The Fire Emblem game that started it all and one of the first releases for the tactical RPG genre. A good definition for “Nintendo Hard.”
|Developer||Intelligent Systems, Nintendo R&D1|
|Purchase (Famicom)||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase Shadow Dragon remake (Nintendo DS)||Purchase from Amazon.|
Before 2001, no one outside of Japan really knew about the Fire Emblem series. It wasn’t until Super Smash Bros. Melee hit store shelves outside of Japan that Fire Emblem managed to reach a worldwide audience.
Marth is a recurring protagonist in the series, having the starring role in four games (even though two of them were remakes). He also sometimes gets a mention on other games, such as Awakening, and returns as an amiibo-unlockable character in Fire Emblem Fates. Roy only starred in the series’s sixth game, Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade. However, we’ll confront that beast another time.
So here we are, the very first game in the series and the brainchild of Shouzou Kaga. It’s called Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi, also known as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light.
Most people are familiar with the game through its Nintendo DS remake, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, which is a big step in improvement over the original. But just for curiosity’s sake, I decided to play this game to see how people would experience it back in the day.
And because I know little Japanese (though I learned my hiragana and katakana), I am using the English patch created by Quirino and translated by HHHIII. Thank you, guys.
The game begins quite immediately with a short dialogue exchange between our hero-prince Marth and princess Shiida (known as Caeda in English).
I’l give a quick summary of the story. The setting is a fictional continent known as Archanea (called Akaneia in Japan). The Doluna (Dolhr) Empire led by the resurrected earth dragon Medeus and evil sorcerer Gharnef launched an attack and conquered the various kingdoms. Among them is Marth’s home kingdom, Altea.
After learning of his father’s death and his elder sister being taken away by the enemy, Marth sets out on a quest to reclaim his ancestor’s legendary sword Falchion and the MacGuffin plot device known as the Fire Emblem. With these two magical items, he can slay Medeus just as his ancestor did and restore peace to Archanea once and for all.
I have to admit, this is a pretty ambitious story for its time. It’s not that great today but think about it. Most of the continent has been conquered already, so the once peaceful kingdoms are now war nations under control of the dark dragon. Though there were plenty of soldiers profiting from the war, there were also people like Camus who have no choice but to follow orders to help preserve his kingdom.
And from there, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light begins.
You can move any one of your characters (blue units) around the map and each can only move once per turn. If your character is next to an enemy (red units), you have the option to attack them. This will activate a little simulation where the two characters attack each other.
You can also use items or end the character’s turn without doing anything. You can only make one option per character, so be careful whenever your enemy approaches.
When you manually end your turn, your enemy can make its move and the cycle continues until you either reach your objective or die.
Screw your “wooden cavalry!” I have units with actual reach!
While you can kill your enemies, they can also kill your own soldiers. And of course, death is permanent and they cannot be brought back. If there is anything I heard most whenever people complain about the Fire Emblem series, it’s the fact that you can easily lose characters to the clutches of death. And because every character is unique (name, appearance, personality, etc.), this could be an unpleasant experience for first-time players.
Luckily, the characters in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light are flatter than a pressed sheet of paper so I don’t think you’ll be deeply impacted when they’re gone. Except when you leveled them considerably, in which case… FUCK! However, you need to keep Marth alive or the game is over.
And of course, every character has a different class that gives them different strengths and weaknesses. For example, Marth is of the Lord class. While Lords of different Fire Emblem games tend to differ in stats, Marth can only equip swords and he leans towards high HP and high Luck with low Defense and Resistance. He is also the only character in the game who can equip the useful Rapier, which allows him to kill armored enemies with ease. He can also visit villages, seize fortresses in every map to end the chapter, and open treasure chests (while the Fire Emblem is in his possession).
Despite all these things going for him, he’s a very mediocre unit at best. He is not only limited to level 20 in this game (which he can get to easily), but he can never promote. Marth is the most iconic character of the series, but this is what he got? In combat, he only has the ability to wield rapiers and the Falchion. He pales in comparison to other characters locked to swords such as Ogma and Navarre because they can promote to a better class.
