Oddly enough, this will be the longest post I’ve put up here so far. It’s over four thousand words long—I’m breaking my own rule about having short entries! I do hope it’s worth it, though, since it involves issues I’ve brought up in two previous posts.
I have not-so-subtly implied that I’m no longer a fervent fan of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series of videogames. This is despite the fact I still write quite extensive fanfiction for it, and despite the fact that I was once very fond of it. After brushing past this matter in two previous posts, I suppose it’s high time my readers (however few of them there may be, here XD) get the full story!
I suppose I should explain what got me into Fire Emblem in the first place. Ever since I was a young child, I’ve been playing videogames, and ever since I’ve been playing videogames, I’ve loved Strategy Role-Playing Games. I started out on RPGs (Final Fantasy II/IV) with my best friend, but when we started playing Ogre Battle together I got hooked on that genre. Time passed, and I discovered the emulation scene when I was in…oh, I don’t know, maybe eighth grade. I experimented and experimented, and found I could not only download and play my favorite SNES and Genesis games, but also games that were never released at all in America! Most of them were in Japanese, of course, but that didn’t stop me…I tried to muddle through all those fantastic games as best as I could even without knowing the language. I did quite well at some of them, too. I wrote up a guide for Vixen 357, a mecha SRPG for the Genesis, by beating the whole thing without understanding a word of it! And, of course, sometimes there were wonderful translation patches for me to enjoy, such as those for Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) 3 and Bahamut Lagoon.
One such game series I encountered was Fire Emblem. I fell in love with it for many of the same reasons I loved Ogre Battle; it had many of the same strengths. A medieval setting, challenging strategy, a wide variety of weapons to equip and classes to deploy…every game in the series had these features. Fire Emblem had them when I first tried FE3 and FE4, it had them when I joined my first Fire Emblem forum (this was around the time FE7 was released in English, the first entry in the series to make it here), and it still has them today.
And yet I find those strengths are still not enough to keep me attached to the series. In fact, I haven’t even bought or played Fire Emblem 13! The best selling entry the franchise has seen in a while, and one which has received excellent reviews. That’s how burnt out I am about the games. To an extent this may be because I already read the script and the supports when they were posted on Serenes Forest (the largest English FE site at present) and already “spoiled” the whole game for myself. This is also why I leave reviews for FE13 fanfiction. I’ve read enough of the game’s script to be familiar with what people are writing about. However, most of this ‘disillusionment’ is simply due to my own personal burnout as I grow older. This will, of course, be a subject for another post, perhaps (I say this quite a lot, don’t I?), but over the course of my life, I have noticed I have grown steadily less enthusiastic, or at least passionate, about very nearly everything as I have left my high school years further and further behind me. Anime, TV shows, books, magazines, music…nearly every brand I was once fanatically devoted to, ranging from obsessively watching everything Babylon 5 related I could see, to devouring every one of R.A. Salvatore’s novels, elicits little more than indifference in me now. That’s a bit too harsh—I still feel affection for them—but I’m definitely not as excited about them as I used to be as a teenager. Hell, I used to despair if I missed a showing of Toonami or Adult Swim. Now I don’t even watch TV. This same…ennui, you could call it, has seeped into my feelings about video games in general, and by extension Fire Emblem. I’m no longer as passionate about FE because I’m no longer passionate about much of anything. Perhaps that’s sad…or perhaps it’s something everyone goes through as they turn from a boy or girl to a man or woman. Who knows?
Equally important is my relationship to the Fire Emblem fandom itself. As I’ve stated previously, I have nothing but love for the friends I’ve made through the various FE fora across the Internet. However, most of them have lost their interest in Fire Emblem as well (some aren’t into video games any more, others are into other games like Dragon’s Dogma these days, and so on), and thus, it’s unsurprising. Where my friends go, I go, and if they leave the FE fandom, I’ll leave with them. While I’ve made many wonderful friends more recently over the course of my reviewing the Fire Emblem section of Fanfiction.net, many of them have moved on from FE as well! I thus get the distinct impression I ought to follow them.
