The Unpredictable Success of Fire Emblem

Nintendo is a household name at this point. From Mario to Pokemon, multiple generations cherish their key franchises. Video games, much like music, or movies, or any other form of entertainment become ingrained into pop culture as time goes on, and in the hearts of those who play them at key times in their lives (i.e., how I described Animal Crossing in my retrospective). Some of Nintendo’s smaller franchises such as Metroid or Pikmin are started to garner larger amounts of success, but yet still those lesser known children of Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi are beginning to be outdone by what was once a minuscule asset to the company*; Fire Emblem.

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The Fire Emblem series launched in 1990 on the Famicom (the Japanese NES) with Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, and was developed by the R&D1 team, which if you’re into video gaming history you should already recognize as the developers of everything from the original Zelda, Ice Climbers and Donkey Kong to every 2D Metroid game ever. This initial release of the franchise never made it out of Japan (officially) but was released internationally on the DS as Shadow Dragon. Two things set Fire Emblem apart from other strategy games of its time. The first was the implementation of role-playing elements seen in games such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and of the course the most infamous feature of the series so lovingly dubbed “permadeath”. If one of your units falls in battle, they will quite literally die (unless they are a key plot element, in which case they will become injured to the point of retreat for the remainder of the story). In most games, loss of a party member can be remedied with items or specific locations, but losing an ally in Fire Emblem means they get left behind.

Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light did not sell well, and only picked up steam long after its initial launch. While these poor sales figures, which I think can partially be attributed to the western fantasy influence of the game’s setting and story, definitely had an impact on Nintendo’s decision not to release the game in other territories, there is also speculation that they thought it was too difficult for western audiences. I can find no official quotes to back this theory, but the older Fire Emblem games are certainly some of the most testing games I’ve played. The series continued to rise in popularity in Japan throughout the life of the Super Famicom, but still saw no official releases outside of Japan. In fact, almost no westerners at the time had ever even heard the name Fire Emblem until the fateful release of Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube in 2001. While Melee mostly featured Nintendo’s more prominent all stars, such as Link, it also had some oddballs like the Ice Climbers. Among what could at the time have been considered oddballs were Marth, the prince and main character of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, as well as Roy, the lead character of Binding Blade, a GameBoy Advance Fire Emblem game that was never released outside of Japan, and the then upcoming Sword of Flame, which would become the first title in the series to be released outside of Japan, under the simple title of Fire Emblem.

Until recently, Nintendo didn’t even talk about Fire Emblem much, so it’s really hard to find actual quotes verifying the reasons behind their decision to release the games in the west. It is assumed that it is due to critical fan responses to the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Though some believe they had always intended to release Sword of Flame internationally, and included the characters as a marketing ploy, both characters only speak Japanese no matter which language setting is selected in the game, leading me to believe otherwise. Both characters continue to only speak Japanese in current Super Smash Bros. Releases, however, despite newer Fire Emblem representatives having English voice actors, but I believe this to simply be a traditional homage.

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Fire Emblem continues to increase in popularity worldwide, and the initial NTSC and PAL release is often cited as one of the best GameBoy Advance games, but sales were still low in comparison to Nintendo’s heavy hitters. The games were given very limited production runs in the west, so it’s now very hard to find some Fire Emblem games cheaply, or even at their original retail pricing. I was first introduced to the franchise via Path of Radiance on the GameCube, which currently fetches $100 regularly on the collectors market. The poor sales figures were chalked up to difficulty by some, but I think the Dark Souls franchise is proof that western gamers don’t shy away from games simply because they are challenging. I believe it to be a failure to properly advertise on Nintendo’s behalf. Some Fire Emblem games tackle some very complex and adult issues compared to other Nintendo games, such as racism, and the cruelties of war. Were this the 90’s, I’d fully expect Nintendo to not put their all into advertising, as they were known to shy away from publicly endorsing more mature games at the time, but during the GameCube era, games such as Eternal Darkness, the only first party Nintendo game to ever receive an M rating from the ESRB, saw great success.

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With the release of Awakening in 2014 and Fates earlier this year, we’ve seen a massive boom in this franchise. Not only is Nintendo heavily marketing these games, but they’re selling more wildly than ever. I have my gripes with the newest releases, but this is not the place for them. In spite of some of the changes made, Fire Emblem is now a Nintendo mainstay. Almost every anime convention I attend has at least 1 or 2 cosplayers representing Fire Emblem. Many older fans are chastising the new games, insultingly referring to them as “waifu emblem” (a jab at the marriage mechanic), but I think we should embrace these new fans. After all, they’re clearly doing more than most of the series veterans at spreading the word and keeping the torch lit. We should be celebrating this storied franchise going big. Yes, Nintendo is going to make some missteps along the way, but at least games are being made with the Fire Emblem name. This series could have suffered the fate of Suikoden, or the Mana series, but it didn’t. So here’s to the underdog. Here’s to Fire Emblem!

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My friend, Frances Felipe as Nowi from Fire Emblem Awakening. Photo by Kasey Furlo.

*Metroid Prime 3: Corruption sold 1.3 million copies as of March 2008. Pikmin 3 has sold approximately 200,000 units as of December 2013. Meanwhile, Fire Emblem: Awakening has sold nearly 2 million copies as of December 2014, and Fire Emblem: Fates has sold half a million units having only been released 2 months ago.