It wasn’t until 2003 that western players first got a taste of the Fire Emblem series with the simply named Fire Emblem that launched on the Game Boy Advance. The title seemed to imply that it was the first release in the franchise, but it was in fact the seventh game in the series, while the previous six remained niche Japan-only exclusives. The true first Fire Emblem release was Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light way back on the Famicom in 1990, and though a well-done DS remake launched globally about twenty years later, that initial NES release didn’t receive any localization until now.
Indeed, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a bit of an odd duck in Nintendo’s lineup. It’s a fun reminder of the humble origins of this now-popular franchise and it’s a cool piece of Nintendo history, but the game itself has aged like milk. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a good indicator of how much the series’ famously tough tactics gameplay has evolved and been refined over the years, but it’s hard to play this release and not be discouraged by the rough edges and clunky gameplay.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light tells the story of Prince Marth, an exiled royal who’s been driven into exile after the neighboring country of Dolhr invaded his home of Altea. Marth’s only hope of reclaiming the throne and freeing his people lies in the mystical sword Falchion and the titular Fire Emblem which grants him the right to wield the sword. Guided by friends and allies he meets along his journey, Marth thus begins his slow march back to his homeland to win back his birthright.
As one would expect of a game released in 1990 on now-primitive hardware, the storyline of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light falls short of the expected series standard. The boarding school drama or dating sim aspects of later releases that really helped to characterize all the team members are all but absent here, which leaves us with a rather rote storyline. This is a story that’s literally about a hero retrieving a magical sword and using it to defeat an evil dragon, and the characters that play a role in this are all about as cookie cutter as it gets. Those of you who were really drawn in by the deep character narratives of the more recent titles may be disappointed, then, as none of that can really be found here. The effort put into the localization text is certainly admirable, but there’s only so much that the team could do given the simplistic source material.
Believe it or not, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light was one of the first tactical role-playing games ever made for consoles, and it more or less created the template that the genre would follow in the decades to come. Each chapter contains a battle on a grid-based map with unique layout and enemy placements, and your goal is to rout the enemy as efficiently as possible. Each round sees you taking control of your team members one at a time and giving them one order each to carry out immediately, and once you’ve done all that you want with them, you pass the turn to the enemy to do the same.
Combat plays out by simply selecting an enemy within reach of a character and initiating a battle, though the results of the fight are somewhat random. Each participant in a fight has a chance of either landing critical hits or missing completely, while the base stats of each participant then decide how much damage is done and whether multiple attacks can be executed. It’s a simple enough system that’s easy to understand, though there’s always an element of anxiety to initiating any conflict. If you miscalculate the risk and your team member goes down in a fight, they are permanently killed off and you must continue for the remainder of the game without them unless you reset.
Having such potentially high stakes to each battle forces you to really think specifically about match ups and unit placement for every turn. It may very well be that your wounded cavalier can finish off that pirate, but are you willing to risk him then potentially getting jumped by the three archers planted just a little further up in that valley? Every decision you make feels meaningful because of this pressure, and that goes a long way towards making the gameplay feel engaging. Even a seemingly small choice you make early on, such as how you’re going to divide your units up into ‘squads’ early on, can have make or break consequences later on if you don’t think things through. And even if you do think everything through, that X-factor of randomness can easily destroy your plans when an unexpected unit gets bowled over.
Luckily, those of you who don’t want to stomach sacrificing a couple units on each map don’t have to anymore; Nintendo has bolted on some modern convenience to help turn down the difficulty a bit. The chief new feature is a time rewind that allows you to revert to the beginning of a turn if you don’t like the outcome, granting you a lot more leeway to experiment with your strategy. Though it’s certainly useful, the main drawback here is that it always sends you back to the beginning of a whole turn, which can be a bit much if all you want to rollback is the outcome of one botched battle with one of your units.
This can be sidestepped, however, with smart usage of the new bookmark feature. With this, you can set up a bookmark at any point in time which basically acts as a save state that you can revert to with a couple button presses. You can only have one of these active at a time and their efficacy depends on how much you actively use them, but they can be a godsend in the right situations. For example, if you know a unit will level up after initiating a battle, you can save beforehand and continue to refresh that bookmark until the randomly decided stats from that level up are in line with what you want.
Nintendo didn’t stop there with the convenience factor, as it had the foresight to include a speed up option which can double the overall speed that battles and turns play out. You can tweak this to be specific to either yours or the enemy’s turns, but it’s always nice to have a way of getting around the glacial speed at which battles unfold. Sure, it can be nice to see the basic battle animations play out a handful of times, but the amount of dead air and waiting you have to do across a given map quickly becomes tiresome when there are a dozen of those and you just want to get on with the playing the game.
From a presentation perspective, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light unfortunately doesn’t hold up well. It’s charming in the same way an ugly dog is cute. On the map screen, you’ll see the same extremely basic ‘forest’ or ‘water’ tilesets repeated infinitely throughout the whole experience. On the battle screen, you watch as two simplistic, monochromatic sprites duke it out in front of a solid black backdrop with basic animations. The music doesn’t fair much better either and matters are only made worse by how the speed up feature also speeds up the music into a panicked kind of frenzy. Again, there’s only so much you can expect from an NES game, but it’s abundantly clear that the developers’ ambitions far exceeded the hardware it was developed on.
This is all well and good (and, perhaps, predictable), but it’s especially important that you manage expectations coming into Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, as there are plenty of aspects here that are outdated or frustrating and can combine to make the overall experience a bit of a headache. For example, every character can only carry four items total. That includes weapons and consumables, so it doesn’t take too long for space to run out. The solution is to go to the convoy to deposit or withdraw items, but the convoy itself is only accessible via a single hut that’s in a different location on every map. And if you want to deposit anything there, you have to select them one at a time from the inventory and pay 10 gold each to store them.
Then there are issues with both the flow of information and the gameplay itself. If you want to level up your healers, for example, the only way they can get EXP is literally just by being attacked. So, you have to either leave these extra weak units at the mercy of chance and hope those few enemies don’t kill them off, or you have to plan your whole strategy around ensuring they get hit in the most controlled scenarios possible. If you don’t do this, the healers will most certainly be under-leveled and easily killed on later maps, which can be quite a blow to your limited restoration options.
Another example: you cannot see how far any units on the map can move. The cursor for your units will stop when it reaches the max for that character, but it’s never made clear to you where exactly this will be or how differing terrain may affect it. It would also be helpful to know how far the enemies can move for their turn, but this is something that you simply have to manually count out for yourself if you really want to know.
All of this is to say that most of the issues with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light are simply nitpicks and relics of the time this game was released. In isolation they might be manageable, but there are a lot of them and they all add up to make for a distinctively subpar experience all around. The bones of that famed Fire Emblem gameplay are clearly present in this first attempt, but it’s no exaggeration to say that subsequent entries improved upon this release in every conceivable way. It’s important to keep the context in mind—there’s only so much one can expect out of one of the first tactics games ever made—but this is nonetheless a title which you can play in an age in which the SRPG genre has positively flourished and many of its best examples can be bought on the Switch, too. Time is the currency you need to be considering here. And while Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a neat curiosity and a very welcome localization after thirty long years, we’d contend that your limited time is much better spent on another strategy game than this one.