As the paragon of pixelation, SNES titles have aged considerably well. A Link to The Past, Super Mario World, and Super Metroid don’t feel archaic when played today, allowing for appreciation of the products. This is especially important for the many niche titles of the library; the gameplay of Earthbound and Chrono Trigger isn’t found anywhere on modern platforms. Despite the continuation of Fire Emblem, the style of Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War has not been replicated, yet is revered by many. But what makes this title so special?
The stories of the first three Fire Emblem games were, generally, of the same scale. While the lengths differed, all three told tales spanning a few years at most, even when accounting for the fact that Mystery of the Emblem is a sequel. As Intelligent Systems moves away from the Archanea of Marth’s time, the lead writer, Shouzou Kaga, wanted to create an epic similar to the legendary tales of feudal societies, eventually leading to Genealogy of the Holy War. The power of the SNES allowed for a longer, more intricate chronicle, yet inclusions of features such as the Love System led to an arduous development process. An entire arc had to be cut and administrative headaches were abound, but the game managed to be released in May 1996. Many staple features were added, but most notably, the game told a story unlike any before.
Due to the nature of Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, there will be spoilers in this installment.
Hundreds of years before Marth and Alm’s journeys, the Dragon Tribes debated how to coexist with humans. Loptyr, an Earth Dragon, possessed a man named Galle in order to inflict his malice upon humanity. The possessed Galle forms the Loptyrian Cult, which quickly uses its influence to form the tyrannical Loptyrian Empire. After generations of oppression, the people of the continent of Jugdral revolt against the Empire. To aid the humans, twelve dragons, including Naga, the pivotal goddess in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, create pacts with warriors and provide them with Holy Weapons. These 12 Crusaders destroy the Loptyrian Empire and kill Galle’s descendant, causing the spirit of Loptyr to seemingly disappear.
Jumping to present day, we find Jugdral split into various political bodies, most of which were formed by the Crusaders. Sigurd, a descendant of the crusader Baldr, is the son of Byron, duke of Chalphy. Chalphy is one of the numerous duchies that make up the Kingdom of Grandbell. Byron is in the east, helping settle a border dispute between Grandbell and the nearby Isaach, leaving Sigurd in charge at home. After bandits from Verdane attack, Sigurd begins a military campaign to defeat the neighbor. Along the way, he meets a mysterious woman named Deirdre, who he promptly marries. At the end of the Verdane campaign, it is discovered that the wicked Manfroy manipulated King Batu into invading Grandbell; an ominous premonition of the path the story will take.
After the Verdane campaign, Sigurd deals with the expanding dominion of Agustria, heeding the call of his friends Lachesis and Eldigan. Midway through the campaign, Sigurd and Byron are falsely accused of murdering the crown prince of Grandbell, and Deirdre is abducted by Manfroy. After subduing Agustria, Sigurd goes into hiding in Silesse, with only his son Seliph to remind him of his lost lover.
After a year of hiding, Sigurd hears of Alvis of Velthomer’s is marriage. To his surprise, it is to Deirdre! Sigurd emerges to clear his name and returns to Grandbell. When he returns to his country, Sigurd finds his father dying at the hands of Langobard and Reptor, the true murderers of Prince Kurth. Sigurd defeats his fellow dukes and arrives at Grandbell’s capital, Belhalla, where he is to be received for a royal ceremony. This is little more than a trick by Alvis, who sentences Sigurd’s army to death for treason. Before he is personally murdered by Arvis, Sigurd sees his beloved Deirdre, who has had her memory wiped. In his final moments, Sigurd is heartbroken.
This tragedy sets up for the second half of the game. I apologize for all the exposition, but to understand why this story is so great, one needs to know the entire first half.
Sigurd’s journey is notable for the conglomerate of backgrounds in his army. While it initially starts as just a few knights of Chalphy, Sigurd’s army quickly becomes filled with nobility and commoners from across Jugdral. Prince Jamke of Verdane, Arvis’ step-brother Azel, the charming young Dew, and Arya, protector of Isaach’s heir Shannon, are just a few of Sigurd’s allies. The group fights for justice, not a single country. Some, such as Lex, son of Langobard, even fight their own family in the name of peace. One could easily flip the story and say that Sigurd was a tyrant concerned only with conquest (Though character interactions disprove this). Righteous groups have been marred in the past, so the creation of a group that is falsely accused and ultimately destroyed is rather fitting for a story meant to fit with history.
While there are many improvements of Fire Emblem‘s writing shown by Genealogy of the Holy War, one of the most apparent is that of the characters. Fire Emblem has always been character driven; it’s the only way that permadeath can be meaningful. However, the hardware limitations of the NES games prevented significant character development for the entire cast. Mystery of the Emblem fared better than its predecessors, but Genealogy represents the point that the majority of the playable roster became interesting.
Part of this is due to the many optional events. Ordering a character to stand on a specific tile of the map or converse with an ally will trigger a small scene, developing all involved. Many of these also grant gameplay bonuses, and the methods used to activate events vary in terms of ambiguity.
