I came late to the Fire Emblem franchise, intrigued by who these sword-wielding characters Marth and Roy were from Super Smash Bros Melee. This led to me picking up Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS, an international remake of the Japan-only original game. And while I enjoyed my time with it, it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t until the 3DS Fire Emblem Awakening that I realized Fire Emblem was extremely my jam.
Since Awakening, I’ve become a Fire Emblem fanboy, putting in multiple hundreds of hours in the recent games, and loving every minute of it. So when Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia was released early this year, there was little doubt I’d be picking it up. After completing it though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I’d played wasn’t really a Fire Emblem game.
This feeling is both absurd and understandable, for the same exact reason: Shadows of Valentia is a remake of the second game in the series, the Famicom’s Fire Emblem Gaiden, another Fire Emblem game that never made it stateside. So while it’s an essential building block in the franchise, the franchise itself has evolved a lot from that early entry.
If you’re like me and only really got into Fire Emblem with the release of Awakening (which, if the sharp spike in sales numbers are any indication, is pretty likely) Shadows of Valentia will feel weird to you too. The marriage and child systems are nowhere to be found. You can’t equip multiple weapons on the same character and skills are now tied to weapons instead of classes. And craziest of all, the weapon triangle (swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords) is nonexistent! This is not the Fire Emblem I know.
But not everything is a steep departure. The action is still turn based. Characters still move according to a grid. Cavalry units can still move farther than infantry units. There are still support conversations and the game is still a deeply strategic affair. So, if it has all that in common and yet, still doesn’t feel quite right, what actually makes a Fire Emblem game a Fire Emblem game, other than a name on the front of a box? What does that title even mean?
It’s not an easy question, especially not when asked about a somewhat lesser-known franchise. So let’s pivot and ask the same question about a franchise with much more notoriety and much less subtlety in its changes from game to game: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy changes drastically from entry to entry, making a franchise like Fire Emblem seem almost unflinchingly stable. Final Fantasy has shifted battle systems, art styles, time periods, key staff members and even genres throughout its mainline games. So what is the connective tissue? It’s got to be more than chocobos and a man named Cid, right?
What if Chrono Trigger was instead called Final Fantasy VII? Would it really feel like an outsider compared to the other 15 Roman numerated games in the franchise? What about a non-Square developed game like Golden Sun? Are Golden Sun’s mechanics any more of a departure from the Final Fantasy standards than Final Fantasy XI’s? If numbered Final Fantasy games are so malleable that they can include two MMOs, turn-based and action-based combat, mechs, swords, guns, magic and everything in between, what’s stopping anything from qualifying as a potential mainline Final Fantasy game?
Is this just a pointless argument? Maybe instead of ascribing the tenants of the franchise as mechanics or styles or people, the name “Final Fantasy” ends up being more a confident stamp of quality or technical achievement than anything or, barring that, at least an indication of money spent to hopefully achieve a certain quality. Could Square Enix slap the Final Fantasy name on an upcoming RPG of theirs like Project Octopath Traveler? Sure. In fact, with the name recognition, it’d probably sell better. So why don’t they do that? Does calling Project Octopath Traveler “Final Fantasy XVI” hurt the franchise going forward? Do they not think it can live up to the lofty expectations that come with those two “F” words on the box? I honestly don’t know. I suppose that’s a question for Square Enix.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the categorization of what makes a “core” entry in Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy or any franchise is a pointless venture. Maybe it’s a venture that doesn’t need to be so stringent, but gaming can be an expensive hobby, which can lead to people being more cautious in their purchases and only buying what they know and what they find comfortable. These striations of name can drastically change the marketing, sales and legacy of these games. I am psyched for Project Octopath Traveler, but there’s a part of me that worries it won’t get its due because it has a weird name (that’s still technically a codename), and we might not see more games like it in the future.
It’d be nice if, instead of buying games because of the name on the box, we would look for games that appeal to us on a deeper, more meaningful level. Think about the aspects we love from our favorite games, and look for new experiences that build on those aspects. That’d be the ideal.
On the other hand, who’s as hyped as I am about 2018 Fire Emblem?