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Fire Emblem and the 'Way Games Should be Played'

by Matt West - March 9, 2016, 2:46 pm PST
Total comments: 20

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?

Talkback

LucarioMarch 09, 2016

Here, here dude!
Great article! and I agree on everything you say! Do I have your permission to post this article on a website of "hard-core" Fire emblem fans?

Evan_BMarch 09, 2016

Not every game is made for every person. But don't think that the Fie Emblem series is "something awesome" anymore. My issue with Fire Emblem is not the lowering of difficulty (as some players go about the game with the same level of seriousness and strategy), it's the marked departure in time and focus. Now, the games are more about dating and meeting your kooky cast of characters and building insane combinations of things, and that's not why I played Fire Emblem. It's not the series I enjoyed anymore, but then again, I could say that about a lot of Nintendo franchises. That's the part I get worked up about, but it's not like I look down on people who like the series. You do what you gotta do.

The market has changed and developers feel the need to cater to wider audiences. In doing so, you lose parts of what makes a series or franchise good or bad. People will always idolize the first entry in a series they actually enjoyed, it's just a shame that so many ended up coming in on the casual filth that was Fire Emblem Awakening.

All jokes aside, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a genuinely good game, better than Awakening, that no one played because people complained about its difficulty. And Fire Emblem as a series held decent to mediocre scores before Awakening debuted the casual modes. Just take that as you will.

Ian SaneMarch 09, 2016

Quote:

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.

Yeah, this I don't get either.  If the devs intended for you to restart a map the second someone dies wouldn't they have made it so that any death was an instant game over?  If they wanted you to restart from scratch why would they make you do it yourself manually when they could do it all automatically?  No, if there is any "correct" way to play it's that if a character dies, they're dead, and you continue on with the story without them because that is what would happen in real life if someone died.  There is a narrative purpose for permadeath and that is continuing on thinking about those that didn't make it along the way.  Those that reset are circumventing that.  Casual mode is also circumventing it but in a way that is a lot less tedious.  In fact probably the reason casual mode was introduced was because players were resetting to get around the effects of permadeath and if they were going to do that then, fuck it, you might as well just have the option to turn permadeath off since that is really what the resetters are already doing.

TheBigKMarch 09, 2016

I think a big driving issue behind the elitist attitude some people seem to have has to do with deeper personality and identity disturbances. In my experience, the people who are most likely to get upset over such trivial matters as how someone else, entirely independent of themselves, plays a damn video game have a stark lack of basic social skills in general. Back when games were still a niche passtime and considered nerdy, a lot of us were bullied by otherwise "normal" jock-type people. "Hmph, fine, they just don't get it like I do," and "They're just too stupid to understand, I'm much smarter than they are, " might be common internal responses. This more or less served to stunt the development of interpersonal skills and caused those affected to regress into themselves and almost put their passtime on a pedestal. Their games became their identity, who they are as individuals. The thought of what makes them special and unique being enjoyed by everyone and their dog disturbs them on a fundamental level. Who they are is suddenly commonplace, they cease to exist as an individual. When they get all elitist, it's a defense mechanism to protect that very fragile sense of self. That's what I think, anyway. It's nothing more than conjecture but it's interesting to think about.

Joe Green77March 09, 2016

Quote from: TheBigK

I think a big driving issue behind the elitist attitude some people seem to have has to do with deeper personality and identity disturbances. In my experience, the people who are most likely to get upset over such trivial matters as how someone else, entirely independent of themselves, plays a damn video game have a stark lack of basic social skills in general. Back when games were still a niche passtime and considered nerdy, a lot of us were bullied by otherwise "normal" jock-type people.

That is some serious projection going on there on your part.

the asylumMarch 09, 2016

one time when i was playing awakening, i thought to myself, "ill just goof around on casual mode"

all of a sudden shouzu kaga himself kicked down my door, stormed into my living room, and put a knife to my throat.

"you better not play on casual mode, son," he said, "or i will cut you. and i will find the rest of your family, and i will cut them too."

