It’s common to see complaints of developers creating sequels that are too similar to prior games. However, as the first home console sequels were released in the early 1990s, some claimed that designers were branching too far out from the source material. Titles such as Zelda II and Super Mario Bros. 2 would likely be marketed as spin-offs if released today. Fire Emblem Gaiden is another “black sheep”; it keeps the core mechanics of Fire Emblem, while drastically changing certain aspects. Many of Gaiden’s changes are undone in future entries, but as a unique entity, how does the game stand?
Released in 1992, Gaiden builds off of the engine present in Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light. The original Fire Emblem is tedious, making faster gameplay an important factor in the sequel. The unfair difficulty of some of Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light’s final chapters also had to be kept in mind. The changes implemented into Gaiden transformed the game into one of dualistic nature: there was still turn-based combat, but an exploration aspect was also present.
On the continent of Valentia, the two nations of Rigel and Zofia coexisted in an unstable peace. Two dragon deities, Mila and Duma, are worshiped as Zofia and Rigel’s respective patrons. After Mila’s disappearance, Zofia falls into a famine, prompting Rigel to invade. Alm, a boy from southern Zofia, leads a revolution to drive Rigel out of his home, while Celica, the heir to Zofia’s throne, seeks Mila. Coincidentally, the two were childhood friends, and their paths cross many times in their respective journeys and ultimately converge in a final battle that questions the role of deities in human affairs.
The story of Fire Emblem Gaiden isn’t out of place for a Fire Emblem game. Just like the first title, the world is deeply intertwined with powerful dragons, and characters constantly question how much power the dragons ought to have in modern society. The sudden descent into war, recruitment journey across the continent, and quest with the ultimate goal of stopping an evil force are elements found in both games.
Gaiden notably implements moral ambiguity into its story. With a title like “Fell God”, one would expect Duma to be a power hungry monster. Although his steely nature results in a nation fixated on strength, the alternative isn’t definitively better. Mila’s care ultimately backfires, as her people become over reliant upon her. Zofia falls into disarray the moment Mila can no longer provide for it. When Duma is defeated at the end of the game, he doesn’t condemn Alm, instead willingly passing on the right to rule.
This made the story of Gaiden feel ahead of its time, as it wasn’t the typical tale of a hero vanquishing a monstrous power. This questioning of the nature of the player’s actions is often the goal of modern stories, including those of video games. Even the latest Fire Emblem games, especially Fates, have morality as a pivotal aspect of the story. And to think this came from an NES game!
Gaiden’s gameplay features many adjustments from Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light. The turn-based combat returns, with permanent death, double attacks, level ups, and various terrain types. Like its predecessor, Gaiden lacks the modern weapon triangle. Unlike Marth, Gaiden’s protagonists are given promotions, though these are tied to story events. Many of Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light’s classes return, such as Cavaliers and Pegasus Knights. There are also new classes, such as Dread Fighters and multipotent villagers. Many classes have three tiers, but class promotion is encouraged earlier. None of this is too outlandish for a sequel.
One look at Gaiden’s equipment system will justify the label of “black sheep”. All units start with a basic weapon, and can carry one item, whether it be a healing item, stat booster, or specialized weapon. Weapons do not break, This arguably removes a layer of strategy, but also remedies the tedium associated with the clunky equipment management of Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light.
Two major changes to the gameplay involve the main ranged combatants: archers and mages. Archers now have a 1-5 tile range, as opposed to the set 2 tile range of Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light. However, they are much less accurate. Due to the modified equipment system, tomes can’t be carried, so spells are learned through leveling up. Instead of having limited uses, spells drain the user of a set amount of HP. This makes mages much more complex to use; a high HP spell can be risky but rewarding when accounting for accuracy and counter attacks.
The largest problem with Gaiden’s adaptation of traditional gameplay is the artificial difficulty. Maps in Gaiden are… poorly designed to put it nicely. Some maps are nothing more than open fields, while others have noticeable choke points. There are many creative ideas at play, but only a few manifest themselves fairly. The practically endless horde of monsters summoned by Conjurers clog many late game maps, making battles a test of patience as your troops are forced to inch their way forward.
