Nintendo’s new Fire Emblem is a love letter to a 25-year-old strategy game

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Several years ago, when Kenta Nakanishi’s father passed away, he left his son a handful of personal items. Among them was a copy of Fire Emblem Gaiden for the Nintendo Famicom. “I played it many times,” Nakanishi says, “and I have a strong attachment to the game.” Nakanishi ended up getting a job at Nintendo straight out of university in 2009, and after a few years he got a chance to work on the beloved strategy series, serving in a technical support role on Fire Emblem Awakening. More recently, he took on his first role as a director on Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. But it’s not just a new game in the series — it’s a modern remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden. “It made me love the game even more,” he says of working on the new version.

Fire Emblem Echoes launches tomorrow on the Nintendo 3DS, and for Nakanishi and the developers at Nintendo and Intelligent Systems, it’s a chance to introduce an entirely new audience to the original game. Fire Emblem Gaiden debuted on the Famicom in 1992, and in the ensuing years was never released outside of Japan. But since then, the series has grown in global popularity quite a bit. 2017 in particular feels like a breakout moment for the franchise. Earlier this year Fire Emblem Heroes debuted on mobile, becoming even more lucrative than Super Mario Run, while later this year will see the launch of spin-off Fire Emblem Warriors on Nintendo Switch. A second, currently untitled Switch game is also scheduled for next year.


Fernand, one of the new characters introduced in Fire Emblem Echoes.
Nintendo

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As a 25-year-old game, Fire Emblem Gaiden needed to be updated in a number of ways to make it more accessible for a modern audience. Fire Emblem Echoes features enhanced graphics, 3D dungeons to explore, and more interactive towns where you can talk to characters and learn more about the world. Many of the changes were made because of the fan response to more recent games in the series — namely that Fire Emblem fans get really attached to characters. Echoes features a much more in-depth narrative (the original actually relegated key story moments to the instruction manual), while introducing new characters and fully-voiced dialogue, a first for the series. Japanese illustrator Hidari, also known under the pseudonym “Left Side,” was brought on board to make more appealing character designs.

The biggest challenge was balancing the addition of these new features with maintaining the essence of the original experience. “We wanted to take the original RPG elements from Gaiden,” explains Toshiyuki Kusakihara, director at Intelligent Systems, “and make it more modern and deeper.” Nakanishi adds that “One of the things that was hard for us, was [deciding] how much of the original elements to leave.” Gaiden includes several features that are unique among Fire Emblem games. Casting magic spells will reduce your health, for instance, while at the end of each dungeon you’ll find a stat-increasing shrine. The series has largely moved on from these elements in subsequent games, but those two features in particular were left in Echoes to retain some of the feeling of the original.


Fire Emblem Heroes.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Of course, for fans outside of Japan, Echoes is essentially a brand new game. And because of this it was designed to be more approachable for players who are new to the game or the series. Echoes introduces an optional casual mode that eases up the difficulty, while the name of the game itself was changed so that those unfamiliar with Gaiden wouldn’t be confused. “Because it wasn’t released outside of Japan, and gaiden means side story, people would think ‘What is the side story for?’” says Nakanishi. “So we thought we’d come up with a new title.”

Fire Emblem Gaiden isn’t the only game in the franchise to never make it outside of Japan. In fact, it wasn’t until 2003’s Fire Emblem on Game Boy Advance, the seventh entry in the series, that a main Fire Emblem game launched overseas. Two years prior to that, though, Fire Emblem: Binding Blade star Roy was featured in Nintendo’s global fighting game hit Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube, igniting some early interest in the series. Nintendo hasn’t announced any further remakes for the future — but if Nakanishi had to pick, he knows what game he’d choose. “Unfortunately his story has never been told,” he says of Roy, “so it would be great if we could release a remake of his story.”

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