Why Fire Emblem Heroes' Simplicity is its Strength

Fire Emblem Heroes isn't the deep, traditional strategy RPG fans have loved for years. But it was never supposed to be.


Fire Emblem Heroes may not be the full-featured mobile incarnation that lifelong fans were looking for, but it's exactly what it needs to be. In the days since its release, we've seen the generally positive feedback slowly turn to misgivings. It's simple, and streamlined, and light to a fault, at least according to its critics.

Having lost hours to the game, I can't help but feel these naysayers are missing the point. Fire Emblem Heroes isn't the next deep entry in the strategy series, but it was never meant to be. All of the simplicity that is garnering criticism was conscious and intentional. Most significantly, it's exactly what we were told it would be when Nintendo began outlining this strategy nearly two years ago. 

"We will not merely port games developed for our dedicated systems to smart devices just as they are—we will develop brand new software which perfectly matches the play style and control mechanisms of smart devices," the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told Time in 2015.

The sentiment seems obvious, even pat. Of course a developer sets out to optimize a game for its dedicated hardware. The revealing piece was a brief quote that followed after, suggesting Iwata's ultimate goal was to drive those mobile users toward their own dedicated hardware. Iwata wanted mobile users to "eventually become fans of our dedicated systems." 

This is the vital detail. Nintendo's strategy is, and has always been, more about conversion than replication. Nintendo isn't trying to give you, the dedicated strategy-RPG fan who only plays with perma-death because that's "the right way," another avenue to enjoy the franchise. You have plenty already, and more on the way. Fire Emblem Fates is a massive undertaking that spans three campaigns, Fire Emblem Echoes is only a few months away, and Fire Emblem on Switch is coming next year. If you want deep, rich Fire Emblem experiences, there's no shortage of them.

Fire Emblem Heroes, instead, is meant to give a small taste of what you love about the series to people who haven't tried it before. With that recognition, nearly all of its design quirks make sense.

A typical match can take only a minute, giving it the lowest possible impact and ease to fit in a player's life. Its simplified systems and omnipresent weapon triangle make a light, inviting play session that is more about tactics than rote memorization or grinding. Even stamina, a much-derided free-to-play system, exists to compel you to slow down. This isn't a game that needs to be devoured in a matter of days. Nintendo wants you to keep coming back, checking your daily quests, playing a few missions, and then hopping out.

By the time you're hitting the Lunatic difficulty, a player will have a firm grasp of the systems and be able to easily graduate to a more traditional Fire Emblem. And by the way, did we mention that there's one coming out soon on a handheld system that's essentially ubiquitous?

I wouldn't be surprised to see Fire Emblem Echoes break series sales records in May, for the same reason we saw this phenomenon when Pokemon Go segued neatly into Pokemon Sun and Moon. It's not a mystery or accident. This is what Nintendo wanted: to continue pleasing its dedicated fanbase while consistently funneling new players toward the flock. And if the mobile spin-offs make an extra couple million here or there, that's gravy.

Meanwhile, those of us who are dedicated fans of the series have nothing to lose. We're still getting our traditional games, and games like Fire Emblem Heroes serve as something of an appetizer. I've been thoroughly enjoying my time with it, checking in for quick skirmishes and easily playing one-handed while cooking or getting my daughter to sleep. None of this would be possible in a standard Fire Emblem game. While I'm looking forward to Echoes, there's room in my life for both. And if its simplicity helps gently introduce more people to this series that I've loved for years, I'm thrilled. More of us should be.

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