There is also the (comparatively) minor issue of all the disagreements I’ve gotten into over the years…this is, for the second time, a topic for a future post (though I do discuss it a little bit in the ‘about’ section), but I’ve had an extremely strange Internet career, going from an unknown to a high-ranking moderator on a forum before ‘falling off the wagon’ and spending several years as a somewhat notorious Livejournal troll. As you can hopefully tell, I’ve settled down since my wild adolescence, and have found a very happy balance in my life. I’ve been living peacefully, gained some measure of respect among my friends in the Castlevania and mecha communities, and have actually done a decent deal of good for both. Still, there are some from a lot of my old hangouts (Fire-Emblem related and not) who dislike me, and I’ve ran into some trouble with other groups in the FE fandom as well. Thankfully, most of that is behind me, but it’s still more irritation than I’m willing to deal with right now. Thus, I find my relationship to both the FE fandom and the games themselves growing more tenuous, and wager that I’ll be gone entirely once Wayward Son is finished.
Of course, that’s not the main reason I don’t pay much attention to the Fire Emblem games themselves. One will always run into conflicts with others; allowing that to impact what you like will result in you not liking much of anything at all. It’s a minor thing anyways and I don’t even pay it much attention, I only brought it up for completion’s sake. No, as I’ve grown older I’ve found the Fire Emblem games themselves are less and less appealing to me, for reasons involving both the basic gameplay/structure of the series as well as their stories. You may not agree with these, dear reader (and either way, I encourage you to comment and make your voice heard, if you’re so inclined), but I hope they’re legitimate from a gamer’s perspective. I at least hope they’re more compelling reasons for abandoning a series than general ennui or fandom dissolution!
(Note: Please keep in mind this contains spoilers for both the Fire Emblem and the Ogre Battle series of games)
1: Not enough customization
One of the things I loved most about the aforementioned Ogre Battle is the sheer variety of class and equipment choices. To make a long story short, in the original Ogre Battle your units started out as either Fighters or Amazons (this isn’t even taking into account Dragons, Undead, and other monsters). From those two classes you could make dozens! The fighters could turn into Knights, Samurai, Wizards, Ninjas, Wild Men, and Doll Masters, among others, while the Amazons could turn into Witches, Priestesses, Valkyries and other female classes. Then you could promote those into third tier classes—Knights into Paladins, Valkyries into Muses, and so on. In Fire Emblem, however, for nearly all the games, class changing was much more limited. You started out as one class (Armor Knight, Mercenary, etc.) which could promote into only one class (General, Hero, etc.). Nowhere near as much diversity or customization!
Now, later FEs were better about this. There were branching promotions (sort of) in FE2, and definitely branching promotions in FE8 and 13. There have been third tier promotions since FE10, and ever since FE11 we’ve also had the Reclass option, where you can change a given unit’s class into another of equal power. Those are still sort of limited compared to the other games in the Ogre Battle series, though. FE13, the most advanced game in the series (as far as I understand, at least) has both branching promotions and reclass options. For instance, you can choose to promote your Armor Knight either a General (super powerful Armor Knight) or a Great Knight (heavily armored cavalryman). Then you can change his class around to a General, Great Knight, or some other classes, like Sage or Priest. Sounds cool, right?
I guess it is, but it’s still not enough for me. Later games in the Ogre Battle series, or at least those from its creator, Yasumi Matsuno, have gone even further. Take, for instance, Final Fantasy Tactics. Not an Ogre Battle game, but a game Mr. Matsuno directed. In that game, to simplify a complex system, you can do more than choose between a set of classes—you can make your own! If you progress far enough into a certain class, the skills of that class will become permanently attached to the character, and you can then mix and match skills from wholly separate classes. For instance, if you have a character who’s leveled up his Knight, Priest, and Black Mage classes, you can set him up to have the equipment of a Knight, the healing skills of a Priest, and the magic-resisting skills of a Black Mage, so he’s some super hybrid class! There are classes like those in FE, sure—the Master Knight, Mage Knight, and Black Knight classes come to mind—but none which come close to the same diversity you could have in FFT, where you can mix and match almost any class you like instead of having to choose from a pre-built one. A similar system is in Matsuno’s Tactics Ogre, which actually is part of the Ogre Battle series and is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorite games. You can mix and match skills from all kinds of classes, within limits. Since FE doesn’t have a system like that, it doesn’t appeal to me as much.
