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Shadow Dragon Feature - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki Shadow Dragon Feature - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

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Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is an Overlooked and Underappreciated Remake

A double-edged blade of light.

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Despite being one of Nintendo’s longest-running franchises, Fire Emblem did not see any kind of international release until its seventh installment in 2003. The Fire Emblem western fans were introduced to was already a fairly polished series, one that had been refining its mechanics with each entry. By the seventh game, support conversations to flesh out even the most minor characters and lengthy plots driven by fantastical political drama were simply part of the franchise’s appeal. In a series where dying actually means losing playable characters, the fact a minor knight with no lines in the main script can get as much development as a lead is significant. In the eyes of most fans, Fire Emblem was a franchise where even minor characters had depth and story was as important as gameplay. Shadow Dragon presented audiences a faithful remake of the series’ origins, but the west was not ready for Marth or his perceived step back.

Shadow Dragon Marth combat - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

All this to say is that international fans did not have the original Fire Emblem as a frame of reference when Shadow Dragon — a remake of the very first game — launched missing many of the mechanics that defined the series in the eyes of audiences. Shadow Dragon’s playable characters are lucky to get two lines of dialogue, the story is nowhere as involved as its contemporaries, and gameplay is pushed as the main focus despite losing several features from the modern installments. Out of context, Shadow Dragon is a step back conceptually and mechanically. On a design level, however, Shadow Dragon is an utterly brilliant strategy RPG and a sublime reimagining of a Famicom classic. 

In an Iwata Asks interview between series producer Toru Narihiro and founder of Sora Ltd. Masahiro Sakurai, Narihiro discusses his desire to reintroduce audiences to Fire Emblem’s roots in the wake of 10 games,

“The Wii version of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn was the 10th installment of the Fire Emblem series. So for the DS version we returned to the original and remade the first game of the series. I thought we could take this as an opportunity to once again introduce everyone to the fun and attractions that this series has to offer.”

With Radiant Dawn a forty-hour epic spanning four chapters and multiple factions, it makes sense for Shadow Dragon to take Fire Emblem back to basics as much as possible. The remake doesn’t so much strip away what the series became, as it does trim the fat to best modernize a 1990 Famicom game without losing its identity. Support conversations do not suit the original Fire Emblem’s to-the-point and comparatively simplistic narrative, so attention is instead placed on nailing Marth’s characterization. On the flip side, the franchise’s Weapon Triangle system (which was only introduced in Genealogy of the Holy War) pairs well with FE1’s map design and maintains a respectable difficulty curve. A new reclassing mechanic even rebalances units and keeps repeat playthroughs fresh. 

Shadow Dragon FE1 Comparison - image by Renan Fontes

Shadow Dragon is a faithful remake that simply dresses up what was already a good game — archaic by modern standards, but fundamentally good. In an age where remakes and remasters often fail to respect their source material with even a modicum of respect (see Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – “Definitive Edition”), Fire Emblem stands out for neither overcorrecting or phoning it in. Shadow Dragon is a remake built on passion and a genuine love for the Fire Emblem of yore. Bad remakes seek to replace. The best remember and embrace where they came from. Shadow Dragon is no Resident Evil Remake, but it deserves to be held in high regard.

What Shadow Dragon loses in modern sensibilities, the remake gains focus in its simplicity. There are no support conversations to flesh out Marth’s army, but Marth himself benefits tremendously from all the focus he gets. The plot is not devoid of memorable side characters either, with Nyna and Camus’ romance, in particular, carrying a theatrical quality that makes their tragedy hit all the harder. Cutscenes are sparse, but gameplay is the story and each map is essentially a page in the history Marth’s army is writing. Brisk pacing keeps you in control at all times, whether in the heat of battle or prepping beforehand. The franchise’s stories are better than they’re often given credit for, but Fire Emblem’s identity shines most during gameplay. 

When conceptualizing the original Fire Emblem, series creator Shouzou Kaga envisioned the game as a brand new genre —  “roleplaying simulation” — not quite hardcore strategy game, but not a straight RPG either. Kaga explained, 

“By adding RPG elements, I wanted to create a game where the player could get more emotionally invested in what’s happening… I wanted to create a game where the story and game will develop differently for each player depending on the units they use. Thus I added the strategy elements and arrived at this hybrid system.”