Ogma (or Oguma as this translation patch calls him) is of the Mercenary class, a sword-bearing warrior with generally balanced stats. There are more classes for each character, such as Pegasus Knight, Cavalier, Archer, Priest, Knight, Pirate, Mage, etc. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light doesn’t really explain what each can do in terms of weapons and stats, though you can find out what each character’s stats are and the shops do let you know whether your character can’t use a certain weapon or not.
Well, at least they do that. Otherwise, you’d be blindly equipping weapons only to find a particular character can’t use a certain weapon at the last second.
Another major thing to note is that every weapon you carry has an endurance meter. The endurance meter drops when the weapon makes contact with another enemy. If it reaches 0, the weapon breaks and you will need to supply yourself with more weapons.
Luckily, most maps will have a shop in which your character can enter.
WAAAH! What is that thing talking to me?!
There are also tents that allow you to deposit your extra items, which you have to pay 10G for each deposit. A little annoying but it is very easy to amass extra money. All you have to do is have Marth visit villages or open treasure chests.
But be careful though. Thieves can demolish villages, preventing you from collecting your prizes.
And finally, a major part of every Fire Emblem game is the ability to recruit more soldiers. The most common method is to have a specific character speak to the recruitable character. For example, Marth can recruit the pirate Darros and Caeda can recruit the mercenary Navarre just by talking to them. Sometimes, you can find allies in the most unlikely of places. Even right in the middle of conflict.
Pretty please with a cherry on top?
You can also recruit allies with Marth by visiting villages. Again, watch out for those Thieves.
You can also visit houses to gain hints about the map or visit battle arenas to watch your participating warrior and an enemy duke it out until one dies to earn extra cash and experience—did I mention the death of your character is still permanent? And in this arena, you can’t cancel the fight to save your character. That’s basically the game telling you, “Tough shit.” Honestly, I don’t recommend using them.
For most maps, your main objective is to kill the boss of the map and reclaim the fortress they’re holding using Marth. Rinse and repeat.
There is even a battery save at the end of each chapter! Now, isn’t that nice? That’s actually quite a rare feature since most NES/Famicom games rely on a password save system.
Good to see that Anna is still a very recognizable character from the series.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Are there support conversations between characters that give us insight to their personalities and backstories? You know, that one little thing that you’ve probably dropped more than half of your gameplay time on?
No. Supports don’t come in until the fourth game of the series, Genealogy of the Holy War. And that game’s support system works differently from what you’re used to.
But I also took the liberty of compiling a list of stuff that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light DOESN’T have that we oft take for granted. So, here we go!
- Your turn doesn’t automatically end if you selected an action for all of your characters. You have to manually end your turn by selecting a blank map tile and selecting “End.”
- There is no weapon triangle, meaning there isn’t much tactical advantage over using certain weapons other than their strength and accuracy (though bows are an exception towards fliers). Swords are more accurate, but lances and axes are stronger. But because lances and axes have a tough time hitting anything and the bonus damage isn’t really worth the risk, I tend to favor swords in this game.
- You cannot preview a ‘movement zone’ for your units and enemy units, making it more difficult to predict how you or the enemy can move. To figure out how far you can go, you have to select a unit first and move your cursor as far away as possible.
- You cannot preview a ‘danger zone’ for your units, meaning you have to take extreme caution when approaching enemies.
- Even though he is the only Lord in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, Marth cannot promote. However, he is still a decent unit for most of the game and can overcome his limits with stat-boosting items. But towards endgame, he is a walking target and enemies will swarm him and kill him in 2-3 turns.
- There is no such thing as a Master Seal, but there are specific promotion items that only promote specific classes. If you played other Fire Emblem games, you might be familiar with items such as the Elysian Whip or Orion’s Bolt.
- Characters cannot trade items when standing next to each other. So in order for one character to get an item held by another character: Character #1 has to deposit the item into a storage tent. Character #2 has to go to the storage tent to pick it up.
- There is no such thing as a Convoy menu. All of your excess items go into storage tents on the maps, and you can only store a small number of items.
- The preparations menu does not allow you to change items before an upcoming chapter. That means you better finish your preparations in the previous chapter, if you can.
- You cannot rearrange your soldiers’ positions on the map before you start the battle, which can REALLY put you at a disadvantage.
- You cannot send items to storage when shopping, so a soldier with full inventory cannot make any purchases. And to send items to storage, you have to waste a turn or more to deposit items at a storage tent.