In general, it seems that the characters of Genealogy were designed to be more interesting. All characters can be deployed at once, meaning that the likelihood of using everyone significantly skyrockets. With the large scale clashes of Genealogy of the Holy War, I made many memories with each character, even ones that I otherwise wouldn’t use. However, the army of the first generation is ultimately smaller than most Fire Emblem games. Combining this with the fact that Sigurd is a lower noble, not a king, means that conversations and character development are split far more equally.
After a time skip, Chapter 6 of Genealogy of the Holy War shows a teenage Seliph training in Isaach with Shannon and Oifey, who escaped Belhalla on Sigurd’s orders. The two men are organizing a resistance army to liberate Jugdral from the Grandbell Empire. After Sigurd’s death, Arvis was crowned, and the territories where Sigurd fought were annexed into Grandbell. Conquering Isaach and making alliances, Grandbell became an empire under Arvis’ stable rule. This all changes, however, when Manfroy exposes Alvis and Deirdre’s son Julius to the Loptyr Tome.
Deirdre and Alvis are both the descendants of Maera, an exiled descendant of Galle. Alvis’ mother, Cigyun, had an affair with Prince Kurth, resulting in the birth of Deirdre. Both children inherited minor Loptyr blood, meaning that they had the potential to produce offspring together that would be a suitable vessel for Loptyr – the very thing that Manfroy, leader of the remnants of the Loptyrian Cult, desires. Manfroy orchestrated Alvis and Deirdre’s relationship, with neither spouse knowing of their blood relation. Julia and Julius are born, with the former inheriting her mother’s major Naga blood and the latter inheriting Loptyr blood from both parents.
The Loptyr Tome caused Julius to become possessed by the spirit of Loptyr, beginning a new reign of terror. The formerly loving Julius murders his mother and begins to use his influence as crown prince to transform the Grandbell Empire into an oppressive force. Child hunts and other atrocities are organized by Julius, to his father’s horror.
After years in hiding, Seliph’s Liberation Army emerges to fight the Grandbell Empire. Freeing Jugdral from Grandbell’s grasp, Seliph recruits the children of Sigurd’s soldiers, as well as many new allies. And so, Seliph and his allies set out to avenge their parents and end the Final Holy War.
The latter half of Genealogy of the Holy War has many of the darker themes of history, but addressing them leads to a far more realistic story. I’m not sure how a remake of Genealogy of the Holy War would be localized due to the implied atrocities, incest, and murder central to the plot. While I would love an official remake, I doubt that Intelligent Systems would want a Fire Emblem game to have an M rating, and modifications of the story would remove much of its impact.
The story of Alvis, like Hardin’s in Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem, is a tragedy. The game improves upon its predecessor in this regard by making the true villian, Manfroy, clearly pivotal to every event, instead of just alluding to the dark force pulling the strings. Arvis is blackmailed and has his son stolen from him by Manfroy, ultimately leading to his wife’s death. Arvis’ writing is stellar; despite the fact that he murders the protagonist, he does what he truly believes is righteous, and tries to maintain peace while he can. Was he wrong in the murder of Sigurd? Most definitely, but his development in the second half of the game paints a far more tragic story. As he loses control of the throne near the end of his life, Arvis does what he can to hinder the child hunts, even if he does ultimately fight against the Liberation Army. He was blinded by pride, but Arvis was a tragic villain.
In tandem with the tragedy of Arvis, Genealogy of the Holy War shows how to write a truly despicable villian. Manfroy manipulates the nations of Jugdral throughout Genealogy‘s entire plot, all for the purpose of reviving Loptyr. I can’t help but draw parallels between Manfroy and Sheev Palpatine of Star Wars. Both men bide their time in order to hatch ingenious plans to accomplish what seems impossible. From the murder of Sigurd, to the corruption of Julius, none of Genealogy‘s horrors would have happened without Manfroy. In their quest to save it, the Liberation Army witnesses the despair felt by the continent, which is all attributed to Manfroy. No moment in the game feels more satisfying than when you finally defeat the monster responsible for the destruction of a continent.
The final aspect of the story that I wanted to touch on is the topic of good and evil. While there is obvious evil in Manfroy and obvious good in Seliph, characters such as Arvis show morally ambiguity. This is important in any game about war, including Fire Emblem, as it allows the story to be entirely open to interpretation. Depending on who dies during the second half of the game, Seliph may take control of all of Jugdral at the end of the game, essentially creating an empire of his own. One could argue that Seliph is benevolent, but that was also Arvis’ intent, which ended in years of terror. While it permeates the cliché that “history comes in cycles”, it made the story far more thought-provoking. Genealogy of the Holy War shows a truly successful implementation of moral ambiguity, which future games will attempt to replicate to varying degrees of success.
I talked about Genealogy‘s story for a… let’s go with… significant amount of time. The intricacy of this game’s plot is unmatched by any of Fire Emblem title, but I doubt it ever will be replicated. While Genealogy‘s grand style led to a stellar story, it also led to quite controversial gameplay.