Now, I don’t want to come across as too much of a Matsuno fanboy, or too harsh on FE. Still, for me, personally, character/unit customization is one of the primary draws of SRPGs. Fire Emblem can’t provide as much of that as I’d like, so it’s fallen by the wayside for me.
2: Too linear
The second problem I’ve been having with the FE games concerns their linearity. Specifically, there’s almost no choice, at least no meaningful choice, in how you can progress through the game. For Fire Emblems 1-4, you just went through mission after mission in the same order to go straight to the end. FE2 did have a world map system, which added a bit of exploration, and FE4 had a system where you could breed ( Hehe :D;; ) characters from the first generation to make stronger kids in the second. This added some replay value. Still, the plot itself was totally straightforward. You’d always go through the exact same missions every time, with no deviations or ability to choose a different path through the plot.
FE 5 and 6 changed this up slightly. In these games, there were branching paths which led you through entirely different areas of the world, and thus had different stages, different bosses, different recruitable characters, and different plot points. Most other FE games from then on have that aspect to them, which is good. Even so, these branching paths are pretty limited. They only encompass 2 or 3 stages at the most, and always lead back to the same finale. The last boss is usually the same (except in FE3, 6, and 12 where you can screw up and get a fake boss and the bad ending) and the larger, over-arching plot remains essentially unchanged, with the exception of a few minor characters.
Is that enough for me? Unfortunately, no. Again, a comparison to Tactics Ogre is worth it here. In Tactics Ogre, the branching paths you choose have an effect on the ENTIRE GAME. I don’t want to spoil too much for you, but you make a big decision at the end of the first chapter which sets you on either a “lawful” path or a “chaotic” path, and these two are completely different. Almost entirely different stages, recruitable characters, and plotlines, since you’ll be on a different side of the battlefield each time. They come to a common last chapter and last boss, true, but unlike the Fire Emblem games, in Tactics Ogre you have a whole bunch of different endings depending on how you progressed! In Fire Emblem, the most you can get is either a good, “true” ending or a smaller bad one if you didn’t complete all the objectives—and in most of them, not even that. In Tactics Ogre, however, either your character or another can become King or Queen, and if he becomes King there are different outcomes (he gets assassinated, or prepares to defend his country from an invasion, and so on). The original Ogre Battle had even more endings—nearly a dozen in all, IIRC, ranging from your hero becoming a good king to abdicating the throne to becoming an evil tyrant.
That diversity is nowhere to be found in Fire Emblem, alas. Thus, without a wider variety of multiple endings, and without a wider variety of meaningful branching plot points through the game itself, all the Fire Emblem games, including FE13, from what I’ve heard, are seeming less and less appealing to me. Again, this is just my personal preference; FE fans would undoubtedly feel differently, and I respect that. I’m just explaining why I, personally, am getting cold on the series.
Finally, we come to the last thing souring me on Fire Emblem:
3: Not enough moral complexity—the heroes are generally too ‘morally pure’ for my tastes.
This may sound somewhat strange, and it may be the most controversial point I’ve made here. After all, not every game needs to be “grimdark” where the protagonists are amoral or psychopathic, and Fire Emblem is already known for having a “grey” morality (Spoilers): Many of the characters you fight and are forced to kill are sympathetic or oftentimes good, simply misguided or even forced to fight against their will. Similarly, many of the countries you fight for aren’t all good themselves, often having committed war crimes or oppressed minority groups, which ends up causing the conflicts which motivate the games.
