Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a Nintendo DS remake of the first Fire Emblem game (originally released in 1990 for Famicom in Japan) that's now available to download in Virtual Console form for Wii U. The series staple of strategic turn-based gameplay along with the perma-death possibility for characters would form the backbone of this long-running and critically acclaimed series. Being a remake, Shadow Dragon is blessed with re-drawn graphics (including character art from Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed fame), a remastered soundtrack and some additional gameplay elements taken from later titles.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of young prince Marth and his quest to retake his father's kingdom after if it is seized by a neighbouring country. Forced to flee, he leaves his older sister behind and vows to return one day to claim back the throne. What follows is a tale of betrayals, alliances and loyalty all played out in a fantasy setting of castles, knights and magic.
This story is played out across twenty five chapters (including an optional prologue) each of which takes the format of completing objectives on a grid-based battleground, ultimately leading up to defeating the enemy and claiming a finishing square to complete the chapter. Story progression takes place between each chapter and helps to flesh out the characters you meet and any recruits into your army along the way.
If this all sounds like it's building up to be an overly complicated and long-winded experience, fear not; being a Nintendo game the slick interface is superbly designed and easily accessible for all wannabe commanders. Each character (or 'unit') in your possession falls into a specific class; these include archers, paladins, knights and clerics. The designated class dictates the weapons they employ, magic ability, movement, strengths, weaknesses and all manner of statistics. You're also able to 'reclass' units into different classes (should you choose to) in order to tweak your army into a perfect fit for your play style. In typical RPG format, units will level up during battle and gain new abilities. Your task is to decide which units to take into battle (for each chapter) and command them to victory.
The battle is lost instantly if Marth dies (Marth is always present on the battlefield) so it makes sense to ensure he's kept to a decent level; how you progress your other units is up to you. During your turn you are able perform a series of actions with every member of your active party; these actions include movement across the current battlefield, attacking or even simply doing nothing. During movement each unit has a specific number of squares they can travel - for example, heavier knights have limited distance but can handle a beating, while flying pegasus units span the map quicker but are more prone to death from an arrow. Strategic placement and movement of all your units is the key to victory.
In terms of battling, Fire Emblem employs a rock-paper-scissors approach with its 'weapons triangle'. This triangle works as follows: axe is stronger against a lance, lance is greater than a sword and sword trumps axe. In basic terms, if your unit has a stronger weapon type and is of a higher level than the opponent, there's more chance of coming out on top. Battling is automatically played out once initiated, so even though it sounds complicated it is, in practice, rather simple. And therein lie the beauty of Fire Emblem; the challenge comes not from battling with the complexities of the gameplay but from being able to strategically decide the best course of action. The classic phrase 'easy to learn, hard to master' has never been more appropriate.
If you've played the Nintendo 3DS's most recent iteration Fire Emblem: Awakening for any length of time, you may be disappointed to find some features not present. Notably the marriage system, no branching map (so no extra side-chapters) and the lack of a beginner friendly casual mode to ease the perma-death woes. Perma-death means any character dying on the battlefield remains dead. For the rest of the game. So be wary of charging into battle with your favourite characters if you're unsure of the outcome (or use the restore point system of Wii U Virtual Console games to 'cheat' if you're that way inclined).
Being a Nintendo DS game on Wii U does present a few issues - the most major being how to display the twin screens of a DS. Thankfully Nintendo has provided plenty of options, but in all honesty the best way to play is using the GamePad on its own to display both screens and then holding it vertically - ie completely mimicking a DS. The reason is clear when you come to try out the other options; it's a total pain looking from one screen to another, especially if one of those screens is a huge TV. You need to be able to view the screens together in order to have the best experience, due to the way the game plays out.
It's also worthy of note that none of the online features are active any more; the service was closed down sometime ago. Additionally we have no idea if local wifi battles will work having not had two Wii U's in the same room together, we would suggest not (although do let us know if you are aware of anything to the contrary in the comments section).
In some ways playing Fire: Emblem Shadow Dragon today feels a little bit like going back-to-basics, however the compelling gameplay, lovely retro artwork, memorable music and beautiful presentation ensures this is still a joy to play and it's definitely a world well worth re-visiting. If you've never taken a leap into the series and want to find out what it's all about, this is a relatively cheap way to do so thanks to the Virtual Console. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon remains a great game even when put into context alongside its own sequels. Clearly it's less complex than recent offerings, but this is still a fantastic example of an accessible yet deep turn-based strategy RPG. Put aside the Wii U display concerns and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a perfect introduction to the series and still very much worth sinking a few hours into.