Normally, I never use the phrase “of all time” because “all time” includes all things past, present, and future. Using the phrase “of all time” necessarily implies that nothing in the future will ever surpass the thing in question; it’s presumptuous and faulty reasoning. How can we be sure that there will never be a basketball player greater than Michael Jordan? Or a sumo wrestler greater than Hakuhō? I wouldn’t close myself to the possibilities, so I wouldn’t use the term “Greatest Of All Time” in either case.
But I will make a rare exception here: Fire Emblem 1 is the most important SRPG of all time.
I can be confident in saying this because I know that there will never be another SRPG as important to the genre as FE1. Not only did FE1 invent the entire genre, but it did so in a solid fashion, setting numerous great precedents that would pave the way forward for every subsequent SRPG. As the first game to ever fuse RPG and TBS elements, it cast a wide shadow on the genre and created a legacy whose impact cannot be overstated.
For me, the most impressive thing about FE1 is how well every map holds up, even 32 years later. Take the first map, for example: there’s a village you can visit with Marth, a shop where you can buy more equipment, plenty of forest and fort tiles which offer terrain bonuses, and another village where you can recruit your first healer, Wrys.
I guess on the subject of Wrys, now would be a good time to mention the little problems that FE1 has. Healers can’t gain experience by healing; the only way for the humble Wrys to level up is for him to get attacked. Given that he cannot fight, it would’ve been nice if the staff he carries could net him at least some experience by healing the wounded. Thankfully, later Fire Emblem games would change this, and I’m very glad that they did.
Movement ranges aren’t displayed, nor are combat prediction panels. Movement is very slow. This can all be a bit jarring when compared to later games in the series.
Inventory management can be tedious, especially when it comes to the convoy. For one thing, if you have a full inventory and find a new item, you can’t choose which item to send to the convoy; you can only send that new item to the convoy. For another thing, the “trade” system had not been implemented yet, meaning units can only “give” items to each other. Making matters worse is that there’s no convoy in the battle preparations.
FE1 is certainly very rough around the edges. But all of these problems should be forgivable when considering that 1) this was the first SRPG ever made, 2) there were programming limitations and 3) the game was made by a severely small development team. Little hangups like these are to be expected. In the case of the convoy in particular: this was an extremely ambitious system with the potential to manage dozens of items at once. I would’ve been surprised if the system was programmed without any problems.
The important thing to note about FE1 is that, while it surely has its little problems here and there, the core gameplay is terrific. Many later SRPGs, even ones coming out in recent years, have not demonstrated the foresight and sense that FE1 had, despite these games having several decades’ worth of examples to learn from.
As one example of FE1’s good game sense: recruitable units and permadeath. Although units die permanently, FE1 gives you no less than 52 recruitable units (technically 51 because Samson and Arran are mutually exclusive). This creates a situation where, even if some of your characters die, there’s always the promise of powerful replacement units like Midia, Astram, and Arran coming in to help you. Some late-joining units like Est and Tiki have staggeringly high growth rates, so with some effort, they can help carry your team to victory. Then there’s Gotoh, who established the archetype for an extremely late-joining unit with sky-high stats.
These design choices created a situation where permadeath actually isn’t unforgiving at all. Indeed, the first person to beat FE1 was a graphic designer at Nintendo who was not involved in developing the game. That was what signaled to the FE1 developers that the game was balanced fairly. You don’t have to be a genius to finish FE1. You can let units die and you can play it at your own pace, the way Kaga intended: “I want each player to create their own unique story. Don’t get caught up trying to get a ‘perfect ending.’ Have fun!”
Nintendo always had a philosophy of designing games which were easy to pick up and play. FE1 certainly fits the bill.
While FE1 is definitely easy to pick up and play, this isn’t to say that the game is restrictive in its strategic elements. Maps throughout FE1 are shockingly good, especially for being in the first SRPG ever created. I’ll briefly go over a couple here, but you best believe that the entire game is full of wonderfully-designed battles.
In chapter 10, you start off in the upper right-hand corner and your objective is to seize the throne on the other side of the map.
There will be fliers who approach you from the northwest, alongside terrestrial units from the south. To avoid being pincer-attacked, you can take refuge in the enemy’s own fort. Or, you could play things more defensively and slowly by using the forest terrain to your advantage. While you’re formulating your battle plan, you should also consider the enemy thief who’s trying to loot the treasure before you do. Rescuing Maria from the center of the fortress, and then recruiting her sister Minerva, are additional tasks on your radar.
Another example is Chapter 15. It’s the earliest desert map in Fire Emblem history and also one of the best ones.
