Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 58, Fire Emblem Fates

It is certainly not the most accessible Fire Emblem game, but that's mostly because the hugely ambitious Fates is actually three distinct games that tell three possible versions of one story.

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.

Intelligent Systems ensured the continuation of their long-running Fire Emblem series with 2012’s surprising 3DS juggernaut, Awakening. Given the scope of that game and the ambition of its mechanics and story telling, combined with the newfound freedom to do whatever it was Intelligent Systems wanted to do now that they knew their baby was safe, we should have expected that the followup would be… a lot.

Fire Emblem Fates is, in fact, A Lot. Maybe the quickest way to explain how is to tell you what makes up Fire Emblem Fates: three different games, titled Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation, and you can’t even access the third of those until you’ve finished at least one of the first two. Also, you have to buy them all separately: you could get them as a bundle that cost less than what three separate 3DS games would have cost you to purchase individually (and Revelation was always just $20 rather than the full 3DS game price of $40), but even then we’re still talking about, at minimum, $80 to play a complete Fire Emblem title.

The thing is, though, that this “complete” Fire Emblem title that costs $80 is also actually three full-fledged games, not just one game broken into three smaller chunks. It’s one massive game broken into three normal-sized parts. You could be perfectly satisfied just playing Birthright or Conquest, so don’t feel like you need to set aside 100-120 hours or whatever in order to “experience” Fates. The full experience, though? Yeah, set aside some time, because this thing was the test run for the kind of ambition that would later bring us the stunning Three Houses, which depicted a revolution and counter-revolution from three different perspectives.

Similarly, Fates has your lead character, Corrin, move through a different scenario from a different perspective depending on which of the three titles you’re playing. The story at the start of each game begins exactly the same: Corrin, a princess who is so far from a useful claim to the throne that you’d be wasting your time trying to get her there in Crusader Kings, is sent on a mission from her homeland of Nohr to the border with Hoshido. Corrin travels there with loyal retainers and a man with a face you are not meant to trust*, and, surprise, he effectively renews hostilities between the two nations. Corrin winds up in Hoshido, where she finds out that she’s actually a princess of that country. Then comes the moment of choice: will Corrin side with her long-lost family, who seem to be on the up-and-up compared to Emperor Dad that just used her in order to instigate a war and also seems to have kidnapped her as leverage, or will she return to Nohr to fight alongside, and instead of against, the people she has long believed were her brothers and sisters by blood?

*Fire Emblem has had long had an obsession with pointing out that there are certain kinds of sneers and facial hair choices that could only be the result of villainy, but hey, if it ain’t broke.

The family portion is a non-insignificant thing to consider. You are introduced to a whole slew of siblings on each side of this budding conflict before you have to make a decision, and all things considered, they are pretty equal. Each side has a more magic-focused character, a younger sister who looks up to Corrin, the extremely powerful heir-to-the-throne older brother who has to make a lot of difficult decisions in reaction to Corrin’s own decision and doesn’t spend nearly enough time considering there are other viewpoints than the ones they know, etc. The characters are all unique ones with their own personalities and backstories, it’s just that in terms of which group you’d rather side with for battle purposes, it barely matters who you align with.

Choose Birthright, and you will get something of an easier path in your turn-based, tactical RPG journey, as Nohr’s armies are comprised of more standard Fire Emblem opponents. You will also spend your time getting acquainted with the family you unknowingly left behind, as well as the Nohrian princess that Hoshido, in response to Corrin’s kidnapping, took for themselves. Choose Conquest, and you get the more difficult of the two initial choices: you do not get quite as much support from Nohr as you do Hoshido — no real surprise there, given Emperor Dad did just use Corrin to start a war to teach her a lesson and didn’t much care if she lived or died as a result! — and you face off against Hoshido opponents that vary a bit from what you’re used to from Fire Emblem games. They’re more Japan-inspired than Fire Emblem has ever been, with samurai and ninja and a heavy emphasis on Japanese style in both dress and design. The weapon triangle rock-paper-scissors thing still exists with these units, and some of the weapons and types are just analogs for what you’re used to, but still. New units that outnumber you makes for a harder go of things.

Whether you purchased Birthright or Conquest, you have the choice, at first, of playing either. Once you lock in, though, that’s that: you’ll have to hit up the eShop and drop another $20 to get the story you didn’t select. And once those two are both done with, you can spend another $20 to get Revelations, which gives you a third option that I must [spoiler tag] you about before proceeding: not siding with either family, and slowly spending your time trying to recruit from both nations and families in order to take out the real problem of your asshole kidnapper dad who also might be possessed by an ancient evil that y’all should probably take care of instead of fighting against each other. And what’s maybe most ambitious of this whole process is that Revelation’s ending is the “true” ending, the only one that’s fully satisfying in an “it makes you feel good” kind of way. And you can’t even get to it until you’ve explored the other two games and endings, which, by design, can’t lend you the same level of satisfaction.