LucarioMarch 09, 2016

Quote from: Evan_B

Not every game is made for every person. But don't think that the Fie Emblem series is "something awesome" anymore. My issue with Fire Emblem is not the lowering of difficulty (as some players go about the game with the same level of seriousness and strategy), it's the marked departure in time and focus. Now, the games are more about dating and meeting your kooky cast of characters and building insane combinations of things, and that's not why I played Fire Emblem. It's not the series I enjoyed anymore, but then again, I could say that about a lot of Nintendo franchises. That's the part I get worked up about, but it's not like I look down on people who like the series. You do what you gotta do.

The market has changed and developers feel the need to cater to wider audiences. In doing so, you lose parts of what makes a series or franchise good or bad. People will always idolize the first entry in a series they actually enjoyed, it's just a shame that so many ended up coming in on the casual filth that was Fire Emblem Awakening.

All jokes aside, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. is a genuinely good game, better than Awakening, that no one played because people complained about its difficulty. And Fire Emblem as a series held decent to mediocre scores before Awakening debuted the casual modes. Just take that as you will.

Code name STEAM sucked.

Evan_BMarch 09, 2016

That's just, like, your opinion, man.

Which pretty much sums up this entire thread. People are entitled! They want the things that resonate with them to be respected and acknowledged. I get a little annoyed when people say Super Mario Sunshine sucks, or that Mario and Luigi is funnier and better written than Paper Mario. Just like how people who "stick through" Fire Emblem titles on high difficulty feel threatened by people who don't "appreciate" the series like they do. I don't associate with either group, personally.

There's far worse aspects of the Fire Emblem franchise that can be discussed than its difficulty, and while the "calm the hell down" approach is a pretty easy argument, I don't think it's worth discussing because, yeah, it's painfully obvious that gamers are sensitive about their franchises, their difficulty, and their games. Look at me, I'm having an existential crisis over whether or not the next Paper Mario has a "one-and-done," item-based combat system in another thread on this forum and we've seen less than a minute of combat footage. People will obsess over what ever the hell they want to obsess over, whether its Nintendo not making games "for me" or how stupid the name Wii U is.

You know what's really messed up, though? The intense amount of hate coming from people who feel that Fire Emblem Fates has been neutered by localizing the support treehouse exchanges, or the support conversation where someone is "turned" from their sexuality. One of those things has already been covered by this site, but if you go into our Xenoblade Chronicles X or Toyko Mirage Sessions threads, you can see that censorship is a big deal in our community. Or the complete tonal shift the past two games have had from the rest of the franchise, for better or worse (I've said my share on the subject, but I can safely admit to being a minority). Or how a game mostly centered around melee combat uses percentage-based accuracy checks, for goodness' sake! That's the kind of stuff that needs to be addressed. Okay, maybe not that last one. Then again, Code Name S.T.E.A.M. doesn't have that shit. :P

Triforce HermitMarch 09, 2016

The glory of a single player game is you can play it however the hell you want.


And I don't hate casual mode with no permadeath. I hate how horrible Awakening was. At least Fates has fixed that awful shitfest

One thing I've learned over the years of writing and talking about video games is that there can be a fine line between encouraging people to try something and suggesting their ignorance if they haven't yet. Evan_B raises some interesting points about the recent additions outside of battle scenes, which are semi-mandatory, and we can have a healthy debate over the way the franchise has changed over so many years. However, I think Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have decided wisely that easier options still retain enough, if not all, the true Fire Emblem essence for most people who might be inclined to use those settings. On the other hand, anyone who prefers the classic (high) difficulty or wants to crank it up even higher with the Conquest and Revelation campaigns has lost nothing. So what we have reached with Fates is Nintendo going after both ends of the continuum to reach the broadest possible spectrum of players. No one loses, and it's selling better than ever.

Evan_BMarch 09, 2016

It's interesting, because the fact that Awakening (and I believe Fates?) have Lunatic and higher difficulty levels means that there's still a high-level of play that can take place, though in Awakening the exploitation and capitalization of that stuff came from genealogy. Still, there is the ability to play the game in a vast amount of ways and that's why difficulty has never been the central argument, in my opinion.

