While players in the west weren’t introduced to the Fire Emblem series until it came to Game Boy Advance, Japan was enjoying titles as early as the NES. It seemed for many years there would never be any plans to go back and revisit the original with remakes taking the place of many original titles. Somewhere along the way, however, Nintendo decided to jump in and localize the very first title in the series. While it did see a remake on the DS years ago, players in the west have never officially gotten to play the NES title that started the series in addition to being one of the first popular tactics RPGs. Now players have their chance at it, so how well does Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light hold up?
The first Fire Emblem title is also where Marth got introduced to the world before going on to become the face of the series. In his first ever adventure Marth is tasked with helping invading forces wherein he and his companions struggle against an evil priest name Gharnef. After his father is slain and sister captured Marth begins his long quest to track down Gharnef and put a stop to his evil while helping to save the world from another evil force being resurrected. As one might expect for a first NES title the story is mundane but gets the job done well to keep pushing Marth and company forward.
Core basics of the Fire Emblem franchise haven’t changed much since the first entry. Characters begin on their overworld map where they can choose to move, use items or attack an enemy if within range with their selected weapon. Units all have certain amounts they’re able to move with some able to traverse certain kinds of terrain better than others. The first few Fire Emblem titles didn’t include the iconic weapon triangle, so attacking doesn’t have the same kind of strategy to it. Engaging an enemy in an attack cues up a short animation revealing a hit or miss and potential retaliation. The goal of most stages will be defeating a certain key enemy all while trying to defeat the other ones along the way to gain levels as there’s no grinding otherwise with just a straight shot to the end. Class changes are in this first title, but are limited to certain classes with some never changing throughout the story. Losing units means they’re gone forever, but certain character deaths will lead to an automatic defeat in combat. While there isn’t any easy or casual mode, there are additions to this version that make it more welcoming for first-time players.
Older Fire Emblem titles are known for being hard due to their permadeath and often the inability to grind. This re-release of the NES original adds new features that make it easier than ever for combat to feel less threatening for those who want more trial and error. First is the ability to speed up combat. NES titles were often slow and that’s prevalent here. The movement and combat can be sped up to twice as fast, making for better-paced combat especially on enemy turns. There’s also a new bookmark feature which essentially acts as a save state that can be returned to for people wanting to try out something to see if it works just in case it’s a flop. The biggest addition is the turn rewind, in which players can restart an entire turn of the mission they’re on from any point. This is great for going back when a strategy either didn’t pan out or to rescue a unit before they fall in battle. There’s also the ability to change the display to pixel perfect or the default which is slightly stretched. All of these add huge play value and make it much easier to have a lot of trial and error where there wouldn’t have been much before outside of resetting the entire thing to retry from the beginning.
This release is aimed at pre-existing fans of the franchise and it’d be a poor place to start for anyone looking to get into the series. Controls are clunky as one might expect from an NES title and the only saving grace to the slow movement is the ability to double the speed. The drawback to this is doubling the speed also does the same to the music which makes it horrible to try and listen to. It’s almost better to just mute it and listen to something else to bring the gameplay up to a more agreeable pace. It would be nice if a way to outright skip the enemy turn animations was added as they often have significantly more units and even on double speed feel slow while having to sit through each one being moved. The visuals are obviously of the NES era, but are surprisingly charming if not silly looking at times depending on the character. The sprites for actual battles are cute, with the neat bonus of Marth having his own unique animation when he’s about to get a critical hit on an enemy.
A good majority of NES titles are hard to recommend to anyone this day and age when most are either outdated or have superior versions players can pick up. This Fire Emblem title has both, but as a look back at where the series began and a chance for players in the west to finally try it out, it manages to succeed. It’s wonderful to see where the series got it start and how changes would go on to make it the now memorable Nintendo franchise that it is along the way. The changes added also make it easier for anyone to be able to beat it without losing the difficulty the series is often known for. The fact that it managed to get localized 30 years after its initial release is a nice way to commemorate its start and it would certainly be nice to see this from other Fire Emblem titles in the same boat. Although it’s not a title anyone unfamiliar for the series should try for a first go around, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a nice surprise that’s worth picking up for fans interested in the series history.