10 Features

History Lesson: Fire Emblem

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 28th Jul 2013 at 8:00 AM UTC

"Fire Emblem, companions walk / The endless path together." So warble the opening lines (in Latin) to Super Smash Bros Brawl's orchestral version of the Fire Emblem theme.

We can't think of a better way to sum up Intelligent System's strategy RPG series: it's one of gaming's grandest celebrations of the bonds of friendship in the face of adversity, and is home to hotheaded Brawl swordsman Ike, the blue rinsed hero of GameCube's Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance. More recently, Fire Emblem Awakening was released on 3DS to worldwide critical acclaim, becoming the fastest-selling entry in the series' history.

But who starts a history lesson at the end? Awakening is the thirteenth game in a series that began back in 1990. At the time of development, Intelligent Systems was something of a faceless entity within Nintendo - the first game to actually bear its name was Paper Mario on N64. No, the boys of Research and Development 1, led by Gunpei "Father of Game Boy" Yokoi, had to make do with anonymous acts of genius.


Its first, 1988's Famicom Wars - what was to become Advance Wars - laid much of the strategy foundations for Fire Emblem. Swap infantry for knights, and tanks for unicorn-riding barons, and Emblem's visual direction begins to take shape. Emblem is much more than a reskinned Famicom Wars, however, adding heavy RPG elements that made it the birthplace of the strategy RPG genre.

The man to thank? Fire Emblem's dad, Shouzou Kaga. He shifted focus from battlefield units to individual characters and, more importantly, added permanent death. Unlike your Final Fantasies with their Lazarus-like Phoenix Downs, once a character karks it in Emblem, they're dead for good. The pressure it places on you to protect the troops forges an emotional bond that few other RPGs can match.

And so launched Famicom's Fire Emblem: Dark Dragon And The Sword Of Light in 1990. Gamers loved Kaga's innovations and really took to hero Marth. So what did Intelligent Systems do next? Why, it butchered the formula of course!

For Fire Emblem: Gaiden (the term literally means 'side-story'), Kaga booted out Marth and drowned the easy-to-grasp play of the original in RPG swill. Longer campaigns in place of snappier battles hiked up the difficulty, and it was all too easy to render later chapters impossible by losing troops earlier in the game. To this day it's considered the hardcore sheep of the family.

It's no surprise, then, to see Marth crop up in the first Super Famicom entry, Fire Emblem 3. That Kaga included an entire revamped version of the original game on the cart could be seen as something of an apology for handing fans their collective ass on a plate with Gaiden.

The popularity of 3 is no better seen than in the anime commissioned to accompany the title - the rubbishness of said anime is no better seen than in its cancellation after two episodes.


The Fire Emblem we know and love was cemented in 1996's Genealogy Of The Holy War, which welcomed the rock-paper-scissor weapon relationship that defines series combat to this day. Spears beat swords, swords beat axes and axes beat spears - simple, clean stuff.

The fourth game also introduced mid-battle nattering. Get characters to fight adjacently with one another and they'll spark up conversations leading to stronger relationships and stat boosts.

Somewhat ironically, it wasn't until Kaga left Intelligent Systems that the franchise made the global leap. Fire Emblem 6: Sword Of Seals was the first GBA Fire Emblem and the last main game in the series to be released only in Japan. Mega sales and the positive reaction to its hero, Roy (who cameoed in Smash Bros Melee) convinced Nintendo that Emblem could sell in the west.

Thus we happily slotted Fire Emblem 7: The Sword Of Flame into our GBA slots in 2003, under the western guise of simply Fire Emblem.

Even though Kaga's days of making Fire Emblem were over, this wasn't to stop him... erm, making Fire Emblem. In 2001 Nintendo sued Kaga's development studio Tirnanog for copyright infringement. His new PlayStation strategy RPG Tear Ring Saga not only replicated Emblem's mechanics, but had only a few months before been called Emblem Saga. The lawsuit eventually failed, along with repeat appeals, but Tear Ring Saga never eclipsed Emblem's success.

It's a little sad that a series built on the sentiment that "companions walk / the endless path together" should end with an embittered court battle: it's hardly the valiant fight we've come to expect from Intelligent Systems. It's just as well, then, that the series has continued to grow from strength to strength, with the most recent Fire Emblem Awakening finally reaching the large global audience it's deserved for years.

Friendly Fire

Though arguments ensue over whether Fire Emblem invented the strategy RPG, there can be no doubt whatsoever that it was the first game to properly introduce the genre to a wide audience. As a result, countless strategy RPG series over the years owe their roots to the Fire Emblem games.

Here's just a few of the games that may not have existed had it not been for Intelligent Systems' iconic series.