In the 2020s, Fire Emblem occupies an interesting place in Nintendo’s pecking order. Where it was once little more than a niche curiosity, it is now an assured money maker. Of the four physical releases to arrive on the Nintendo Switch, three of them — Three Houses, Three Hopes and Engage — have surpassed the 1 million mark in lifetime sales. The leader, Three Houses, had hit almost 4 million as of December 2021.
More significantly, its chibi mobile cousin, Fire Emblem Heroes, has eclipsed $1 billion in revenue. All this goes to say, it has risen from obscurity to become a formidable weapon in Nintendo’s arsenal, and this would not have been true had it not been for its halcyon years on the 3DS handheld.
I am primarily referring to 2012’s Awakening, the heralded harbinger of the “modern” era of Fire Emblem that singlehandedly changed the fate of the ailing franchise. To quote Twinfinite’s Tony Cocking (even though I really hate that guy), “The legend behind its development has been told ad nauseam, to the point where details have become somewhat muddied and embellished. To oversimplify a complex situation, the series had historically underperformed commercially, leading to an expectation that this entry on the 3DS would serve as a swan song.”
Its successor, Fates, would see even greater returns, proving that this was not a flash in the pan for a dev team backed into a corner. Fire Emblem was safe. Fire Emblem was lucrative. Fire Emblem would soon receive its beloved Lord Dimitri, and all would be as foretold.
Glossed over in this timeline, however, is a curious little oddity known as Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Dropping in the tail end of the 3DS’ lifespan in mid-2017, it served as a retelling of Gaiden, the second game in the series released on the Famicom in 1992.
According to a USGamer interview with director Kenta Nakanishi, the reason behind its creation was a request for another entry, offset by a lack of time to build a new title from the ground-up.
“In 2015, after Fire Emblem Fates, people from [Intelligent Systems] came over and said that they wanted to produce a 3DS game with things they couldn’t implement in Fire Emblem Fates,” Nakanishi revealed. “But at that time we were already considering perhaps making games for the Switch, so therefore we didn’t have enough time. So it led us to think, “Okay, what can we make in this short amount of time?” And that’s what led us to doing the remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden.”
It was also logical in a broader sense, as the original title in the franchise, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, had already received a remake for the DS almost a decade prior. And so, on 20 April in Japan and 19 May internationally, the fifteenth game in the mainline series would release on the 3DS.
Though it wouldn’t reach the heights of the games that preceded it, falling short of the million threshold (0.75 compared to 2.35 and 3.05 for Awakening and Fates respectively), its modest success ultimately achieved the things it set out to do. It stuck to some aspects of Gaiden faithfully, while making wholesale changes to its barebones narrative.
Perhaps most significantly in the series’ continued direction towards accessibility, it introduced an element known as Mila’s Turnwheel; a time-resetting feature that would allow for a limited amount of re-attempts at previous turns. Serving as a middle ground between the ‘do or die’ mandates Fire Emblem was steeped in and the all-forgiving casual mode that returned fallen units after a map’s completion, it has become a staple in every entry since.
Over six years later, trying to consolidate my feelings on Fire Emblem Echoes is an interesting proposition. Excluding this year’s newly released Engage, it remains the only title that I have not begun a follow-up run on, and for better or worse, it is the one that left the least impact on me, overall.
There were a great many things about it that I appreciated, from its engaging writing to its steep challenge. Its explorable dungeons may not have always hit the mark, but they most assuredly offered something different and demanding. I grew quite fond of its cast, including bespoke new villains such as the complex Berkut.
Other areas, especially those which more closely followed the blueprint set by the original, did not translate nearly as well. The dual armies, headed by protagonists Alm and Celica, each set off on their own due to their conflicting ideals; where Alm reasons that the only way to prevent further bloodshed is through force, Celica believes that a peaceful resolution is available. Despite this, while manning the latter’s army, you will still proceed to murder all enemy forces in identical fashion.
The maps of the early 90s were simply not as varied or interesting as what had since become the norm, with several narrow corridors and an absence of unique win conditions. Bow users had received a necessary statistical buff to become viable, yet they still could attack from close-range, lacking a traditional weakness that made them compelling to utilize.
Moreover, and it does sound rather puerile to admit this, I had become quite accustomed to the glorious excess that defined the 3DS games. Marriages, child units, the avatar, ribald fan service… It wasn’t for everyone, but it resonated with me insomuch it made me consider the viability of even fringe soldiers.
Old Vaike may not have gotten much run once the ranks had been filled with better axe wielders, but he still got to sire a child when it was all said and done. The same can’t be spoken for Jesse, whom I had to look up to even remember for this analogy in the first place.
Again, the writing does shine, however with these more grounded characters, they can bleed into one another to a degree. If I may be so bold, their combined charisma doesn’t hold a candle to the whimsy and joy of the bombastic pegasus heroine, Cynthia.
Chris Schilling summated my feelings on this quite nicely in his GamesRadar review, stating, “No doubt some purists who’d rather not mix soap opera with strategy will be delighted that these relationship elements are less intrusive. But while we’ll admit the face-stroking minigame in Fates was a step too far, there’s a gap that Shadows of Valentia struggles to fill.
“This is, after all, a strategy game where the threat of permadeath looms large, and you’re supposed to care enough about your troops that sacrificing any of them is unthinkable. Losing a unit still stings, but not quite as much as it once did, because you don’t feel the same sense of attachment.”
It is perhaps some combination of these elements that have led to this one sitting on my shelf since its completion, as beyond its strength as an overall package, there is not necessarily a lot about it that screams replayability.
Where Sacred Stones and Fates offered alternate routes, and Awakening’s multiple support options could yield a wealth of unit compositions, Shadows of Valentia lays its cards on the table in its initial playthrough. You can bump up the difficulty, take the Villagers down different career paths, and elect to recruit whoever you hadn’t chosen between Sonya or Deen. That’s about it, really, and upon reflection I would be more likely to try to continue grinding my existing units as opposed to starting over again from the top.
None of this should imply that Shadows of Valentia isn’t a good game. I think it’s a fabulous game, offering a change of pace from the direction the series has been taken over the last decade or so, while providing its own injection of personality into the formula. Amusingly enough, the only reason I elected to write about it today is exactly because of how little I had reflected upon it since its release.
Indeed, the most vivid memory I have of it is the day it came out — it happens to be the only Fire Emblem game that released during my miserable tenure at EB Games. Amongst a sea of bland Call of Duty purchases, whenever someone came up to the counter with a copy of Shadows of Valentia, my face lit up.
I would grill them on their favourite games in the series, or their preferred units, oblivious to the growing line of impatient people waiting behind them. Actually, oblivious is inaccurate; I kind of just didn’t give a shit. If I had to spend eight hours in this hellhole, you could wait five minutes while I got to gush to someone about Fire Emblem.
And besides, a game that provides the most hauntingly beautiful and gorgeously understated title theme of all time has already paid itself off within the first 30 seconds.