Taking that into account, Shadow Dragon is very much in line with Shouzou Kaga’s original vision for the series. Caring about playable units is not something support conversations introduced. The intention was always for players to get attached to their party, hanging on to any crumbs of dialogue or personality they can; for players to feel like they were driving the story forward through gameplay, not just cutscenes. 

Shadow Dragon Prep Screen - image courtesy of LP Archive

Fire Emblem’s gameplay loop follows a fairly consistent chapter-based structure. Intro cutscenes offer narrative context for the objective and map, the preparation phase allows you to ready your team for battle, and maps are where the bulk of gameplay transpires. Clearing a map triggers an outro cutscene and the pattern repeats until Endgame. Repetitive by design, a rigid map by map format keeps gameplay moving at a brisk pace where you are in control more often than not. Even outside the heat of battle, something as simple as preparation is full of strategic depth. 

Beginning with chapter 4, players are brought to a preparation screen before each battle where they can select the units they want to bring, reposition them on the map, study the battlefield, check stats, rearrange everyone’s items, purchase new equipment, and even reclass certain characters. You can recruit a maximum of 51 unique units in a given playthrough, but each map is designed with a specific unit limit in mind (usually in the 11-16 range). The one other restriction when it comes to unit placement is that the main character Marth must always be deployed. Who else fights in Marth’s army is entirely up to you. 

Units left behind will not have opportunities to gain experience or grow stronger, so you need to be sure about who you’re bringing each chapter. Trying to level everyone equally is an exercise in futility and will stagnate an army. A finite amount of chapters means a finite amount of experience to go around. Enemies do not respawn indefinitely. Not every unit can or will become a powerhouse, but just about anyone can be viable in the hands of a smart tactician and supported by a strong party. It’s just a matter of allocating your resources intelligently — from items to EXP. 

Shadow Dragon Experience - image courtesy of Gyfcat

Units gain experience from successfully striking and defeating enemies or using Staves. Every unit requires 100 experience to level up, but different classes will cap at different levels. The grand majority of units will stop leveling at 20, with an opportunity to promote and reset their level back to 1  by using a Master Seal. Promoting a unit increases several stats across the board, ostensibly functioning as multiple level-ups. No stats are lost by resetting back to Lvl 1. Locked into classes that cannot promote, Marth, Ballisticians, Manaketes, and Thieves all cap out at 30 instead. It is worth noting that promotable units have a prospective 40 levels to buff their stats, but this is a bit of a double-edged sword. 

Master Seals can be used to promote a compatible unit as soon as they hit Level 10. There are benefits to both waiting until 20 and promoting early. You can maximize your potential stat payout by waiting until 20, or you can take advantage of the immediate promotion benefits. The former means putting up with potentially suboptimal units for longer, making the early-game a bit more challenging in exchange for an easier endgame. The latter sacrifices a unit’s full potential, but the levels a promoted unit can easily rack up off early enemies often makes up for not having the full 20/20 split. 

There are also only a few Master Seals available per playthrough, so you need to be selective about who gets promoted and what order. Fortunately, some units come pre-promoted and never need to worry about Seals. Lower level units naturally have more opportunities to get stronger, but it’s at times strategically sound to use units who have higher base stats. Likewise, anyone looking to level a unit fully will want to make sure they have decent growth rates. Every playable unit in Fire Emblem has growth rates attached to individual stats, determining their chance of raising said stat upon leveling up. Marth has an 80% chance of leveling up his HP, 50% for Strength, 6% for Magic, 40% for Skill, 50% for Speed, 70% for Luck, 20% for Defense, and 2% for Resistance. 

Wolf Level up - image courtesy of lparhive

You can level nothing, everything, a few stats, or just one — it’s all up to chance. Any unit can become great through sheer luck, just as any unit can fail to meet their potential. Fire Emblem’s randomness forces you to improvise and always be thinking of counter-tactics. You can rely on your army’s levels, but actual strategy goes a long way. A well-equipped unit can do serious damage even with less than optimal stats, so long as they have been outfitted properly. Weapons matter quite a bit and need to be monitored carefully. 

Resource management is inherent to Fire Emblem. This can be seen in how experience needs to be rationed per playthrough and through weapon durability. Almost every single weapon — from swords, to tomes, to staves — will break after enough use. Marth’s Rapier is a powerful weapon that deals extra damage to armored and horseback enemies, but only has 28 uses before breaking. Strong weapons either need to be saved for special occasions or stocked up whenever possible, but it’s doubly as important to have a healthy stock of affordable, high-use items to dip into. Not every enemy needs a Rapier to the throat. 