Yeeeeeeeaaaaaah. All those little conveniences that we were so used to? Not here at all! And boy, does that make Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light that much fucking harder and ten times more tedious. Hopefully, that gives you a new kind of appreciation for the later entries.
While the game is certainly beatable, the biggest problem is that it’s a whole lot of busywork. In order to get anywhere in this game, you need to spend A LOT OF TIME just doing preparation groundwork and not actually playing the game.
And the cursor moves so fucking slow. It moves so fucking slow. It’s so god-fuck slow. I’m dead serious. It doesn’t move as quickly or as smoothly as later games. It’s so jerky and it takes forever for it to reach one side of the map to the opposite side.
You want to know what’s even better? Your units walk slow too. Yes, even the cavalry.
Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is paced so painfully slow that it makes me wonder how Japanese consumers back in the day were able to tolerate it. This game must’ve taken months to complete for the average consumer.
For its time, this is a complex game. There is so much to do, it is quite overwhelming. Imagine if this really did get localized for the NES. I would say it could’ve been at least an underrated title, which is probably better than having no recognition outside of Japan at all.
But for the most part, this game… is challenging. Irritating, even.
Tactics are limited to what warrior classes your characters are currently in, what their stats are, and whatever terrain your character is currently standing on (which can affect the enemy’s ability to strike you).
Your best bet is to stick to only a handful of units, make sure they don’t die, keep leveling them up and giving them better weapons, and be in control of your environment. That’s the big secret to beating just about any Fire Emblem game. Stuff like the weapon triangle in the later games makes this easier.
The OTHER biggest problem about Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is that it’s unbalanced as fuck. Without the help of the weapon triangle and the fact that some characters are much better to use than others, it all comes down to who has the best stats and the best weapons.
Marth can only go so far since he can never promote and his level cap is 20. The enemy AI is also more likely to target him than most of your other units as well, putting him at a massive disadvantage in later chapters.
Also, do you remember that reinforcements mechanic in Fire Emblem? You know, where enemy units constantly pop up out of nowhere and it gives you a mini heart attack every time?
You thought the respawning enemies of Ninja Gaiden were bad? Try going up against respawning enemies in this game. I guarantee you, they’re ten times worse.
Many of the chapters contain a ton of forts that spawn enemies at consecutive turns. Enemies can also spawn unexpectedly at a specific spot on the map, and you won’t know about it unless you play the chapter. Your best counter-strategy is to go to these forts or spawn points as quickly as possible and place your soldiers on top of them so that enemy units can’t spawn.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. I mean, look at this bullshit.
Okay, that is just sadistic.
The best thing to do in a situation like that is to complete the chapter as soon as possible and abandon everything else. While you CAN just grow a pair and take on all of the reinforcements until they stop spawning, you’re more than likely going to lose a soldier or several.
Oh, want to know what else? As soon as the enemy soldiers spawn, they can make their move immediately.
Don’t you just LOVE fake difficulty? Just when you thought you had the game under control, the AI just cheats and suddenly you’re losing soldiers due to this respawning enemy bullshit.
Right now, you must be sitting here thinking, “Hmm. Now how can we make things even worse for the player?”
Promoted enemy soldiers. That’s how.
The enemy AI starts sending paladins and heroes relatively early in the game. Eventually, you may acquire some promotion items like Knight Crests, Orion’s Bolts and Hero Crests. But to get the most out of your promotions, it’s best that you max out your unit’s current class first to get as much stats growth as possible.
But once you get to that point, it does feel great.
This is the point where you start kicking ass.
My godsend in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is one of Marth’s knights, Abel. While he is slower than Cain (which can be amended with a Speed Ring), his attack and defense are amazing when he is promoted to a Paladin. I’m not joking when I say that he single-handedly took on whole armies in the last chapters of my playthrough.
Yes, I seriously destroyed that army with just two high-leveled paladins.
While Cain is pretty good as a paladin, he had the misfortune of having a horrible defense stat in my playthrough so he is not as able as Abel (ha ha). If I had Dracoshields, I would fix this but my playthrough seemed pretty damn stingy in giving me some.
I also found a downside to having a one-man army. In Chapter 22, enemies may choose to gang up on you but not even bother attacking you if they can’t even harm you. This will slow you down significantly, though.
