Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 30, Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War

Unless you've played Genealogy of the Holy War itself, you've never played a Fire Emblem like it.

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.

Genealogy of the Holy War is absolutely a Fire Emblem game, and not just because it says so in its title. The weapon triangle exists. One-on-one battles that begin when one unit meets another unit out on a battlefield are here. There is even some level of unit support, which, for an FE that released back in 1996 on the Super Famicom, is damn impressive.

And yet, if you go into this attempting to play it like any other Fire Emblem game, you will fail. Repeatedly. And if you fail too much, you won’t be able to finish it: you just won’t have the units, the resources, the forces you need to overcome the challenges ahead of you. Knowing how Fire Emblem’s battles work is a good building block, and to your benefit in this 25-year-old iteration of the franchise. But you need to play Genealogy of the Holy War the way it is designed to be played, not the way you’ve learned to play Fire Emblem in general, or you won’t succeed at it.

That’s because Genealogy of the Holy War’s entire setup is different from any Fire Emblem that came before or after it. Generally, Fire Emblem games have somewhere north of 20 individual chapters, maybe up to 30. Some have optional side missions to do, too. Genealogy has 12. This does not mean the game is shorter than your typical FE: it’s that what exactly a chapter is composed of in this game is so unlike every other Fire Emblem.

Chapters have segments, and are multiple hours long: it took me 52 hours to complete my first playthrough of Genealogy of the Holy War, despite it having “just” the 12 chapters. There is no built-in pause between segments where your characters’ health all recovers, or you get a chance to restock their weapons and items and have conversations. You finish up with one specific threat — say, a large force of bandits attacking the countryside — and then the map zooms out and expands in some way, introducing a new threat. It could be a power-hungry noble who believes that you’ve (in story, but also maybe for real, too) left your defenses vulnerable while chasing after bandits, and that this is the opportune time to expand their own domain at your expense. It could be a whole bunch of wyvern-riding knights flying in from the mountains in a part of the map you were ignoring because your own troops couldn’t get through. The story progresses during these moments, too, so these major transitions won’t sneak up on you if you use some sense: it’s the shift from one segment to another, so if you aren’t quite ready for the next segment, don’t capture that castle just yet.

There also isn’t necessarily just one of these expansions or segments per chapter, and you need to keep these potential events in mind as you play: not all of them are triggered by finishing up a clear objective, as reinforcements or a new threat can arrive from elsewhere after your units cross some invisible boundary. Don’t throw all of your forces at one target in the far west of the map when your home base is somewhere in the center: a threat from the east could show up and race you back to your castle — if you lose that, you lose the stage. More so than any other Fire Emblem, you’re focused on both offensive and defensive measures, and focused that way all the time. You need to stay on your toes, and find room for the kinds of breaks for healing or conversation for your characters that are just built in to other Fire Emblem games.

Those castles I mentioned are the key to that. They contain the game’s shops, where you buy healing items, or new weapons, or have your weapons repaired. You can hide your units in there to protect them, or to deploy them later when you require reinforcements somewhere. You fight in arenas to earn more money and experience, with, of course, the risk that your unit dies in the process. It’s a necessary risk, though, or else you can’t afford to repair your weapons, or buy new ones. These castles also become their own little fortresses for you, as you can fortify the castle (and the unit themselves) to stand as a defensive bulwark that will attract opposing troops. Put the right character in there as a defense, and you can wipe out masses of troops with them without getting so much as a scratch. Put the wrong unit there — someone under-leveled, someone without a high avoid rate, maybe even someone too strong who will kill too many of the enemies attacking and therefore open themselves up to too many attacks per turn without a chance to heal — and things won’t go nearly as well.

Failure to defend specific castles can result in a game over, but you can also just simply have a castle razed to the ground, and no longer able to be used by you. That, given the size of the maps, can be worse than losing and having to restart from your last save. I wondered early on in Genealogy of the Holy War why so many of your units were riding on horses, and the answer became apparent once you realize how large these chapter maps are. Whereas many Fire Emblem games have maps that are meant to be interiors of castles or dungeons, or a town itself, Genealogy’s maps are meant to be entire countries. Sometimes multiple kingdoms in one map. You are not fighting minor skirmishes that through simple arithmetic become a war by the end of the game, like in most FEs. In Genealogy of the Holy War, you’re fighting large-scale battles, in a conflict that spans generations. Hence the title. So, yes, defend those castles. They are your waypoints along the way to your final destination, they are your supply line, they are your home away from home. Losing access to any of that is detrimental to your efforts, or, at the least, incredibly annoying.

This is what truly makes Genealogy shine: that it feels so much like the story it’s trying to tell. I buy that you and your allies are in the midst of a war, from start to finish. Everything feels so big, so significant, and the strategy you must employ to survive and thrive keeps everything feeling large-scale in a way no other Fire Emblem even attempts to approach. This, to me, is what made Genealogy the first truly great Fire Emblem title. The games with Marth are good and worth revisiting, don’t get me wrong, and the first Super Famicom title with him that remakes the Famicom original and then adds an entire new, conclusive tale on top of it merited consideration for the list, but look at this. It’s number 30! It has so much more going on for it than any of the Game Boy Advance Fire Emblems that eventually followed it, and its uniqueness within the franchise puts it just a step above Path of Radiance, which, as I wrote, is the best of the “pure” Fire Emblem titles. It’s the same reasoning that got me to show Thracia 776 — the game that takes place during Genealogy’s timeline, featuring a few of Genealogy’s characters in their pre-Holy War days — so much love: it plays like its subject matter, and does so fantastically.

