While I like to think that stereotyping has fallen out of fashion, it sadly is still imbued in society. For many years, it was a common belief that western audiences couldn’t enjoy tactical RPGs. Maybe Japanese developers thought westerners were dim witted, or that they simply lacked the attention spans of their contemporaries from the archipelago. Regardless of the cause, Fire Emblem and Wars never received localizations throughout the 1990s. However, circumstances began to change, and Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade crossed the Pacific in 2003 under the name Fire Emblem.
In late 2001, two games were released in the US that would change Fire Emblem forever: Advance Wars and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Advance Wars was part of the long running Wars series, but this GBA installment was the first in the series to reach the West. It sold rather well, garnering enough attention to justify localizations of future entries. The story of Super Smash Bros. Melee is far more well known. Marth, the protagonist of the original Fire Emblem, and Roy, the protagonist of the then-upcoming Binding Blade, were included in the English release of Melee despite Fire Emblem being exclusive to Japan. They were nearly cut from the localized version, but were ultimately kept. Their inclusion in such a ubiquitous GameCube title caused signifiant interest in Fire Emblem. To many, Marth and Roy were not part of Fire Emblem; Fire Emblem was part of them.
These two games helped generate western interest in Fire Emblem, something previously thought impossible. By 2002, it was too late to localize The Binding Blade, its engine could easily be used for a new entry. And so, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade was born. It had one of the shortest development cycles in the series (Just over a year), and as a result, it isn’t too different from its predecessor. However, it was never meant to pioneer a completely new formula; it was just meant to test the western waters. And so, in late 2003, Fire Emblem was released.
This test was a success. Fire Emblem gained a respectable amount of fans from The Blazing Blade, enough to guarantee that future titles would go beyond Japan. I would argue that Fire Emblem‘s 2003 popularity was similar in scale to Xenoblade‘s today. Massive in Japan, it wasn’t quite a household name in the US yet, but some cooperation from Nintendo helped lift the veil of obscurity. It’s no surprise that the game was a success. While the gameplay remained largely unchanged from The Binding Blade, the 7th Fire Emblem helped balance character development and gameplay, creating a refined experience that was a stellar introduction to the series.
While it has little to do with The Blazing Blade, I find it interesting that Fire Emblem media existed outside of Japan before the 2000’s. There was a two episode anime released in the late 90s that adapted a portion of Marth’s journey. Oddly, this was dubbed and released in North America in 1997. There are some naming inconsistencies when compared to the rest of the series, but I find it interesting that this existed outside of Japan at all. Perhaps Intelligent Systems had been toying with the idea of a North American release, and Super Smash Bros. Melee was just a catalyst.
Fire Emblem‘s western implementation is an example of expansion done well. Fans in Japan weren’t alienated from the series, despite the hand-holding in the first few hours. I bring this up since Awakening also expanded the fanbase, yet polarized fans in the process. The Blazing Blade didn’t differ too much from The Binding Blade, yet still managed to appear accessible. As a result, one could call the GBA games the “Goldilocks Zone”; they balanced character development and gameplay exquisitely. However, this era also was one of stagnation; there weren’t many substantial additions until The Sacred Stones, and even those mostly consisted of concepts tested in Fire Emblem Gaiden.
Three Houses seems to be the most radical Fire Emblem yet. At the same time, it seems to borrow many ideas from The Blazing Blade. The first is telling the same overarching story from different perspectives. In The Blazing Blade, there are three routes: Lyn’s, Hector’s, and Eliwood’s. While Lyn’s leads up to the main events of the story, Hector and Eliwood’s paths tell the same tale. Each mode has a few exclusive chapters, some maps have different enemies, and Hector’s route has a few new characters. The story simply focuses on a different member of the party of lords while leaving the overall plot untouched.
Based on Famitsu articles, it seems that Three Houses will implement a similar storytelling method. The day-to-day events will follow whichever house you choose, yet the story segments occurring at the ending of each month will be the same. I’m curious if the actually story battles will be identical, and if certain plot points will take place at different times on each route. Most of all, I’m curious if there will be a “definitive” path. In The Blazing Blade, Hector’s route had more gameplay, while Eliwood’s could be considered “canon”. I doubt Three Houses will make a certain house canonically chosen by Byleth, but if it is the case, I am curious if the “alternate” paths will have extra features other than a different cast of characters.
Three Houses also seems to be using the support system of Fire Emblem 7. Like Fire Emblem 6, characters gain support points when standing adjacent and can have conversations that flesh out their development. Once support conversations occur, the units grant each other certain stat increases when deployed in battle. These are important for side character development, as there are about 40 playable characters, but most of the dialogue is taken up by the three lords. The Blazing Blade recognizes the importance of supports by simply improving the quality of them. This reflects a general trend of The Blazing Blade: it’s The Binding Blade, but higher quality.
With so many similarities to The Blazing Blade, I’m curious if Three Houses is designed to be attractive to both traditional newer fans. Perhaps one can skip through the month to the story battle, getting an experience similar to the “traditional” Fire Emblem. Or, if they are playing for the teaching aspect, a player can take their time, thinking of Three Houses as a separate experience, not a typical Fire Emblem game. Perhaps features like map shops and tent convoys will return to give older fans the experience they desire. Three Houses has an emphasis on customization. Hopefully, that includes customization of the way you play. If my hypothesis is correct, Three Houses will be the game to reunify the Fire Emblem fandom.
The last aspect of The Blazing Blade that I’d like to look at is how it handles itself as a prequel. The story of Thracia 776 and Radiant Dawn both benefit from playing their respective predecessor, yet The Blazing Blade is practically independent. While most characters have relations to members of The Binding Blade‘s cast, knowledge of the latter title will not change the story too much. Interestingly, Zephiel, the villain of The Binding Blade, receives more development here, as Eliwood witnesses awful childhood alluded to in Fire Emblem 6. Designing the story to be friendly to newcomers was obviously intentional; most western players didn’t know The Binding Blade‘s plot. I’m curious if future direct sequels will be as welcoming to newcomers. It’s likely, since Fire Emblem has become a rather popular series, that every title will try to be welcoming.
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade isn’t particularly stunning when simply comparing it to the predecessor. However, it marked the moment that Fire Emblem went international, changing the course of the series forever. It’s balance of character development and gameplay is great, even if the story isn’t remarkable. I’m interested to see if Three Houses is trying to be as universal as The Blazing Blade by bringing back some of its systems, even as it drastically changes Fire Emblem with the new teaching system. It’s definitely not a poor choice to base your gameplay off of.