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Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem Heroes of Light and Shadow Feature - image courtesy of Fire Emblem wiki Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem Heroes of Light and Shadow Feature - image courtesy of Fire Emblem wiki

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New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ The Remake That Changed Fire Emblem

New Mystery: ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ set important precedents that redefined Fire Emblem as a series. 

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When Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon released in 2008, it was not a matter of if, but when Intelligent Systems would get around to remaking Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem for the Super Famicom. Although a remake of the Famicom original specifically, Shadow Dragon is just as much a remake of Book 1 of 2 from Mystery of the Emblem, which in itself was already a remake of the first Fire Emblem. Marth’s story is a two-part epic and it was only a matter of time before the DS saw a remake of one of the SNES’ greatest RPGs. Unfortunately, Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ is a remake that would not leave Japan: depriving international fans of one of the most formative games in the franchise. 

Many of the changes fans ascribe to Awakening actually originated in New Mystery of the Emblem — from the casualization of grinding, the introduction of an optional mode that removes perma-death, and a fully customizable avatar unit for the player. The end result goes beyond a mere remake, pushing Fire Emblem’s gameplay into completely new avenues. Where Shadow Dragon embraced simplicity in a strip down back to basics, New Mystery of the Emblem trail-blazes towards the future. So many changes in a remake risk losing the source material’s charm but can help forge a unique identity in turn. 

Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem Classic Casual - image courtesy of YouTube

It takes no time at all for New Mystery of the Emblem to start doling out new mechanics. After selecting a difficulty, players are prompted with a choice between two other modes: Classic and Casual. Classic mode is typical Fire Emblem where units stay dead upon falling in battle, whereas Casual mode removes perma-death from the equation altogether. Lose a unit in battle and they’ll still be available for the next chapter. It is worth noting that the Casual/Classic split being separate from difficulty does mean that players can still get a challenging experience out of Casual. That said, no longer losing units fundamentally changes how the game is played. 

Mistakes are naturally no longer as punishing. In a Classic playthrough, letting a unit die means permanently losing a valuable character you have spent time and resources developing. You either need to press on with the loss or restart the map you were just playing. Casual lets you sacrifice units regularly, play more aggressively, and encourages you to take greater risks since the stakes are much lower. Letting a unit die on Classic has long-term effects on your playthrough, whereas the impact of Casual deaths are short-term. Too many mistakes in a single battle can still be damning, especially if you use checkpoints to save after losing valuable units. At the end of the day, Casual makes the series more accessible. Plus, anyone prone to losing several units on a single map needs the help.

The Classic/Casual split really is a best of both worlds scenario. Veterans get the Fire Emblem experience they know and love while newcomers have an easier chance of falling in love with the series. It isn’t as if Casual mode is devoid of failstates either. You still need to vigilantly keep Marth alive (which cannot be done easily if you let too many units die on a single map), and the game over condition now applies to your avatar. After choosing between Classic and Casual, New Mystery of the Emblem has players customize their own unit  — editing everything from their appearance, to their class, and some minor details of their backstory. 

Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ Classic Casual - image courtesy of YouTube

Your avatar’s stats and growths are determined by a number of factors, including starting class and your answer to certain background questions during the creation process. You can also name your avatar anything, although their default name is Kris. Kris also does have a discernible personality, which keeps them from being a full-on self insert character. Regardless, Kris is meant to represent the player in place of Marth. At least narratively. Gameplay-wise, Kris can fill in any niche and is as competent as a myrmidon as they are a mage, a knight, a fighter, or a mercenary. Kris is all but designed around intelligently using the reclass mechanic to build a beast of a unit. 

Character building in general has been made easier compared to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon thanks to changes in the preparation menu before each battle. You now have access to a personal arena called the Drill Grounds. Both the arena and the Drill Grounds cost money to use, but only the former rewards a payout. Once you run out of gold, no more Drill Grounds. On the flip side, you can see a full combat forecast before each Drill Grounds match, use your own overpowered weapons at the cost of their durability, and easily heal between matches (on lower difficulties). This makes it very easy to level grind any single unit, which is arguably necessary given how utterly massive the playable roster is. 

