Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Staff Review

In 2001 Super Smash Bros. Melee arrived on this side of the Pacific and with it an unlockable character unfamiliar to most North Americans, the Falchion-wielding Marth of Fire Emblem for the NES. Years after its release in Japan, the original Fire Emblem has come to North America, fully remade for the Nintendo DS as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.

The story focusses on the young Prince Marth and his quest to retake his kingdom of Altea, which was betrayed and invaded by their ally Gra. His father slain in Gra’s attack, prince Marth is the rightful heir to the throne and to the blade Falchion, the only blade that can drive off the invading hordes of dragons and their leader Medeus the Shadow Dragon. By way of introduction, the developers have added a short series of prologue chapters to the game’s easiest setting, but the game’s original story is otherwise untouched and is truly a relic of the NES era. Veterans of more recent Fire Emblem games with their long cutscenes, fleshed out characters, and complex plots will probably be disappointed as Shadow Dragon‘s plot is paper-thin by comparison. The story is mainly told through a brief cutscene after every map and occasional scenes between characters during battles. It would have been impressive for its time but simply doesn’t hold up against present-day expectations, especially since the support system, used to flesh out the cast in later Fire Emblem games, is entirely absent from Shadow Dragon.

Why is everything so tiny? I can't see where we're going.
Why is everything so tiny? I can’t see where we’re going.

What is less forgivable is how confusing the game’s political and geographical landscape is. Players move from map to map with little sense of why and where they are going. Enemy kingdoms– Dolhr, Gra, Grust, Macedon– blend together in battle after battle. This could have been remedied with a larger overhead map between scenes, one which highlights the various kingdoms involved in the conflict, much as has been done in recent Fire Emblem games. Without a sense of the actual location of Marth’s homeland of Altea, and of the distance he must cross to reconquer it, the players may begin to feel they are wandering aimlessly without any apparent progress. Shadow Dragon also features a sprawling cast of recruitable characters, but sadly, since support conversations are not a feature that existed in this early iteration of the series, nearly all of them remain underdeveloped and few ever appear after their introductory events. That said, the localization is very well done and the text is fluid and easy to read throughout the game.

The tactical gameplay which is the heart of the series remains Shadow Dragon‘s strength. As with any tactical RPG, players will be responsible for equipping, levelling, and arranging an army. Combat is dependant on the weapons triangle, a rock, paper, scissors system which remains a hallmark of the series. Lances are strong against swords, swords against axes, and axes against lances. Other units such as archers and ballistae, which have ranged attacks but are vulnerable at close quarters, and flying units, which are very mobile but vulnerable to archers, mix it up. Because every unit’s type has its vulnerability, careful strategising and teamwork among units is necessary to successfully clear a map without losses — for death in the Fire Emblem series is permanent. If a unit’s HP drops to zero, players lose that unit forever. Thankfully developers have added save points on the map which are a god-send. Most maps feature two save points which, if well used, can save players from having to restart an entre level after losing a character due to a mistake or poor luck — an enemy critical hit, for example. Mages also appear in Shadow Dragon but are rarer than in later Fire Emblem games. The role of mages is also less complex due to the absence of the magic triangle (similar to the weapons triangle but with light, dark, and anima magic) in this early game. In spite of this and the simple mission objectives, the tactical gameplay remains satisfying with a wide variety of maps and enemy units to conquer. It is truly impressive to see such strong gameplay from a NES-era game, gameplay that can still hold its own even after all this time.

The palace looks shinier all of a sudden.
The palace looks shinier all of a sudden.

Shadow Dragon has received a complete graphical overhaul. Maps, backgrounds, units, and battle animation are all a huge step up from the two previous portable Fire Emblem games for the Game Boy Advance. Everything from the backdrops during cutscenes to the terrain on the maps is cleaner and more detailed. And, as in all Fire Emblem games, character portraits are a highlight. The score is simple but pleasant, always appropriate to the mood, and with several notable highlights throughout the course of the game. The game makes good use of the dual screens so that one can access the menu and still see the main map. It also allows players to click on multiple enemies and highlight their combined attack range, a very useful feature included since Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, but a first on the portable systems.

It will take players about 20-25 hours to complete the game, though frequent restarts due to losing characters can extend this considerably. Those who don’t mind losing units will have the chance to extend the game by gaining access to the Gaiden chapters, a series of extra maps accessible only to those who have a very low number of units at a key point in the game. The chapters will allow players to gain new and powerful units. Challenge is greatly adjustable. Not to bruise fragile North American egos, the game’s easiest setting is called “Normal.” This setting allows players to view the prologue which is interesting as it allows players to experience the moment of Gra’s betrayal and Marth’s subsequent escape into exile. On a gameplay level it gives players several simple maps as an introduction to gameplay and an easy opportunity to level characters before getting to the main game. It also gives players access to several extra units — with cost: players will have to sacrifice one of them in the final chapter of the prologue. While “Normal” mode may be useful for players new to the Fire Emblem series, experienced players may want to switch to “Hard.” Under “Hard” players will find five levels of difficulty, which is good as challenge in Shadow Dragon is tempered by the constant availability of shops on maps and the abundance of arenas — five or so — where players can earn money and level up characters, though there is considerable risk involved as characters who die in the arena remain as dead as those killed on the battlefield.

Shadow Dragon also offers a number of online options. A special weapons and items shop is available at all times via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection; in addition to its regular stock, it also sells special items on certain days of the month. Players can also battle head to head and, if they get in a spot of trouble during the main quest, they can borrow a unit from a friend.

And that was when the troops began asking for danger pay...
And that was when the troops began asking for danger pay…

Overall, Shadow Dragon isn’t the best Fire Emblem game, but it is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the series. As a NES remake, its plotline is lacking. The story does have a few moments of drama as characters are dealt joys and sorrows, but these are few and far between. More often than not, players may feel they are running a series of fetch quests rather than campaigning to reclaim Marth’s homeland and drive off the forces of the Shadow Dragon. Gameplay-wise, Shadow Dragon emerges as a solid entry to the series. In spite of some elements of later games being absent or simplified, Shadow Dragon‘s tactical gameplay is surprisingly satisfying. For those familiar with the Fire Emblem franchise Shadow Dragon presents a unique glimpse into the series’ origins, and the developers have done a fine job of bringing its visuals up to date.

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