On This Day in Gaming: Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon
While most loathe the daily grind of a nine-to-five, extracurricular activity is filled with passion and care. Dubbed “after-school projects”, these outlets afford content creators with the freedom needed to pursue dreams with intensive ferver. The most famous example is Takashi Tezuka’s Link’s Awakening; however, another popular Nintendo franchise can also trace its roots to the same after-school passion. Released on this day 30 years ago, Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was the imagination of scenario writer Souzou Kaga.
On This Day in Gaming is a series that honors the anniversary of the most iconic video games in history. We analyze director and studio development decisions while also reminiscing on the enduring legacy that continues to influence the industry.
The early years of the Nintendo Entertainment System produced several generation-defining games. From the platforming elements of the Super Mario Bros series to the open-world exploration of The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo was at the forefront of video game development. While certain genres remain more popular than others, the strategy role-playing game has a complicated past.
Until Shadow Dragon’s release, the SRPG genre was little more than a convoluted game of chess. The most popular series at the time, Famicom Wars, featured a group of nations warring for supremacy. Unlike more narrative driven genres, Famicom Wars was rooted in superior gameplay as the expense of story elements. But one narrative designer at Nintendo decided to challenge the status quo.
Shouzou Kaga was an unknown scenario writer at Nintendo in the late 1980s. After witnessing role-playing games seamlessly incorporate story narratives into gameplay, Kaga had a vision for the SRPG genre. Kaga’s desire was to create a series in which players would care about video game characters in a similar manner as other franchises. From this vision, the first Fire Emblem protagonist March was born, and Nintendo greenlit the project in late 1987.
While most role-playing games tell the stories of a select few characters, the SRPG genre features a much larger cast. For this reason, Kaga focused on creating an expansive world geared towards housing numerous character backstories. Cutscenes and dialogue options were at the forefront of development; hence, the staff sacrificed graphics in favor of narrative and story. The continent of Archanea featured an intricate story about an evil wizard named Gharnef and a hero named Marth who wields the legendary blade Falchion.
Kaga was unable to include all of his ideas on the first game; however, the game developed a cult following and sold over 325,000 copies.
Although Kaga never dreamed that Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon would lead to boundless commercial success, the game left a lasting impression not only on future strategy role-playing games but also on the entire role-playing genre.
- Classes & Narrative. Unlike other genres, the Fire Emblem series has its roots firmly grounded in the combination of gameplay and story elements. While each character features a unique class, the original game designed its narrative around character abilities. Few games have seamlessly blended class and narrative like Fire Emblem.
- Character Relationships. The traditional role-playing genre showcased a predetermined number of playable characters; whereas, the strategy genre featured a more robust number of players. While most strategy games were marked by singularity in its protagonists, the Fire Emblem series offered expanded character interactions. The series allows players to recruit new units, and in turn those characters smoothly integrated into the game’s narrative.
Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon elegantly combines the simulation of a tactical role-playing game with the story and character development of a traditional role-playing game.
- Weapon Triangle. The game of paper-rock-scissors has been passed down to countless generations. Each element has a strength and a weakness, and the original Fire Emblem game included this methodology. Characters wield one of three weapon classes and are strong against one type, weak against another, and neutral against the similar.
- Affinity. The role-playing genre is no stranger to affinity levels between characters. But the Fire Emblem series takes this approach to another level. By having characters fight along one another, the affinity between protagonists increases. As affinity levels increase, players earn additional stat boosts and dialogue options during battles.
- Classes. While the class system is not new to the strategy role-playing genre, the manner in which Fire Emblem incorporates its classes into the gameplay is unique. Not only is each class designed to have a strength and weakness against other units, but all have varying levels of mobility, magic, and attack range. This variety allows for increased complexity and customization.
Despite its influence on the strategy role-playing genre, Shadow Dragon had a rather mundane development cycle. Although lacking the design flare of other series, the first Fire Emblem game is not without riveting detail.
- The game’s internal code contains unused data that resembles a cartoon mouse.
- Unlike other popular series, Nintendo never released Shadow Dragon outside of Japan. Although Nintendo later remade the game for the Nintendo DS, fans completed a translated copy of the original NES game in 2010.
- International interest in the series spiked with Nintendo’s introduction of Shadow Dragon’s protagonist Marth in Super Smash Bros Melee. With western fans intrigued by a seemingly unknown Smash Bros character, Nintendo released the original Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon game on the Game Boy Advance in 2003.
Thanks to a singular individual with a narrative-based dream, the Fire Emblem series was born. While Shouzou Kaga faced his share of challenges in future installments, fans of strategy role-playing games can thank Kaga for progressing the genre. By combining story elements with superb gameplay, the catalyst of the narrative SRPG birthed a series favorite: Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon.
And there you have it. The story behind one of the most important strategy role-playing games of all time. But we want to know what you think. Did you play Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon during the NES era? Have you played any other game in the Fire Emblem series? Let us know in the comments below or the social media links on the right. Also, be sure to check out our other news items on Pokemon, Modern Warfare, Capcom, Blizzard and more.
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