The GoodFire Emblem is a hybrid roleplaying and turn-based strategy game. It sacrifices the open-ended gameplay and random encounters of traditional RPGs in favor of scripted battles with much greater depth. One might think that this genre was pioneered by the classic Final Fantasy Tactics on the Sony Playstation, but the Fire Emblem series actually dates all the way back to the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom. Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance is simply the first title in the series that Nintendo has seen fit to publish in the United States. Given the top-notch quality of this game, it's hard to believe they didn't do it sooner.
Fire Emblem has the kind of truly classic gameplay that doesn't come around too often. I love a game that's easy to pick up, yet has enough depth to keep you coming back until you have beaten it. The game mechanic is infinitely admirable because it is perfectly balanced in so many areas. The game is difficult, but never frustrating. Instead of giving up after you have lost a round, you'll feel like you just need one more try to correct your mistakes and win it. It features plenty of items and upgrades, but never resorts to forcing the gamer to micromanage like so many other strategy games. Your characters will level up and become more powerful, but you will never feel forced to grind away on a "leveling treadmill" like in so many other roleplaying games. In short, the game mechanic is practically perfect, and fans of classic 8- and 16-bit games should feel right at home.
The game has an incredible amount of bang for the buck. There are 31 missions in all, not counting optional side quests (and new game modes unlocked once you have beaten the normal game). I played Fire Emblem every chance I got, and it still took me approximately two weeks to finish. I was by no means disappointed; never before have I seen a handheld game with so much plot depth. The game actually has two full story arcs; the first third functions as a tutorial, each mission teaching you another aspect of the game mechanic. By the end of the tenth mission, you will know everything you need to in order to play the game effectively.
The tutorial was so well done, in fact, even going so far as to feature a long epilogue detailing what became of each character, I actually thought that it was the game. Little did I know that it was all just preparation for the real story.
And it's a wonderful story, by the way. Fire Emblem does contain the occasional RPG cliche here and there, but you'll like the characters so much that you won't mind. Scripts published on the Internet show that the game contains almost a full megabyte of text, and the plot is advanced almost entirely through dialogue. Animated character portraits talk to each other onscreen in speech bubbles, and the game cuts away to full screen hand-drawn CGs for important plot events.
Fire Emblem's characters are terrific, and beautifully drawn. Rather than the generic military units of a typical pure strategy combat game, this title features more than 40 unique player-controlled characters, each with his or her own personality and back story. The game has plenty of replay value, since plot elements will change depending on which characters you use, and how you have them interact with one another.
The BadThere was just one thing about Fire Emblem that I would have liked to see changed. The "character" you play is actually not one of the game's characters at all, but rather the team's military tactician. As such, you function as an observer of the story instead of being an actual participant. This is an interesting plot device, and it has merit, but it tends to lessen one's immersion into the story somewhat.
The Bottom LineFire Emblem is the most entertaining turn-based strategy game that I have ever played, and it's a shame that the previous titles in the series never made it to the United States. My previous favorite, Jagged Alliance 2 for the PC, may best it in terms of gameplay depth and challenge level. In terms of plot and overall fun factor, however, Fire Emblem has no equal that I've found. A story this long and immersive, rivaling many pure roleplaying games, seems even more impressive when you consider the fact that it was done on a handheld.
Intelligent Systems is currently working on a new Fire Emblem game for the Gamecube. Although plans for a US release have not been announced, it seems likely given the fact that the Game Boy Advance version was greeted by strong sales and positive reviews.
Nintendo lost my interest when Zelda and Mario went 3D, losing the wonderful gameplay of the 8- and 16-bit titles (in this reviewer's opinion). However, the day the Gamecube version of Fire Emblem is released in the US will be the day that I buy a Gamecube. That's the highest compliment I can pay to this game.