The Fire Emblem series remained obscure to North American audiences until 2001 when the characters Roy and Marth carved up the competition in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Ever since, the tactical role-playing series has been a worldwide phenomenon, mixing deep storytelling and tough-as-nails combat that tests the limits of every player’s patience and strategic skill.
Over the years, Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems have released the games on everything from the Game Boy Advance to mobile phones, and most of them have retained what made the series great. We ranked all tactical role-playing Fire Emblem games released in North America, and a clear winner emerged.
The first North American Fire Emblem game released for home consoles, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance remains the pinnacle of the series in both its combat and its storytelling. Starring a lowly mercenary rather than the princes and princesses so often seen in Japanese role-playing games, Path of Radiance touches on dark themes, including racism and genocide, throughout its politically-charged conflict. A war between several nations has left the world on the brink of chaos, and protagonist Ike’s journey to bring those responsible to justice is epic in every sense of the word.
Path of Radiance also built on the series’ combat and tactical mechanics in clever ways. The many weapon-wielding and magic-based classes were joined by the morphing Laguz, and a bonus experience system allowed for lesser-used characters to still keep pace with the rest of the party. Despite this, it still retained the classic Fire Emblem difficulty.
How do you take a series that has been riffing on fantasy warfare for decades and turn it into something remarkably fresh? Why, turn it into Harry Potter, of course! Fire Emblem: Three Houses is split between the traditional combat missions and sections that take place in a monastery, where the protagonist works and develops the abilities of his students. The changes of pace keep the incredibly long game from feeling stale, and the conversations and storylines you find are actually worth exploring.
Three Houses also gives you far more control over how you develop your party. Characters typically start as low-level commoners who can essentially be trained to take on any class role, and though you are initially limited to just the characters in the house you’re leading, you can eventually recruit those from other houses to round out your squad. It all adds up to the most personalized Fire Emblem game yet, and one that is certainly worth playing more than once.
Arguably the game that saved Fire Emblem from cancellation, Fire Emblem: Awakening was the perfect entry point for newcomers to the series. With a casual mode that disabled the permanent death feature and the ability to download and utilize characters from other Fire Emblem games, the game’s difficulty was no longer a deterrent. Teaming up with allies for more powerful attacks or defensive abilities opened the door for all-new tactical decisions, but the game didn’t ignore the delicate balance of the rock-paper-scissors formula.
Awakening returned to some of the genre’s classic tropes, such as royalty and amnesiac protagonists, but it also included elements of time travel and connected to earlier Fire Emblem games. Its personable and humorous cast of characters helped to keep every moment interesting, and it remains one of the best games on 3DS.
The perfect follow-up to the relatively basic formula introduced in 2003’s Fire Emblem, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones focused largely on player-choice to make the experience more personal and customizable. In place of predetermined class upgrades was a branching system, allowing you to fill in gaps in your party with defensive masters or high-damage characters. What was advantageous for one stage could be a liability in the next, and this balancing act was present from beginning to end.
This choice extended to the story, as well, with twin protagonists Eirika and Ephraim splitting off and going on drastically different paths partway through the campaign. It encouraged replaying the game at least once, and the brilliant climax with an old friend made the entire experience worthwhile.
A prequel to a game that didn’t release in North America at all, 2003’s Fire Emblem was an odd choice for players’ introduction to the series. Despite this, its memorable three protagonists and their eventual struggle against a terrifying dragon could be appreciated in its own right, as could the game’s delicate balance of tutorial elements with slip-and-you-die tactics.
Simple in comparison to the later games, Fire Emblem is nonetheless essential to the series’ legacy, with gorgeous sprite-based artwork and a stunning soundtrack that will be stuck in your head for weeks after finishing the game. It plays just as well now as it did at launch more than 15 years ago, which you can’t say about too many other games.
Despite releasing on a handheld, it’s arguable that Fire Emblem Fates is the most ambitious game in the series to date. Starring an avatar protagonist capable of turning into a powerful dragon, it manages to avoid many classic role-playing clichés and includes light management elements in-between battles, giving you more options for how you raise your party.
Fates is unique to the series in its Pokémon release approach – the game is split into three different storylines, with all three available on the game’s Special Edition. Depending on the version you play, the protagonist chooses to side with a particular group in the main conflict, entirely changing your choice of party members and the missions you’ll complete.
Path of Radiance was apparently too large a game to tell in just one go, so Intelligent Systems made the uncommon choice to create a direct sequel to it on the Wii. Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn once again puts players in the boots of Ike and his mercenary team, but also introduced a new protagonist – a citizen of the nation Ike had helped defeat in the last game.
The Wii is largely viewed as a system aimed at more casual players, but Radiant Dawn was anything but. Its story’s examination of post-war political strife and what it can mean for innocent citizens of a defeated country gave players one of the only morally ambiguous stories in the series’ history. It also happened to be a brutally difficult game, which unfortunately ensured that many of them would never actually see the ending.
The Nintendo Switch had already launched by the time Nintendo released Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a downright bizarre remake of the Famicom’s Fire Emblem Gaiden. Alongside the standard grid-based tactical combat, the game included free-roam dungeons, which contained hidden secrets and deadly enemies. The game’s voice acting was also superb, as were its gorgeous retro-inspired animated cutscenes.
What didn’t work as well were the standard turn-based combat sections. The weapon triangle of past Fire Emblem games was completely removed, outright eliminating much of the decision-making, and the difficulty balance was severely thrown off by the time the credits rolled. Despite these flaws, it’s still certainly worth playing, especially as a unique look at the series’ past.
Another remake – this time of the very first Fire Emblem game – Shadow Dragon was the only Fire Emblem game to release for the DS in North America. The system’s touchscreen made it ideal for tactical turn-based combat, and with a recognizable star in Marth and use of the “casual” mode, it was ideal for those who hadn’t played one of the games before.
Regrettably, that convenience and simplicity also made it one of the least interesting games included in the set. Fire Emblem hadn’t completely expanded its concepts with the first game, and as a consequence, Shadow Dragon feels dull and innocuous when compared to the other games. It’s not that it’s bad, but we think there are many more high-grade alternatives in 2019.
The hugely prosperous free-to-play Fire Emblem Heroes removed the series off of Nintendo systems for the first time and transferred it to mobile phones, but the transfer also deprived the series of most of its specific nature. The characters’ sprites have been substituted with cutesy chibi versions, and the approach has been reduced to the point of brainlessness.
The secret to success in Fire Emblem Heroes lies in the game’s collectible characters, more of which can be obtained through using authentic money. Without a gratifying and entertaining storyline to connect all the pieces, there isn’t much of a purpose. It’s unfortunate that some of its players probably haven’t visited any of the series’ central entries because the contrast is like night and day.
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