Whether you choose Birthright or Conquest, you’re going to end up killing people you think of as Corrin’s brothers and sisters. Corrin herself will often recognize elements of the people she loved or could have loved in the faces and actions of those she did not turn against, which helps give depth to not just the brothers and sisters she left behind and will face in battles to the death, but also to the decision that had to be made to turn against them in the first place. It makes for some quality, tragic storytelling, and when I say it’s not as “satisfying,” I mean in a hugs and kisses sort of way. Being forced to confront uncomfortable truths and parts of the reality of humanity — war can involve brothers and sisters having to make difficult decisions that might result in them being on opposite sides — makes for an engaging Fire Emblem tale.

Revelations doesn’t undo that, necessarily: it forces Corrin to make an even more difficult choice, by taking up a third path that will be far more treacherous in comparison. The main difference is that it now allows Corrin to convince her family on both sides of the conflict that they’re fighting the wrong war, a war she couldn’t fully investigate when she was too embroiled in the specifics of the options previously given her.

There is real challenge in Fates — more so than in Awakening, which, for all of its high points, was far too easy of a Fire Emblem game even if you played it the more traditional, permadeath way. However, even with that and this ambitious storytelling model that they, for the most part, pulled off, there are still some issues with Fates. Not enough to knock it off of the top 101 here, as you can see, but worth mentioning because they explain why this is here instead of even higher within both this list and the Fire Emblem series rankings. Yes, about halfway through this list, we’re going to enter into some real “yes, but” territory for games that are great as they are but noticeably could have been even better.

The game is actually just a little too long and a little too packed when you take into consideration all three entries in it, and that’s tied in part to Intelligent System’s decision to carry over a popular gameplay element from Awakening. Fates, like Awakening, allows you to couple characters together, which will result in a baby being born. In Awakening, there are story reasons that easily justify why that baby is suddenly a teenager and available to be part of your little army: it’s a gameplay element that belongs in that game, and, as Fates showed, only that game. Fates tries a similar trick, with a hidden land that speeds up time, so a baby can be born and then be battle-ready a few months later while your main cast of characters hasn’t aged more than just those few months. It falls flat, though, in comparison, in part because it feels forced, but mostly because you don’t need those extra characters.

Fates already has two playable Nohrian princesses, entire families, all of the retainers — each sibling has two retainers, and there are four siblings in each family — and random citizens willing to train and to fight alongside Corrin to choose from. You don’t need the baby warriors in Birthright or Conquest, and you absolutely do not need them in Revelations, where four siblings with two retainers a piece becomes eight siblings: two princesses, eight siblings, and 16 retainers is a massive roster on its own, one that you will literally never be able to field on one map at any time. You could have just those characters and lose quite a few to permadeath and still maybe never have time to fully level that group. And they are far from the only characters you can choose from, even outside of the children!

It ends up being too many relationships to manage, too many characters whose levels you need to keep an eye on in case someone dies and you need a replacement, too many kids to recruit to then micromanage them, too. It’s too much! Fates’ ambition works in its favor more often than not, but there are too many spots where it feels overstuffed and like a slog, and that’s a non-insignificant mark against it. There is already so much here that all of the “extras” brought over from Awakening end up working against it, and causing this to be an inferior game to Awakening as well as plenty of other of Fire Emblems that it had the potential to surpass. Three Houses feels like an easy 100 hours, in that you play and play but don’t feel burdened by it. Fates… does not quite nail that, to the point it took me quite a long time to actually get through all three of its parts. Was it worth it to do so? Absolutely! Did it always feel that way while I was playing? It sure did not!

In the end, though, it’s still a great (set of) game(s). You get a different setting than you’re used to in Fire Emblem games, with new-look characters, too. You can choose which side you want to fight for, and in the end, you can even pull a Luke Skywalker and decide to reject the supposedly set-in-stone options you’ve been presented with to forge a new path for yourself that feels more at home, that you feel more comfortable with and truly believe in. Unlike in Return of the Jedi, though, where Luke’s choice is made near the end of the three-movie story, Corrin’s choice to forge her own path, one that will be much more difficult to see through than the other options, is what kicks off the last act of her own trilogy, after you’ve already played through what it would have looked like if Luke had listened to someone besides himself at the pivotal moment. The most difficult battles are still to come at that point, and it’s what helps makes Fates memorable in what is now a very long list of Fire Emblem games to choose from.

What ties it all together is the thing that Fates was absolutely correct to pull from Awakening, and that’s the emphasis on more memorable, relatable, enjoyable characters to interact with. The fleshing out of all of these characters, the ability to partner them off with other characters, the fact that you are given cause to care about them and their potential demise for reasons beyond just what their crit rate looks like or their high damage capabilities against armored opponents? It helps immensely with this central idea that Corrin is being forced to make difficult decisions, and in the end, that she feels justified in making the most difficult choice of all: going it alone in the name of what she believes in, in the hopes that, in the end, she won’t actually be as alone or empty as the alternatives are guaranteed to make her feel. Pretty neat trick for a tactical RPG to pull off.

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