The long arduous wait for Fire Emblem: Awakening is almost over. North Americans will be getting hold of it on 4th February while Europeans, whose patience must be more enduring, will have it in April. Naturally, Japan has had the title for over a year now.

Fire Emblem is a tactical RPG that sees you strategically fight your way through battles with some of the most well-developed characters in gaming. It has thirteen games to its name spanning across seven Nintendo systems.

The series has slowly but surely become one of Nintendo’s key franchises in the global market. Of course it sits among some of the more niche IPs, but its popularity is certainly growing in the West, somewhere Nintendo originally thought was lacking the audience for it.

Fire Emblem: Awakening represents the sixth game to be released in the West, but the history of the series spans much further and includes a plethora of games released on a variety of Nintendo consoles. The West’s first experience of the franchise was in 2003 with Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance, but Japanese gamers had been playing through the series for thirteen years before that.


Fire Emblem’s Japanese heritage

Way back in 1990 a new title called Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi landed on the Famicom and became an instant cult hit. The game saw you take control of Marth, possibly the series’ best-known character, in his quest to retrieve the Fire Emblem which he needs to take back his Kingdom from Gharnef and the shadow dragon Medeus.

Sales of the first game were not ground-breaking, but Nintendo saw enough in it to release a sequel in the form of Fire Emblem Gaiden. This was set during the original game and therefore in the same world; Marth did not feature and the plot had no bearing on the previous title at all. Intelligent Systems, the developer of all Fire Emblem titles to date, took this opportunity to experiment with some new gameplay elements and build upon the foundations, something it does with most additions to the series.

Fire Emblem was gaining momentum at this point and an enhanced remake of the first game, along with a sequel, was released on the Super Famicon in 1994 that went by the name Fire Emblem: Monshō no Nazo. Japanese gamers will be able to download this for loose change in February as part of the Wii U Virtual Console Trial Campaign.

Two years later Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu emerged and was seen by many as the game that solidified the series’ success in Japan. Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 followed, introducing a newly devised fatigue metre which would fill up when characters participated in battle. Once full the character would have to sit out the next stage, and this was to encourage players to rotate their characters frequently. The fatigue metre has not been seen again since but it was nevertheless an interesting idea, albeit one that restricted the player a little.

Intelligent Systems was consistently tinkering with the series; sometimes gameplay mechanics worked, sometimes they didn’t; the gameplay seen today has been moulded and perfected over a couple of decades.

The last Japan-only Fire Emblem game was the first to make the transition to handheld devices. Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi was released on the GBA, and starred another popular character: Roy. It was a great success and paved the way for Fire Emblem games on portable consoles.

Though the series had a relatively slow start in Japan, momentum quickly built up and in ten short years, Nintendo had an ever-present franchise on its hands - one that Japanese gamers couldn’t get enough of.


The Western adventure

Fire Emblem may have been setting the gaming world alight in Japan but people of the Western world knew very little about the series. Mascots such as Mario, Link, Samus and even Olimar were popular, but characters of the Fire Emblem universe were completely unknown.

That was all set to change, however, as a couple of characters from the series found themselves on Nintendo’s flagship brawler Super Smash Bros. Melee. This was the first time Western gamers were truly introduced to Fire Emblem, and they could take control of both Marth and Roy. Both characters spoke in Japanese and weren’t the easiest to control, but they nevertheless became popular, and thus the Fire Emblem seed was planted in Western minds.

Whether or not Nintendo intended for that to happen is debateable, but awareness of the Fire Emblem universe was growing in overseas markets and an opportunity arose to see how a game would fare outside of Japan.

In 2003 Fire Emblem arrived in North America on the GBA and emerged the following year in Europe. Released in Japan a few months earlier, it was a brand new game in the series that set itself before the original title. Interestingly Roy and Marth did not feature, instead Roy’s father Eliwood was the leading man alongside two other heroes, Lyn and Hector.

It brought with it more in-depth animated cut-scenes, using still images of the characters, something that is now a staple of all Fire Emblem games. No voice acting was included so all the conversations and information was purely text based – not much has changed in this department. Even without Marth or Roy involved, Fire Emblem received high critical acclaim and was a good solid success for Nintendo. Thus Fire Emblem’s western journey began.