It’s like the enemy AI knows it’s losing, so it’s stalling for time just so it can start getting to spawning reinforcements. What a cheating bastard.
Well now, it’s too bad MARTH CAN’T PROMOTE IN THIS GAME! I WOULD’VE SENT HIM TO HELP OUT IF THEY DIDN’T MAKE HIM SO WEAK! WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
Any last words before you rage-quit?
This fight is total bullshit too. Not only is Camus a promoted unit and is likely to be at a higher level than most of your army, he possesses the legendary weapon Gradivus. Gradivus is a throwing spear similar to the Javelin.
He can easily kill any of your soldiers in one or two hits. He also seems to be extremely lucky because he gets a critical hit against me so wearily often. Because of this, it took me several attempts at this damn chapter before I finally beat Camus with Abel. And trust me, I almost lost Abel. I got REALLY lucky that time.
Marth’s level 20 cap really is a big problem with this game. He’s easily your most important unit but you have to keep him out of the action for much of the later chapters because of that shit.
But then, hindsight hits me like Camus’s Gradivus. It turns out that this game has secret shops you can access if you have a unit carrying a special Member Card and you stand on a very specific tile on certain maps. And there are a couple that sell stat-boosting items like Speed Rings and Dracoshields, allowing you to max out stats for your soldiers.
And keep in mind I said SECRET SHOPS. As in, it’s so fucking easy to miss them. Want to know why? Because:
- I just so happen to miss killing a very specific bishop in chapter 17 that is holding the card. I don’t even know how I missed him!
- Like I said, only specific map tiles in certain chapters have secret shops. And whoever is carrying the Member Card has to go shopping.
I can make things worse. All of your soldiers can only carry four items maximum, meaning you have to give the Member Card to someone with an empty inventory. But the card itself takes up an item slot, so you can only buy three secret shop items at a time. Then you need to go deposit those items into a storage tent and come back. Then you have to send in soldiers you want to improve to the storage tent and take those items out and use them.
What the flying fuck?
I mean, even if you’re lucky enough to get access to the secret shops, there’s EVEN MORE BUSYWORK INVOLVED! And these shops are hidden in very difficult chapters too, so you need to pretty much beat the chapters before you can safely go shopping.
…Fuck this game. It’s a wonder anyone can finish this. It’s one of the most tedious games I ever played.
Honestly, I’m starting to get a better appreciation for Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones because of this. Yes, I found that game rather dull at times but at least it’s not nearly as tedious as playing Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light! I mean, holy shit. What kind of people in the ’90s have so much patience to even finish this?
Ah, but the end is so close. Is it going to be smooth sailing from this point?
BAHAHAHA! You must be on drugs if you think THAT.
The last chapter is SOOOOOO badly designed. For one thing, it’s one of the few times all of your soldiers are scattered across the map at different areas. It’s also swarming with high-leveled enemies, with reinforcements coming in quickly. Want to make it more abominable? It’s the only map in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light where locked doors can just suddenly pop up and block your progress.
Holy hell. That last thing is 120% bullshit. I played through the entire game where NOTHING resembling that has ever popped up. And then you throw in that cheap little mechanic in an attempt to slow down the chapter! Fuck whoever came up with that idea!
Because I can’t rearrange the positions of my soldiers, I have to trick the game so I can have Marth, Abel (level 20 paladin), Cain (level 20 paladin), and Julian (thief with lockpick) in the same group. Having Gotoh in the same group is a plus too since he’s a good mage and has access to powerful healing spells.
Everyone else is cannon fodder. Yep, I just went there. I took a bunch of soldiers I never use and sacrifice them all for the greater good. My objective here is to finish the chapter as fast as possible before the locked doors start popping up and before the enemy reinforcements reach Marth.
I know it’s a douchey move, but the game doesn’t play fair. I mean it, it doesn’t play fair AT ALL.
By this point, I only have three promoted soldiers in total. You read right. THREE. Abel, Cain and Ogma. How the hell am I supposed to clear the game with that?!
The earth dragon Medeus is so close. All I need to do is send in Marth with the Falchion and kill that motherfucker in cold blood.
