An Examination of Fire Emblem: Awakening

For many of us, our exposure to Fire Emblem went something like this:

“Yeah man, I’m so excited to play Super Smash Bros. Melee!”
“Me too! This is going to be awesome.”
“Wait…who’s Marth? Or Roy? What?”

Super Smash Bros. Melee, of course, went on to be the best-selling game of the Gamecube, selling 7.07 million copies and thereby exposing those people to Fire Emblem. Marth and Roy were favorite characters for many, and two years later Nintendo decided to release the first Fire Emblem outside of Japan. A strategy RPG like the others before it, this game for the Gameboy Advance (to which I will refer as ‘Fire Emblem 7’ because it was not given a subtitle outside of Japan) was the seventh in the series, was received well, and to date is the highest selling Fire Emblem game to be released. I bought it on a whim—little did I know that I would put over 100 hours into that game or that I would become a huge fan of what is, truly, an under-appreciated gem of a game series.

Ten years after Fire Emblem 7 and four more global Fire Emblems later, Nintendo brought the 3DS title Fire Emblem: Awakening across the Pacific Ocean. The Fire Emblem series has never been a giant commercial success, and after the previous title for the DS failed to sail across the sea, some were skeptical of Awakening’s global release. Thankfully, Nintendo did so. It was a great decision for everyone involved because it is the best game in the series.

Yes—Fire Emblem: Awakening is the best Fire Emblem game ever.

This is not a review. Reviews assign an arbitrary and biased number to something that can’t be quantified, and are meant for people who are knowledgeable about the subject. I wager that most of my readers haven’t played a Fire Emblem game (your loss), but the success of Awakening can be illuminated in a way that is applicable to art and entertainment of all kinds. So, why is Fire Emblem: Awakening successful?

1) Narrative
For an RPG (role-playing game), story is central to the event. Fire Emblem: Awakening succeeds in its narrative. Therefore, Fire Emblem succeeds as an RPG. Obviously, the best story in the world can’t save something if it’s boring (paging 2001: A Space Odyssey), but a fun game isn’t everything in a story-centric game. Not only does Awakening have a stellar central campaign story featuring difficult dilemmas, but Awakening presents a depth that is rarely offered in games. Through a mechanic called the support system, you gain insight into the roster of characters you have recruited. Conversations between characters are unlocked after they achieve a certain relationship level (improved by fighting beside each other). You care about the battle much more when each character has a history and relationships with other characters. Without character, there is no true conflict or stress. If you don’t believe me, go play a game of Risk and try and care about your troops as more than tools to be used. You can’t, because all you care about is taking North America from the blue army. Those idiots.

2) Mechanics
Mechanics are different for every media. For books, mechanics are the functional use of language and syntax; for movies, mechanics are lighting, effects, staging, editing, and the like. For a game, mechanics is simply how the game works. For instance, in the earlier Fire Emblem games, weapon types (axes, swords, lances) functioned the same against all other weapon types. Eventually, the ‘weapon triangle’ was established, wherein swords>axes>lances>swords. Awakening implements mechanics, new and old, perfectly. There is not a mechanic out of place nor a mechanic that is unbalanced. Often an overlooked part of game design, good mechanics result in smooth gameplay. Bad mechanics result in Superman 64.

3) Synthesis
Sequels are tricky because they are inevitably compared to the source material. Introductions of new elements can sometimes make the sequel feel entirely different, while reliance upon previous elements will result in stagnation and boredom. Awakening’s prime success is that it is a perfect synthesis–it takes the best elements from previous games, polishes them, and presents them together in an unmistakably original game. It features marriages, children, and skills from FE4; multiple main characters from FE7; an open map, side battles, and optional promotions from FE8; transforming characters from FE9; the non-traditional class structure of FE10; re-classing from FE11; and a customizable player character from FE12. In any series, reusing concepts is normal and inevitable. However, using previously established concepts in a new way is rare. Furthermore, Awakening presents new ideas in the form of downloadable content, wireless bonuses, and a far deeper multiplayer.

If you have a Nintendo 3DS and have not played Fire Emblem: Awakening, do so. Awakening is a great game, a solid introduction to the series, and an example of a sequel done right. But it may take over your life. You have been warned.


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