On Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo

oniichan
The absolute climax of the game.

Year 1990. Nintendo puts out a game titled “Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Ken” for the NES Famicom. Considered a medieval spinoff of Famicom Wars at the time, it was later called the originator of a new genre of video games, a genre I love the crap out of, the SRPG. Long live Fire Emblem and its divorced biological father, Kaga Shouzou. At the time, it must have been seen as a good, revolutionary game. But if you ask me, a 21st century human, it’s nigh-unplayable, just like most NES games, especially of the RPG-like kind. Too klunky to deal with. Fortunately, there is a way to enjoy this historical artifact in a more user-friendly environment. Mere four years after the original FE1 was released, the game got remade. Enter Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo (translated as “The Mystery of the Emblem” or “The Riddle of the Crest“) for the Super Famicom, also known as FE3. The game consists of two “books”, around twenty chapters each: the first one is more-or-less the same as Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Ken, while the second is entirely new content, never seen before 1994.

During my Fire Emblem-playing heyday, I’d wanted to beat this bad boy, but every attempt at playing FE3 ended in a surrender on my part, very early into the game. The reason being: my Japanese wasn’t even close to being good enough. I remember trying to read the intro about Anri the hero and despairing. I understood nothing. Okay, understood the first two characters in that chunk of text: ああ. Until the original FE was remade for the third time as a DS game in 2008, there was no way around the problem for me… unless you count translation patches made by amateurs. Those, however, would translate the game only to a tiny extent. It wasn’t even worth trying them out. So I gave up on FE3 for a long time, carefully hoping that I will be able to play the game in Japanese at some point.

Far future, year 2017. Bednorz returned to demand a rematch, his runemastery more potent than ever before… For he does not resign, he only puts things on hold. I won that long-ass fight relatively recently, in late 2019, so I’d better write down my impressions while they’re still fresh.

BOOK ONE

Let’s start with the plot. So there’s prince Marth (Mars?) whose homeland is invaded by one of the nations of the fictional continent this story takes place in, so he’ll have to gather a little army of fantasy peeps to fight back, and eventually he’ll battle an evil wizard and an evil dragon. Classic heroic fantasy fare, right? This isn’t a very detailed description and you can see from it how much I cared for the story in FE3. I tried, but couldn’t. Let’s just say it’s the thinnest possible excuse to have a game about a war fought with might and magic. It’s nowhere near the narrative refinement of later Fire Emblems. Maybe I’d follow the story with more attention and would put more effort into trying to unpack the tale FE3 serves the player if I were younger. There was a time when I played JRPGs for the plot. I’d treat their stories with utmost seriousness and then analyze and compare them to do some teenage kid-level research into theory of literature. But, that stopped at some point. Probably because I started reading actual books, and now I do video games solely for the gameplay.

So, let’s get to the good stuff. After the first few chapters, I found myself positively surprised. The game is unexpectedly advanced for something originally made in 1990, I thought. I had very low expectations of this SNES remake of a NES game, and that low bar was not only reached, the game flew high over it. FE3 might be rather ugly and controls in a clunky way compared to modern turn-based strategies, but it’s hiding a modern game under that modest exterior. And nowhere is that quality more instantly apparent than in level design. The maps are planned pretty-much the same way as in GBA Fire Emblems. I found the similarity of this ancient piece of software to FE7 quite astonishing. The core of gameplay in FE is so solid, it survived until this day with barely any changes made to it. Nominally, every chapter ends when you conquer the enemy castle by placing Marth on it. But, every map involves an invisible (mostly non-mandatory) list of objectives to fulfill – the more you manage to strike off that list through wise commandeering, the better. Here’s several memorable adventures I had in FE3 that illustrate its refinement:

