Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 44, Fire Emblem: Awakening and No. 43: Fire Emblem: Thracia 776

You could not make two Fire Emblem games more dissimilar than Awakening and Thracia 776, and yet, I like them just the same.

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.

Despite what a certain segment of the fan base might still be screeching on message boards today regardless of what the thread’s actual topic is, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the most important game in that series’ long history. You can tell by the headline of this entry, as well as my telling you right now that there are even more to come, that “important” is not the same as “best” Fire Emblem game, but still, any credit given to Awakening for anything can enrage a certain type of FE fan. More often than not, that fan is the kind who loves Thracia 776.

So, you know, it’s pretty funny, to me, that the rankings played out like this, considering. They are the furthest apart in the entire series in terms of tone, of how they treat the player, of what you actually do with your time and how you play, but despite these differences, they’re both excellent examples of what Fire Emblem is and can be. The same level of excellent, even! Let’s dig in.

Awakening was going to be the last Fire Emblem game. While the series has certainly seen love from critics over 30 years now, that love never consistently translated into sales in a pre-Awakening world. Part of this is that, before 2003’s The Blazing Blade released worldwide on the Game Boy Advance, no Fire Emblem had done so: they were always Japan exclusives. The Blazing Blade (number 98 on this list), powered by worldwide sales, neared the one million sold threshold, but didn’t quite make it. Still, it was easily the best-selling Fire Emblem ever.

Its followup, The Sacred Stones, would near 900,000 sales. The GameCube’s Path of Radiance exceeded half-a-million, and its followup, the Wii’s Radiant Dawn, just missed that mark. The DS remake of the original Fire Emblem, titled Shadow Dragon, sold 610,000 worldwide, less than twice what the NES original and Japan exclusive managed back in 1990, and this despite the DS ending its run as the number two in platform sales all-time. In response, Nintendo didn’t bother releasing the remake of the third Fire Emblem and conclusion to Marth’s story outside of Japan, which limited that game to just about a quarter-million in sales.

Strategy RPGs, in general, are not big sellers. In fact, Three Houses, the most recent Fire Emblem release, is now the best-selling strategy RPG… ever. And it has just barely cleared three million in sales, surpassing the lifetime numbers of the beloved Final Fantasy Tactics, which has released on multiple systems over the past 24 years and stood unopposed on this front until consecutive Fire Emblem games dethroned it. Nintendo had stuck with Fire Emblem a long time, but in their eyes, before Awakening, the returns were diminishing and Intelligent System’s talented teams could be focusing on other projects instead, projects that might sell more than FE had to that point. With this in mind, Awakening was expected to be the final Fire Emblem game, a chance for Intelligent Systems to wrap on the series however they wanted to.

They responded to this situation by throwing just about everything at the wall, referencing in gameplay and in text and in story nearly every stop Fire Emblem has made along the way, with an overall emphasis on just having a good time. Awakening became not just the first-ever million-plus seller in the franchise’s over 20-year history, but also its first two-million seller, and it kept Nintendo from canceling the series. And, as we saw both in Fates and in Three Houses, allowed Intelligent Systems to take some real massive swings on the entries that followed, too.

Fire Emblem games, historically, are serious affairs with serious fighting and serious characters. There was certainly room for humor in pre-Awakening releases, but that and the game’s social aspects were never the primary focus. Awakening, though, tossed the series’ conventions aside, and decided that the characters were there to endear themselves to you by being a bunch of weirdos essentially living in a cartoon. It is the batshit version of Fire Emblem, stuffed full of fan service and time travel and a character whose battle cries are just the names of other Fire Emblem games, who supposedly cannot control the bloodlust of his sword hand but it’s also unclear if he’s just doing a bit or if there is actually something wrong with him.

There is a massive focus on relationships via the support system: normally, “support” existed just to strengthen the bonds of characters in battles, but here, Intelligent Systems used it to also make characters fall in love. While this isn’t the first time that love and children played a role in Fire Emblem — one of the games in this series literally has the word “genealogy” in the title, people — it is the first time that the children this love would eventually bear would come back through time to help their parents fight off the great evil still plaguing the world in their own time because in the future all of the parents were dead and only the kids who knew nothing but war still remained. Understandably, some of them have some issues with their parents to work out.