In one particular map I was forced to abuse the Warp spell to quickly dispatch two enemies nestled within an encampment, completing breaking the enemy defence. While these “cheap” strategies felt clever at first, they were ultimately used to circumvent poor balance. This isn’t helped by the fact that the Dread Fighters were noticeable overpowered, with both high dodge rate and accuracy. While I didn’t have to abuse the system, the outdated map design made the prospect of dirty yet quick victory irresistible.
Gaiden was the first title to have a traversable world map and town interactions beyond a single conversation. While simple, towns could be explored on foot, and various interactions could occur. Recruitment feels organic, as you find characters living in destitute conditions who have a reason to join your army. Shrines can also be explored, in which Statues of Mila tied to promotion and stat boosting fountains await. I assume that this was done to make Gaiden feel like a “traditional” adventure game, with bonds created through interaction. However, I don’t think any of this is what makes Fire Emblem, well, Fire Emblem. I presume that is why all these features haven’t become staples of the series, instead evolving into new manifestations.
The visuals of Gaiden may not have more pixels than Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light, but the animations are much smoother overall. There are some new sprites mixed in with classic ones, and a few additions to the tile set. It’s not apparent that much work has been done until Alm throws down his shield and lunges at a foe in his special critical animation. Certain units have very detailed combat sprites as well. While not everything was improved visually, the holistic product represents a step forward.
Listening to Gaiden’s soundtrack, it seems as if this was the point Fire Emblem developed a distinct compositional style. While the original entry’s title sounded fine, it was much more generic than Gaiden’s. The catchy map themes, high tempo battles, and calming town music all help tie the world together. The music of Fire Emblem will inevitably continue to alongside the sound systems of consoles, but even comparing entries on the same system shows notable improvement.
As arguably the most unique Fire Emblem title, Gaiden has many features that don’t appear in every future installment. However, the developers weren’t randomly experimenting; they knew about the poor pacing of Shadow Dragon and The Blade of Light and had to remedy it with limited hardware. The improved inventory system of Gaiden has stayed with the series, allowing mission preparation to be much snappier. This idea of efficiency is what Gaiden truly is centered around, albeit with unorthodox methods.
Few of Gaiden’s features are truly lost. A branching class progression system reappears in titles such as Sacred Stones and Awakening. Considering that this feature adds variety to every playthrough and greatly diversifies the endgame roster, I believe that other titles experimented with hyper-specialization instead. Genealogy of the Holy War is perhaps the most infamous case, with many branches of cavalry classes that would typically be consolidated into one family in a modern entry. I enjoy class branching, but character growth rates often mean that only one promotion pathway is viable. This may be why the feature was scrapped for many years.
The other recurring feature in Gaiden is a traversable map, and by extension, extra encounters. While maps can’t be replayed, towns can be revisited and a variety of extra fights can occur. This means that experience points aren’t limited, which makes playthroughs less stressful but can take away some of the difficulty. However, the world feels much more connected, and the true scope of conquering a continent can be felt. This map system appears in Sacred Stones and Awakening, and extra encounters occur in the aforementioned titles as well as Fates: Birthright and Revelations.
Some features reappear very rarely as well. The three tiered promotion system appears in Radiant Dawn, but that is likely reflecting on the game’s length. A system encouraging promotion as soon as possible has yet to return. Unbreakable weapons made an appearance in Fates, though that game tweaks the formula by giving all weapons major drawbacks.
Three Houses will return to the traditional durability system, but I suspect three tiered promotion will reappear if the game has a longer story. Map exploration is likely to return as well, and I would be surprised if promotion become linear again. Gaiden’s influence will live on, even if there will never be a game exactly like it.
Fire Emblem Gaiden always will be the odd one out, but that isn’t a bad thing. It tried to fix the first game’s issues without better hardware, and succeeded in some regards. Its defining features haven’t been completely discarded, making the game an important step forward. I would recommend playing the 3DS remake, Shadows of Valentia, instead, since it offers general updates allowing for faster gameplay. Gaiden should never be forgotten in Fire Emblem history, even if it isn’t recognizable by today’s standards.