Capping out at 77 units, New Mystery of the Emblem still has the largest playable army in the series. The fact that characters keep joining Marth as late as the final chapter make the Drill Grounds the only means of comfortably leveling certain units. Not helping matters is the tight unit availability per chapter. Despite featuring the largest cast in Fire Emblem, NM caps you at around 10 – 15 units per map. Which is great for replay value, but risks leaving players overwhelmed with too many options on individual playthroughs. If nothing else, this is another layer of strategy at play. You need to be very selective with which units you want to level up. This goes double for anyone who wants to learn more about their units. 

Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ Marth and Caeda Support Conversation Shadow Dragon - image courtesy of Fire Emblem wiki

Addressing criticisms directed at Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, New Mystery of the Emblem reintroduces support conversations through the Talk feature in the prep menu. Although most supports are between Kris and other units, there are a few notable exceptions that help flesh out Marth’s army (Marth/Caeda, Sirius/Belf, and Est/Abel in particular are all worth pursuing). Kris remains fairly static throughout their supports, but the rest of the cast benefit considerably from the extra dialogue. The caveat is that unlocking these conversations requires characters to fight alongside each battle. With a set number of maps and units to choose from, anyone looking to see as many supports as possible in a single playthrough will need to make some serious compromises. Alternatively, an “optimal” army won’t net many supports if your chosen units lack connections to one another.

Another new feature, the How’s Everybody option functions as a means of checking in on your army. How’s Everybody works on a 12 hour timer, recharging a quarter of its clock every 3. The longer you’ve gone without checking How’s Everybody, the more potential rewards you can get. The mechanic basically serves as a means to give players a helping hand every few hours. Units can get temporary stat buffs, extra experience, or pick up new items. A good chunk of these items are even fairly useful and help save costs at the armory, which is nice since New Mystery of the Emblem’s Gold economy is not as generous as Shadow Dragon’s.

Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ Kris - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

One of the benefits of having too many units to use is also having too many items to realistically use in one playthrough, as everyone comes equipped with their own inventory. You will have extra weapons to sell. It is certainly possible to keep a fat wallet in NM, but you need to be on top of selling wares and tracking down chests — more so than Shadow Dragon. Thieves are a constant threat, slipping out with valuable items if not hunted accordingly. Doing so often puts your units in grave danger, so you need to decide if chasing treasure is even strategically viable. 

Like Shadow Dragon, New Mystery of the Emblem opens with a series of prologue chapters new to the remake. Unlike Shadow Dragon, the prologue is not exclusive to Normal and does a hefty amount of legwork to establish Kris’ place in the plot while bridging the narrative gap between games. The prologue’s eight new maps also double as a tutorial that branches depending on your actions. Your dialogue options in Prologues 3, 5, and 6 determine who you recruit in Prologues 5, 7, and 8 respectively. Likewise, the script changes depending on how well or poorly you play. Reset any time you lose a unit so you can clear maps with no deaths and Jagen will praise you like an expert tactician. Iron-man things instead and leave your units dead, Jagen will be less than impressed to say the least. 

While not as impactful or exciting an introduction as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon’s prologue, New Mystery serves up a better tutorial in terms of teaching actual strategy. Maps are small enough where you need to rely on terrain to survive, especially on higher difficulties. Enemies will swarm your units if you fail to pay attention to their movement. You have to strategically place your units and at times even avoid attacking during the player phase just to save on HP. The final prologue chapter is a stealth Defend map that teaches you to create choke-points and hold your ground when confronting the enemy directly isn’t safe yet. What’s most impressive is that the prologue teaches all this through actual gameplay opportunities rather than text dumps. 

The prologue wastes no time establishing New Mystery of the Emblem’s higher difficulty curve coming off Shadow Dragon. While the spike in challenge can be off-putting, NM is home to some truly fantastic maps and a deeper layer of strategy all around. Smarter enemy placement leads to tenser combat encounters where placing a single unit on the wrong tile can result in them getting swarmed to death. Promoted enemies likewise start appearing in abundance just a few chapters in while map design has a puzzle-esque quality thanks to the sheer variety of strategic opportunities at play (both for you and the enemy). The level design’s high points just feel more sophisticated than Shadow Dragon, even if there was brilliance in that game’s simplicity. 

