Mystery of the menus, curse of the cursors, the death of design

Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem (1994)

I don’t know if we’ve just become spoilt by the wealth of apps and online services available nowadays, but is it my imagination or are user interfaces and user experiences getting worse and worse? Strangely, it also seems to me that there’s a growing abundance of money in UX / UI Designer jobs. Perhaps this means they’re throwing more money than in God’s wallet at the problem, but it’s still to no avail.

You take the video streaming services, and we pretty much have them all as we’re awful couch potatoes. Well, you try and search for something on Netflix and you can forget it. The search function is slow, sometimes difficult to find, and the thing you’re searching for is either not there (but here are dreadful knock-offs, a classic Netflix move. Or your desired result is buried beneath a load of child porn-enabling series and other bleeding heart liberal rubbish.

And have you tried Disney Plus?! Good luck using the seek function on there, or skipping to the next episode of a show. The search feature is clunkier than Goofy’s old jocks, deafies like us struggle to get the subtitles activated, and generally the whole app is dog slow. And just think of the amount of financial clout these big boys have, and all you get in return for a few quid a month is a 1990s app experience.

But it doesn’t get much better on desktop internet either, and I bet you’ll agree. Go onto any website these days and it’s cookie warnings up your wazoo, and once you’ve got past that, there’s still pop-up ads, things you really shouldn’t click, videos trying to play automatically, and generally the whole site is almost audibly creaking under the strain of trying to load up everything, to get old Dom ready, whoever that is. And the amount of sites that want you to register an account these days so that you can give all your details away, my God. How many lifelines do you want to throw the hackers to let them get your password?

And speaking of leet hackers, the worst sites out there for user experience are the streaming ones, and I ain’t talking about your friendly Netflixes or Amazon Primes this time. They say you can find anything on the internet eh? Well, I call poppycock on that. Just try finding an illegal sports streaming website that won’t feast on your computer with a zillion pop-up ad, twice as many on a mobile phone, all sprouting from that Play button you not-so-innocently pressed. Don’t these hacker rubbers want to take pride in their illicit handiwork?

And just when you get used to a new UX, the bloody rules change. They know what they’re doing, I’m aware of that, it’s akin to a supermarket changing its entire layout to keep things fresh and con you into buying things on impulse. But how bad can these people make YouTube look?

Do the Facebook designers wonder why the platform has fallen off, when the Timeline feature has dispersed with things you might want to see, in favour of stupid videos and a billion ads? Or take Reddit, inexplicably popular despite having one of the worst, most confusing designs of all time. These services might improve somewhat if you download their apps, like they always implore you to. But then, how much can you polish those turds?

It seems good user interface design is a tightrope alright, a sweet spot that ain’t easy to hit. You better believe that the third Fire Emblem game, Mystery of the Emblem, missed this sweet spot by miles. It’s the first Fire Emblem game on the Super Nintendo, so you might be hoping to draw a parallel between this and perhaps the Zelda series; a classic NES opener, then an off-the-wall second game, before a masterpiece on SNES. Following this trend, could Mystery of the Emblem be an all-time great game?

You gotta be joking. This is actually just an expanded remake of the first Fire Emblem game, which was also inaccessible to English-speaking players until the limited time localisation on Switch. A bit early for remakes, don’t you think? Though I suppose, I wouldn’t hit Mario All-Stars with that one if I’m being fair. This one is split into two books, which is what the Lord of the Rings installments did as well, and they were just as much of a slog to get through.

Book 1 is a slightly abridged remake of the first game, where you follow Prince Marth and his fellow paladins, pegasus knight and archer cronies, through many battle maps. Then Book 2 is the new story, a few years on, with lots more dialogue. To be fair, this results in a hell of a lot of chapters to play through, about 40 in total. But it’s still so slow and clunky that a lot of people, including myself, simply won’t last that long. It’s still just so early, so primitive, that you’ll be wishing for a later game in the series every minute you’re playing this.

There’s no weapon triangle, no support conversations, no housekeeping between battles, no twists and turns really, not much of anything. Again, I hate to say that a game has aged, if even because that would imply that it one day held greatness and beauty. But let’s face it, by the time we were able to play this game in fantranslated English, it had already become sour milk. But remember that the first three Fire Emblem games have all received remakes and they bloody needed them.

This game’s DS remake (which also needs a translation patch) renders Mystery of the Emblem thoroughly obsolete. At least there you’ll find access to two screens and modern UI sensibilities. Going back to the SNES, it leaves you with a lot to do. You select a unit, and at a glance you can see how far it can go, and likewise for your enemies and their range.

When engaging enemies, you won’t get the damage calculation done for you, you’ll need to actually do the sum yourself. The units move slowly, and so do the battle animations (which otherwise look good, mind), mercifully you can turn off all battle animations… but then you can’t see your experience gain or what stats increase after a level-up, which won’t be much anyway.

The whole game still feels archaic, barely updated from the NES, and generally it’s a waste of time. Forget about epic war scenes and sieges, your biggest challenge is against the cursors and the menus, needing your full concentration to trade items or figure out if you’ll double-attack someone.

Mystery of the Emblem is a Fire Emblem game still on Web 1.0, HTML 2, CSS 1, or whatever looks and feels the oldest. Do yourself a favour, if you’re looking to get into the Fire Emblem series, and search for the better one to start with. Just make sure you use a good search tool to find one, or you’ll become twice as frustrated.

4 February 2021

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