In pretty much every Fire Emblem game, however, the heroes themselves, while not always spotless, come pretty close to it. In FE 1, 3, 11, and 12, the protagonist, Marth, is young and naïve, but aside from that he’s an entirely stand-up guy who never does anything morally dubious. Same with Alm from FE2. In Fire Emblem 4, the main character Sigurd does screw things up a great deal, but that’s more because he’s easily deceived and not very smart. Again, he doesn’t really have any *moral* failings, like cowardice, cruelty, or ruthlessness. Leaf from FE5 and Roy from FE6 are pretty much the same: naïve and ignorant at times, but morally upright.
Fire Emblem 7 adds a bit more complexity, if just a bit. It has three main lords—Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector. Lyn is an honorable girl, but she was born in a “primitive” country (Sacae) and is unsuited to ruling a more “civilized” one, which is why she abdicates at the end of the game. Hector is loyal and good natured, but also impulsive and boorish. He’s a bit more ruthless and unforgiving than Lords usually are, threatening enemies and enemies-turned-friends, though not really doing much more than threatening them. Whatever moral flaws he has aren’t important aspects of the plot. Eliwood, finally, is a decent guy all around, but he ends up killing his love interest accidentally after being manipulated by the main villain. Of course, she comes back to life at the end, so it doesn’t really matter! In FE8, the heroes themselves are, again, fundamentally decent people, and the main moral conflict of that story is how their friend Lyon was possessed by an evil demon that set him against them.
Fire Emblem 9 has a somewhat different main character, Ike. Rather than a noble or prince, he’s just a mercenary who rises up to become a leader. He’s therefore more gruff and less refined, which does lead to some problems when he has to negotiate with nobles or high-ranking officials. Once again, though, *morally* he has no particular flaws. He’s honest, forthright, courageous, and treats all people equally regardless of race (which is important, as racism is a big theme in that game).
Fire Emblem 10 comes closest to having the sort of moral ambiguity or complexity I like. In that game, one of the main characters, named Micaiah, can choose to kill the kind, sympathetic prince of her nation and also commits a war crime against invading troops, pouring burning oil over a bunch of them. Unfortunately, both those instances are rendered meaningless by the game’s narrative structure. If you kill Prince Pelleas, the game plays out essentially exactly the same as if you hadn’t. You don’t get to recruit him, but otherwise everything—the progression of the plot, the stages you go through, and so on—remains more or less unchanged, aside from some differences in the dialogue. Micaiah’s use of oil doesn’t really affect anything at all, it just inconveniences her enemies. It’s not even brought up again.
11 and 12 are remakes of the two halves of FE3, and aside from some changes in Marth’s personality and the addition of new (and optional) minor characters, remain essentially the same. From what I’ve read of FE13’s script, while the protagonist’s homeland committed war crimes in the past, the main character himself, Chrom, is once again a decent, stand-up guy in all respects. His flaws do cause some issues in the plot, but those flaws consist of being too trusting and not particularly intelligent or perceptive. Again, they’re not really moral failings.
I hope you’ve been seeing a common thread in the above paragraphs. In pretty much every Fire Emblem game, the main character and his or her cause typically have either little or meaningless *moral* ambiguity. For every Fire Emblem except for maybe 10, the lords are all decent people who never actually do anything morally troubling. They’re just naïve, or manipulated or too unperceptive to notice they’re being misguided (as Sigurd was). In FE7, the moral failings of the lords are essentially irrelevant—Lyn only abdicates after the game is finished, Hector’s flaws don’t cause his friends that much trouble, and Eliwood’s killing of his love interest is undone as she comes back to life. In FE10, the morally problematic decisions Micaiah makes are insignificant within the larger narrative and don’t actually influence anything. And in FE11, 12, and 13, we’re back to the “hero’s motherland/cause may have done questionable things in the past, but the hero himself is A-OK” paradigm.