New Mystery Chapter 8 - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Chapter 8 positions you between two bridges, enemies lying in wait on both sides. The map poses a nice opportunity to farm some experience off powerful enemies, but you risk leaving your units in too much danger. Wait too long to seize the throne and you’ll be overwhelmed with reinforcements. There is nowhere to safely turtle. Chapter 19’s mountain ridges effectively funnel you into a tunnel that leads directly into enemy forces. You end up flanked by Wolf & Sedgar on one side, and Vyland’s forces on the other. You either need to kill Marth’s former allies head-on or perform a complicated recruitment chain by visiting the village halfway across the map. Roshea recruits Vyland who recruits Sedgar who finally recruits Wolf, but this is obviously easier said than done. Recruit any of the three Wolfguard members without taking out their armies first, and you put a target on their back. 

Haphazardly try to kill their forces without taking movement into consideration and you might end up killing one of the Wolfguard on their turn. The Endgame map similarly features a complex recruitment chain. Nyna, Lena, Maria, and Elice all surround Medeus as enemy units while new dragons spawn every turn to attack you. You either need to carefully march your army through a horde of never-ending dragons, or use a creative mix of staves to recruit the clerics and get them out of danger. Warp can teleport units all over the map while Rescue brings them back to where your curate is standing. Sirius recruits Nyna, Julian recruits Lena, Minerva recruits Maria, and Merric recruits Elice. The four maidens can be left unrecruited, but they either need to be killed before fighting Medeus or he’ll absorb their HP upon “death.” 

FE12 Endgame Shadow Dragon - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Staves on a whole are far more creative than in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, offering curates gameplay opportunities beyond just healing. Why waste your limited unit availability on a Thief when you can just equip a cleric with Thief, a stave that unlocks chests anywhere on the map? Unlock opens any doors your caster is standing next to. Again lets a unit move twice in the same turn, functioning as a back-up dancer should anything happen to Feena. Silence seals magic for a single turn, making it impossible for enemy mages to hurt you. It’s incredibly fun figuring out the right combination of staves to trivialize a map in just a few turns. 

Unique chapter gimmicks help spice up gameplay even further. Fog of War makes an appearance in certain Gaiden chapters, keeping enemies hidden until you’re in their range. There are rewards for not killing every enemy on the map. Spare the clerics in chapter 10 and you get a Silver Card that offers a half-price discount at shops. Spare every Gra soldier in chapter 17, and you can recruit the map’s bosses, Sheema & Samson. The story expects you to stop a horde of Paladins & Horsemen from slaughtering your army in chapter 18 not by fighting back, but by quickly visiting a nearby village as Marth to trigger their retreat. 

Gaiden chapters no longer require sacrificing units and can be unlocked by either completing a map under a certain number of turns or fulfilling some special conditions. If none of Kris’ allies retreated during the prologue, you’ll play 3x after beating chapter 3. Otherwise, you need to seize the throne within 24 turns (or more on higher difficulties). Gaiden maps are generally smaller than regular maps, similar to prologue chapters. There’s usually a central puzzle you need to solve in order to complete the chapter without any deaths. 20x is straightforward on the surface level, but recruiting Katarina means talking to her with Kris three times on a small enough field where a single wrong move can kill units. 

The Dragon's Table - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Set piece variety goes a long way in making maps memorable and showing off Archanea’s rich lore. Marth crosses Anri’s Way as part of the story — a treacherous route his ancestor Anri traveled in his quest to obtain the Falchion. The Valley of Death, Mamorthod’s sands cover the ancient city of Thabes. The Flame Barrel is a valley flooded with lava where degenerated dragons roam and mindlessly attack anything in their path. The Ice Dragon Temple is a holy shrine atop a mountain of deep snow. The Dragon’s Table is a living cemetery steeped in history and where Marth’s army makes their last assault on Medeus. New Mystery of the Emblem embraces the fantasy at the heart of the franchise to carve out a richer setting. 