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, a game 3DS Ambassadors will be familiar with, became the second title to make it to the West and carried on where the first game left off in terms of gameplay. Though it sold well and was generally well received, it didn’t make many great strides from its predecessor, and no one really knew where the series would go from there.

It seemed at this point that Fire Emblem had left the home console market entirely and was instead a handheld-only series. The franchise never featured on the N64 and was on its third consecutive GBA title (including Japan-only release Fire Emblem: Fūin no Tsurugi). However, Sacred Stones was the last game to emerge on the GBA as the next iteration went back to home console gaming.


That game was Path of Radiance on the GameCube, a massive adventure that pushed the series further in terms of gameplay and story. Introducing a new setting and new characters, Path of Radiance saw you take command of the Greil mercenaries, a band of for-hire infantry units who pick up small jobs from local citizens. Disaster strikes in the land, however, and all of a sudden the fate of the world end up resting on the mercenaries’ new leader, Ike.

Path of Radiance harnessed the power of the GameCube and became three dimensional, adding fully rendered cut-scenes for good measure. It featured the deepest story the series had ever seen, and using different characters in battle would result in more conversation options. The more you used an individual, the more you would find out about them. Characters could be added to your band of mercenaries by recruiting them in battle; sometimes this would be easy, other times near-impossible. Enlisting one character requires you to stand on a specific innocuous spot on the map in order to make them appear, for example, and if you don’t recruit them there and then, you can’t do so ever again.

In a world where video games are getting easier, Fire Emblem is certainly a series that bucks the trend. If anything the series has become harder and harder as time has gone on. Defeating the Black Knight in Path of Radiance, for example, required you to max-out Ike and his sword; even then you had to get lucky with critical hits to win. If you hadn’t levelled up Ike then you were out of luck. Fire Emblem takes no prisoners and is one of the most punishing franchises around.

The story of Path of Radiance continued in the game that followed. Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn was released on Wii in 2007 and achieved reasonable success. In terms of length you’d do well to find any game longer than it, with hours upon hours of gameplay and two storylines to plough through. Radiant Dawn represented one of the most difficult games of all time and was not for the faint hearted - defeating the final boss should come with a medal.

Western gamers also had the chance to play the original Fire Emblem game in 2009, when Shadow Dragon was released on the DS. Finally, after making two appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series, Marth was given his own game in the West.

Since the release of Fire Emblem on GBA nine years ago, the series has slowly but surely gained momentum and is becoming an increasingly recognisable franchise for Nintendo across the globe - not just in Japan. Of all the IPs in Nintendo’s library, Fire Emblem can also be argued as the most hardcore of the lot. Its complex game mechanics and punishing difficulty offer something that perhaps no other Nintendo game can; it’s no wonder Satoru Iwata sees Fire Emblem: Awakening as a key game for the company this year.

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The 3DS, though selling like hot cakes in Japan, is not doing as well in the Western markets. Because of this Nintendo is striving to offer as much variety as possible for the 3DS in order to get as many different demographics on board as possible. Fire Emblem may scare people off with its unforgiving difficulty that can sometimes leave you spending hours on a chapter before having to start again because one of your characters died, but this hardcore nature is exactly the sort of thing others are longing for.

As we explained in our Fire Emblem: Awakening review, the game still comes with the difficulty we’ve come to expect, however it’s been given a few tweaks and now has a casual mode which stops your units from kicking the bucket should they fall in battle. Nintendo will hope to tempt those who’ve previously been frightened off to pick up the new title and give it another go, while reeling in those who’ve yearned for a game to really challenge them.

Fire Emblem has gone from a small game in Japan, to a key franchise in the West in just over two decades. Whereas marketing campaigns for previous Western releases from the series were pretty small; Nintendo is pulling out all the stops for Awakening. It has pushed it hard on multiple Nintendo Direct presentations, made introductory videos for new players, dedicated much of its Facebook space to profiling its characters, and has even released a 3DS bundle in North America.

All of a sudden that niche little strategy game has been thrown in the limelight, and for this reason many people will be having their first experience of the series with Awakening. Nobody is expecting it to sell as well as Mario or Zelda titles, but it certainly offers something that can’t be found in other games. Nintendo will hope that more dedicated gamers will appreciate its punishing difficulty while encouraging more inexperienced players to get on board thanks to the more casual settings.

In Fire Emblem, Nintendo may have found another key franchise for the West, at just the right time.