– Chapter 1: You were ambushed by some axe-wielding pirates and have very limited resources that you’ll have to put to work in order to survive. Enemies will be coming at you in waves from two sides, so you’d better form two little barricades to withstand their onslaught. You don’t have a healer or healing items and the only way you can recover HP is placing units on forts – you have two at your disposal. Juggle your units around, make them leap from the frontline to the forts and back. And pray so that none of your peeps die. After all the waves of enemy units are taken care of, you can just march into the enemy castle carefreely.
– Chapter 7: There’s one linear road from the starting point to the enemy castle, but on the way there are two clusters of enemy forts which produce a destructive horde of units every turn. Thankfully, you were given a whole bunch of cavalry units in the previous chapter, so you can place them on the forts to prevent enemy reinforcement from appearing. You could do that. OR, you could just let them come at you. Old Fire Emblems had no repeatable maps, so you will need that precious EXP. Can you survive being absolutely flooded by enemies, though? The choice is yours.
– Chapter 11: Firstly: there’s two (maybe even three?) paths you can follow to get to the boss. I ended up choosing the longest and most costly one. The shorter one seemed unavailable for some reason. When I looked up the walkthrough and learned how to make it available, it was too late. You see, you need to have your thief use a lockpick to *open the bridge*. Suuuure, ain’t that obvious. Every bridge ever has a keyhole that you need to put a key in to open the bridge, right? Damn you, game. Secondly, there are some treasure chests at the bottom of the map. It’s 100% possible to send a pegasus knight, the class able to travel the furthest, to defend them from an enemy thief – you can make it in time if you make no mistakes. But, the walkthrough told me of a way I’d never be able to come up with myself. To use the Warp Staff, an item I always considered useless. That’s wicked cool.
– Chapter 17: A circular fortress in the middle of the map, with only one entrance to the north. Your units start the map at its southern edge. Do you go left or do you go right? Whatever you choose, each way has its own advantages and dangers. You could split your subjects up into two squadrons too, I guess. Also, enemies will appear behind you, to the south as well, at some point. Lost a unit in this hell of a chapter.

The deeper into FE3, the more that initial positive impression fades. It should be expected, considering it’s a thirty year-old game (and a Fire Emblem, to boot), but FE3 is HARD. Playing with a walkthrough is highly recommended. The one on GameFAQs is written in pseudo-English, but still helps a lot. There’s a multitude of factors chipping in to make playing FE3 a nightmare – although it’s a part of a game series celebrated for its replay value, if you think you want to give it a spin, I recommend just beating it once, the easiest possible way, and never again. Unless you consider perfecting that one optimal path through it a desirable challenge. Let’s see… Heavy reliance on randomness – but I guess that’s the norm in Fire Emblems. The limited EXP thing. And then there are the swords. Although you’re encouraged to obey the weapon triangle, the perfectly balanced system of relations between weapon types… everybody and their grandma is a sword user in FE3! Why? Kaga Shouzou must have had a grudge against axe users, I tell you. The list of swords available in the game is quite long, while the list of lances is like half of that. If I remember correctly, you don’t get a single playable axe user in Book 2. You do receive one axe in one of the houses you can visit, and even the house’s resident is like “you should sell this”. Oh and axe fighters can’t promote for some reason – even more Axe Discrimination. I think you get a slightly different ending if you manage to keep all your peeps alive till the end. Well, I did not…

BOOK TWO

It’s all “new” content from now on – made in 1994. And it shows. Let us have a look at how it fares in the plot department first. Book Two is a sequel the classic fantasy story didn’t know it needed. You could call it an “alternative” narrative of sorts, since it features mostly the same cast of characters in an all-new story. Some of the old allies are now enemies. Some appear in entirely new roles and we get to see them from a yet-unknown side. Some return in their old guises, but we get to explore them more. The story goes like this: peace has returned to Fantasyland, but, humans being humans, it couldn’t last for long. A ruler of one of the continent’s kingdoms announces he’s now an emperor and goes on a bloody tour of lies, traps and explicit warfare. So, Marth will have to take up arms again and fight back. That unassuming cavalry unit you had in your army in Book One and probably never used? That’s him, he’s the bad guy now. Pretty neat, ain’t it. I do appreciate this “remix” kind of energy the story exudes. That may not be the pinnacle of invention, but storywise, I liked Book Two much more than the unimaginative first one. The two-book structure could be seen as a harbinger of what we got in FE4, although the relation between the books here isn’t even close to the brilliant idea of two generations of units, one influencing the other. I wouldn’t mind the option to inherit the units’ levels from Book One, though.

