have no trouble discerning who's who in the midst of battle, and the environments — while not exactly pretty — are certainly constructed and arranged well. On top of that, there are nice little touches that you might take for granted, like the zoomed-in view of two combatants when one chooses to attack another (lovingly recreated as Marth's Final Smash in Super Smash Bros. Brawl). The soundtrack has a good deal to offer too, providing pleasingly catchy background noise for your epic war — Smash Bros. enthusiasts who haven't taken the plunge into the franchise yet will particularly enjoy the GBA-quality version of "Together, We Ride."
Fire Emblem is a tight, finely tuned strategy RPG that is not to be missed by any self-respecting genre enthusiast. Thankfully, they're not the only ones invited to join this party, as more casual role-playing fans can get in on the action thanks to a brilliantly-designed tutorial section and the game's overall fantastic interface. A catchy soundtrack and nicely detailed graphics round out the impressive package, which solidifies its value with a low price point and significant replay value. If you haven't experienced Intelligent Systems' first strategic masterstroke in the West, now's the time to do so. If you have, well, now's as good a time as any to experience it again — but we don't need to tell you that, do we?