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Review – Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon

posted on April 13th, 2009 by jay

Underneath every game’s artwork, sound effects and voice acting lies a set of core mechanics. All the extra stuff, the facade if you will, exists to enhance the mechanics and design of a game. I tend to value the facade less than the other half of the dichotomy because there are many examples of bad games with brilliant coats of paint and few if any examples of bad games with amazing design. Even so, the difference a little bit of well mixed paint can make is hard to overestimate.

Ico and Zelda are very similar games with very different facades. The former focuses on giving the play rules context and emotional resonance while the latter indulges in playful variations of its mechanics while mostly ignoring the artistry that sits atop them. Neither is clearly superior to the other; individual taste dictates our appreciation of facade and design, though it is interesting to note most, if not all, games vying for the title of “art” have extremely well made facades.

The Fire Emblem series focuses on game mechanics and scenario design. Its genre, stat-heavy turn-based combat, and high difficulty (including permanent character death) are all trappings of nuts and bolts based games made for dedicated gamers. Shadow Dragon, the newest entry, is also the oldest, as it is a remake of the original Japan-only Famicom title. Being the first of the series, Shadow Dragon lacks some of the more sophisticated touches of the later games while simultaneously demonstrating that the air tight strategic role playing fans love existed from Intelligent Systems very first attempt at the genre.

Shadow Dragon lacks the varied mission goals veteran players expect, but also includes an enormous lineup of recruitable characters, online battles and more importantly, rock solid mechanics. Fire Emblem games are similar to classic board games like Chess or Checkers, and each entry, seemingly regardless of its facade, provides a huge amount of fun. Still, the Fire Emblems lack the true sign of a classic game – I cannot replay the same missions time and again without growing bored. The mechanics are timeless perhaps, but without a second human player the scenarios grow old.

So then it should follow that simply purchasing more maps to battle on would suffice and each iteration of the series provides an unnecessary amount of new art, music, plot, dialog, and other trappings. Yet simple map packs would be unfulfilling. Thanks to Shadow Dragon, I may have discovered the bare minimum amount of paint I need from this genre to be satisfied. I could not enjoy Panzer General on the PS1 because it was too spartan with too little facade; it appears all I need is the thinnest of cliched plots and a character name and portrait for each soldier in my army (or even key generals ala Langrisser), things Shadow Dragon gladly provides.

The past few console Fire Emblems have shown that lush cut scenes and a complex and well written plot do indeed compliment finely tuned design. But the facade ultimately makes the difference between an 8 and a 9 – the mechanics spanned the wide gap between abysmal and great, while the presentation and narrative propelled the games from great to excellent. Shadow Dragon has minimal facade but is still a great game.

Unfortunately, the facade Intelligent Systems did decide to include with Shadow Dragon is not very appealing. The story is not minimal in the Dragon Quest sense: humble but charming and expertly told. The plot of Shadow Dragon is uninteresting, bare bones, and told by ugly characters. The battle fields are muddy and grey, likely an attempt to court the same crowd Nintendo expected to court with Days of Ruin: the elusive Halo-loving fratboy who, from time to time, enjoys a turn of high fantasy SRPG between chugs of beer.

Give me a Fire Emblem with unique stick figures for characters, different combinations of letters yielding unpronounceable names, and tell me the princess has been kidnapped. I will plow through 30 battles with a smile across my face. Shadow Dragon may be ugly, but it has inner beauty.

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1 Comments

  1. Bruce said on April 21, 2009:

    I like the first part where you separate mechanics from art. I think both have to mesh together to make a game truly great.

    And the whole fanboy tirade against Wind Waker’s “OMG Kiddiez” style seems really pointless in that context. I guess for a medium that is so intimately concerned with selling escapism to people, it makes sense they would get up in arms about such things.

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