I would like to note that at least Radiant Dawn possessed a quick save function during its basic campaign where you could save and reload between turns, effectively allowing yourself the ability to reset if you lost a character without restarting the entire map. While you could potentially screw yourself into "unwinnable" scenarios, you could also restart the entire mission. Maybe this feature was not possible on 3DS, or maybe Casual mode was a more important focus, but it always seemed to me like the ideal way to design the system for "save-scumming".

EnnerMarch 10, 2016

I've been noodling around the idea that the next Fire Emblem (or turn-based strategy game) should lock Casual and Phoenix mode behind one Game Over. And have the first play through locked in to Classic and Iron Man (only one save slot, saving is automatic and frequent). That might be a fun thing for everyone. Any one that wants to go straight to Casual can just set the difficulty to Lunatic and feel the unfairness for a single mission.

RPG_FAN128March 10, 2016

Excellent editorial.  This trend of "making games easier" is common.  Guitar Hero World Tour added a mode where you don't even have to press buttons, you only strum.  Mario games help you out if you die too many times on a level.  Etrian Odyssey (from game 4 on) added a less-hardcore mode.  Having beaten EO 1/2/3 I knew I couldn't live with MYSELF if I played any on it's classic this-game-is-designed-to-kill-you mode.  But there is such a simple solution to all of these.  If you don't want to play the "easy" mode, then DON'T! 


TheBigK's comment hits the nail though; to put it bluntly, people have issues.  My biggest peeve is people showering threads with "OMG there's no games to play"  or "OMG Nintendo needs to make more games."  CLEARLY these people do not have a job, a life, or a girlfriend.  But I have to take a breath and realize the audience in question lacks the ability to get a job or a girl/boy friend.  Trust me though:  Walmart is ALWAYS hiring.  Going along with TheBigK's thought, so many have constricted themselves to an antisocial shell of what life is, and they are the only person in their entire universe.  Everything is about them, for them, because of them.  Beautiful people usually get prejudicial hatred/jealousy directly at them for being so "stuck up" and "egocentric."  But let's face it, there are many other demographics who are much worse. 


Let me share one final thought.  I knew a kid who would print out detailed walkthroughs of every game he owned.  He would play the game in the following way:  (1)  Read what he had to do (2) execute it in the game.  (3)  Repeat.  This would even occur for puzzle games!  He would read the solution to every Zelda puzzle and then go play the floor, or room, or dungeon.  I don't understand how that is fun.  But hey, he had fun playing games that way.  I certainly don't lose any sleep over it.  Evidently "hardcore" Fire Emblem fans lose sleep over someone they don't even know playing the game on casual mode.  So sad.

Ian SaneMarch 10, 2016

I can relate to the idea of someone resenting a new audience because I felt that way with the Wii.  Nintendo was saying that people were intimidated by traditional controllers and then were catering to these people and my feeling was that if these people are too close-minded to try videogames without having massive compromises made to the experience then why do they deserve to be catered to?  I can't skate worth a shit.  Do I go to a hockey league and insist that the ice be removed to accommodate me playing hockey?  No, that would be insane yet I felt Nintendo was pretty much doing that with the Wii.  So I could see the feeling that permadeath is an essential part of the Fire Emblem experience and if you're not willing to give it a go, then what right do you have for them to change it for you?  Besides there are numerous other tactics RPGs that offer a similar experience that you can play instead.

But this isn't really change.  This is adding an option.  My beef with the Wii was that games like Wii Sports were so dumbed down they didn't appeal to me at all and I didn't like Nintendo spending resources on such products when almost everything was targeted towards me in the generations before.  I didn't like how games like Mario Kart or SSB introduced more random elements to reward casual play and punish skill.  You couldn't turn off tripping in SSB Brawl for example.  That's not an option for a new audience that's an outright CHANGE to the experience for EVERYONE.  I didn't like it when some games would not offer traditional controls even when all they did with motion control was map a button to a shake.  That stuff drove me up the wall because I couldn't still experience the games the way I wanted to.  Something was taken from me.