Sadly, the story is a bit of a mixed bag coming off Shadow Dragon’s sublime reimagining of the original Fire Emblem. New Mystery’s highs are much higher — featuring characters with greater depth, a much stronger antagonist in Hardin, and the narrative’s political scale — but the lows are noticeably lower. Kris is a poor co-lead to Marth, especially compared to Nyna who added a layer of romantic tragedy to Shadow Dragon. They have no growth or discernable arc, and are ultimately Marth’s shadow in the story. In this respect, Kris is meant to serve as a representation of the player’s relationship with Fire Emblem. Kris’ presence is never outright bad, but they never improve the plot like Nyna did. At best, they’re an inoffensive footnote. 

Nyna and Hardin - image courtesy of Spriter's Resource

The assassination subplot that runs through the Gaiden chapters does try to justify Kris’ inclusion by eventually giving them an opportunity to recruit Katarina, essentially learning from Marth’s example and turning a mortal enemy into a valuable ally. Unfortunately, the rest of the Gaiden storyline feels painfully undercooked compared to the main plot. The pace does not benefit from checking in on an ultimately inconsequential arc every few chapters. It’s a shame because the actual narrative is gripping, dealing with the political fallout of Shadow Dragon’s events in a surprisingly tragic manner. All was not happily ever after.

Shortly after the war’s end, Princess Nyna is made to be wed so Archanea can have a new king. Offered Marth or Hardin’s hand in marriage, Nyna chooses Hardin so as not to break Caeda’s heart and shatter Marth’s current engagement. Hardin is genuinely thrilled at the prospect, but quickly finds himself in a loveless marriage as Nyna is still heartbroken over Camus and cannot return Hardin’s feelings. Unable to cope with losing what he never had, Hardin resigns himself to a drunkard’s life behind private walls — secluded from his people and kingdom. Only mostly dead as it turns out, Gharnef preys on Hardin’s insecurities to stage a full-scale war against Marth and throw the continent into utter turmoil. 

While the reveal that Gharnef is pulling the strings does put the extent of Hardin’s villainy into question, New Mystery of the Emblem makes it clear that his resentments and jealousy were very much real. Gharnef simply amplified what was there and turned one of Marth’s greatest allies into a tyrant. Hardin’s betrayal makes for a tragic twist and the fact he cannot be saved by any means adds to Marth’s desperation. Marth is already a fully developed character on account of New Mystery being a sequel, so the story instead challenges his convictions and pushes how far he can stand by his ideals. 

Hardin vs Marth - image courtesy of Spriter's Resource

Marth is betrayed by someone he considers a good friend, loses his kingdom yet again, has to reclaim a stolen Falchion, is forced to fight several of his former allies, and suffers multiple assassination attempts throughout his campaign all while needing to slay a dragon he already killed. He understands the necessity of sacrifice, but believes every death is preventable after seeing so much of it. In spite of how much is thrown at Marth, he stays resolute to his convictions. There are multiple scenes where Marth will mourn his allies if you let units die, begging Kris to help him keep everyone alive. Marth’s inability to accept sacrifice can come off naive, but it’s also true to his character. 

It takes a lot of effort, but it’s possible to beat the game with every unit alive and recruited. Marth is right. Everyone can survive. It isn’t practical, but it is possible, which is Marth in a nutshell: he makes the impractical possible. Marth is a leader charismatic enough to sway enemies mid-battle and slay dragons like only a hero king could. It is disappointing to no longer see things from his perspective after Shadow Dragon did such an incredible job characterizing him, but framing things from Kris’ perspective allows the audience to see a new side of Marth. At times overly idealistic and vulnerable, but also confident and in-control. This is a man who openly weeps for kingdom as he leads an emotionally charged assault to reclaim his homeland. 