But for some reason, some jackhole decided to place a maxed out Earth Dragon manakete right in front of Medeus. Marth can barely make a dent on that dragon, even with the Falchion.
Thankfully, I have Abel and his shiny Gradivus spear. I am SO GLAD I didn’t use it up because it only had 3 uses left when I reached the final chapter.
And finally, we get to the epic showdown between the hero-king and the dark dragon.
Honestly, this fight is strangely easy compared to everything else. The Falchion is definitely effective against Medeus. He inflicts a lot of damage, but that’s nothing Gotoh’s healing can’t fix. I swear, Camus was much more difficult.
And after all that tedium… after all that unfair BS the game puts you through… you win. Medeus curses your name and you stand victorious.
Wow. Is that a sequel hook I see?
Well, there you go! That is where the fell dragon Grima from Fire Emblem: Awakening came from, I assume. Maybe? I have no idea. That game’s plot was a bit wack.
Then you get your happy ending.
NO! NOT ANOTHER ONE! FUCK YOU! I’M DONE!
…So there you go. The first Fire Emblem ever made.
Though dated, I can see why Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is so innovative for its time. Does it drag its heels? Oh, most definitely. The game feels a lot longer than it really is because of all this trivial bullshit. It does end up becoming maddening to finish.
Most of the game does have a reasonable challenge as long as you know what you’re doing. But as soon as you’re getting close to the finish, the game enters lunatic mode and you’re put through some of the most hellish maps that this series has to offer. Because of this, I don’t recommend Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light unless you’re a hardcore Fire Emblem fan who just so happens to be a sadomasochistic gamer.
But does it have good things in it?
Well, it has great music for its time (even if it gets pretty damn repetitive). A lot of the series’ leitmotifs start with this game.
And of course, some exclusive tunes that you might be familiar with.
The graphics are decent overall and the actual fight animations look pretty cool.
Hell, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is one of the main inspirations for a new sub-genre of RPGs at the time. Coordinating soldiers on a grid map is fun and addicting. And when you outsmart overwhelming odds, you feel proud of yourself for completing a difficult chapter without losing soldiers and getting all the possible rewards.
But even at the time it was released, how the hell was ANYONE expected to beat this game fairly? Remember, this was during an era where emulators weren’t around so save states aren’t possible. If you don’t make the right choices on who to level up, the last chapters will be nearly impossible to complete without losing your soldiers.
Combined with the clunky pacing of the actual gameplay, the game’s novelty wears thin really fast. When you put a lot of time and effort into this game, only to royally screw up and lose a valuable soldier, it’s one of the most frustrating moments in a video game ever. You wasted all that time for nothing. Now you have to go reset and start over.
Playing Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light has been an interesting experience for me, considering I could’ve just played the Nintendo DS remake instead. But as it is, yeah… I definitely CAN’T recommend this game to anyone other than the most diehard Fire Emblem fans. It’s just not worth playing normally.
But as a game that started a series that boomed in popularity in a much later future, it’s not bad. It just comes to show that Shouzou Kaga was definitely onto something pretty awesome when he led the charge of the series for the first few games.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of LightPrice Varies
- The story is rather ambitious for its time, attempting to show how a few people can bring turmoil onto many kingdoms and forcing them to do their bidding.
- The gameplay is complex and has quite a bit of depth for its time, helping to pioneer a formula that will expand into a genre of strategic and highly addictive RPGs.
- The graphics are pretty standard for their time, though quite a few maps can look strangely blocky. The battle animations are pretty cool.
- The soundtrack introduced quite a few memorable tunes that frequently turn up in later games on the series.
- The characters have little to no depth, some of which that don’t even get a single line of dialogue during the game’s entire run.
- As a unit, Marth is mediocre at best because he cannot promote like most other soldiers and his level cap is 20. This is a poor design choice as players would be inclined in using him often since he is the main character and the most important one in your army.
- Numerous small problems with item management and sizing up the enemy AI makes preparation work for the upcoming chapters much more tedious than it needs to be.
- The enemy AI regularly abuses reinforcements on consecutive turns, including maps that already start with a high number of powerful enemy soldiers.
- The later chapters of the game rely less on tactics and more on how high are your soldiers’ stats and what kind of weapons they carry. The final chapter alone is probably one of the worst designed chapters in the game.