Genealogy of the Holy War‘s gameplay builds upon the classic Fire Emblem formula. The combat of Mystery of the Emblem is generally intact, though dismounting has mostly been removed. Notably, the maps of Genealogy are gargantuan; their size has yet to be matched by modern Fire Emblem games. There are only ten chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, but each one is the length of two to three normal Fire Emblem chapters. Thematically, the large size of maps makes sense; one map often represents an entire country. In most games, the entire story is spent in only one or two countries, but Genealogy of the Holy War loops around the entire continent.
Much of the strategy for optimal play comes from positioning units before triggering key events. This requires prior knowledge of the map, which is impossible for new players who want to avoid spoilers. This highlights the problem with the large maps: it doesn’t always allow for strategic play. Battles are typically localized, with large armies buckling down for a chokepoint clash. When this isn’t happening, the turns are generally spent guiding the army across the map with little to no action. It’s a style of gameplay that is either fun or frustrating, but certainly creates the feeling that the player is participating in a major moment of history.
I think the map design of Genealogy is its defining characteristic, and it should stay that way. The irregular pacing is impossible to circumvent, and using strategy often requires knowledge of the map due to the staggered release of enemies. However, the unique scenarios that arise were memorable, even if the solutions weren’t strategic. I remember when Dew was cornered on the beach, with the rest of the army half way across the map. He dodged all the attacks coming from the enemies, chipping away at each one. While there wasn’t any strategy involved, it made for a great anecdote. Genealogy of the Holy War has an extremely fun gameplay style, but isn’t the best Fire Emblem experience on the first playthrough.
Two signature additions to Fire Emblem can be found here: the weapon triangle and skills. The weapon triangle gives combatants a 20% accuracy increase or decrease depending on the weapon matchup. Swords beat axes, which beat lances, which beat swords. It’s easy to grasp, and makes weapon variation more valuable. This feature has been in every entry since, but the type and degree of bonus given has been modified in many entries.
The second major addition is the skill system. Each unit has Citizen skills and Soldier skills, with the former tied to the character and the latter tied to the character’s class. There is no skill limit, and skills can not be unequipped. Double attacks are oddly tied to the skill Pursuit instead of speed alone, making some units far more useful than others. Luckily, no entry has tied double attacks to skills since.
Skills are not as omnipresent as the weapon triangle in the Fire Emblem, though they have been present in most titles. Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade and The Blazing Blade don’t use skills, while Sacred Stones brings it back in a limited form. The DS remakes, Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem, also exclude this. The rest of the post-Genealogy game’s implement skills. For the most part, skills have become a staple of Fire Emblem, and they have been confirmed to make a return in Three Houses.
Genealogy of the Holy War‘s final major feature is the Love System. I hesitate to call this a staple, since its manifestation in Awakening and Fates is quite different from the Genealogy form. In Genealogy of the Holy War, male and female characters gain Love Points for each other through a variety of methods, such as standing adjacent to each other or triggering a conversation. After enough Love Points, the units marry, allowing them to share money. In addition, first generation marriages cause the children of the couple to appear in the second generation. This child system is a precursor to that of Awakening and Fates, as the children’s skills and stats are based on the parents’.
The Love System is a precursor to the Support System of most future Fire Emblem games, though Awakening and Fates are the only other entries that have a child system tied to supports. I don’t have an issue with the Love System; it’s rather discrete, and doesn’t impact gameplay too much. It makes sense thematically, too: the game takes place over many years, so romance makes sense. Children are generally viable regardless of the parents, and substitutes are provided if the first generation avoids matrimony. The Love System is mostly for character growth, but it is the root of an important part of Fire Emblem to many people. However, it is hard to say whether the Love System will find its way into Three Houses; the game is about students in an academy, not adults.
Like most games in the series, Genealogy of the Holy War improves upon the presentation and music of the series. The visuals are a bit more detailed than Mystery of the Emblem, with a larger map allowing for beautiful, scenery. The lighting of maps reflects the tone of the story at that point. Despite occurring in the same area, the first and final maps look completely different, a stellar integration of story and visuals.
The soundtrack of Genealogy of the Holy War is still one of my favorites from the series. Each of the twelve maps is given a unique track. Enemy armies are given their own themes as well. Every piece is fitting, from the magnificence of Chapter Five’s to the blending of themes for the final battle. Genealogy of the Holy War‘s soundtrack shows the power of the SNES and the proper use of motifs.
Genealogy of the Holy War‘s impact on the Fire Emblem series is a bit ironic. It introduced the weapon triangle and skills, two features that have been in almost every entry since. It marked the point that the dream of making Fire Emblem character driven became a reality. Even the controversial marriage system of modern games can be traced back to this title. Yet, Genealogy of the Holy War also taught what not to do when making a Fire Emblem game. The large maps and staggering of troops were difficult to strategize around, even if they were fun to play. It brings up a question that all Fire Emblem games will have to address: What’s more important in an SRPG, tactics or entertainment?
This post was written by obliviouslifeform