Game accessibility, new fans, and Fire Emblem

Radiant Dawn, my favorite entry in the Fire Emblem series and quite possibly my favorite game of all time, sells for something like 75 dollars used. The game before it, Path of Radiance (which is also a great game) costs almost double that on Amazon right now, again for a used copy. Being an early fan of something is hard, and this is doubly true when that something has been as comically mismanaged as Fire Emblem; Nintendo has consistently printed too few copies of Fire Emblem games to meet the demand from fans, leading to these ballooned prices that make many of the best games in the series unobtainable for anyone who didn’t snatch a copy early, and for a long time this allowed Nintendo to believe that there was no demand for the series here. This, despite PoR and RD receiving rave reviews from fans. I think this is what makes the success of Fire Emblem Fates so frustrating to me; this is really only the second Fire Emblem game they’ve actually marketed in any meaningful way (and even then, far more than Awakening) and printed enough copies of, so it’s no wonder the game is selling as well as it is. It’s merely tapping into demand that’s always been there. Still, one could easily be fooled into thinking that the Fates games somehow deserve more recognition than earlier games.

But the Fates games are some of the worst in the series. Granted, I liked Birthright well enough, but Conquest and Revelation are unmitigated disasters from a story and mechanics perspective. That makes it incredibly frustrating when I see newer fans claim that the games are a high point for the series despite not having actually played the earlier games. It’d be like someone watching the Star Wars prequel trilogy and coming up to a fan of the original trilogy, only to say something like, “Hey, I know what you see in Star Wars now! Meesa like Jar Jar Binks!” It sounds like an impossible hypothetical, yet that’s the situation I find myself in now.

I don’t hate new fans, mind you. In fact, I think it’s great that Fire Emblem is finally getting the recognition it deserves. The problem is that Nintendo only decided to market the games once they stopped deserving that recognition. The brilliant games in the series have been left to be forgotten, and the mass-marketed, dumbed-down games get the limelight despite having almost nothing to do with Fire Emblem anymore. You know the worst part? They didn’t even have to dumb the games down as much as they did. This all started with the easier difficulty of Shadow Dragon, moved to an option to turn permadeath off in 12 and Awakening, and now Fates has introduced “phoenix mode,” which resurrects any killed units on the very next turn. Because there are now multiple ways to play through the game (permadeath on, permadeath off and characters come back at the end of the chapter, permadeath off and character come back at the end of the turn, and different difficulty modes on top of all that), the difficulty has become hilariously unbalanced. Where before they only had 3 or so difficulty modes, all balanced for permadeath, now there are so many variations that the games don’t even bother pretending to be designed primarily around permadeath anymore (my reviews are filled with examples of this). This is something that you can really only appreciate once you’ve played through Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn on their hardest difficulties, then Awakening on at least the “lunatic” difficulty with permadeath on, and then the Fates games on “hard” or above, again with permadeath on. Earlier games play by a consistent set of rules, so any character deaths will be your own fault. Contrast that with Fates, which is so enamored with its gimmicks that characters can be killed off for as little as opening the wrong door.

It’s a night and day difference that will be lost on most people because they’ll most likely play on normal, or with permadeath off, or otherwise lack the experience with previous games necessary to recognize just how far the series has fallen. Thing is, for the longest time, “normal” was actually the Japanese “easy” difficulty renamed to spare our fragile North American egos. I don’t know if this changed somewhere along the way, but I highly doubt it since the normal difficulty is still the lowest one available in Fates. Because of this, many people are playing on easy without even knowing it, and the balance problems thus never become apparent.

And these new fans deserve better, as do us older fans. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was terrible at Fire Emblem games until Radiant Dawn, playing through Path of Radiance and the Game Boy Advance entries on the easier difficulties the first time I went through them, but part of my love for Radiant Dawn is that it forced me to play smarter. Learning how everything worked and how to use that to my advantage wasn’t a frustrating thing despite my initial lack of talent for the gameplay, either, because the normal difficulty and below allows you to create mid-map saves that aren’t deleted when you load them. Basically, you can save before trying something, and if it doesn’t work, reload and try something else. This made the game surprisingly forgiving and accessible even to someone bad at the games like I was, and it achieved this without sacrificing game balance in the process. Removing weapon durability and adding in phoenix mode, on the other hand, assumes that the audience is so brain-dead that they not only can’t learn how to play the game, but would prefer to have the game play itself. The endless map gimmicks in Conquest and Revelation assume that people lack the attention span to remain focused and engaged without something shiny to retain their interest. In the end, all this accomplishes is to rob these people of the rewarding experience that is learning the gameplay inside and out and then overcoming its fair difficulty.

To me, that is Fire Emblem. I wish you all could have experienced it.

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