The game takes place in the same world as the two Marth-focused Fire Emblem’s, and Lucina, who you know from Super Smash Bros. if nowhere else, actually goes by “Marth” for a time while trying to conceal her identity. Lucina and Chrom — mostly — act as the serious links to the series’ past, playing the straight man (and woman) to the rest of the cast’s oddities and quirks, which range from the beautiful and terrifying Pegasus Knight who can soar through the air with ease but can’t walk more than a few steps without tripping or bumping into something, to the ferocious swordfighter who freezes up whenever he’s around women, to the knight in an enormous suit of armor who is so quiet and shy that literally no one ever sees him even when he’s right there, or the thief who will happily switch to your side mid-battle if you promise to give him candy. I already mentioned Owain and his sword hand and battle cries: Owain might be the best character going, really, because every support conversation he has with anyone is a riot, and also if you make him actually carry a sword he’s essentially unstoppable.

On that note, “getting kids to be born” is about more than just “ha ha these two would be cute together,” though it can certainly just be that. The potential mothers in the game are set to have specific kids, but who their fathers are determines what class that kid will be, what their skills and ceiling might look like, and so on. There’s some deep-level strategy to pairing off the parents if you want there to be, but you can get by without trying to create an army of super kids. You can just decide it would be very funny to have the talkative and pushy princess who doesn’t act like one hook up with the swordmaster who is terrified of all women, especially talkative and pushy princesses, and then accidentally your way into unstoppable swordmaster Owain. Or you can do it on purpose on a replay. Either way is valid, you’re just here to have a good time.

The game has all the traditional Fire Emblem trappings — strategic battles, swords and sorcery story, etc. — but it wants so badly to just be a funny, fun time, and it is. It’s really no surprise that Awakening took off the way it did, in the time it did. An extremely memeable and shareable experience, where players were setup to fall in love with their favorites for more reasons than just their high crit rates in battle, in the age of social media? Of course Awakening thrived!

The source of its power is also part of its relative downfall, though. Awakening is an unfocused mess much of the time, a product of its propensity to be everything at all times mixed with the way the gameplay unfolds. Awakening’s story is told as if everything is extremely urgent and must be attended to immediately. Awakening, in practice, has you running from one end of the world to the other, back-and-forth with no clear plan or logic in place, because you’re either trying to strengthen some of your weaker characters in side battles or you’ve reached a high enough level of support with a romantic pairing that a kid was born in the future and unlocked a “paralogue” mission in the present, which needs to be completed in order to recruit the kids. (I say kids, but they’re the same age as their parents at this point in the timeline. It’s just less confusing to describe them this way.)

While this doesn’t hurt the Awakening experience in a vacuum — those paralogues are most of the best missions in the game, and the kids are almost universally the strongest characters in all of Awakening and therefore vital to your efforts and their recruitment rewarding — it does harm it when comparing it to other FEs. The very best Fire Emblem experiences, in my opinion, are the ones that make you feel as if you’re actually participating in whatever form of conflict the story is describing. Genealogy of the Holy War feels like a large-scale, decade-spanning war, not just in its story but in its actual gameplay. Ike’s band of mercenaries in Path of Radiance, and in Radiant Dawn, Micaiah’s Dawn Brigade, always feel like they’re fighting from underneath against much more powerful foes, which is how they should feel considering they’re starting out small and recruiting more and more to their cause against the most powerful military going. And as we’ll get to, Thracia 776 actually feels like you’re staging a doomed rebellion.

Awakening, though, is much more unclear about what is going on. Story-wise, sure, you know that Chrom is the leader of a small nation in need of support from its neighbors in its fight against a more powerful foe, and that things escalate from there to the point that armed time-traveling babies are arriving in the present. The gameplay never quite captures this narrative feeling, though, and while it’s fair to ask “well, how could it?” considering what the story is about, that doesn’t excuse how unmoored parts of the experience can feel. This has always been an issue with Awakening, but it stands out even more now that Three Houses perfectly balanced its multifaceted story and gameplay in a way that makes so much more sense, systems-wise and feel-wise, than Awakening at its best.

With that being said, Awakening is still great. But that unfocused feel combined with unbalanced difficulty — Awakening is too easy on its normal setting, and relies too much on luck and randomness rather than strategy on its more difficult settings — makes it tough to put any higher on the list than this.