Shadow Dragon Rapier - image courtesy of UPFIVEDOWN

Weapons have their own individual stats that need to be taken into consideration. Rank determines whether or not a unit can equip a weapon. If Marth has a B Rank in Swords, he cannot equip the A-Rank Mercurius. Might pairs with a melee unit’s STR and a magician’s MAG to calculate overall damage output. Hit rate is the weapon’s accuracy — the closer it is to 100%, the better. The Crit rate pairs with a unit’s SKL to determine their chance of landing a critical hit. Range lets you know how close a unit needs to be to an enemy to deal damage. Most melee weapons can only attack adjacently, tomes can strike two spaces ahead, and bows can only strike two (or more) spaces ahead. Lastly, all weapons have weight. A unit’s speed will be negatively impacted if the weight of the weight of their weapon is higher than their STR stat.

Which weapons a unit carries with them is also a concern due to limited inventory space. While your army’s convoy can hold a total of 200 different items, a unit can only hold five at once. Between Vulneries for healing and weapons to defend themselves, careful consideration should go into equipping everyone properly. There are a number of ways to get new items in Fire Emblem. Any items glowing blue in an enemy’s inventory will drop upon death. Thieves and Marth (once equipped with the titular Fire Emblem) can open treasure chests scattered around maps. Shops can also be accessed from the preparation screen or on maps. The prep shop only sells basic items, whereas chapter shops tend to have a much wider spread of goods on sale. 

Forge Shadow Dragon - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Shadow Dragon’s gold economy is surprisingly friendly, and arguably encourages you to spend money on harder difficulties. The story will regularly flood Marth’s army with courtesy gold and there are several sellable bullions ready to be looted across different maps. Beyond shops, the prep screen offers a Forge where you can customize individual weapons in exchange for gold. While pricey, the Forge turns otherwise ordinary equipment into weapons of mass destruction. Although durability cannot be replenished this way, forging lets you edit any weapon’s Might, Hit, Crit, and Weight once per map. Allocate your gold correctly and watch armies fall impale themselves on a single Javelin. 

It’s worth noting that Shadow Dragon’s Weapon Rank system is unique to the DS remake. A unit’s Rank per weapon is dependent on their class (certain classes can only equip certain weapons) and their own background. Wendell is a renowned Sage so he joins with a Tome Rank of B, whereas the novice Mage Merric has a D Rank for Tomes. Leveling up a unit’s Weapon Rank occurs naturally through combat. Enough turns of using the same weapon will level a unit’s rank a whole letter grade up, from E to A. Weapon Rank as a concept does impact the original’s difficulty curve, but SD weaponizes the mechanic well. Higher ranks allow units to use better/stronger weapons, while offering bonuses from C Rank up depending on the weapon used (swords get a power boost, axes get an accuracy boost).

The biggest change Shadow Dragon makes as a remake and for Fire Emblem as a whole is the introduction of the reclassing mechanic. While some units still have fixed classes, most can be reclassed in the preparations menu. There is a limit on how many members of a certain class you can have in your army, along with gender restrictions, but reclassing is an overall net positive for gameplay. The mechanic rearranges a unit’s stats, which weapons they can equip, and can simply bolster usability. Wolf and Sedgar make terrific Generals thanks to their insane growth rates. Merric and Lena are arguably better off swapping their roles as Mage and Curate respectively. It’s just fun to play around with unique classes like Dark Mage, a role that goes unfulfilled in a standard playthrough.

Jagen reclass - image courtesy of Serenes Forest

Reclassing turns Shadow Dragon into more than just a straight remake of the first Fire Emblem, offering an inspired reinvention of a core mechanic. It’s no surprise reclassing went on to become a series staple from this point on, offering even more depth to FE’s replay value. 

“Rather than a remake of the NES version, we tackled the development of this game as a renewal, in other words, we aimed on recreating it as a totally new work. Elementally, and in content as well, I think we accomplished the building of something entirely new.”

The real genius of Shadow Dragon is that it can inject a series’ worth of development into a remake of the first Fire Emblem without so much as missing a beat. In many respects, this speaks to just how strong the original’s level design was. Maps are accurate recreations of their Famicom counterparts, and all the better for it. Multiple paths allow for flanking and naturally split up your army, making for tenser encounters. Each map ends once the boss is killed and Marth seizes their throne, but side objectives make hunkering down worthwhile. Since only Marth can visit villages, you need to prioritize between getting everything you possibly can from a map or aiming directly towards the throne for a low turn count. Both are perfectly viable goals despite catering to two completely different play styles. 

