Spanning over two decades, Fire Emblem has over 16 mainline games under its belt, each title offering a fresh take on the strategy RPG genre with its unique in-game mechanics, deep story, and its colorful cast of characters. While fundamentally similar across all titles, the Fire Emblem games today have strayed far from the series’ roots, undergoing a divisive metamorphosis that put many members of its community at odds with one another even today.
Fire Emblem is a fantasy series developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo. At the beginning, it was a Japan-only franchise, with no plans to release it in the West due to fears the series would not do well in the Western market.
The series first set foot in the Western scene in 2001, not in the form of a strategy game, but a fighting one. Super Smash Bros. would be the West’s first exposure to Fire Emblem, coming in the form of Marth and Roy, protagonists of Fire Emblem 1 and 6 respectively.
Due to the massive popularity that garnered behind these two characters, not to mention Marth’s notoriety for being a top-tier character in Super Smash Bros. Melee, Nintendo finally released a game internationally later that same year. Dubbed Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword, it was a bridge that finally connected the series to the West.
Placed in a tried-and-true fantasy setting, Fire Emblem often tells and retells the story of an honorable young noble who embarks on a journey, raises an army, and defeats an evil deity by the end of the game. The series can be held in comparison to Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors in the way both games reuse familiar tropes to great success. While this formula differs ever so slightly from time to time, with the most recent Fire Emblem: Three Houses ditching the “young noble as protagonist” trope, this story arc is Fire Emblem in a nutshell.
Despite this formula getting stale after several iterations, Fire Emblem keeps every experience interesting and fresh with its strong core game mechanics and unique characters.
Fire Emblem at its most basic is a fantasy chess match between the player and the computer. The battlefield is the board and the characters are the pieces that will wage war. Each character plays a different role, giving gamers a multitude of options when approaching combat. The stage has been set and the rest is in the hands of the player and their ragtag army.
How players go about maintaining and managing their pieces and resources in the grand scheme of the game, and the consequences of failing to do so, are core principles that have not changed since the franchise’s inception. Experience (EXP) and stat-boosters are a limited commodity, so gamers must be meticulous about which unit to give those precious points to and who to keep underleveled.
Spur-of-the-moment, impetuous decisions can come to bite the player in the future, if they are ill-prepared, especially with permadeath looming over every unit. This big emphasis on consequence-heavy gameplay defined what the series was, but also helped cultivate the image of Fire Emblem being a notoriously difficult series, preventing many potential players from picking up the games. This, on top of terrible marketing, nearly killed the franchise altogether.
While Fire Emblem did have a cult following in the West, its genre was niche and few understood it. In fact, most people only heard of Fire Emblem due to the sheer popularity of Super Smash Bros. It could not stand on its own next to gaming giants like Super Mario or Legend of Zelda, and the series’ declining sales in the late 2000s reflected this.
As such, it was slated for a quiet death with Nintendo marking Fire Emblem: Awakening to be the last game in the series, if it failed commercially. But thanks to Awakening’s good marketing and casual appeal, Fire Emblem was saved.
However, because of Awakening’s massive popularity, and also being many players’ first dive into the series, the whole franchise shifted in tone and appeal to cater to the larger audience that amassed.This caused a rift to appear in the community that had not been felt since 1999 with the leaving of the series’ creator Shouzou Kaga.
The helmsman of the first five games, Kaga ended up leaving Nintendo in 1999 due to creative and directorial differences. With his departure, there was a noticeable shift in tone and direction in the Fire Emblem games that came after him that is still felt today.
There are two major divisions within the Fire Emblem community, colloquially dubbed “casual” and “elitist” that stem from this split. Elitists prefer the more serious tone and nature the series offered originally while the casuals enjoy the fanservice and role-playing elements of the games that are found in newer titles.
Older games of the series had large, sprawling maps of enemies and a host of complex mechanics and victory conditions that would be daunting to anyone but series veterans. By the fourth and fifth game, maps had become a mix of strategies and subtle puzzles for players to solve if they wanted to ensure optimal victories.
The newer titles streamline the gameplay with smaller maps, less complicated mechanics, and victory objectives. Much of the puzzle-like gameplay was toned down for a more straightforward strategy experience that was more approachable for newcomers. However, in doing so, Fire Emblem ended up losing a lot of the depth and intricate strategies it was known for in later games like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright.
The newer games also place a bigger emphasis on the role-playing elements, giving players a customizable avatar instead of a traditional main character and shifting a lot of focus onto character interactions rather than story, with Fire Emblem Fates being the biggest offender.
Fates, while praised for its gameplay, was criticized for its lackluster story and shoehorned fanservice, becoming a hot topic of debate for the Fire Emblem community across many forums on the internet. It took many of the elements that made Awakening popular, particularly its fanservice , to appeal to a wider audience. While casual players may not have minded as much, elitists felt as though Fire Emblem was losing its identity, changing from a strategy RPG to a fantasy dating simulator.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses became a great middle ground for the two groups, however. The gameplay harkened back to the more in-depth nature of older games while also including the fanservice character interactions of newer titles, albeit a bit more subdued this time around.
It is the most unique game in the franchise, moving away from the traditional chapter-by-chapter pacing to more sim-like management with its academy/school-life system—a first for the series. This meshing of appeals is perhaps the key behind Three Houses’ massive popularity and success, being able to cater to both casual fans and hardcore ones at the same time.
It is funny to think that the most divergent game in the series would be the one that brings most of the community back together.