Heroes of Light and Shadow does a good job at selling Marth’s legend while humanizing him in intimate ways. His sister probably shouldn’t be telling new recruits that the king is actually a big softie who hates violence, but the fact Marth can put aside his convictions to fight for his kingdom says it all. Marth does what needs to be done — he just wants to save lives where possible. Kris refusing to go down in recorded history so Marth can be remembered as a godlike hero is their way of making the world see Marth the way they saw him. Kris is a lackluster avatar at the end of the day, but they at least offer a fresh perspective that simultaneously makes Marth more human and legendary.

FE12 Spheres - image courtesy of Spriters' Resource

It’s worth pointing out that New Mystery of the Emblem actually has multiple endings. Collect all 12 Starsphere Shards before chapter 14 and Gotoh forges them into the Starsphere. You lose 12 valuable buff items, but you gain the key to the true ending. From there, you need to get the Lightsphere in chapter 14, grab the Geosphere before a thief makes off with it in chapter 16, and find the Lifesphere in a village in chapter 18. So long as you have all four spheres, the game will continue after the battle with Hardin in chapter 20. What’s notable about this failstate is that it can be triggered as early as chapter 3. All it takes is missing a single shard to lock yourself into the bad ending — something you may not even know about on a first playthrough.

But that’s what makes the main story so much fun: you can actually fail. Either by getting the bad ending or by screwing up the final set of chapters. Medeus is considerably harder if you fail to get Falchion from Gharnef, all your Regalia are broken, and you don’t have enough gold to forge. There’s a good chance you’ll need to restart the whole game from Endgame if Medeus is potentially unkillable. Luck can only take you so far without the proper preparation. This is hard to pull off unless you pay zero attention to the story for what it’s worth, but it’s impressive that NM respects the player enough to actually let them fail. You probably won’t, but you can. Even if you do, failure’s just another reason to replay a great strategy RPG. 

Ultimately, the best thing New Mystery of the Emblem does for Fire Emblem is resetting the bar for outstanding replay value that’ll keep you coming back for playthrough after playthrough. Beyond just avatar customization and reading different supports, there is a great variety of side content to unlock. Finishing the prologue unlocks Archanean Chronicles — a remake of BS Fire Emblem, a 1997 Satellaview game that serves as a prequel to Shadow Dragon and adds some more depth to Nyna, Camus, & Hardin’s characters in particular. Beating hard mode removes reclass limits for male units. Completing the brutally hard Lunatic difficulty unlocks stat boosters for your prep shop and Lunatic Reverse, a mode where enemies move first. There are even three DLC chapters set before New Mystery of the Emblem to flesh out the main plot. 

Fire Emblem New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ Shadow Dragon Marth - image courtesy of Spriter's Resource

Difficulty modes actually shake up gameplay a fair bit. Lunatic outright removes Warp staves, tweaks reinforcements, and all around buffs enemies so you need to rely on intelligent reclassing to get by. Beating the game prompts you to play on a higher difficulty, as if each tier is preparation for the next. You’re even graded on your Speed, Survival, and Tactics at the end of each playthrough for further incentive. New Mystery of the Emblem has great map design as is, but new unlockables keep redefining how the game can be played. Heroes of Light and Shadow is almost antithetical to Shadow Dragon as a remake, but variety is what keeps any long-running series alive. 

There’s still value in playing the original Mystery of the Emblem for the Super Famicom. In many respects, the story lands better without Kris in the picture and the war front & center. At the same time, the added depth the remake gives to the cast is too good to pass up. The gameplay pushes the franchise forward in significant ways, essentially serving as the prototype for modern Fire Emblem as we know it. Future titles polish the avatar mechanic to the point where Robin from Awakening actively improves their game’s story. The replay value continues to increase with each game, Fates and Three Houses taking this to its logical extreme with radically different playthroughs depending on your chosen route. Keeping difficulty separate from the Casual/Classic split made Fire Emblem considerably more accessible. 

Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ is one of the best games on the DS, RPG or otherwise. It’s an honest to Naga shame NM never left Japan, since it addressed virtually every complaint Shadow Dragon’s naysayers had while offering a legitimately fresh take on series conventions. Although the remake lives in Awakening’s shadow like Kris in Marth’s, New Mystery: ~Heroes of Light and Shadow~ set important precedents that redefined Fire Emblem as a series. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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