Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon

Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series first appeared on the Famicom in Japan with Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, although North American gamers would go for several console generations without any of these titles until the GameBoy Advance entry The Sword of Flame, simply titled Fire Emblem outside Japan. During the lifespan of the Nintendo DS, Nintendo announced a remake of the very first installment of the franchise that received the title Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon outside Japan. As a remake of franchise’s first entry, one would think that it would be an ideal diving board into the series, but does this hold true?

Shadow Dragon sports a tactical battle system where, before battle (a few chapters into the game), the player can outfit characters with weapons and items with a limited number of uses, and select which units to bring into battle. One can also reclass many units from their default jobs, although odds are that the player will want to keep characters in their current classes to earn their maximum potential. When characters reach level ten, the player can promote them into advanced versions of their classes, although grinding them to the maximum level of twenty before doing so is a better bet to obtain their best possible stats, resetting their level to one but still granting them stat gains.

In battle, the player can move their units around during their round, with a beneficial feature being the ability to bring up a kind of danger zone where, should the player advance a unit into the indicative red squares, that particular unit will be vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks. The main goal of each battle is to eliminate a stationary boss enemy, which will free up the square where the player must advance protagonist Marth so he can “seize” it and terminate the battle. Shadow Dragon has a nasty habit of dropping in additional enemy units when a certain number of turns have passed, although defeating the boss enemy will put a stop to these backup foes.

When the player advances one of their units near an enemy unit, they can attack it, with a sequence playing where the player’s unit attacks the enemy unit, and the enemy counterattacks if they’re in range. One thing to consider is the franchise’s weapon triangle where swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords, and if the player’s unit survive, they receive a handful of experience, with a hundred necessary to level, earning that character higher stats. If a character dies in one of these confrontations, they die permanently, and if Marth dies, it’s Game Over, with the player needing to reload their last save (there are occasional one-time save points in most battles, although it’s wise only to use these when the player’s characters are safe).

The permanent death system is one of many flaws of the battle system making Shadow Dragon hard to recommend to newcomers, alongside the difficulty of grinding weaker units so they can be effective. While there is a process called arena abusing that the player can possibly use to grind these characters (alongside earning money that’s hard to come by and not granted from killing enemy units), doing so is incredibly risky, as units can still die permanently if they lose an arena battle (it is possible to terminate these battles without losing a unit by rapidly pressing the B button, although this method isn’t foolproof). Arena abusing, however, can pay off, and potentially create tank characters that can survive deadly blows, but otherwise, there isn’t really much to recommend in the area of combat.

Control is largely above average, with easy menus in between battles, but if the player wants better gear for their party, they’ll have to visit shops frequently located on battlefields, and only one unit can shop at a time, with gear purchased with a maxed-out inventory sent to the party’s convoy, which only Marth can access (although allies standing right next to him too can access the convoy). However, trading items between characters is difficult, and in the end interaction could have been better.

One of the highlights of Shadow Dragon, however, is its narrative, which tells a compelling story that can somewhat vary depending upon which characters survive the grueling encounters, alongside an epilogue for all characters detailing their fates after the game’s events, similar to that in Konami’s Suikoden series. The translation also sparkles, and overall, the storyline is a nice reward in between the game’s toughest battles.

The music is also fairly enjoyable, although the sound effects during one-on-one encounters could have been more realistic.

The visuals also look nice, with each character aside from the faceless units the player obtains if they lose too many main characters in battle having their own portraits, although player units of the same class have the same appearance on the battlefield.

Finally, the remake is fairly short, taking somewhere from ten to twenty hours to complete, and while there are different difficulty settings, the game isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to justify a secondary playthrough. In the end, were Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon a book, it would most certainly be worth reading, although things such as its punishing game mechanics make it hardly a worthwhile introduction to the long-running Nintendo franchise. It does have other redeeming aspects such as its aural and visuals, although these can’t compensate for the lackluster gameplay, and those interested in the series would be better off looking elsewhere for a solid tactical RPG experience.

The Good:
+Excellent story and translation.
+Nice aurals and visuals.

The Bad:
-Permanent death of characters other than Marth.
-Grinding can be difficult, even with arena abuse.
-Can be potentially unbeatable.
-Shop between chapters doesn’t upgrade inventory.

The Bottom Line:
Not a good introduction to the series, but still an okay game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 10/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 10/10
Lasting Appeal: 5/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 10-20 Hours

Overall: 6/10

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