Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 47, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

Nintendo's best crossover is wonderful even if you're not familiar with either of the franchises involved, thanks to a fantastical premise.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

When it was first announced that Japanese RPG standout Atlus would be the primary developer of a crossover game between their Shin Megami Tensei series and Intelligent System’s Fire Emblem, it seemed a safe assumption to think what we’d see was some kind of non-canon Special Event. You know, where beloved characters from the two series meet up, and either do or fight crimes of some kind. That’s pretty standard stuff in this particular space: for example, Nintendo subsidiary Monolith Soft have made some crossover RPGs in the past, with Namco and Capcom and Sega and Nintendo involved, all throwing in characters you know who normally wouldn’t interact with each other, and Pokémon Conquest saw the titular Nobunaga and his ambition in a world full of Pokémon. And why wouldn’t that have been what we were in for here, when Atlus and Intelligent Systems got together with two franchises that have existed on Nintendo systems for around 30 years now?

Maybe because that’s what we expected, it is exactly what we did not get. From the Intelligent Systems side, there were some Fire Emblem characters, sure, but not in any kind of recognizable form. At least, not appearance-wise. And maybe more importantly, none of them had their memory intact, anyway, so who they were and where they were from and the adventures you knew them from were all unknown to the characters themselves. They weren’t much for reminiscing with you. From the Atlus side of things, there were all new characters and a new battle system: the familiarity had more to do with the game being designed in such a way that fans of Shin Megami Tensei would at least feel a little bit at home while playing. Otherwise, though, this was Atlus and Nintendo (by way of Intelligent Systems’ project pitch) deciding to make something original and memorable that could stand on its own.

Obviously, I think it worked, since I have it among the 50 best things Nintendo has ever published, but there is a very good chance you haven’t played this game yet, so you can’t nod along in agreement. It was a late-life Wii U release, which, as has been mentioned here many times now, was a death sentence for many games and their potential for the zeitgeist. It being on a system no one owned did not keep it from being a wonderful game, but still, it’s good that it also got a Switch release — Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore — that added the DLC in as base content and gave more than 13 people a chance to play it.

Anyway. Tokyo Mirage Sessions. What kind of name is that? TMS… that’s SMT backwards! The game takes place in modern-day Tokyo, your enemies (and allies) are creatures called “Mirages” — if you’re familiar with SMT, consider that a stand-in for the usual demons that are recruited or fought — and “Sessions” is a reference to not just the kind of moves your characters will do in battle, but also named such to make you think of a musical session. A live performance. The FE is obviously short for Fire Emblem. That’s not a hashtag before “FE,” but the symbol for sharp, to show off that music was at the heart of this crossover, while also subtly reflecting that the two collaborators were “rising to a higher level” with this project, rather than making the kind of more standard crossover mentioned above.

The fact an entire paragraph is needed to explain what the heck is going on in the name probably didn’t help sales, either, but hey. SMT and Fire Emblem fans with a Wii U in their possession didn’t need much convincing, anyway, and at least the game is lovely even if you lack knowledge of how those two franchises work.

Music really is at the center of this game, though, it shares that stage with modeling and acting. The Japanese idol scene is the point of it all, and even if you’re not familiar with what that is, exactly, it’s pretty easy to get into the world here regardless. Tokyo Mirage Sessions focuses much of its plot and attention on the trials and tribulations of those in the Japanese entertainment industry, whether it’s finding new gigs, partnering with the right idols for (some extremely meta) crossover art, figuring out the proper look to launch your career into the stratosphere, dealing with the adulation of fans, how to be a role model, how to not lose yourself or your ideals while your star rises. You don’t need to know the idol scene for any of that to resonate or make sense, and plus, this is the backdrop to a game that is also about fighting magical demons in an alternate dimension, demons intent on stealing the “performa” — essentially, the creative essence of life — from “real” world inhabitants. And Fortuna Entertainment, the agency at which the story is focused around, happens to be loaded up with performers who have their own Mirage allies that give them some superpowers for battles against the supernatural otherworlders intent on stealing all of that essence away.

And Atlus went all the way with the entertainment portion of things, too. Not only are the battles extremely music and entertainment focused — random performances and duo performances can trigger mid-battle, causing a mini music video or live television segment to begin and damage the opposition — but the game also features a slate of original pop songs meant to not just show off the full range of the performers at the center of the game, but also to help advance the story and the progression of these characters and their motivations. You know how in the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all of the songs actually advanced the plot and didn’t just exist because ha ha, what if the characters you love were singing? I’m not saying it’s an achievement on par with that, necessarily, but the songs and such tend to come out of some kind of internal or external conflict that needs resolving, and said resolution comes through the songs. The music videos were developed by the same company that made the cutscenes for Fire Emblem: Awakening, which is to say, they are stunning, detail-oriented, and perfectly capture what they sought out to capture.

They also feel and sound extremely anime, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Please, this is a pro-anime home, take your complaints elsewhere.

Like I said: it’s not quite Shin Megami Tensei, nor is it quite Fire Emblem. It’s a real hybrid of elements from both worlds, made into something new. The SMT portion of things is obvious if you’re familiar with that series — again, the Mirages are the equivalent of SMT’s demons, the dungeon crawling is similar to SMT, and the battles are… well, the battles are kind of both.

It is not a tactical RPG like Fire Emblem, but Atlus blended together a turn-based RPG with mystical, otherwordly allies (the SMT half) with Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle to form the basis of something completely different from anything either has done. While the idea of Mirages as allies is SMT focused, the Mirages themselves, the ones that are on your side and are the bosses you will face throughout TMS, are from Fire Emblem.

