Ranking the top-101 Nintendo games: No. 98, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade

The first Fire Emblem with a North American release still holds up, in large part thanks to its balance and emphasis on multiple protagonists.

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 System’s strategy RPG series Fire Emblem has an odd history, in that it stretches 30 years back to the Famicon days, and yet, it’s still never truly taken hold of the masses despite that longevity and consistent quality. The Paper Mario series, also developed by Intelligent Systems, has sold just six million fewer games than Fire Emblem, despite a 10-year head start by the latter and 10 more main series titles. One of them has Mario in it, you know?

The franchise remained an exclusive for Japan during the entirety of its first six releases: it took a pair of its characters, Marth and Roy, being left in the North American and European releases of the GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee for many people to even know that this Nintendo series existed.

Fire Emblem was nearly canceled due to poor sales less than a decade ago — again, not due to the quality of the games, which range from good to some of the best Nintendo has ever had their name on — until the Nintendo 3DS’ Fire Emblem: Awakening went from a last hurrah release to one that broke sales records for the franchise and breathed new life into it. The latest release, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is the best-selling Fire Emblem ever, which shouldn’t be a surprise in a post-Awakening world where the Switch is selling like it is.

In between those Japan-only origins and the present, where Fire Emblem is selling more than enough copies to continue on, was its 2003 introduction to North American and European Game Boy Advance owners in the form of “Fire Emblem.” In Japan, and now, it is known as Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade. It’s a prequel to Roy’s title, The Binding Blade, featuring Roy’s father, Eliwood, his father’s close friend, Hector, and Lady Lyndis, whom you might recall has a particularly nasty support attack in recent Smash Bros.’ titles. Thanks to the oddities of Fire Emblem’s release history, North American and European audiences have played the prequel for a game that never got an official release outside of Japan. But if you really want to play it, well, something tells me you could find a rom version with an English patch if you really want one.

Blazing Blade is the superior of the two, though, both because of its story and how it works. It served and serves as an introduction to the way Fire Emblem works, in that it is broken up into three separate campaigns. Eliwood’s and Hector’s follow roughly the same path, but your lead character is different and Hector’s is designed to be the hard mode for those familiar with the game. Lyndis’ path, though, serves as something of a tutorial that shows you how this particular strategy game works, introducing the different enemy types, the rock-paper-scissors game mechanic (swords best axes, axes best lances, lances best swords), and familiarizing you with the idea that, when one of your characters is defeated in battle, they’re gone. Permadeath wasn’t always an option you could turn off in Fire Emblem, and being able to turn back time to try again is a recent invention, as well. There’s none of that here.

Permadeath makes you really think about the how and why of every move you make, because you’ve spent time building up a character and familiarizing yourself with their personality, and it can all be taken away in an instant. While characterization wasn’t quite as strong in these earlier Fire Emblem titles as it is now, Blazing Blade does feature a rudimentary version of support conversations, and the between-missions developments do give you a pretty good idea of which characters you’re going to like and want to hear more from, and which ones you are more likely to throw into the middle of a bad idea to see what happens.

The Blazing Blade is a difficult game, but not a difficult Fire Emblem title, if that makes sense. It’s part of the franchise’s return to the simpler, lower-stakes gameplay of its early days, with then-modern refinements added in. You get plenty of recruitable characters, so as long as you learn from your mistakes, you should be in a good spot. Play Eliwood’s campaign before Hector’s, and you’ll be even better off in that regard. The trio of powerful lords Eliwood, Hector, and Lyndis means that the late-game promotion of canon main Eliwood doesn’t hamper the experience like the late-game promotion of singular main character Roy did in the predecessor that is also a sequel.

For those who aren’t familiar with Fire Emblem: your characters level up like in most RPGs, but in this one they can be promoted into new classes, too. Promotions bring with them better statistics than you’d otherwise get upon leveling up, in addition to the boost you get simply from making the class change. There are never ending discussions on message boards across the internet about the best time to promote regular units to earn the very best stats for a character, but for main characters, promotions can be wrapped up in the story instead of your choice. Roy’s late-game promotion in Binding Blade actively detracts from the experience, as you go from having a powerful lord character as per usual to one you need to babysit as everyone around him, enemies included, continue to get stronger while he stays the same, until just before you get to the game’s conclusion.

Combine that with the overabundance of recruitable characters in Binding Blade — so many that it lessens the stakes of permadeath, because you’ve always got another character ready to step in, and oftentimes they’re a powerful, already promoted one — and you can see why it’s Blazing Blade on the list and not the game it’s a prequel for. The balance, both in terms of learning curve and difficulty and the feeling of enjoyment and reward that comes from each, is superior. The three-pronged lead situation gives you a reason to return other than just “hey, it’s time to play this game again” or “I think I want to rank the top-101 Nintendo games ever” because there’s effectively a second version of the game contained within.

The Blazing Blade is also the quickest way to experience Fire Emblem that you can find with ease these days. The campaign hovers around 20 hours, compared to the many times that length of a single path in Three Houses, and is even shorter if you skip the Lyndis tutorial arc to get straight to Eliwood or Hector on a replay. With no base to return to, and no between-mission conversations among secondary characters, it’s pure, distilled Fire Emblem: battle, battle, battle. It’s not the only way I want to experience the series, but there is something to be said about having the option when you don’t have time for something more in-depth or time consuming but you still want to rock-paper-scissors with swords.

The story, while comparatively rushed when looked at against the franchise’s more recent, slow-burn releases, is a good one, too. One part rulers whose judgment is clouded by their desire for power. One part idealistic kids who know how to use swords. Add ancient dragons, and shake vigorously. The story really is secondary to the gameplay here, though. And while there are Fire Emblem titles, both older and newer than this one that do a better job of either or both, The Blazing Blade still scratches enough itches to be the first you get to read about here.

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