Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 37, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance

The Fire Emblem with the protagonist that (justifiably) dislikes every Fire Emblem protagonist that came before him.

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.

There was a time where every Fire Emblem protagonist was a noble of some kind. Sure, they might have faced some long odds or hardships, but they always had loyal retainers, royal connections, others willing to listen to them because of their name and their blood, and so on. That time was before the 2005 release of Path of Radiance, which featured a lowly commoner as the protagonist: one who did not have the same kind of inherent loyalty from those around him as the nobles before him had because of their station.

Ike is not a Lord, the default class assigned to your protagonists of old, and one that Fire Emblem players were very used to their lead characters having. He’s a Ranger, a mercenary, a commoner, one who just happens to be the son of a gruff axe-wielding leader of a mercenary troop, but other than his inheriting that group, there is no inherent favoritism in Ike’s story. Ike leads because people want to follow him — well, the mercenaries who remain in his service, anyway — not because they’re paid to be loyal, or have had “I am a knight of [country] and am super eager to die for you and it” drilled into their heads and game dialogue for years. It might not seem like a significant change, but it was huge for the series at the time, and impacted the tone of not just the interactions between Ike and the mercenaries and those he met through the story line, but the entire narrative direction of the story unfolding in Path of Radiance, as well.

Path of Radiance, to me, is the most complete and satisfying of Fire Emblem’s stories, for these reasons and more. It is both personal and significant in its scope, focusing not just on the inner workings of the mercenary group and its members but of the world they inhabit, its nobles and their vile misdeeds and behaviors, its lower classes, who are at the whims of those nobles whether it be for war or simply the every day violence suffered by those toiling away underneath their supposed betters. It also tackles racism in ways that make you question how much you actually like some of your own key party members, some of whom are capable of growing past their prejudices, while others… well, you might decide you’re tired of them living before they get to that point.

Three Houses might be the better game, and its focus on getting rid of the church in the Black Lions playthrough put much focus on the class system and the dominating influence of religion and nobility in its world, but Path of Radiance follows through on its messaging more successfully. Ike dislikes the nobility. He dislikes the dismissive way they think of those less fortunate than they, he dislikes the way they play games with life and treat people as objects, he dislikes the fact that the politics of nobility is a constant battle of proper decorum and customs that treats serious, significant issues like a game without true consequences, played by people who never have to suffer any who just want to prove their intelligence and station in every interaction.

It might seem like a small thing, but it is telling that Ike rejects a permanent lordship and the land granted to him by the Queen he worked for as a mercenary, and only remains in direct, non-mercenary service to that royal long enough to achieve the goal he himself believes in. This puts him at odds with not just the protagonists and narratives of past Fire Emblems, but the dreams and beliefs of all of those characters and stories, too. Ike probably wouldn’t get along with most of them, or, at most, would begrudgingly accept them as not quite as aggravating and exhausting as your average noble.

Giving the player this point of view, rather than the traditional view of the lords and nobles and kings and queens of Fire Emblems past, was a bold move, and the correct one for this story.

There is no major reveal, like in Three Houses, a game with another non-noble, mercenary lead, that Ike is secretly some blessed warrior of the gods or a god himself. He’s a promising young warrior, learning his way in the world whether it be with a blade or his words, and while the weapon he wields is eventually a blessed one, it’s his own power, his own abilities that he’s worked hard to strengthen, that allows him to wield it: the same powers that allow him to continue to lead the mercenaries he literally and figuratively grew up with.

All of this is a major reason why Path of Radiance holds up for me to this day, why the issues with its graphics that bled into its review scores never bothered me one bit. Sure, the game doesn’t look quite as good in the series’ transition from sprites to polygonal models as it probably could have, but caring about that in the moment was boring: I cannot imagine caring about that even a little bit 16 years later, but I’m sure someone out there does. The world Intelligent Systems built is an excellent one, and attempts to tackle both class and race. The race issue in this world isn’t quite as direct a reflection of the real world as, say, Ogre Battle’s, but they give it a shot with a “human” vs. “subhuman” metaphor-filled plot, where both of those words are actually slurs used by the other. These kinds of approaches to racism, where some made-up race is a stand-in for real ones in storytelling, can be awkward and their own kind of problematic, and certainly are not a replacement for lessons infused with more realism and real experiences. Path of Radiance detaches itself from the real world enough so that those suffering from racism aren’t a direct stand-in for any marginalized group in particular, though, which certainly helps.

The races are the “human” “beorc” and then the “laguz,” the latter people who are also capable of shifting into animal forms. Various cats, birds, and dragons, to be specific. Centuries of war and distrust have soured the relationships of not just the beorc and laguz, but different laguz nations against each other, though, not in quite as bloodthirsty and violent a way as the beorc, who as you can imagine, are the ones being the actual racists here, both in the moment and historically. Any laguz hatred or dislike of the beorc is plenty justified, but Ike’s company, and Ike especially, eventually prove themselves to be friends of the laguz, in a way that starts to repair the damage of centuries gone by.

