In this remake of the classic NES title, Intelligent Systems seeks to successfully integrate the spirit of the original with nearly twenty years of subsequent gameplay refinements. Fortunately, what they've come up with is enough to please nearly any tactics fan.
It might not be so prevalent these days, but twenty years ago, Japan always got all the great games, and America often got shafted. This was partially due to translation and localization costs, but it’s also been said that companies just weren’t so sure at the time how seriously Americans took their games. A large percentage of the high-profile titles that we stateside gamers missed out on happened to be RPGs and strategy games—and chief among them was one of the very most popular Japanese games of the time: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragons and the Blade of Light. Not only was this game the first in the Fire Emblem series, it was also quite possibly the first-ever tactics RPG title. It was remarkably innovative and equally unforgiving in its difficulty. By today’s standards, it’s also pretty rough around the edges, but it’s still a shame we were never able to experience the birth of genre.
All is not lost, however. Today, we’re blessed with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the Nintendo DS: a remake of that very first installment in this now-familiar franchise. If you’re a Smash Bros. fan, you’re already well-acquainted with the game’s protagonist… but is it worth your time and money to discover the origins of the series?
To Kill a Shadow Dragon
Since the Shadow Dragon Medeus and his Dolhr Empire were vanquished in their efforts to invade the continent of Archanea 100 years ago, things have been relatively peaceful. It was then that a young boy from Altea slew the dragon using a sacred sword—the legendary Falchion—and sent the empire doubling back in retreat. Now, however, evil brews once again. Medeus has been resurrected, and he’s partnered with a fiendish sorcerer, leading to a terrible trend of murder and conquest. Archanea’s King desperately took up the legendary ancient sword and rode into battle to save his kingdom. But true hope rests with an unsuspecting hero: the king’s son, Marth—who is soon to enter the battle all his own, driven to combat by his sister’s kidnapping.
It’s a tale of betrayal and a classic journey of good versus evil. Sure, the storyline lacks some of the complexity of more modern entries in the series, but the developers have done a good job of fleshing out the details in the newly-added chapter segues in between battles. You won’t be experiencing any edge-of-your-seat suspense in Shadow Dragon, but there’s still plenty of drive to continue playing and see Marth and allies through to victory.
Modernizing a classic (what’s changed?)
Intelligent Systems was just that in their approach to transmuting the original NES title to meet modern standards. While Shadow Dragon strips out some of the more familiar options from previous series installments, it adds more than it subtracts. The net result is an updated version of a classic that feels slick and modern nonetheless.
So, what exactly has changed? Well, for starters, let’s talk about what familiar elements are missing that we’ve grown accustomed to in recent Fire Emblem games. First and foremost, there’s no Rescue feature, meaning you’ll have to be extra careful about placing your units on the battlefield. Next, you won’t find any “partners” or “other units” present on the battlefield; it’s just you and the enemy, and occasionally a unit or two on the enemy side that you can Talk to in order to have them defect and fight alongside your army indefinitely (as usual). And finally, there are also no support conversations, assignable personal skills, transformations, or biorhythms. The removal of these elements could be viewed as either a positive or negative development: sure, it’s nice in some respects to have a plethora of complicating features to pore through, but contrarily, it’s also refreshing not having to constantly concern yourself with so many different variables. Shadow Dragon is indeed back to the basics.
However, in spite of the removal of all of these aspects, even more has been added to supplement the basic experience. Basic presentation is perhaps the first most noticeable of all improvements. Clearly, the game has undergone a serious facelift over the course of its migration to the DS. Presentation is truly top-notch; the game is clearly an evolution in style from the previous handheld Fire Emblem titles, in spite of the fact that it’s but a remake of the first-ever installment.
Right from the start with the stylish (yet brief) introduction, you’ll know you’re in for an aesthetic treat. And you’re right—the battlefields are gorgeous, the menus efficient, and the soundtrack amazing. While the music consists almost entirely of remixed songs from the original NES game, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s fantastic. Nearly every tune is triumphantly melodic and comprised of some of the best MIDI the DS has seen yet. The sole complaint is that there are fewer overall selections than previous games, meaning you’ll be hearing the same tunes a lot. The only other presentational hiccup is the character models and animations, which now carry more of a CG look (featuring bold, black outlines and smooth colors within); some players will prefer the classic look of hand-drawn, anime-style animations, but it really comes down to a matter of preference.
In terms of gameplay, you’ll find countless refinements—most of which have grown commonplace in recent installments, but some which are entirely new. If you’ve ever seen or played the original Fire Emblem for NES, you’re probably well aware of the fact that it hasn’t aged well at all (being the pioneer of a new genre will do that to you). Fortunately, Intelligent Systems recognizes all of the legitimate enhancements that have been made to the formula over the years, and so they took care to implement those which would make playing through Shadow Dragon as seamless and logical as other recent installments. While too many gameplay adjustments were made to mention here, it’s safe to say that Shadow Dragon’s approach is more comparable to that of recent Fire Emblem games than even the NES original of which it is a remake. Some of the more notable refinements include:
Colored tiles are now shown to indicate movement.
The weapons triangle (sword bests axe, axe bests lance, lance bests sword) has been reintroduced.
Weapons are no longer stored in tents, but instead can be sent to the convoy.