Also, they forgot to draw feet for any of the characters. Feet or no, though, Awakening is absolutely worth your time. Just uh, don’t expect it to play like other Fire Emblem games, because it might have saved the franchise, but it did so by being off-the-wall and different from what came both before and after.

Thracia 776 is a more traditional Fire Emblem game, but it is not simple, not in its gameplay nor its difficulty. Awakening is considered too easy, and as said, it’s not just because it eschewed the series’ permanent death for characters model, allowing you to choose temporary loss of a character over losing them forever if you so choose. Thracia, on the other hand, might be too hard. Maybe. It really depends on what you want out of your Fire Emblem experience. For me, Thracia 776 is one of the greatest strategic heights the franchise ever reached: it is brutal, but not unfair, it is challenging, but not impossible. You simply have to abide by the rules of the game in order to thrive at it: if you attempt to do too much, or you are far too timid, you will get nowhere. And that’s exactly how a game centered on a rebellion that even its most ardent supporters have a difficult time believing will actually work should play.

Thracia 776’s odd name has to do with the source of the conflict it presents. Thracia is the country in which it takes place — 776 the year. It’s the fifth Fire Emblem game, but it’s not really a sequel, story-wise, to the fourth FE. It’s instead contained within that fourth game, with the events of Thracia 776 taking place during a break in the action and story of Genealogy of the Holy War. You first meet Leif, the protagonist of Thracia 776, in Genealogy of the Holy War. He is fresh off of losing a rebellion that was meant to take back his homeland, which had been under the control of Thracia for years now while he was safely in hiding following the murder of his parents.

Thracia 776 is that rebellion. So yes, if you had played Genealogy of the Holy War, you come into Thracia 776 with the knowledge that Leif’s efforts ultimately failed, and would not find success until after he helps the story line of the previous game come to its conclusion. It certainly adds to the idea that you are putting together a likely doomed rebellion that you know, for a fact, that it is not going to work. And yet, that doesn’t make the story any less successful or enjoyable. It just helps make it the downer it’s supposed to be.

The gameplay serves the story and vice versa, in a way that it just does not in Awakening. As the heir to a throne held by the nation that killed your parents, you have few allies and fewer resources. You have two ways of acquiring the supplies you need for your rebellion: by risking your life in arena for gold, fighting mid-level with one of your better fighters who therefore will not be available for the actual mission you’re trying to get through, or by capturing enemies instead of killing them, and then stripping them off their weapons and items. Capturing sounds easy enough without context, but since your characters are trying not to kill, but instead halt a foe so that they can be taken prisoner, their skills are all reduced: they’re slower, they don’t hit as hard, and they’re more susceptible to taking damage, too.

Capturing presents more opportunities to take significant damage and leave an ally unprotected, and the fact you also are easier to hit — and hit more often — while holding a captured foe makes it all the more dangerous. And yet, it’s absolutely necessary: many of the most powerful spells in the game, many healing items, keys to bridges and gates and doors and chest, and many weapons you won’t find in shops or can’t afford if you do find them are held by your enemies. And you need to take them via capture, despite the risks.

Thracia 776 does not stop there with the roadblocks. There is a fatigue system built into the game, so if you lean too heavily on a powerful character for too many missions or battles, they will not be available in the next fight. You have a minimum number of fighters to use on each map, and a maximum, and you need to balance the risk of fatigue with the risk of having too few or too many characters for a given mission at all times. Maxing out on characters might sound good to reduce fatigue, but it also spreads around your experience possibly too much, and keeps you from building up any reliable characters for fighting bosses. Too few characters can help keep fatigue from being a problem, but low-level foes are basically a waste to kill with too powerful a character since the XP distribution is now off in the opposite direction.

You will find yourself occasionally making sacrifices, as befits a doomed rebellion of this nature. You must be cautious, but sometimes you cannot be cautious, and must instead be prudent, be cold. A moment that sticks out from my first play is a level where you are fleeing an army, hoping to find refuge at a border line that those giving chase would not dare cross lest they incite a war. The sensible decision for you is to travel through the mountains, where the cavalry chasing you can’t follow unless they dismount and lose part of their tactical advantage. During prep, I think, oh, I’ll have this armored knight stand his ground here in the forests and foothills, while my weaker characters flee. Doing this meant the armored knight was likely to die: he could not travel through the mountains, and the numbers of the foes were too great for me to turn him around and go the other way.

