Fire Emblem: Dark Dragon and the Sword of Light (ファイアーエムブレム 暗黒竜と光の剣)
Release Date: 4/20/1990
System: Famicom, later remade on the Super Famicom and Nintendo DS
Designer: Kaga Shozo, Intelligent Systems
- Turn type: Player turn/enemy turn.
- Maps: Fairly large. Terrain gives evade bonuses, but nothing else. No height.
- Character customization: None.
- Character development: Standard XP level system. Stat gains based on innate “growth rates” that differ by character. At level 10, some characters can promote to an upgraded class with the right item.
- Party size: There are a total of 52 characters in the game (51 total can be acquired). At most 15 can be deployed in any stage.
- Equipment: Each character has 4 items, including weapons and usable items. There is no armor.
- Game flow: Each stage follows the previous one; maps cannot be repeated. There is no exploration or intermission screen between maps. No alternate paths or secret maps.
- Saving: Only after completing a stage. A temporary “suspend” save can be made during a stage.
- Death: Permadeath.
Reviewing retro games can be difficult because it’s hard to know what standpoint you should look at them from. The reason I called this “impressions” rather than a review is that I don’t want to give any suggestion that this is an objective review. This is simply my own experience playing these games — someone who has been playing video games since the early 1980s. I can’t put myself in the mindset of how I might have thought of this game if I had played it in 1990. So at times my comments are unfair from the standpoint of what we could reasonably expect of Kaga and the other developers at the time. Given what they had to go on at the time I think they did a really good job with the game. And of course they get a lot of credit for starting a franchise that is still going strong 28 years later, and doing a lot to start the SRPG genre.
I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first. There are two problems that hurt my enjoyment of the game. The first is the item handling interface. Each person can only hold 4 items. There’s no intermission screen where you can transfer items, so everything has to be done on the map. You can store extra items in a storage unit. But buying, transferring, storing, and retrieving items is painful. I would often put it off because I didn’t want to deal with it. There are other issues with the interface as well — not being able to easily see movement ranges, not being sure how much damage anyone is going to do without manually calculating formulas.
The second problem is the permadeath of units. I can’t deny that this adds a lot of tension and strategy to the game — you can’t simply throw all your units forward in a mad rush and win as long as you beat the boss, or abuse the arena to power level. But it’s too easy to lose a character because of an unlucky critical hit, or because you made a placement mistake or forgot to check an enemy inventory. When this happens 40 minutes into a stage it’s very demoralizing. In fact this is why I have never finished a Fire Emblem game before this one. I found that my compromise of one save state per stage worked pretty well. It still meant that I couldn’t just move units without thinking, but a simple mistake didn’t send me all the way back to the beginning. I always wondered if the designers intended for you to lose characters and keep playing (they give you 51!) but judging from the developer comments that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The game balance is spotty. The classes and characters vary widely in ability — the axe users, for instance, get poor weapons and generally bad stats, and can’t promote. The Social Knights start out much better (with greater movement, weapon choice, stats) and can promote. You can probably win the game with all kinds of parties but it’s nice when the characters are closer in ability.
There is the opportunity for a fair amount of strategy in the game. Unit placement is extremely important because of how easy it is to get ganged up on and killed in the enemy turns. Going slow helps a lot with this, but often the designers have encouraged faster play by including thieves that steal chests and destroy towns, or reinforcements that start coming out if you take too long.
The storyline is really nothing to speak of — most of the characters barely exist beyond an initial dialogue, and the plot is all given in the instruction manual. You know at the beginning of the game you’re going to recover the Falchion and beat Medius, and that’s what you do.
Overall I think this is an impressive effort for 1990, and it still held together pretty well for me. The rough edges are to be expected from a game of this era, particularly one that was still inventing a genre. I wouldn’t particularly recommend the game except for FE or SRPG fans who really want to see how the franchise/genre started. If you’re interested in the characters or (fairly light) story, you might as well play the remake in Mystery of the Emblem, or the total remake for the DS.