Book Two is superior when it comes to gameplay, as well. Here are some of my favorite moments from it:
– Chapter 4: Your units are divided into two clusters – the main one and a small brigade on the other end of the map. It’ll be hard to survive, but one of the peeps in the smaller, and more endangered, group has a Rescue Staff, allowing to siphon some units from one cluster to another to make this challenge easier. You could deplete the staff’s five uses like I did… or you could restrain yourself, since the Rescue Staff will be tremendously useful in later chapters.
– Chapter 7: You’re in a forest with a whole horde of thieves running away from you, wanting to reach the edge of the map and vanish off of it forever. Several of them carry Zodiac Orbs, so you DO want to prevent them from fleeing. I should mention that outside of the forest, hellishly powerful enemy units lie in wait. I think this is where I failed to get one orb, screwing myself over and spoiling the entire playthrough, unaware of what I’m doing. Fun times.
– Chapter 10: In the center of the map, two people are arguing. One is Marik, the mage you probably used in Book One. The other is Elrain, the boss of this chapter. They’re at each other’s throats and their fight could end in mutual destruction, but their fate is in your hands. Both are recruitable units, you can get them to meekly join your army. A feat easy to achieve… if you have the Rescue Staff. I only managed to save Marik, but barely.
– Chapter 19: The enemy castle is surrounded by eight forts spewing out tough enemies like there’s no tomorrow. Conquering the castle without securing those eight points, and nailing your units to one place that they can’t run away from, will be needed to finish this map. A challenge to be expected from the penultimate chapter.

Playing the game might have become a more palatable, rationalized experience now, but by no means is it easy. At least you get a healer at the very beginning. Also, one thing I’d like to praise Book Two for is: I was able to max out most of my units! And I didn’t have to resort to any tricks, it was easy. It just happened by itself. This time, the game throws EXP at you in generous doses, making the goal of producing a completed ten-member team during 20 chapters achieveable. Which is a feat if you consider that among old Fire Emblems, no game before or after Book Two let you do that (maybe excepting the Hector route in FE7). Why isn’t this the norm? That’s enough praise, however. I have some unforgivable shit to complain about. From what I remember, there is a moment in Book One where Marth needs to have two Orbs on him, or you’re screwed and your playthrough ends prematurely. This happens without warning – thank god I read the walkthrough. If that wasn’t bad enough, Book Two has this… times twelve. The twelve Zodiac Orbs falling out of some enemies – you are not informed what they’re for, and if it turns out you missed one… you’re not 100% screwed, but the game will end after chapter 20. Otherwise, there would be two additional chapters and a True End waiting beyond them. If you look at the bright side of life, you could say “wow, this game has multiple endings!”. Me, however, I’d like to say “fuck you too, game”.

To wrap this up, I’d like a word or two about the production values. The game looks as good as you’d expect something from 1994 to look like. Navy-colored dialogue boxes. Green squares to indicate grass, one hue of green only. One tileset used to put the maps together in all chapters (with some expections). Book Two looks a bit prettier – some of the game’s ugliness can be attributed to its NES roots. Character potraits and unit animations on the map might look familiar if you’ve played FE4. Familiar, but not the same, they were prettied up in Seisen no Keifu. I should also mention the music, which also noticeably improves in Book Two. The all-new, original tunes sound way better than remakes of chiptunes from Ankoku Ryuu. It can’t be helped. Tsujiyoko Yuka made sure the tunes remain in your memory.

I guess that’s enough about FE3. Final conclusion: this game belongs in a museum. Beating it is a challenge only for the brave. Treat is as a historical source, not something to expect too much from, in any aspect.

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