I tried beating the level multiple other ways, but couldn’t do it: the only way that I could get to work with the characters I had was to let him sacrifice himself for the rest of the party. Having to make these kinds of decisions… well, if you played a little better or planned a little better, maybe you wouldn’t have to make them. But I didn’t, so I did. They’re just pixels, but it still made it all feel immersive and “real,” you know? And that’s a real strength of the game and its ability to let you feel for these characters and their struggle, even without the heavy social aspects of more modern FE games.

Thracia 776 expects a lot from you. It is not overflowing with new recruits, and to get most of the ones you do acquire, you need to unlock the “gaiden” side missions by completing a set of unstated achievements in the main levels. Finish a stage in under 30 turns without killing someone who at first, is your enemy, and it unlocks a hidden stage where you can recruit them and their sister, for instance. And you can very easily lose some of the people you do have, even if they don’t fall in battle the traditional way. There are levels where your primary goal is to escape: anyone still on the map when Leif leaves is left behind. So it’s imperative that you organize things in such a way that Leif is both protected and not too far ahead, so that you can let the rest of your party escape first, or enough of them escape that, if Leif needs to leave right now, your losses won’t be too great.

You are expected to analyze a map beforehand and figure out a strategy, not just in terms of which characters will deploy, but in terms of where you plan on using them. I have few complaints about Three Houses, but one is that the stages are often very same-y, with similar goals (kill the leader, kill all enemies, etc.) Thracia 776, on the other hand, has some kind of gimmick for nearly every stage, which means everything feels fresh, feels challenging, feels new. And it always feels dangerous, like you’re on the brink of failure — because you are.

There is enough to consider before and during every mission that the lack of social aspects doesn’t even come into play. The game would actually be overstuffed if it had options like that, and it was good editing by Intelligent Systems to not force a carryover of the nascent support system from Genealogy of the Holy War into Thracia 776, just because they had it once before. And anyway, there’s plenty of dialogue and character exposition and explanation of who they are and what they believe not just before and after missions, but during, too, as the story often progresses mid-mission. This isn’t just extremely challenging and demanding strategy combat, but also an excellent Fire Emblem tale that compliments the larger story told in Genealogy of the Holy War well.

Now, all of these words in, you might be asking, “why haven’t I heard of Thracia 776?” It’s a Japanese exclusive Fire Emblem, released for the Super Famicom in 1999 — yes, Japan’s version of the SNES was still getting new games in 1999, near the end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. Unsurprisingly, Thracia 776 did not sell well, owing to its difficulty and its late arrival on the system. It’s a gem of a game, though, one Nintendo should absolutely remake or at least localize someday like they did with the original title in the series. That is unlikely to happen unless Nintendo decides every FE is getting a remake, like Shadow Dragon and Shadows of Valentia already have, though. It’s a shame Fire Emblem didn’t make it out of Japan earlier, because all three of the Super Famicon releases in the series are the kinds of games that would have only served to further bolster the console’s reputation in the west, and given Nintendo their own, in-house franchise to do it with. And if those succeeded, who knows what else Nintendo of America might have decided to localize between then and now?

Seriously, Thracia 776 is ambitious. You will be shocked at how rich, how deep the gameplay and its systems are, considering that it was designed to play on SNES-era hardware. Intelligent Systems was brimming with ideas at the time, though, and they successfully put them on this cartridge. The relatively simplistic and gimmick-free Game Boy Advance games did a lot to get Fire Emblem in front of a larger audience, but it’s also fair to say they made it seem, to people who were not aware of the series’ past, that Fire Emblem only recently became system-rich and deep. It’s been like this for decades: the series just kind of hit pause on it for a bit.

I was able to play Thracia 776 despite all of this because of people much smarter and more dedicated than I, who got together and localized the game into English, and patched it so that this localized rom could also work on the SNES Classic with the right tinkering. Nintendo gets in the way of fan games and roms in general, but they seem to let fan localizations of games they have no intention of releasing outside of Japan go: Thracia 776, its predecessor Genealogy of the Holy War, and Mother 3 are all examples of this, and are all tremendous games to boot. If you like Fire Emblem or strategy games, and you want a real challenge, a Fire Emblem that will absolutely test you, then Thracia 776 is perfect for that. It is brutal, it is difficult, but it is not, on average, unfair. It expects much from you, but it gives back in kind, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

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