Shadow Dragon Princess Minerva map - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Most maps are puzzle-esque by design. You need to take careful consideration of your surroundings, where enemies are positioned, and how best to achieve your goals while keeping Marth’s army alive. Careless play is punished accordingly. Enemies are generally stationed together in small groups — send out the wrong unit alone and watch them get slaughtered from all sides. Thieves book it for any and all treasure chests on the map before escaping. Wait too long to act and miss out on valuable loot. Turtling is really only safe by leaving your best units behind. Enemy reinforcements punish planting, ambushes keep you on your toes. Most reinforcements can be countered by placing units onto forts, but they’re also a valuable source of experience so there is some risk/reward at play. 

Maps are not flat boards and have a bit of terrain to account for. Mountains block out horses and can create choke points for units on foot. Bodies of water are traversable only by pirates and fliers. The desert slows down most units, with horses getting hit hardest and mages getting off relatively unscathed. Locked doors and drawbridges force you to reconsider navigation if you lack a thief or keys. Trees improve evasion in combat at the cost of slightly hindering movement. Sitting on a fort not only prevents reinforcements from spawning on them, it slightly heals the unit stationed at the start of every turn. Arenas let you grind for gold and experience in exchange for your patience. Temporary save points accommodate the DS’ handheld nature while well-positioned enough to not hurt chapters’ difficulty curves. 

Shadow Dragon enemy stats - image courtesy of lparchive

Maps themselves are grid-based, almost like a chessboard. Every unit has a set amount of tiles they can move per turn. Once moved, a unit can attack any nearby enemies, swap inventories by trading with adjacent friendlies, use items, staves if they’re a curate, or simply wait. After all your units have moved, your turn ends and the enemy gets to move all their units. Alternatively, you can end your turn early if you want to leave some units in place. Where map movement plays out on the DS’ touchpad, vital information and stats are displayed on the top screen. Pressing the R button toggles between a handy mini-map that shows terrain, allies as blue dots, & enemies as red dots, and a stat breakdown for highlighted units — ally or otherwise. 

There’s a fair amount of micromanaging that goes into gameplay, but it flows well with combat’s fast pace. Engaging in battle is as simple as moving one of your units into an enemy. From there, a combat forecast pops up that tells you how much HP both units have, how much damage they will potentially do, their hit rate, and crit chance. Paying attention to the forecast (and knowing basic math) is the key to survival. Taking advantage of the Weapon Triangle helps too. 

“It’s exactly like rock-paper-scissors. The sword is effective towards the axe, but vulnerable to the lance. The lance is effective towards the sword, but vulnerable to the axe. The axe is effective towards the lance, but vulnerable to the sword. These three weapons are in a deadlock no different from rock-paper-scissors.”

The weapon triangle was only introduced to Fire Emblem in Genealogy of the Holy War, the franchise’s fourth entry. Shadow Dragon’s maps were not designed with a rock-paper-scissors battle system in mind, but the mechanic plays off enemy placement well and a high hit rate across the board means units disadvantaged by the triangle still get their attacks in more often than not. The triangle also only applies to the three standard melee weapons, ignoring magic and bows altogether. This in itself feels like a soft compromise between the original’s lack of a weapon triangle and the mechanic’s modern presence as a mainstay.

Shadow Dragon Marth Gameplay gif - image courtesy of ResetEra

Sword beats axe, axe beats lance, lance beats sword is not something the original Fire Emblem took into consideration, but it all works. The weapon triangle adds another layer of strategy to take into consideration, but can still be ignored like the Famicom original in a lot of cases. Weapon Rank and equipment are ultimately more important than winning at rock-paper-scissors. A strong unit can overcome the triangle without much problem.

Something very important to keep in mind is that anyone can die in Fire Emblem. Marth dying means a traditional game over, but anyone else in your army will permanently die if their health drops to 0 — even plot-important characters like Jagen and Caeda. Certain characters dying will change cutscenes in minor ways. The general story stays the same, but there are consequences to letting your soldiers perish. Marth can’t propose to Caeda if she’s dead, after all. You can even lock yourself out of future recruitments if you aren’t careful. Lose Bantu and you can never break Tiki’s hypnosis. 