Characters can trade items on the battlefield.
Healers gain experience from healing.
Battle preparations now consist of the much more thorough and functional modern options.
It’s now possible to switch a unit’s class (subject to some limitations).
Forging can be performed on existing weapons; for instance, you can adjust the attributes of a Silver Sword to your liking for a (fairly steep) price.
There’s a new tutorial “Prologue” consisting of four missions leading up to the main campaign, where you’ll gain/lose characters and learn about the basic play mechanics.
There’s a new difficulty selection (Normal, Hard, Brutal, Savage, Fiendish, and Merciless); anything beyond Normal skips the Prologue section.
Five extra “gaiden” levels are available throughout the campaign, (highlight for spoilers) though you have to actually lose characters in order to reach them, which is a questionable design choice to say the least (end spoilers).
While that covers the more impacting differences, there are plenty of others as well—but nearly all of them qualify as bona fide upgrades.
What’s REALLY New
There are even some all-new additions to the gameplay that further enhance the experience. My favorite among these is the ability to press X at any time to toggle a view of all possible enemy attack points (shaded in red); this way, you don’t have to waste your time cycling through every nearby enemy unit to view their movement and attack range. It’s also still possible to select individual enemy units with the A button to view their reach; when this is used in conjunction with the X toggle, it makes for a powerful and convenient tactical tool. Thanks to this feature alone, Shadow Dragon ranks as the most effortless and accommodating Fire Emblem yet in terms of control.
Another extraordinarily helpful feature is the addition of the DS’ second screen (of course). Tutorials appear on the top screen in early missions to guide new players through the basics of the gameplay, while later, the top screen is used exclusively for toggling between contextual unit information and general map/status display. Needless to say, this is remarkably handy. The DS also brings optional touch controls to the equation; however, these really aren’t as useful as you might think. Precise selections are actually more difficult using the touch interface, and it’s far too easy to make a mistake (which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is irreversible and often time-consuming).
A little relief
Speaking of irreversible mistakes, anyone who’s familiar with the Fire Emblem series is well aware of its pervasive defining feature: permanent character death. Meaning, if you accidentally let a character die on the battlefield, they’re gone forever. This has long been a point of contention amongst fans and critics alike; sure, it’s unique, but is it too harsh? Many gamers—myself included—classify squarely as perfectionists who can’t stand the thought of losing a character. For us, the only recourse has been to restart the entire mission from the beginning, which can often take half an hour or longer. While it’s a serious deterrent and a constant reminder of the importance of planning each and every move, it also borders on tedium if you happen to fall into that perfectionism category.
Of course, that traditional grueling mechanic is quite alive indeed in Shadow Dragon, not least because this is a remake of the very first game of the series. But Intelligent Systems has finally seen fit to implement a moderating feature that effectively tempers the punishment, while still keeping the spirit of the series strongly intact: mid-battle saves.
Before you punch a hole in your LCD monitor, allow me to explain. Now, scattered sparsely across each battlefield, you’ll find new single-use Save Points. They’re represented as icons on the field which are interacted with just like any other structure—you reach it with a character and then choose “Save” from the pop-up menu. The mid-battle save system is wonderful if even for just one reason: the simple fact that mistakes leading to characters being killed no longer set you back an hour of your time replaying the mission—but rather just a fraction of the time. It’s still painful watching your allies die, and the idea of replaying part of the mission is still a powerful deterrent, but this new system serves as much-needed relief for the aforementioned perfectionists. It does almost nothing to dampen the challenge of the battles thanks to how it’s implemented (believe me—things get rough around Chapter 13 or so), but nevertheless, purists may shun its existence. Regardless, the rest of us will certainly appreciate this long-overdue solution.
You get two mid-battle save slots in addition to the usual three chapter save slots. And, of course, the Suspend feature is still available for those times where you just need to quit playing in the middle of a battle and resume later where you left off.
As faithful as it is to the storyline and the fundamentals, any way you slice it, Shadow Dragon is a massive improvement over its NES ancestor. Hats off to Intelligent Systems for constructing a sensible update to an aging classic.
Two players are better than one
Another first for the Fire Emblem series is the inclusion of various online modes. While the functionality here isn’t exactly robust, it is fun for a bit of distraction. Here’s a summary of what’s available:
Shop online for a small assortment of hard-to-find weapons and items, such as Killer Axes, Mend Staves, and even the elusive class-promoting Master Seals. The items in this shop change from time to time, and are the same for all Shadow Dragon players around the world.
Register up to 64 friends for online play and interaction.
Loan units (also available over local wireless) – Friends can loan units to each other over Nintendo Wi-Fi connection to help each other through the campaign.
Multiplayer Battles (also available over local wireless) – Using five-unit squads (which you can choose and configure beforehand from your save file), battle your opponent (whether a friend or random challenger) in a special game where the winner must either obliterate all the opposing forces, or simply hold control of a specific castle until the round ends. These battles are a bit different from typical Fire Emblem fare; in order to expedite gameplay, each one features a turn limit of up to 10 turns, and a turn timer of 3, 5, or 10 minutes (matches typically last around half an hour at the longest, unless you’re playing against a real slowpoke). They also feature Fog of War and Autohandicap, both of which are optional. There are six maps total of varying sizes, and a Random selection feature is available.