So that's who Marth is.
Remember that blue-haired androgyne in Super Smash Bros. Melee, from that game hardly anybody's heard of? Well, his name is Marth, and he’s from a game called Fire Emblem, a series of turn-based strategy RPGs dating all the way back to 1990 in Japan. The Fire Emblem series was developed by Intelligent Systems, a Japanese developer who didn't think very highly of American audiences. So in their effort to be the world’s most condescending game developer, they released little more than launch titles for the original GameBoy, until 2001, when someone in the company decided to give us mouth-breathing, monster truck-racing Yanks a shot and released Advance Wars in North America. And you know what? It did really @$&%ing well. Stick that in your better educational system and smoke it!
[image1]A couple of years later, I.S. released the first Fire Emblem game for the GameBoy Advance (which was actually the 7th Fire Emblem game, if you're an otaku and a twat), which also came to great success. And so began the USA love affair.
Fire Emblem plays out very much like Advance Wars. You move units across a battle zone in turn-based fashion, as if any army would actually wait for you to stick a sword in them before fighting back. The story follows Marth and his ragtag group of pure-hearted warriors in their fight to save blah, blah, blah, we’ve heard it all before. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same sword and sorcery plot you’ve heard a billion times before, dragons and all. The story may be generic, but as a vehicle to get from one fight to the next, it works just fine. The gameplay is really where it’s at in a Fire Emblem title, and Shadow Dragon is no different. It’s genius in its simplicity.
Units can only move a certain distance based on their class - heavily armored knights can only move five spaces, whereas horse-mounted cavaliers can move nine. Damage is determined by basic math (and this is where we get really nerdy). Weapon might plus strength equals attack. Attack minus defense equals damage. Got it?
The gameplay is just like Advance Wars but with RPG elements and a rock-paper-scissors element to the combat (swords best axes best lances best swords). Killing enemies nets you experience points, which ultimately level you up. The tricky thing about the experience, though, is that there’s a set number of enemies in each stage and only a few places where you can grind. Add the fact that you’re given far more playable characters than you can actually field (by the sixth chapter, I had literally 26 playable characters!), and you’ve sort of got a dilemma that can put the more obsessive player into the fetal position.
[image2]Some levels offer an arena, where you may pit party members against randomly generated opponents for gold and experience. The downside to this is that an over-zealous or unattentive player may end up with a dead unit or two; and per tradition, with no way to revive fallen comrades, this may precipitate the hurling of DSs out the nearest window... as when four hours of arena grinding comes to an appropriately grinding halt when you press 'A' by accident and send a wounded unit to their death and have to start the whole *$&#ing level over again.
The only other major issue is the weapon degradation. Weapon degradation is never, ever, ever a good idea. Yeah, it’s more realistic, but realism goes out the window when the other army is waiting their turn to stick a sword in your face. Considering how much money you get and how often you can purchase weapons, the degrading of weapons is more a pain in the ass than an interesting gameplay mechanic.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is actually a remake of the first game in the series, and so there are a few changes in this iteration. The most notable and, perhaps, most exciting for players returning to the series is the re-class feature, letting players (you guessed it) change the class of their units. So if you want another archer, or if you’re tired of how slow your knights are, you can tailor your army to suit your needs. There are limits to how many of each unit type you can have, but the classes are all pretty balanced and all serve a purpose. The best part about it is that you can re-class units between stages, so if you change your mind, you can rearrange your team at the beginning of the next fight.
The presentation has been beefed up, but not so much as to change the feel of the game. Sprites have more fluid movement, and maps are sharper, clearer, and have a wider spectrum of color. But overall, it still looks and plays like a Fire Emblem game and there’s certainly something to be said about not fixing what isn’t broken (I’m looking at you, Star Fox).
[image3]The top screen displays either an overview of the battlefield or details about whatever character the cursor is over. This is all information you had access to in earlier titles, but now you don’t have to toggle between the map and a character sheet, which definitely improves the flow of the game. Unfortunately, the use of the touch screen isn’t as handy. You can use the stylus to move the cursor, but moving from one side of a large map to another is clunky and feels tacked on. Using the D-pad is a much better alternative to the stylus in almost all cases.
Among the other nice features is the danger zone indicator. You press the 'X' button and anywhere where the enemy can hit you turns red, allowing you to keep weaker or badly wounded units out of harm’s way. It’s a simple enough feature, and like the use of the top screen, improves the flow of the game immensely.
There has been a versus mode in almost every Fire Emblem that’s been released stateside, though until now, they weren’t worth mentioning. They were simply player vs. player deathmatches with no strategy at all. Now you get to test your mettle against your friends with full maps, locally or via Nintendo Wi-Fi connection.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a great entry in the series, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Whether you’re new to the series or genre or you’re a seasoned FE fan this is a great game. It adds just enough new material without making it too different.