It’s even a central part of the conflict contained within the game: the nation of Crimea is invaded by Daein’s armies, presumably, because Crimea’s ruler was attempting to repair the relationship between beorc and laguz. Ike’s own father was a rare beorc friend of the cat laguz, but Ike was kept in the dark about this and the conflicts between races. Which ends up doing him no favors early on in the game, when he refers to a laguz as a subhuman to their face thinking that was the word for their people. His lack of knowledge of these racial conflicts is also a lack of built-in prejudice, though — he quickly apologizes by admitting he is in the wrong and ignorant on the matter, not by doubling down or building up resentment for being called out for his racist word choice, or “I am a product of my environment and therefore am excused for my behavior” or what have you. Ike listens, which, as you see in the social aspects of the game, is one of his strengths, and a reason that people flock to him and his mercenary group. Listening is how he realizes he was in the wrong, how he betters himself and his comrades, how he betters relations between, at least, the laguz and beorc around him in this war.

Like with his distaste for the idea of nobility being able to lord over others as superior, Ike comes down harshly on racist beorc, even within his own party, and understands that while there is hard work to be done and amends to be made, difficult conversations to have, all of that would be worthwhile to the beorc, who have wronged the laguz for much longer than he has been alive. They owe it to the laguz, in fact, to be the ones leading these efforts, as their own behaviors are the reason such efforts are necessary to begin with: the bloody, violent history of the beorc isn’t taught in schools, but fear of the other certainly is. Those in power throughout the continent ensure that this history is never reckoned with, and that the divide between the two only grows wider.

Unsurprisingly, the only two (living) members of the nobility who agree with Ike about the need for change and have any real power to do something about it spend whole chunks of the game getting almost murdered for their beliefs, so his battle is an uphill one. But it’s this focus on making the beorc/laguz relations more personal and about the growth of both ignorant and prejudiced characters as they learn about their biases and the racism of their fellow beorc, than any kind of ridiculous “racism is solved now!” narrative just because a bad guy loses in the end, that makes what could have been a very awkward focal point of the story work. It is very clear, by the time these particular arcs wrap up, that those in power who do want to improve race relations have a significant battle in front of them to change long-held views of a whole bunch of racists, whether they be regular people or the nobility that disdains beorc less well off than they and believe laguz deserve to be slaves or kept in cages as trophies or slaughtered. The hope is that those on Ike’s side can figure out the plan to make that work pay off, and we’re left to imagine a better world forged by their efforts, instead of the game forcing an unrealistic conclusion on us.

Hell, the direct sequel to Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn, ends up dealing with much of the struggle of this effort, and makes the regular folks of the first game’s big bad Daein relatable, post-war protagonists, who are now under the just-as-awful thumb of the Begnion forces Ike led to liberate Crimea and put a stop to Daein’s war. We get to learn that the Begnion nobles saw helping Crimea out as a way to weaken a neighbor and put another in their debt more than they saw this as a just battle for what was right, one that hoped for a better world for everyone. This sequel showed that simply putting better nobles in power, which is how plenty of past Fire Emblems (and plenty of other RPGs within this same swords and magic space) resolve conflicts and better the world, isn’t enough. The signs are there before Radiant Dawn further spells them out, though: one of the primary messages of these two games is that the upper class are just awful people who value power and prestige over human lives, and [looks around] where’s the lie? More of this stuff in future Fire Emblems, Intelligent Systems, don’t hide it all in the Paper Mario games.

From a gameplay standpoint, Path of Radiance is some of the best the entire tactical RPG Fire Emblem series has to offer. It’s a challenge, but not unfair. You get plenty of units to choose from, but not a seemingly endless supply as in the three Game Boy Advance games, two of which did not make this list in part because of how the stakes feel much lower than the game tries to convince you they are due to the sheer volume of playable characters cheapening the permadeath mechanic. The missions have more variety than those of Three Houses, in addition to the missions themselves being better balanced, and the straightforward A to B to C with no stops in between style means the narrative and the gameplay remain tightly interwoven in a way that Awakening never could manage.

There are social aspects, and while they were robust at the time compared to the Fire Emblem games that came before this one, they’re lacking in comparison to nearly everything that released afterward. The scenes are still fun, the characters and their skits balancing seriousness and levity, but there is less to the whole support/camp experience here than in Awakening or Fates or Three Houses. That being said, there is more than enough here in that regard — the optional conversations that appear regardless of support progress are a nifty touch, for one — more than in any of the GBA titles, and it helps to flesh out the game world, the characters within it, and the struggles they face, both internally and externally, as much as the game requires. That should be enough for you, too.

While I don’t think Path of Radiance is the best outright Fire Emblem game, it might be the best pure Fire Emblem title. The only others ahead of this game in these rankings are two that play in a far different way than anything else the 30-year-old series does: Path of Radiance is easily tops among the more “traditional,” straightforward FE setup, and I would absolutely understand if, because of that, it was your favorite Fire Emblem. It was my own for a long time, too, essentially until the last couple of years, and that’s coming from someone who has already written about a couple of the Fire Emblem titles that released after this one in these rankings.

Now, I have bad news for you if you want to play Path of Radiance. You need to be a Begnion noble to be able to afford a copy of the thing these days. The case alone is selling on Ebay for more than the game’s original MSRP: if you want the actual game to be inside of a case, it’ll be upwards of $300 for the privilege, thanks in part to the title selling just over half-a-million copies worldwide combined with Nintendo never releasing it again in any other format or medium. There are other ways to be able to play it, surely, I just can’t discuss them here without setting off some kind of anti-[redacted] bot’s alarm. Dolphin, though. It’s safe to say “Dolphin,” I’m sure, use that as your starting point, then kick some racists’ asses.

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