Western gamers finally learn the tale of Marth's quest to avenge his father and save his kingdom.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon finally gives the western world a version of the game that started the beloved series. After playing Shadow Dragon, it's easy to understand why Fire Emblem has withstood countless console generations and still remains a well received and beloved Nintendo IP to this very day. While certain elements feel lacking in this title, this remake adds many features to improve upon a classic.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is set on the continent Archanea, which is split into nine kingdoms, one of which is the protagonist Marth's homeland of Altea. The game begins by telling the story of a battle between good and evil. Long ago the Dohl Empire, led by the shadow dragon Medeus, invaded the continent of Archanea. A young man from Altea, Anri, defeated the shadow dragon using the sacred sword Falchion and restored peace to the continent. One hundred years later, Medeus was resurrected and joined forces with the wicked Gharnef in order to rule the world. The kin of Altea Cornelius, successor to Anri and father of Marth, journeys out with the Falchion to defeat Medeus but is sadly slain in battle. The responsibility then lies on Marth to continue his father's legacy and help save Archanea.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a twenty-five chapter strategy RPG that offers very similar gameplay to other entries in the series. However, unlike newer entries, Shadow Dragon only features offensive battles in which players must seize the enemy throne. Before battle, players prepare their party, which includes choosing characters, trading items among them, purchasing or forging new weapons, changing classes, and switching the starting locations of characters on the battle map. Once these preparations have been made, players can save and begin the battle.
During the Player Phase, players can move their characters within a specific range (determined by the particular character) in order to battle enemies, trade items with adjacent characters, open chests (although only thieves and, later on, Marth have this ability), visit homes to gain advice and/or items, use items, or wait. Should players wish to do so, they have the ability to end the Player Phase without having to direct all their characters. Once players have performed all of their characters' moves, the Enemy Phase will ensue. The opposing side will instigate battles, steal items in chests (which can be redeemed by defeating them), and sometimes call for reinforcements.
As one would expect, strategy plays a vital role in winning battles in Shadow Dragon. Players must always keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of their allies and enemies. The game's general battle guidelines have a rock-paper-scissors-type system where lances beat swords, swords beat axes, and axes beat lances. Augmenting the battle mechanics are magic spells which have varying effects depending on the enemy troops. Ignoring these rules of engagement will most likely result in the death of party members, and the inevitable game reset.
Many times, either at the beginning of or during a new battle, players will encounter an allied force which will augment their group, or an enemy soldier who can be turned into a useful ally. Recruiting an enemy soldier usually requires Marth to speak to him/her, but there are instances where a different party member is necessary instead. Integrating these members into your party allows you to be more successful in battles, and slowly becomes a vital part of in-battle strategy. It is also worth mentioning that while new party members are added often and fatalities can't always be helped, it is very important to always try to keep your teammates alive during battles, because once deceased, they are permanently gone.
There are two control options in Shadow Dragon, the first being a classic combination of buttons and the D-Pad, and the other being touch screen-based controls. While the classic formula still works, the ability to use the stylus for complete control allows for fluid movement around the map, simple navigation through menus, and quick tap-based battling. The only real annoyance occurs when a player accidentally hits a physical button while using the stylus controls. The functions can easily, and unintentionally, negate one another causing a brief moment of confusion and frustration.
There are many differences between this remake and the original Japanese Famicom release. Nintendo clearly made great efforts to improve upon the original's design and update it for today's modern consumers. The most noticeable differences are the updated graphics and battle sequences. They are presented in a top down view, and while of fairly low resolution and not as polished as they could be, the 2-D landscapes still look wonderful, as do the character sprites in the animated battle sequences. The maps have also been updated to match the modern Fire Emblem look. Overall, it looks much better and more realistic than the last handheld Fire Emblem title, The Scared Stones.
Another update is the addition of the prologue. This eases new players and veterans alike into the gameplay and control schemes in order to prepare them for battle. Additionally, one-time-use
mid-battle save points are now positioned about the map, allowing players to save during a battle to prevent having to redo the whole thing, which can easily exceed twenty or even thirty minutes. This differs from the unlimited mid-battle save function found in Radiant Dawn.
While these new additions to Shadow Dragon are certainly an improvement, there are certain lacking aspects that are overshadowed by the original's descendents. One of my biggest complaints with the game is the complete lack of character development. In other Fire Emblem games, I took painstaking care to keep my party members alive, not only to keep them as essential fighting tools, but also because the game would provide the biggest guilt trip in the world if I allowed them to die. With Shadow Dragon, the player's attachment to their party is minimal, and since they are so regularly replaced, this leaves the player with no real reason to mourn the loss of certain characters. And although this is the original, there are gameplay aspects from later Fire Emblem games that could have been added to improve Shadow Dragon's quality, such as the ability to rescue party members (a command which allows players to save severely injured, important troop members). Finally, due to the unvarying mission goal across all chapters, Shadow Dragon begins to drag towards the end of the game.
The online mode is a surprising addition to this NES remake and is a wonderful example of taking an old formula and updating it to take advantage of new technology. Two players are able to battle one another locally or over Wi-Fi using five warriors from their single player campaign on one of six exclusive, randomized maps. The objective is either to completely annihilate the opponent's army or seize a castle's central flag. Victorious players are awarded a card which can be used on party members to grant them special abilities. In addition to battling, players can also import and export their troops via Wi-Fi to a friend's copy of the game. Finally, if players desire the strongest weapons available, they will need to access the online armory; however, it is important to note that the armory's inventory changes often and many items are only available during certain times of the month.
Westerners have waited many years to experience the title that started it all, and now players around the world are able to experience the wonder that Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon truly is. While not revolutionary by today's standards, it is easy to understand why the original was groundbreaking in its day. Although the strong storylines and character development that has become a series staple isn't well established in Shadow Dragon, there are still many additions inspired by later Fire Emblems that make Shadow Dragon much more than a port. Shadow Dragon is an epic look into Fire Emblem's once unknown past and is in its purist form, a beautiful experience that no one should pass by.