Itsuki, the main character, is paired with a version of Lord Chrom from the wildly popular Fire Emblem game, Awakening. Tsubasa, the character the game focuses on the most after Itsuki, is paired with Caeda, a Pegasus Knight from the original Fire Emblem on the NES, and the love interest of Marth. Archer Viron and Dark Mage Tharja also rep Awakening, while the rest of the case, like Caeda, comes from Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light: there’s Myrmidon Navarre, Lance Knight Cain, and Heavy Armor Knight, Draug. They all look like interpretations of the characters, more so than the characters you remember, while Itsuki, Tsubasa, and the rest of the crew get to appear like modern-day, ready-for-the-big-screen versions of the characters. So Itsuki looks a little Marth-like, and he should, because that’s the role he’s really playing even if Chrom is his avatar here, while Tsubasa gets to look like the wildest, entertainment-focused imagining of a Pegasus Knight possible. The wrong armor would cover her up too much for idol-dom, you know.

I joke, but they really are loving interpretations of the source material, meant to evoke FE in a very specific modern context rather than directly copy the “past” setting of those games by plopping them down in the present/future. And that kind of loving interpretation and blending of FE with SMT and this universe unique to either of them persists throughout. The weapons your party wields are all named weapons from Fire Emblem games, and wielding them grants you skills that you can pick and choose and upgrade upon throughout the game. There are FE musical flourishes throughout the game, and while they’re good in a vacuum because Fire Emblem traditionally has good music, if you know the franchise, they are just tremendous accompaniments to whatever is happening on screen.

And the designs of the bosses make Chrom and company look positively human in comparison. Gangrel, one of the first big bads from Awakening, is presented in Tokyo Mirage Sessions as a floating mechanical head with a chainsaw blade neck. Aversa isn’t a Wyvern Rider like she is in Awakening, but is instead some kind of half-Wyvern, half-human creature that I guess understandably still doesn’t own any shirts that zip up the front. Even the (spoiler) titular Shadow Dragon from the original seems mechanical and yet eerily human when you face off against it. Atlus really did a great job with translating these known entities into something both new and familiar.

Back to the weapon triangle, though. It’s where the “Sessions” part of the game’s name comes in: sessions are chain attacks, and they are vital to victory. You are rarely — extremely rarely — just selecting attack and then attacking an enemy with your weapon. What you will do 99 percent of the time, instead, is to select a specific skill with either an elemental or weapon-specific focus, and then attack an enemy weak to either that element or weapon with it. Doing so opens them up to a chain attack: let’s say you attack a Mirage who is weak against swords, and then someone else in your three-person party has a Session skill that triggers a lightning attack whenever an enemy with a sword weakness is attacked with a sword. Then another character with a skill that corresponds to lightning attacks would attack, and so on. Sessions start small as you get used to how they work, but by game’s end, you’re doing elaborate, 20-plus-attack Sessions that melt health off of opponents. And it’s incredibly satisfying to do.

It is also very time consuming to watch the animations for every Session followup — a 27-attack Session is absurd and nearly impossible to replicate without some luck, but it’s also two minutes long if you do get one. Luckily, you can turn off those animations at any time in battle by just pressing Y during a Session, and can also skip the ad-lib and duo performances with a button press, too. How very Fire Emblem of the game to let you turn off battle animations even in an extremely cinematic setting, to move things along once you’re thoroughly impressed by what you’ve seen?

Before you worry too much about length, this is more like a 40-hour RPG than the kind of lengths Atlus tends to go to. You can play longer, sure, and it might take you a little longer your first time through as you familiarize yourself with the world or if you keep all animations on forever, but clocking in under 50 hours isn’t some incredible achievement. Sometimes, games need to know when to end, and TMS does that.

Your party has three active characters at a time, but you also have another five on the bench, as it were, able to come in at any time without you giving up your turn to do so. (And they all earn experience and skill points whether they fight or not, so, they won’t ever really be behind at the moment you do need them.) This lets you craft a specific lineup against a boss who has weaknesses you didn’t prepare for with your initial party, in order to pull off the chain attacks necessary to defeat them before they can off you. And since bosses tend to come with a difficulty spike that requires you buff and debuff and strategize, that is vital to success. Especially since enemies can chain attack you back: they won’t be pulling off anything approaching your sessions, but your HP is also thousands of points lower than theirs, so… don’t let yourself get caught in a chain too often.

The only real complaint I have about Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and the reason it’s this ranked here and not even higher, is that the story starts off so, so promising, and so dark. And while it is satisfying by game’s end, the main plot line involving this mystical other dimension is solved with a little too much “all we needed was to believe in each other and ourselves!” for my liking. Especially when it comes from Atlus and Intelligent Systems, two developers who are not exactly all about warm and fuzzy endings, but instead welcome a colder reality into their games, even the ones with dragons and dimensional portals. It’s not a deal breaker by any means — catch that ranking — but Tokyo Mirage Sessions could have held up even better against the games it drew inspiration from if it had held onto its initial promise of darkness.

With that being said, this game is still a must-play, whether you’re familiar with Shin Megami Tensei or Fire Emblem or not. If you like Japanese RPGs, if you want something that doesn’t feel like any other Japanese RPG you’ve played before even if you can tell where some of its inspirations come from, then ♯FE is for you. It’s one of those games you just need to play to be convinced by it, but all that means is that you need to play it. Pretty easy fix, no?

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