But then Nintendo caught on and started introducing ideas like the Super Guide which in theory sound like it strips away the whole damn point of playing a videogame but it was optional.  All audiences could play the game how they wanted which made a world of a difference.  That's truly accommodating.  Before they were just playing down to the lowest common denominator and that's not accommodating - that's trimming off the audience at the top to get the audience at the bottom.

So in one situation they're taking something away and in another they're not, they're just allowing for more play styles.  If you don't like the dating focus on the new Fire Emblems now you've got a fair complaint.  You can't turn that off and avoid it.  But if you don't want casual mode you don't have to use it.  You still can play the game as you like.  Losing your shit over that is pretty ridiculous.  You lose NOTHING and since it's a single player game you don't even have to play with any newcomers that don't play it the way you like.  There's a universe of difference between being upset that something was taken from you and being upset because other people are enjoying something you like in the privacy of their own homes in a way that's different then how you enjoy the same thing.  You might as well be freaking out over other people having different toppings on their pizza than you, while the pizza you like is still on the menu.

Luigi DudeMarch 10, 2016

To me I don't see how longtime gamers can even be offended by this since it's no different from difficulty settings that's we've had in gaming for 30 years now.  There's a lot of old school action games and shooters from the late 80/early 90's that are praised to this day but had easy difficulty settings.  Hell, a lot of games back then had cheat codes built into the actual game that would allow the players to skip levels or give themselves unlimited ammo and invincibility, and these were things the developers were intentionally putting in.  Pretty much every game that allows players to put in password has some kind of cheat that makes the games easier from that era.

Seriously, to be angry that Nintendo allows Casual Mode in the newest Fire Emblems would be like being angry that Konami allowed gamers to use the Konami Code to make some of their older games like Contra easier.  It's just another optional feature developers have been putting in their games for over 3 decades now to make them easier so some people can get more enjoyment out of them.

EnnerMarch 10, 2016

Ah, I recall playing many games in my younger days with invincibility cheats or Game Genie codes. I don't know how engaged I would be with video games without them.

StratosMarch 10, 2016

I suspect that a number of these overreacting fans are responding out of a fear that gradual changes to the core formula over time will eventually transform the game into something entirely different that what it is they love.


I do not condone their behavior, but I would like to think most of them are just trying to make sure their beloved series is not turned into something unrecognizable and not enjoyable to them.

Evan_BMarch 10, 2016

Like how Paper Mario is "action adventure" now instead of RPG... :(

Ian SaneMarch 10, 2016

Quote from: Stratos

I suspect that a number of these overreacting fans are responding out of a fear that gradual changes to the core formula over time will eventually transform the game into something entirely different that what it is they love.


I do not condone their behavior, but I would like to think most of them are just trying to make sure their beloved series is not turned into something unrecognizable and not enjoyable to them.

So nothing has been taken from them yet but they're concerned that it will happen?  Yeah, I can relate to that.  Federation Force has caused a big thing pretty much because Metroid fans fear it's existence means they won't get a Metroid game of the classic style that appeals to them.

Still there hasn't been a new Metroid in stores in years and there isn't one announced on the way right now.  There is a new Fire Emblem in stores right now and it can be played whatever way the individual would prefer.  I guess I get the concern but pick your battles.  Wait until the threat of losing something is more substantial.

Triforce HermitMarch 10, 2016

Quote from: Stratos

I suspect that a number of these overreacting fans are responding out of a fear that gradual changes to the core formula over time will eventually transform the game into something entirely different that what it is they love.


I do not condone their behavior, but I would like to think most of them are just trying to make sure their beloved series is not turned into something unrecognizable and not enjoyable to them.

This is about it. It's old fans who are uneasy about the new changes. And I've seen when they mention this, the newer fans are just as vicious and outright say "no one gives a fuck what you think." The entire fanbase right now is in a transition. And this is the a video game community on the internet. It's going to be like this. Expecting them to have a healthy discussion isn't going to happen.

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