I give the very first game in the Fire Emblem franchise...a 75/100!
The Fire Emblem franchise needs no introduction...if you live in Japan. Having started off on the NES in the year 1990, or in Japan's case the Famicom, it spawned a popular franchise that's still going to this day. It had a much rockier journey in America, though, as none of the games were localized early on, and the only way people even knew Fire Emblem existed was because some of the characters appeared in Super Smash Brothers Melee. Their exposure did convince Nintendo to finally localize some of the games for the US, starting from The Blazing Blade onward, though at the time, they weren't all that popular. The series eventually fell on hard times and was about to get cancelled until Fire Emblem Awakening gave it new life and saved the series from certain doom, establishing the franchise as a new household name. Later, in December of 2020, Nintendo surprised everyone by not only giving the very first game, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, its first official English release on the Nintendo Switch, but adding a lot of quality of life improvements, such as a bookmarking system, turn rewinding, and fast forwarding, to make playing it easier. Though for some reason, it would only be available on the Switch eShop until the end of March 2021, and this really pissed off a lot of fans. Seeing as this is the case, even though I admit to having never played an FE game before this, I decided to buy it to support the release and at least try it out. And hey, what better way to begin my Fire Emblem journey with the very first game in the franchise?
Being a late NES game, it has a fairly simple story. The land of Archanea is in chaos. An evil dragon, Medeus, has ruled over the land for years, intent on turning it into a land of his own making, namely having it be overrun with dragon people with the help of the country of Dolhr. Prince Marth of Altea has had enough of Medeus' tyrannical rule, and decides he and his friends are going to journey across Archanea, free all the settlements under Dolhr's control, and by extension the entirety of Archanea. But in order to defeat Medeus once and for all, he needs a special sword called Falchion, which is the only thing that can truly defeat a wicked beast like him. You have to admit, most NES games at the time rarely, if ever, bothered with trying to tell long-running, detailed stories with a large cast of characters. Fire Emblem not only pioneered the strategy RPG, but was one of the first NES games to really put in an effort to tell a deeper, more layered story than just "fight the evil villain and kill him," even with the technical, graphical, and hardware limitations of the time.
Speaking of graphics, it's pretty well known that most NES games ran pretty slow, with Fire Emblem being no exception, leading to a lot of grinding just so you can get what you want. On that aspect, the game's overall interface didn't age well. Instead of having characters continuously fight an enemy until they're killed, characters are only allowed to land one or two hits on them, and you need to deal as much damage as possible before they have the chance to kill your unit. Plus, every turn doesn't apply to each and every character individually, but rather, your whole army gets a turn where they move across a map at certain tile lengths, and they don't always involve battle. Sometimes they just involve getting closer to the enemy. But I will say, the game moves REALLY SLOW. It takes forever to move your characters across the screen and do what you need to do. Luckily, the Switch version remedies this by having a fast forward function, where you can either have the enemy move twice as fast, or the entire game. There's also the fact that in the original version, you could only save the game after you finished clearing maps, never in the middle of a level. Again, the Switch version remedies this by implementing a bookmarking system, which pretty much allows you to save your game whenever you feel like it, even in the middle of a level. The game even lets you rewind your turns if you made a mistake and want to redo a turn.
In terms of artwork, I admit I haven't played many NES games, and one I tried to play, Final Fantasy 1, had such bright, oversaturated graphics and annoying soundbites that they actually hurt my ears and eyes physically. The overworld sprites here are pretty cute, and the battle sprites, for an NES game, are surprisingly well animated given the hardware limitations of the time. I heard critics say that they felt the art style was ugly, but I honestly don't think so. The character animation is smooth and detailed by NES standards, and the characters actually have detailed headshots with varying color schemes, something that was probably unheard of for an NES game, even if many of them were just palette swaps of one another. I also like the map designs, as they really make the game's world feel big, and the fact that your army progresses slowly makes the game feel realistic in its pacing, even if at times it feels sluggish. Now, I heard that the Switch version's color and brightness level is dialed down, muted, and made slightly darker than the original version, and this is supposedly because the localization used the same emulator and code as the Wii U Virtual Console version released in Japan, according to this tweet. People are bound to take issue with this, and it is understandable, but I personally didn't mind it too much. Considering one NES game I tried to play had the opposite problem, being so bright and having such oversaturated colors that it hurt my eyes and exacerbated my sensory issues, I find the muted video presentation for Fire Emblem to be much easier on my eyes. That's just me, though.
As far as characterization goes, Fire Emblem fares better than most NES games of the era. Now, games back in the late 80s and early 90s couldn't handle doing the huge, sprawling stories that allowed for deep, multilayered characterization that modern video games can do now. Many games made for the NES cared much more about gameplay and graphical design than character development. Plus, hardware limitations didn't exactly allow anyone to give characters more than a few lines depending on what kind of game they were making. Fire Emblem makes a noble attempt to rectify this by having some characters talk to each other as you recruit them. For example, you have to have Marth talk to certain named characters in the overworld to recruit them, or have Caeda do so for others. Some characters require recruited party members to talk to them in order to recruit them. But the only time the game indicates that a character you need to recruit is to check their information while in the overworld and see if they have an actual name as opposed to just their job title. By modern standards, the characters were pretty bland, and you only get some inkling of their personalities or backstories via short lines of dialogue. I hear that the Nintendo DS remake rectified this somewhat, but I haven't played that, and am only commenting on the NES version's characterization. But considering the era this game was made in, I can give it some points for at least making an attempt to give the characters some characterization beyond what's just on the surface.
Strategy is very important in this game. Unlike most games, where you die but come back if you have enough lives, if a character in your army is killed by an enemy, they stay dead, and you can't use them for the remainder of the game ever. Granted, this re-release mitigates this slightly with the bookmarking system and redoing turns, but back in the day, this was revolutionary. Victory depends on the decisions you make and how you manage to use every member of your army. Seriously, I didn't complete my first run of the game at first because the second-to-last level was so hard due to the fact that I lost several units that really could have saved me a lot of trouble had I done more to keep them alive. Planning is key here, and any decision you make can either ensure victory or prevent you from progressing. I think this is where NES Fire Emblem succeeds here, because it really goes out of its way to give you a challenge, even with the new editions the 2020 re-release added in. But being challenging does come with its own drawbacks, with one of them being that many of the units are horribly balanced. You know how certain RPG classes like knights and mages have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses? Well, Fire Emblem kind of dropped the ball on that by going to the extreme. Certain classes, if you invest in them, can absolutely obliterate anything in their path, and others were flat-out completely useless, with the worst offenders being the clerics. In Fire Emblem, they don't level up by using their staves, and they can't even attack either, so how does the game make them level up? By requiring them to survive attacks! And considering clerics are well known for not being able to take hits because of how their stats are made up, this was a really bad move. Later games rectified this, but I wouldn't blame you at all if you just never used your clerics at all. The game is also known for having very stupidly easy ways to make tons and tons of money, but not having much in the way of inventory space when needed.
With all this being said, would I recommend this to people? To gamers who love a good challenge, yes, but to casual gamers who want something to relax with, probably not. I liked it well enough, though by modern standards, this game is stone age levels of primitive, and while the new additions make it more tolerable, they don't make it into the best game ever. The Nintendo DS remake exists for a reason. But it did jump start the franchise we all know and love, so Fire Emblem fans owe it that much.