How "Casual" saved the series.
Since Fire Emblem began on the Famicom in 1990, the series has been known for its difficulty. More than just being hard, though, the games became famous for their “permadeath” system, in which once a unit playable character (the series’ term for its many playable characters) dies, it doesn’t come back. From that point on, the unit cannot be used in battle, and often ceases to exist in the story as well. The idea behind permadeath is to ensure that every decision the player makes on the grid-based battlefield counts, and the constant threat of losing a character that you’ve put time and effort into developing throughout the game creates a lot of tension.
As many a hardcore Fire Emblem fan will tell you, this is a part of what makes Fire Emblem, Fire Emblem. Recently, however, developer Intelligent Systems has inserted newer, easier modes into the games that have been a point of contest among between fans. Around the launch of Fire Emblem Fates, I’d seen a handful of social media conversations turn sour at the mention of “Casual Mode,” a mode in which the permadeath system is switched off, and characters are revived at the end of each battle. One such conversation decried any player who used Casual Mode, and said “That’s not the way Fire Emblem should be played.” It’s a weird statement to make, I think, because it has a whiff of elitist attitude, as well as entitlement to a series that has opened itself up in a way that hardcore fans are seemingly uncomfortable with. It is this author’s opinion that there is no exact way that these games should be played, but before we get into that, I thought it would be good for both sides of the argument to tread through the series’ embattled history.
For a long time, Fire Emblem was just a beloved, well-respected Japan-only series. Thousands of Japanese players embraced the intense challenge that was presented in Intelligent Systems’ series, but the games never made it to the west for reasons we can only guess. Maybe it was because the games were so difficult? Or because they didn’t think the time and effort needed to translate these games were worth it due to the very niche genre in which they belong? Whatever the case, it took a long time for western gamers to be acquainted with the series. Had it not been for Masahiro Sakurai’s love of the series, and his insistence on including the characters Marth and Roy in 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee on GameCube, we may not even be having this conversation at all.
Marth and Roy proved to be popular characters in Melee, and it wasn’t long before fans began asking Nintendo of America for translated Fire Emblem games. Their pleas were answered with 2003’s Game Boy Advance entry, simply titled “Fire Emblem” in the west, but known as “Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken” (which translates literally to Sword of Flames) in Japan. This was the series’ seventh entry, but the first to appear in countries outside of Japan, and was mostly well-received. NWR gave the game an 8.5 back when it released, and western fans were ecstatic to finally have a legal translation of a Fire Emblem game. Nintendo noticed its success, and quickly followed up with the sequel, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones in 2005. Several other games in the series were localized from that point on, and the series developed a hardcore following in the west the same way that it had in Japan.
As the years passed, however, the games began to sell less and less, both in Japan and the west. While the hardcore following still existed, sales had apparently stagnated and declined so much that, according to an interview with Fire Emblem: Awakening’s co-producer, Hitoshi Yamagami in Spanish magazine “Hobby Consolas,” the higher ups at Nintendo approached the team at Intelligent Systems with an ultimatum: that if sales of the next Fire Emblem game were less than 250,000, it’d be the end of the series. Yamagami and his team panicked initially, trying to come up with all sorts of ways to make the new Fire Emblem game more appealing. They decided to incorporate the most popular elements of prior FE games, including the relationship support system that is the topic of many discussions. The biggest change they made, however, was including a new difficulty setting called “Casual Mode.” As mentioned above, this mode, when activated, removes the permadeath system and revives any fallen unit at the end of each battle, eliminating the harsh penalty of permanently losing a character the player had worked hard to level up. According to Yamagami, this was done because the team realized that many modern gamers don’t have the time and patience to reset their game and play a map over every time a unit dies. To appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Casual Mode was created and implemented.
In doing this, the team had lowered the gates in terms of levelbarrier of entry to the series. The permadeath system that was overly intimidating to many who were interested in trying the series out was no longer an obstacle. Fire Emblem: Awakening launched worldwide and was a massive success for the series, selling much more than the required 250,000 Nintendo had demanded. The series was saved, and would be allowed to continue.
Which brings us to today, and the mean-spirited conversations on social media. What I don’t understand is the insistence of the hardcore fans that Casual Mode somehow marred the series forever, and that players who use it aren’t playing the game the right way. According to some, Casual Mode removes the tension and consequence of permadeath, which makes death “meaningless” in the games. What’s weird to me about statements like this is that most Classic Mode players also make death meaningless by soft resetting whenever one of their units dies, and replaying the map so that everyone survives. For some players, constantly resetting and playing the same maps over and over isn’t fun, but extremely frustrating instead. But the real thing that bothers me about all this vitriol toward Casual Mode is that nobody should be mad that it exists. Even hardcore players should rejoice that it has become a part of the series, because Casual Mode played a HUGE role in saving Fire Emblem from the fate (get it?) of being axed entirely.
Casual Mode brought a lot of new players to the series. It was implemented because Intelligent Systems recognized that in today’s world, players like to have options when it comes to difficulty, and that many players were turned off by permadeath. My question to those out there who insist that Casual Mode is the bane of “true Fire Emblem fans” is: why does this upset you so much? The series survived because hundreds of thousands of new players bought Awakening, in part because they could turn permadeath off. Not only did the series survive, but it is thriving better than before. Tons of new players are being introduced to something awesome. Something that hardcore players love. Why be mad about that? Why insist that the game not be played that way? It’s not as if Casual Mode replaced Classic Mode, after all. Both options are there for hardcore and newcomer alike. I think it’s time for those of us who have been playing the games longer than others to lay down arms and just embrace the fact that Fire Emblem is now being played by more people than ever before.
As a fan myself, this is something that I welcome with open arms. I love it when people discover and enjoy something that I like. The community grows. The games sell. To me, it seems like everybody wins. That is why I find it hard to understand the elitist attitude of many long time fans in the weeks surrounding Fates’ western release. Telling other people that they’re playing games the wrong way isn’t productive or useful, and all it does is turn people away from the series and its fan base. I think Casual Mode is something that should be celebrated, even if I don’t use it myself. After all, it saved the series. How can anybody be mad about that?