Caeda CG - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Certain units can talk to one another during battle. Marth and Caeda will occasionally be able to recruit enemy soldiers during the heat of battle. Likewise, characters who have a relationship with each other in the game’s backstory will be able to speak with one another. Bring Miriam to chapter 13 and she can recruit her lover Astram. Julian knows Rickard from his thieving days and can recruit the thief in Marth’s place. Likewise, Merric can recruit Wendell instead of Marth since he studied under the sage. A few recruitments even require strategy to pull off. Jake is a ballistician who can only be recruited with Caeda, so you either need to reclass her or carefully position her across the map as other units take out the other ballistae. 

With everything that goes into a map, chapters end up dynamic set pieces that encourage strategic gameplay — from navigation to combat. Players who think ahead and think quickly on their feet are often rewarded. Long-term plans can pay off in spades, but improvising in the heat of battle is sometimes necessary given the randomization at play. Bad luck is even rewarded on some level due to Shadow Dragon’s implementation of Gaiden chapters. Side stories in most Fire Emblem games, Gaiden chapters are usually unlocked by achieving some criteria in a map (clearing in a set number of turns/keeping NPCs alive). In Shadow Dragon, they’re unlocked by letting your army drop dead. 

“Losing is a great lesson I hope players can get through this game. About 50 different characters can join you as friendly Units, but I think you can only feel attached to about 15 of them. If you lose one of them, new encounters with other friendlies will arise. This is quintessential Fire Emblem.” 

It makes sense to want to keep your entire army alive, but not everyone needs to live in Fire Emblem. This goes double for Shadow Dragon, which makes an active effort of trying to make players commit to their losses. The brutality of harder difficulties is mitigated by strategically using weaker units as bait. You realistically cannot use everyone in a single given playthrough, so why bother? It’s fun to keep an entire army alive for the challenge, but Shadow Dragon caters to a different breed of player with its Gaiden chapters. The fact units need to die to unlock these chapters also adds a darker tone to the story. Marth is actively struggling. This can even be seen in the generic soldiers Marth’s tactician Malledus recruits if your army drops too low. Said units come with low stats, their own items, and are basically begging to be fodder. 

Shadow Dragon 24x - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

Some of the most memorable maps in the game are Gaiden chapters. 17x is a castle siege full of locked doors that obscure rooms. With no enemy thieves on the map, you can either book it to the throne or take the chance at unlocking each chamber. Some only hold enemies, but others have chests waiting to be plundered. 20x takes place in a unique cavern full of lava. Broken bridges adorn the field, allowing you to create chokepoints with your strongest units and stop enemies dead in their tracks while picking them off. 24x is unlike any chapter in Shadow Dragon, a tower climb full of dangerous enemies. The tower splits at the middle, forcing you to break up your army as enemies only get denser. It’s worth letting some units die for a few more chapters of fun, but the main story isn’t hurting for strong map design either.

There are several standout chapters home to some of the series’ best maps. Chapter 12 is a castle siege where you need to keep weaponless prisoners alive while managing reinforcements from behind. Preventing a single death means racing through a horde of enemies as strategically as possible. Chapter 21 is an epic battle on a massive field perfect for flanking. A knocked-out bridge can be repaired with a thief, but must otherwise be walked around. Reinforcements swarm out of forts to keep progression tense. The enemy general Camus — described as one of the greatest warriors alive and wielding a legendary weapon — will rush towards Marth the moment he’s in range. Their pre-battle conversation plays out like a failed recruitment where Nyna rushes the field, yet she and Marth cannot sway Camus’ loyalty. This is even interestingly paralleled by the fact Marth and Caeda can recruit the actual chapter boss, Lorenz. 

Even the simpler maps are fun. The first 10 or so chapters are extremely well-paced and serve as a fantastic introduction to Shadow Dragon’s gameplay. The difficulty curve is always throwing tougher challenges at you — from figuring out how to fight off a “wooden cavalry” made up of ballistae in chapter 13 to fending off an invincible Gharnef while traversing a desert in chapter 15. By the time you’re in the home stretch, the game’s first 20~ chapters have instinctively taught you how to outmaneuver massive armies, use terrain to your advantage, and properly micromanage a dozen unique soldiers.  

