Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light Review

Consider this as one of those “well, I never thought I’d see the day” sort of releases. In a surprise move, Nintendo brought back its original Fire Emblem game to celebrate the series’ 30th Anniversary. It’s an incredibly surprising move considering the game never originally released outside of Japan back in 1990, although it did see a Nintendo DS remake in 2009. This re-release of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is really quite impressive. Not only did Nintendo localize the original NES game, but they brought with it a number of new features that modern “retro classics” have brought to the table. While the surprising re-release, emulation, and new features are extremely welcomed, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is a really rough game to go back to.

As I mentioned above, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light originally released on the Famicom in Japan in 1990. In it, you play as Prince Marth, a deposed royal who’s been driven into exile after the neighboring country of Dolhr invaded his home of Altea. Marth’s only hope of reclaiming the throne and freeing his people lies in the mystical sword Falchion and the titular Fire Emblem, which grants him the right to wield the sword. Guided by friends and allies he meets along his journey, Marth thus begins his slow march back to his homeland to win back his birthright. Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light might not be a well known game in the West, but in Japan it’s thanks to this game that the tactical RPG genre took off. This, of course, started the Fire Emblem series we are all familiar with.

First things first, I have to genuinely say how happy I am that this game got localized and released on Switch. There are so many games we simply didn’t get in the West from Nintendo that it is so welcoming to see Nintendo willing to go back and bring the game to a (large) new audience. We’ve seen smaller attempts on Switch with previously Japan-only releases launching on NES/SNES Switch Online. This time around, Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light gets a full modern “make over” of sorts. Hopefully, this is a trend Nintendo continues with moving forward.

It’s also really nice to see the great work in the localization and emulation done on this re-release on Switch. Everything has been fully translated to English, and while not having quite the free rein on localizing the script, the localization team did a great job translating the game. The emulation is equally as nice, which is to be expected from the people over at NERD (Nintendo European Research and Development team). They know how to do a great job at making these older games look and play nicely on newer machines. The additional enhancements made to this re-release are where it really shines.

Nintendo understood that the game had its fair share of issues. Each turn could take a very long time as you watch both your team and the enemy team slowly move each team member around the map. Thankfully, a speed-up feature has been added. Or perhaps you made a mistake in your turn, which resulted in you losing a valuable member of your team. Well, now there is a rewind feature. Even more frustrating could be losing at the last possible moment after spending a lengthy time in battle. Some battles could take anywhere from 5 minutes to a whole hour to complete. The new bookmark feature lets you save your game at any point, making it easy to pick back up and play or saving your game constantly so that you never make the “wrong” move. It’s these enhancements that really make this re-release shine. It’s genuinely like someone read many of the common complaints about Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light and said, “Hey, we should do something about this.” It finally makes the game feel a bit more friendly to players. Only a bit though.

The biggest issue I have with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is that it has not aged very well. As the series went on, refinements were made to the gameplay that ultimately made it a better series. So, for you to go all the way back to the beginning, it’s a bit like running into a brick wall. The rules you’re accustomed to don’t exist yet, and the game is brutally hard. For example, every character can only carry four items total. That includes weapons and consumables, which means you’ll run out of space extremely quickly. The solution is to go to the convoy to deposit items, but the convoy itself is only accessible via a single hut that’s in a different location on every single map. And if you want to deposit anything there, you have to select them one at a time from the inventory and pay 10 gold each to store them.

Another example of the game not aging well is that you cannot see how far any of your units on the map can move. The cursor for your units will stop when it reaches the furthest possible point for that character, but it’s never made clear where exactly this will be. This is made even worse by the fact that in Fire Emblem games, where you are is as important as who you are. Differing terrain has a major effect on how successful or unsuccessful your attacks are. So, stopping on top of a mountain might lower your attack power against the enemy; however, the game never makes it clear that you made it to the top of mountain until it’s too late. It would also be helpful to know how far the enemies can move for their turn. However, the game doesn’t tell you this at all, meaning you’ll likely find yourself in many situations where your character is surrounded by enemies because you didn’t know the enemy could move there. I suppose this is something that you could, in theory, count out for yourself if you really want to know. It’s these small issues that all build up incredibly quickly to make the game more frustrating than fun.

Which brings me to the ultimate question: Is Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light on Switch a good game? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it’s a fascinating chance to go back to the original, never released game and experience the series from the start. It’s interesting to see where Marth came from and where some of the series’ staples originated. On the flip side, it’s a game made in 1990 that feels very much like a game made in 1990. The enhancements added to make the game better/faster are great, but the fundamental game itself is frustratingly hard and confusing. Remarkably, Nintendo brought this to Switch for the really reasonable price of $5.99. This makes it easier for me to recommend as you’re not out that much money if you aren’t enjoying your time with the game. Fire Emblem fans (like myself) are likely the only ones who will actually enjoy going back to this game, although even then, it’s a frustrating experience.

Developer: Intelligent Systems

Publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Release Date: 4th December 2020


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