You have to deal with fliers who are unhindered by the desert. There are optional treasures in the east to pillage. There are also a few shops where you can resupply. Gharnef makes his first appearance and is invulnerable, meaning you’ll have to tank his hits or avoid him outright. Another approach you could take is using Warp on Marth to end the scenario prematurely, thereby bypassing any annoyances that Gharnef presents, but missing out on any extra treasures and experience.
I can anticipate some naysayers criticizing Warp skips, so I’ll make the case that Warp skips are a good thing. Perhaps they were a bit too powerful in FE1, but the concept is good. Warp allows you to clear chapters really quickly. However, Warp Staves are limited in uses, so you can’t use them infinitely. Furthermore, clearing chapters within 2 or 3 turns means you’re depriving your team of valuable experience and possibly treasure. I believe that the tradeoff between efficiency vs. experience + loot is a fair one.
Importantly, Warp skips give us options. Players who like to blaze through maps and pull off crazy LTC (Low Turn Count) strategies are given tools for doing so. Other players are still free to play things as they desire. It’s this freedom of choice that I always loved about Fire Emblem, and indeed, the entire SRPG genre.
I do have one substantial criticism with FE1, and even so, it’s not a dealbreaker: stat boosters are way too powerful, especially if you feed them all to Marth. In most later games, stat boosters only raise your stats by 2 points each. In FE1, stat boosters can go up to 7 points. What makes them even better is that all stats cap out at 20.
Because of the existence of stat boosters, I firmly believe that FE1 Marth was the most powerful unit in all of Fire Emblem… up until Robin’s existence in FE13, of course.
In order to beat the game (as the developers intended, anyway), you’ll need to acquire the fabled Starlight Tome in Chapter 22. This actually is a missable event, but the game gives you ample hints on how/where to do this. If you miss out on Starlight, then you’re either not paying attention to the story at all, or you’re deliberately making life more difficult for yourself.
You need Starlight in order to defeat Gharnef. Gharnef drops the Falchion, which you’ll need to defeat the final boss, Medeus. It might actually be possible to defeat Medeus without the Falchion via clever use of the Geosphere + Mercurius… but I’m not sure why you would attempt that in a normal playthrough.
I’ve always thought the final battle in FE1 is a bit annoying because it splits your party up into four groups and doesn’t let you control who gets stationed where. It’s a cool idea in theory, but it’s frustrating because of this. Still, it’s a decent map, and the only one in the game that uses different music.
There’s an unnamed manakete who stands adjacent to Medeus (the final boss). I always have more trouble killing it than I do killing Medeus, but with enough patience, it happens eventually. Marth is so good.
I don’t see how anyone can say that FE1 is anything short of a masterpiece. It’s the single most important SRPG that will ever exist. Not only this, but it was a damn good game which still holds up 30 years later. Most people can rightfully respect Zelda 1, Mario 1, Final Fantasy 1, Dragon Quest 1, Castlevania 1, and so many other NES games for being groundbreaking and original. Yet, there’s this weird situation in the FE fandom where many players refuse to give FE1 its due. What gives?
All the other NES games I listed (and more) have plenty of little problems, just like FE1 does. Yet, in each case, we consider how good (and influential) each game was for its time. We consider the core gameplay. We forgive the little flaws in these games because it was impossible for them to do any better, given their limitations. I don’t see why we can’t do likewise for FE1.
When it comes to core gameplay, FE1 is spectacular. It boasts consistently great maps, a reasonable difficulty curve, fairly-implemented permadeath, and all-around stellar game sense. It established important precedents for SRPGs, like the freedom for players to customize their teams and approach each challenge in ways that made sense to them, or the linear narrative which offered plenty of content while also not forcing players to grind at all.
To me, it seems very easy to appreciate this game if you just take a step back and understand the historical context. It’s far from being my favorite Fire Emblem game (it’s probably #10 or #11 on my list of favorite FEs), but I still must respect and give credit to what it accomplished. It’s the most important SRPG of all time, a game without which the entire SRPG genre would not exist.
I only wish Nintendo would keep the 30th anniversary re-release on the Switch store permanently. Other people have criticized this business model of limited re-releases, and I agree with these criticisms; it’s a scummy business model. Plus, I would love to refer my friends to an easy, legal way to play FE1! Right now, you’d have to acquire a Japanese copy, dump the rom, patch it, and then play it with an emulator. This is all more costly and intensive than just buying it for $6 on the Switch eStore. Hell, just take the Shining Force 1 or 2 route and put them on Steam for $1 or something. Video game preservation is becoming more important with each passing year, and will only continue to do so as the sands of time run their course.
Come on, Nintendo. Do the right thing. And while you’re at it, give us a FE4 remake or port, already.
Console: NES, Switch
Translation patch: https://www.romhacking.net/translations/6087/