Wooden Cavalry - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

As well designed as the remake fundamentally is, Shadow Dragon has some presentation issues. Coming off the highly detailed sprites of the Game Boy Advance trilogy and the Tellius duology (Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn), SD might very well be the ugliest Fire Emblem game. At least as far as battle animations are concerned. Character models are lifeless and generic-looking in-battle. Critical hit animations are reduced from pure spectacle to downright mundane. Fortunately, animations can be turned off, and while overworld sprite bumps are far from elegant, they get the job done with enough grace. 

Character portraits are a bit too plasticy, but strong art direction does some heavy lifting. The actual map sprites are quite nice, opting for a more realistic color palette and grounded visuals. As jarring as the faux-realism is for the characters themselves, it works for the setting and lends the game a mature tone that translates nicely into the story. For a remake of a Famicom game, Shadow Dragon’s script is superb. The English localization is easily one of Nintendo’s best and the care given to characterizing Marth turns a basic plot into a tragedy with a fair bit of nuance. What makes the story even more impressive is just how faithful it is to the original. 

“Basically, I wanted to draw on the script from the NES version as much as possible. In the more recent games in the series, the volume of content has increased, and so too have the length of the script lines, but this time we tended toward cutting down the script. Even with a smaller script with just a few lines, I think players can glean various meanings.”

Marth Concept art - image courtesy of Neoseeker

Shadow Dragon is a fairly straight adaptation of the original Fire Emblem’s story. The biggest changes are Marth getting more dialogue and an excellently paced series of prologue chapters that not only function as a tutorial, but detail Marth’s escape from his home kingdom. The prologues even force you to permanently sacrifice one of your units to proceed, instilling early the value/necessity of letting a unit die. The prologue only plays out on Normal mode, which might be too easy for series veterans, but it makes the story so much richer — especially once Marth finally returns to reclaim his homeworld and you realize you’re playing through the prologue chapters as one large map.

Marth himself is a massive highlight and undergoes a surprising amount of character development. Marth begins the story as a naive prince who loses his entire family and is pushed out of his home in a night. He survives only thanks to those around him, and just barely. He cannot come to terms with the fact he needs to leave one of his men behind to survive during the prologue, but quickly learns the importance of sacrifice throughout his campaign. This is seen through gameplay via the Gaiden chapters, but Marth also makes personal sacrifices narratively. He sacrifices his own grief for his mother after reclaiming Altea because his people are desperate to know that their suffering will be over — so Marth buries his own pain. 

By the end of the game, Marth is a bonafide commander fighting on the frontlines alongside his men because he fully understands the value a figurehead can and should have. He keeps his composure in the tensest moments, carrying himself with pure determination. At the same time, he learns to humanize his enemies and recognize the real victims of war are commoners. This does not make his hate go away, but it makes him realize the war he’s in is far more nuanced than he perceived. Marth is idealistic, but not a fool. For as often as Marth is written off as bland, Shadow Dragon offers an inspired interpretation of Fire Emblem’s first Lord. It’s easy to see how one man could lead an entire revolution.

Princess Nyna - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

While not a playable character, Nyna functions as a co-lead of sorts alongside Marth. The last surviving member of the Archanean royal family, Princess Nyna’s arc is a tragedy through and through. She watches her family die, only survives thanks to the kindness of an enemy soldier, falls in love with him, and then has to watch as Marth duels her lover on the battlefield. Nyna’s relationship with Camus does not take much focus, but makes Shadow Dragon’s story all the better. Nyna rushing the battlefield to beg Camus to switch sides is one of the best scenes in the game, largely because he cannot. 

Camus is Grust’s last hope for getting out of the war in one piece. By the time Marth confronts Camus in Chapter 20, the Archanean League has more or less claimed a decisive victory over Grust. Camus recognizes that he is the only chance his country has of standing another day, so he refuses to relent even for the woman he loves. Nyna losing Camus ultimately encourages her to push Marth to tell Caeda his feelings. Let Caeda die, and Nyna and Marth will share a sad scene about lost love in the epilogue. Like Marth, Nyna’s life is wrought with sacrifice. Unlike Marth, Nyna has no real chance at happiness. At best, you can spare Camus so he “just” disappears from her life instead. Therein lies the tragedy. 

Shadow Dragon doesn’t have too much worldbuilding, but Archanea is a fully-realized setting that feels lived in. Different nations all feel distinct with enough overlap to ground them all onto one cohesive continent, and lore goes the extra mile at turning set pieces into epic sites ripped out of mythology. The fact that intro cutscenes track Marth’s progression on an overworld map also lends the story a sense of scale and scope. While nothing too in-depth, the different allegiances, factions, and history at play make for a compelling storyline.

