In an alternate timeline, I’d be Prince Burkey

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light (1990)

I know you never believe me when I come out with things like this, but I am actually descended from nobility. That’s right: I have blue blood, and you may well be wondering, if that’s the case Burkey, then why is it that you’re tight with money? Why were you on the dole? Why do you never exercise any kind of power, and why are you not inbred?

Well, perhaps some people would contest that last one. But I have a perfectly good answer to every one of these rebuttals, and unfortunately it’s that old devil at work again: organized religion.

You see, and by all means read up about the Burke and De Burgh families, my ancestors were all Catholics, and they owned more than one lavish, God-fearing estate in Galway. Until of course, Cromwell and those awful Brits came knocking, and took the land right off us.

They told my ancestor that he could keep his land, if he would only convert his religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. That sounded like a great deal to me. I know this is back in the 17th century, but why wouldn’t you trade away your religion in order to hang on to your enormous gaffe?

Well, of course he chose poorly, and decided to stay as a Catholic. Thus he lost his land, probably lost his head along with it, and sent his kids into hiding. And now look, three hundred years later, I’m potless. I have to write these things just to make ends meet.

Just kidding about that last part. I suppose it’s a Sliding Doors moment, isn’t it? If he hadn’t been stubborn about which Bible to read, maybe his choice would have resulted in deaths further down the family tree. Maybe hanging onto Catholicism saved him. I doubt it, but maybe.

That’s the butterfly effect, isn’t it? It’s quite possible that the only reason you and I are even here is because of the Second World War. Impossible now to know how things would have turned out for me if only Cromwell had fallen victim to consumption. But that’s how close I was to being landed gentry, to living a life of leisure.

I could have been playing croquet and squash all day, whatever they are. Maybe some Polo in the afternoon, whatever that is. Generally I could have avoided being a working man, and instead been that aristocratic eccentric layabout, with no responsibilities for the rest of my days.

Well, once I found out what happened to my family, I was not happy at all. I wanted to get my land back, my kingdom back, you know, that what was rightfully mine. There’s a lovely mansion in the country somewhere that should at least partly belong to me.

Maybe half of it could go to my brother, but it should be in our possession anyway – that’s my birthright, and somebody traded away. My guy from three hundred years ago should have considered the implications it would have on me, even if his alternative was death, or a disappeared wife and kids, or a fiery horse stable.

This is why I strongly sympathise with Marth from the original Fire Emblem on Famicom. He’s also lost his kingdom, the kingdom that will one day be his, as the crown prince. Understandably, he wants to get his land back, because you don’t take muggery like that lying down, do you?

None of us knew who the hell Marth was until many years later, of course, just like I wasn’t a well-known figure in the 1600s. That won’t stop me from complaining about it, of course. Marth did announce himself on the world stage when he showed up in Super Smash Bros Melee for the GameCube.

Everyone outside of that odd Asian love hotel breeding ground wondered who on earth he was, where he came from. Well, now you can’t move for Fire Emblem, and indeed this game has had a few remakes, including an eventual localisation on Nintendo Switch.

If you want to be a good little Catholic and play the original game legitimately, your only real choice is that version. I don’t know why you wouldn’t play a remake, although the Switch version has a few creature comforts – obviously it’s been translated into English, and you can speed up proceedings or go back a turn in case one of your guys gets the head taken off him, Henry VIII style.

It’s not free, mind, and by the time you read this it may well have become unavailable – Nintendo, in a worrying trend, have made it a limited availability release. Even though you’re paying twenty euro a year for God knows what from their Switch Online offering. ROMs, a bad online service and Tetris 99. Well, perhaps that last one is worth it.

I can understand why they’ve hit us with a release of the first game, though. God knows this game really did need some quality of life improvements. Still, Nintendo don’t tend to deviate from their earliest visions and this game codified a lot of what the Fire Emblem series is all about, particularly the permanent death feature. But whether you play the Famicom original with a hooky fan translation, or the dulcet text tones of Nintendo, this is a pretty tough one to get your head around.

It’s not as easy as Advance Wars and its bazookas, another series that’s been around on Nintendo consoles a lot longer than we think. You need to use your noggin in Advance Wars, but it’s still easy enough to get to grips with. You don’t have stats, level ups, items or towns. You’ll get this and more in Fire Emblem – by NES standards, this is quite a complex game, and it’s pretty easy to get it wrong.

I definitely recommend the localised Switch version to you, though. Maybe not the entire replica NES box and cartridge, of which I can’t imagine they made more than 12 copies. Being able to quickly save and load states, as well as go back entire turns if you really muck it up, makes this game a lot more accessible.

I don’t think the first Fire Emblem game is held up by any of the fans as a good starting point, but it helped me get into the series a lot more than the first one we received on Game Boy Advance, which might as well as used baby talk in its thousands of cutscenes, in case I didn’t know what an axe was. I’ll say this, I actually started to get addicted to this game and rinsed it all weekend when I downloaded it. And there aren’t many NES games you could say that about.

You’d better use a guide though, which is the SOP for NES games, because there are a lot of things in Fire Emblem 1 that you simply won’t understand, whether in English or Japanese. And by the end of it, you shouldn’t be too surprised to lose all of your units, along with your land. That’s probably what happened to my old ancestor way back when, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hate him for what he did to my legacy.

I feel like this won’t do, however. As Fire Emblem becomes more popular, the risk of me looking gauche is growing ever more. But every time I try the series, I boak it back up again. Picture this scene: you’re on holidays, or even just in some “exotic” eatery. And suddenly, peer pressure mandates that you must eat some wildly foreign foodstuff, the likes of which you’ve never seen before, not even on the floor of a Saturday night.

All eyes are on you as you quiveringly cut off a piece and raise the fork, or spoon if you should be that unlucky, to your mouth. It touches your sweating tongue, and your brain makes the calculations at hyperspeed, and it’s not one bit happy – not a bit of it.

The hue, the texture, the smell, the consistency, the thickness, it all looks deeply wrong. A dramatic chord strikes, the Inception foghorn if you want to be cliché, as you finally put the piece of food into your comically slack mouth, and things calm down again.

Now for the taste. And because your brain is still in overdrive, its subordinates, the taste buds, can give you one of two polar opposite readings: it’ll either be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever tasted, in spite of its rough exterior, and you’ll sigh with relief and break into a nervous smile as all of your fellow restaurateurs cheer and break into a melodramatic clap.

Or, conversely, you may momentarily embarrass yourself and the assembled company by spitting that bolus at rocket speed back onto the table. But at least you can proudly sit back and say you were right.

That’s what the Fire Emblem series was like for me, before playing the original Fire Emblem. People tell me this series is the best thing since sliced bread, despite all appearances, so it must be true. I’m expected to come up smiling and toe the official line. And if I spit the game back out onto the table, I become the subject of tutting, frustrated muttering, even outright abuse. Suddenly I’ve let everyone down, just so I can “be different”.

Well, I’m glad I tried. The permanent death aspect is what Fire Emblem is most famous for, and I knew I’d fall foul of it a hundred thousand times before good tactics, or more accurately good save-stateing, would spare me. Unfortunately, I’m just not the master strategist I like to think I am.

Though the question I’d ask is, who on earth was an expert tactician in front of their Famicom in the year 1990? I hadn’t even been born yet, and there are Henrys, Edwards and Georges out there who became Kings straight out of the womb, whereas I struggle to even change a light bulb. As a tactician, I’m as far behind the times as Fire Emblem 1, but this game has a lot more staying power and flair than my ancestor ever had.

26 February 2021

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