That it did so all the way back in the era of the SNES is noteworthy given the complexity and ambition here, but what really matters is that said complexity and depth holds up now, all this time later.

I mentioned this game spans generations: the first half of the game has you controlling the protagonist Sigurd and his allies. During this phase, it is extremely important that you start to pair up characters who seem like they might have a little romantic thing for each other. Some are obvious, like the literal husband and wife introduced to you as such, but others might take some experimenting. You’ll see a little graphical flourish when support — in this game, it’s “love” for reasons that should be obvious — is strengthened between a given pair, so you don’t have to guess if it’s working. These pairings will determine which characters you have access to in the game’s second half, after Sigurd’s part in the titular holy war comes to an end. While there are replacements for any missed pairings, they’re not as powerful, and you don’t want to miss out on any potential siblings, either, or else Sigurd’s son, Seliph, is going to be in for a hell of a time trying to stage a rebellion against the empire and end the war.

Getting these maxed out relationships also allows characters to trade gold and items with each other, which isn’t a small thing. Everyone has their own inventory: you do not used a shared one. So partner up where you can, in order to, if nothing else, be able to help finance the repair or acquisition of necessary items, and avoid having to sell and buy back weapons at shops with different characters where you can. Though, that system, as odd as it sounds, does have its own positives so long as you do a good job of accounting for your various party members.

Genealogy of the Holy War is not a forgiving game. It isn’t an unfair game (outside of how often bosses can simply avoid your attacks, anyway), but it does not show you leniency. Despite this, it’s not painful to revisit this ambitious, successful JRPG from so long ago, so long as you remember my earlier advice and play the game in front of you instead of trying to play it like Fire Emblems past. Save one detail: given the scope of the game’s chapters, and how many units are on the field at once, it can take what feels like forever for the opposition to complete its turn. There is no autoskip here for the AI’s turns, like in modern FE games. If you’re playing on an emulator — which, unless you can read Japanese, you are going to be doing — you can always speed up the game itself to move the process along, or, if you have some kind of turbo function, go with that. For me, though? A person who cannot read Japanese and played Genealogy of the Holy War on the SNES Classic instead of on a desktop? I just had my 3DS with me and played some puzzle games while I waited for the computer to do its thing. After all, I had a whole list of Nintendo games to rank, and this gave me time to get through multiple smaller games as I waited, while still being able to give them full attention. I suggest you do the same! The “play another game simultaneously” part, not the ranking part. Ranking is a lot of effort.

Despite my attention also being on puzzle games while I played, the story in Holy War is engaging, even as it moves into the realm of the supernatural. It’s told in between segments, in between chapters, and you get a really great sense of who these characters are and what they believe in even without having the social aspects of later FE games. It’s probably the most Game of Thrones of the Fire Emblem titles, in terms of twists and turns and violence and attention paid to politics and the dark hearts of man, but do not take that to mean that it’s Just Like A Book or that you’ll be mad about goofy end choices. It’s just in that same vein of fantasy, is all. Narratively speaking, Holy War is paced well, and you’ll care about the tragedies that are baked into the game’s story, as well as the tragedies you could have avoided if you just did a bit better with your strategizing. You’ll want to play better, not just because you need to in order to succeed, and because of this, you’ll take the time you need to figure out how to keep everyone alive and defended and well-equipped.

A 2020 reader poll taken by Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Fire Emblem, showed Genealogy of the Holy War to be the favorite of the series for voters. For me, it’s damn close: we’ve got just one more Fire Emblem to get to on this list after this one. For the old-school kind of Fire Emblem, specifically, it’s no contest. This is as good as they get, thanks to its unique setup, strong characterization, and gameplay that’ll keep you coming back and back again no matter how many times you mess up and have to start over from your last save because it turns out you weren’t paying enough attention to potential pitfalls in your strategy. If you weren’t fully taken in by Awakening, or Fates, or Three Houses, if you enjoyed the older North American releases more for their difficulty and relative sparseness, well, Genealogy is too feature-rich to be directly compared to the trio of GBA Fire Emblems. But it’s a lot closer to those than it is to the FE games of the last decade. Genealogy should also make it clear to you that the quality of Fire Emblem games does not necessarily have anything in common with the straightforward march of time. Some ideas and execution are better than others in this franchise: this Super Famicom era was particularly, notably strong in both of those regards.

You will need an English-patched version of the game in order to play it, but you can find that patch online these days with relative ease thanks to a team of very committed and passionate fans who understand coding and language. With any luck, Nintendo will just remaster the damn thing, though, finally giving it an official international release that could take off in this new-and-improved era where people actually give a shit about Fire Emblem games and therefore purchase them. It’s a bit up in the air whether Nintendo will get to it, though. They remastered the original into Shadow Dragon on the DS, but no one seemed to care that much, and the remake of the Super Famicom followup I mentioned before didn’t get a worldwide release. They remastered the second Fire Emblem for the 3DS afterward, and that did release worldwide even though it’s nowhere near good enough to otherwise be mentioned in this project, so there is reason to hope that Genealogy, the fourth entry, will be next up on the list for Intelligent Systems and Nintendo.

There’s no reason to wait, though, if you’re impatient like me. Genealogy of the Holy War is worth that kind of impatience. Just, uh, be more patient while you actually play, or you won’t do very well at all.

This newsletter is free for anyone to read, but if you’d like to support my ability to continue writing, you can become a Patreon supporter.