Marth vs Camus Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon - image courtesy of lparchive

With the exception of Camus, villains tend to be more interesting than anything else. Medeus is a fairly bland final boss, but Gharnef at least has a clever plan that greatly recontextualizes his presence in the story. Gharnef manipulates multiple countries against one another into a war and effectively tricks Marth into waging a campaign that wipes out everyone who could potentially stop him. This makes it all the more satisfying to finally defeat Gharnef if you unlock Starlight — which in itself is a nice example of gameplay/story integration. Gharnef’s weakness can only be earned by actually paying attention to the plot. 

In-battle Talks are Fire Emblem’s way of adding minor bits of story into gameplay (and the closest thing the game has to support conversations). Certain units can talk to one another during battle for extra development, but only if it makes sense. Minerva is the leader of the Whitewings, so it stands to reason that she’d want to speak with Catria, Palla, and Est. Tiki and Xane are functionally the last of their kind respectively, so they share a kindredness. Merric is one of Marth’s childhood friends, so his sister Elice naturally recognizes him. Not everyone gets their own convo, but those who do are better off for it. Shadow Dragon packs a lot of characterization into a single line of dialogue. 

Minerva and Marth - image courtesy of LP archive

There are also optional story beats depending on who’s still alive. Marth and Minerva will have a pre-battle discussion about fighting her brother in chapter 21. She even gets a unique boss battle conversation with Michalis if she strikes first (same for Maria or Marth), which is otherwise a rarity in Shadow Dragon. The script’s “less is more” approach won’t resonate with everyone, but the end result is a surprisingly nuanced main cast grounded in a mature story. 

Beating the game nets you a character by character and map by map breakdown in the epilogue chapter that evaluates how well you played. The ending character reel explains what happened to your survivors after the war, along with erasing anyone who died from the pages of history. You get to see how many turns you took to complete each map as well, encouraging you to go back and clear the game more efficiently. More importantly, the epilogue is uniquely your account of Marth’s campaign. No two playthroughs are ever exactly alike. 

Marth kills Medeus - image courtesy of fire emblem wiki

At the end of the day, Shadow Dragon irons out a lot of the Famicom original’s clunkier qualities. Item or character management is no longer unnecessarily cumbersome and modern hardware keeps gameplay moving at an addictively fast pace. Gameplay is modernized, but not to the point of taking away the original level design’s identity. If anything, the remake’s changes just highlight how strong the first Fire Emblem’s maps always were. Reclassing offers you a world of variety when it comes to unit prep. The story and presentation are simple as to evoke the spirit of its 8-bit source material, but the script does not mistake “simplicity” with a lack of depth. There is always more beneath the surface with Shadow Dragon’s dialogue. Anything more would have been excess. The first Fire Emblem couldn’t ask for a better remake. 

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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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. MBG

    December 10, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    As someone who really likes Shadow Dragon, I’d have to say, one particular line in this review–that the weapon triangle pairs well with Shadow Dragon–is not particularly on-point. Once you hit Chapter 4, axe-focused enemies basically vanish and about 7/10 enemies on any given map have lances. This was not a problem in the older games, because weapon triangle didn’t exist, but in the remake, it means swords are basically worthless outside of the first three chapters, barring some utility uses. And that ends up being a bit of a problem, since a lot of the design of the NES game was steeped in sword-based characters being good.

    New Mystery, the remake immediately after Shadow Dragon, actually did this a lot better, since that game is a lot better at varying its enemy roster.

  2. Mikey Kliss

    December 10, 2021 at 6:12 pm

    You had to kill people off to get the prologue chapters. I’m someone who wants all characters and to do all levels. This game turned that into an impossibility…

  3. Tony M.

    December 12, 2021 at 4:01 pm

    This game was so poorly received it almost killed fire emblem. It’s other half ..fire emblem 12 didn’t even release outside Japan because of it. It’s not overlooked at all..we are lucky nintendo let them make Awakening to save us.

  4. Tony M.

    December 12, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    This is a remake of fire emblem 3 book 1 in the super Famicom (snes). which is a remake of fire emblem 1 on the Famicom (nes).

    It’s sequel..fire emblem new mystery of the emblem..is a remake of FE3 book 2..which didn’t come outside Japan because shadow dragon did so poorly

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