Now, after all this criticism of Fire Emblem, you might ask if I could provide an example which actually “does it right,” or at least, does it as I’d like. I certainly can! Once again, I turn to the Ogre Battle series, particularly Tactics Ogre. Remember that big decision I mentioned earlier? This is a major spoiler, but the decision is to either spare or burn a town full of innocent people. Your leader has ordered you to kill them all, and you must choose to obey or not.
Right off the bat, that’s a far more problematic and meaningful moral decision than anything we’ve yet seen in Fire Emblem. In FE10, Micaiah committed a war crime, but it was against enemy soldiers. Here, you have to kill *civilians.* The rationale is that it’s necessary for your country’s war effort, so it’s not gratuitous villainy for the sake of villainy, but it’s still less justifiable than Micaiah’s act. More importantly, this decision has a significant effect upon the rest of the game. If you choose to follow orders and torch the town, you’ll be a part of your country’s forces and fight against those rebelling against it. On the other hand, if you disobey, you may have a cleaner conscience, but you’ll be branded as a rebel by your former allies, and the rest of the game is spent fighting them and the other countries. Unfortunately, both paths lead to the same final chapter and the multiple endings aren’t contingent upon that decision (several others you make over the course of the game determine the ending), but it’s still far more significant than any other moral decision you make in a Fire Emblem game.
That’s the kind of thing I like to see in the games I play these days. It’s not enough for the cause or country of the heroes to be less than perfectly good—I like to see the heroes themselves be less than perfectly good, and to have their moral flaws (such as ruthlessness, if you choose to kill the civilians in Tactics Ogre) to have meaningful, significant consequences throughout the game, rather than being isolated or rendered essentially meaningless a stage or two later. So far, Fire Emblem hasn’t been able to deliver that kind of experience. Thus, I find my passion for it slowly beginning to ebb.
Additionally, there are a handful of minor gripes which make FE13 particularly unattractive to me. I’m just not fond of the artstyle, for one. The No More Heroes artist, Yusuke Kozaki, did the art for Fire Emblem 13. I think he’s good; he knows how to draw pretty girls and particularly likes their behinds. This has actually resulted in complaints about FE13 being “too fanservice-y,” from what I’ve heard. I don’t care about that, but I do think Mr. Kozaki can’t draw armor well, in my opinion. For example, look at the Armor Knight Kellam’s design:
What the hell are those things on his pauldron supposed to be? Rocket engines? If he’s trying to be a mecha, he’s not doing a very good job of it…which is a pity, because IMO armored units from previous games pulled off a badass mecha-esque look much better. See the Emperor class from Fire Emblem 4:
Much better, again, IMO. The pauldrons are just as large but without the strange-looking ornamentation, and the overall design, particularly the helmet, look much more intimidating.
Similarly, the in-game graphics of FE13 are a bit disappointing from what I’ve seen. The battle sprites all have these silly tiny feet, which put me off.
Still, these are minor, minor nitpicks, as I said—I just mention them for humor value, haha. The three gameplay/plot structure elements I’ve outlined above are much, much more relevant towards the dimming of my affections for Fire Emblem.
I suppose all this sounds rather negative, and nobody likes overly-negative people. Still, given my previous two entries, some explanation of my thoughts on the games were in order, and I do have to be honest. A degree of negativity was inevitable. At the very least, however, I hope I expressed the genuie positivity and affection I feel for the Ogre Battle series. And, who knows? Maybe someday I’ll learn to create games, even small ones. I’m a big fan of the “if you don’t like something, create your own” philosophy. Hopefully I’ll be able to live up to it someday. That day will probably come far in the future, though. For now, all I can do is talk about Fire Emblem, explain why I don’t like it as much, and then play games I do enjoy, like Ogre Battle.
Perhaps Ogre Battle would be a good choice for my next entry. I’m not really in the mood, though…remember, I’m still writing Fire Emblem fanfiction, regardless of how I feel about the games. I think I want to return to the subject of writing. Expect some of that next Friday!