Back in late 2001 Nintendo released a little known title called Super Smash Bros. Melee. And that game introduced western audiences to an unfamiliar face by the name of Prince Marth. The vast majority of fans were understandably confused by this character they’d never seen before, but the positive response to his inclusion in Smash Bros. sparked enough curiosity to see the Fire Emblem series eventually become localized in the west. Western audiences were eventually able to experience Marth’s first adventure in 2009 thanks to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, for the Nintendo DS, which was a remake of the first title in the series. However, it wasn’t until this year when Nintendo decided once and for all to give fans an official release of the game they’d been missing out on for the past thirty years and release Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light onto the Nintendo Switch eShop store.
To get the obvious part of this review out of the way, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is not a modern title. It’s essentially an NES title from 1990, so for better or worse I’m keeping that fact in mind in my critiques. I don’t expect it to live up to the modern titles, and neither should anybody else who wants to grab this one after falling in love with Three Houses last year.
Right off the bat, there are a lot of positives. As soon as you start up the game you’re thrown into the first map where Prince Marth and Princess Caeda must reclaim a castle from attacking pirates. The sprite work on the character portraits looks quite good, and the maps are all uniquely designed. What surprised me the most was just how much of this first Fire Emblem game, for lack of a better term, felt like Fire Emblem. While everything may seem a bit more primitive, so much of what makes the series great has been here from the very beginning. Turns involve an attack and counter attack, while having a speed boost over your opponent can result in follow-up attacks. Healers can’t fight until they get promoted to a higher class. Bows have range and are super effective against flying units, but can’t fight close up foes. There are fortresses you can use to heal yourself, or terrain you can try to avoid damage in like forests or mountains. You can recruit dozens of characters by rescuing villages or turning foe into friend with the help of Marth or Caeda. And it’s a good thing there are so many characters to recruit, because if a character dies, they’re gone for good. There’s no casual mode in the old NES game, I’m afraid. Some of the more detailed things we now consider to be staples of the series like the Weapon Triangle and Support systems aren’t present in this game, but I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I felt at home trying out these 30 year old mechanics.
The number one thing I felt was lacking from this game that made things a bit difficult is that there are no markers on the map to signify your range of movement. This means figuring out where you can move is just a matter of seeing how far the cursor can go, and figuring out if you’ve just sent a helpless unit into enemy range or not is going to take a bit of getting used to. Though there are definitely ways you can take advantage of this. For example, in the very first map you can recruit Wrys, who cannot fight, but the staff he carries can heal your wounded. In Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, healers do not earn experience by healing your party, but instead by getting attack. Every hit they endure (or better yet, dodge) rewards them enough experience as if they'd just defeated the character that hit them. This meant that with enough patience, thanks to fortresses that can heal your units, it was possible to get Wrys to level 20 on the very first map. In fact, I ended up doing this with nearly every character that I was able to throughout the game's 25 chapters. Though this only helped me realize how certain characters get very minimal stat gains. A maxed out curate Wrys only had 21 HP and 3 defense. Of course promotions are a big part of Fire Emblem, even back then, and so it helped immensely once I was able to promote him to a Bishop.
Now just because Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is an eShop version of an older title doesn’t mean that Nintendo didn’t add a few convenient quality of life upgrades that really do help work around issues that modern players might have with the older titles. Included in the Switch version is a rewind function that allows you go back a turn, which can definitely help you undo that one critical hit that killed Navarre, or if you accidentally moved your healer one step too close to the big boss. There are also suspend options that allow you to save in the middle of a battle and come back later if you need too, which actually makes this a great title to just play a few turns and tuck the system away for later. The last addition that I found a bit divisive is the ability to speed up parts of the game. You can speed up the entire game or just the computer’s turn. My only complaint with utilizing this feature is that for some reason they decided to have speeding up the animation also speed up the music. This winds up sounding really weird and I ended up personally preferring to just let it be slow in exchange for not ruining the pretty good soundtrack.
Overall, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is not an amazing game, especially when you have the contrast of basically any other entry in the series. But the fact that it’s here in 2020 and even has those QOL upgrades is a fantastic thing. It’s not a game that you’re going to buy because you’re hungry for a deep, fully-fledged story filled with rich characters, but because it’s a piece of Nintendo history introduced to an audience that’s missed out on it for so many years. The game is only six bucks, and I’d say the title is definitely worth that cost of admission. And hopefully, if this little experiment from Nintendo is successful, other long awaited titles that never made their way stateside will wind up on the eShop as well.
John reviewed Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light on the Nintendo Switch with a personally purchased copy.