On January 18, Nintendo devoted an entire Direct livestream to its Fire Emblem tactical-RPG franchise. Clocking in nearly an hour, the Direct hit fans with a veritable blast of announcements for games set to invade numerous platforms—Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile devices, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden for 3DS, the action-heavy Fire Emblem Warriors for Switch and 3DS, and a full-fledged sequel on Switch sometime in 2018.
Demand for Fire Emblem is at an all-time high, making it one of Nintendo's most in-demand franchises. It wasn't always so fashionable in the United States. As a matter of fact, it's likely that the series would only be on the tips of savvy importers' tongues if not for the success of Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Although Fire Emblem games are developed by Intelligent Systems Co., Ltd., Nintendo has been a partner in their creation since their beginning.
Intelligent Systems was founded by Tohru Narihiro in December 1986. The fledgling studio caught its big break when Nintendo contracted Narihiro to port software developed for the ill-fated Famicom Disk System to ROM cartridges, the company's storage medium of choice for its NES console outside of Japan. Impressed by Narihiro's technical skills, Nintendo outfitted the studio with engineering tools to assist in coding games designed by Nintendo's Research & Development 1 division. Most famously, R&D1 and Intelligent Systems co-developed Metroid for Famicom and NES.
As the budding partnership flowered, Nintendo agreed to produce and publish games made by Intelligent Systems. Narihiro's first game, co-developed with R&D1, was Famicom Wars, a turn-based strategy game in which players control opposing red and blue armies. Players are given funds to build factories and crank out units. Some units are suited to land-based combat, while others take to the skies or attack by sea.
Narihiro's next game was Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. With Narihiro writing code, writer and designer Shouzou Kaga aspired to merge Famicom Wars' tactics-heavy gameplay with captivating stories and RPG mechanics like those found in Square's Final Fantasy and Enix's Dragon Quest—a creative fusion that earned the designation "tactical RPG."
For Fire Emblem, Kaga conceived of turn-based gameplay with higher stakes. Players were assigned a finite amount of units that moved and fought across grid-based maps. Like in Famicom Wars, players with a mind for strategy increased their odds of victory by positioning units to exploit advantageous terrain.
Unlike Famicom Wars, however, units in Fire Emblem weren't mass produced at factories. Troops were analogous to characters. Winning battles afforded them opportunities to level up and grow stronger. If a character died in battle, it was gone for good.
Critics and consumers caught on to Fire Emblem slowly, warming to the gravity of every skirmish, and to Prince March, the protagonist out to reclaim his throne from an evil sorcerer. The game eventually sold well enough for Nintendo to commission development of a sequel, Fire Emblem Gaiden.
Intelligent Systems experienced steady growth alongside the mounting fame of its tactical RPGs. In addition to four more Fire Emblem Games for Super Famicom, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Advance platforms, internal teams developed hits like Paper Mario for N64 and Mario Kart: Super Circuit for GBA, all produced by Nintendo.
Around the time Nintendo's GameCube console entered into production, a rising star inside Nintendo took an interest in Fire Emblem.
Masahiro Sakurai got his start at HAL Laboratory, another small studio inexorably linked with Nintendo's. At age 19 he invented Kirby, a pink beach ball-shaped character able to steal enemies' super powers by inhaling them.
Some years later Sakurai was appointed the director of Super Smash Bros., a cartoonish fighting game starring over half a dozen of Nintendo's most recognizable characters. The game went on to sell over five million copies, guaranteeing a sequel. Sakurai against took the director's chair for Super Smash Bros. Melee, a sequel for the GameCube.
Better graphics and tighter gameplay were expected, but Sakurai was especially interested in characters. While Mario, Pikachu, and Link were known and loved around the globe, Sakurai cast a wider net. Specifically, he had his eye on Fire Emblem's Marth. He liked swords, and wanted more characters who could cross blades with Link. He also campaigned for Roy, a more recent edition to series canon introduced in Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, the sixth entry in the franchise and the first on Game Boy Advance.
Released in November 2001 in Japan, Super Smash Bros. Melee made the jump stateside the following month. The game went on to sell seven million copies, designating it the highest-selling game for GameCube. At one point it was estimated that roughly 70 percent of GameCube owners had Melee in their collection, the highest attach rate for any game on the system.
Fire Emblem's characters played an integral role in the game's success—but not at first. Sakurai concealed the swashbucklers as secrets characters that could only be unlocked by players willing to make a serious time investment. To reveal Marth, players had two options: clear the game's Classic Mode with all 14 regular characters, then best Marth in a one-on-one contest; or play 400 matches in Versus mode. Roy was unlocked by completing Classic Mode using Marth.
The veil of secrecy around Marth and Roy made them instantly appealing to Smash Bros. players. Mario, Link, Zelda, Bowser, Pikachu, and Kirby were households names, but Marth and Roy were complete unknowns. That mystery, coupled with the excitement of finally laying hands on them after jumping through so many hoops, increased their appeal.
There was cause for even more excitement. Discovering Marth and Roy was like striking oil—a brand-new Nintendo franchise fountaining up a wealth of characters and stories and gameplay possibilities.
There was just one problem. No Fire Emblem games had made their way to western shores. Only players flush with enough cash to import them, and willing to learn how to read Japanese, got to get in on the fun.
Nintendo's pillars business strategy is similar to diversifying a financial portfolio. Rather pinning all their hopes on one pillar, such as the Game Boy or Super NES, they support multiple pillars at once. Either they'll all thrive, or one can be used to support the other during a downturn. That strategy paid double in 2001. While Super Smash Bros. Melee took GameCube by storm, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo rolled Advance Wars onto GBA.
Advance Wars was designed as a spiritual successor to Tohru Narihiro's Famicom Wars. Red and blue armies fought for dominance, bolstered by colorful anime-style graphics and two-player support via the GBA's Game Link Cable.
The combination of overwhelming support for Marth and Roy, plus critical acclaim and strong sales for Advance Wars, communicated a clear message to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. Western consumers had a hankering for tactical, turn-based gameplay.
The companies decided to bring the seventh Fire Emblem, subtitled Rekka no Ken in Japan, to the west. Titled simply Fire Emblem and released for GBA, it met with strong sales and critical reception. Although reviewers familiar with the franchise preferred stories and mechanics from earlier entries, critics who were playing a Fire Emblem game for the first time quickly got wrapped up in the story-driven battles.
Many proclaimed it superior to Advance Wars primarily because of the ever-present threat of losing characters. One slip, one seemingly innocuous choice not studied from every conceivable angle, and a beloved character could be lost forever.
Fire Emblem's audience is passionate about their favorite franchise, and Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have them covered. Fire Emblem Heroes marked the first title made for Android and iOS platforms, and another four games are slated for Switch and 3DS through 2018.
Not that tactical decisions and emotionally taught stories are all that the franchise offers. For players who just want to blow off some steam, Marth, Roy, and a growing ensemble of characters stand ready in waiting in every incarnation of Super Smash Bros. since Melee.
While it's true that Fire Emblem will never outsell Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon, sales aren't everything. More than ever before, Fire Emblem offers something for everyone.