Fire Emblem Gaiden: the second FE title ever released, the first directed by Shouzou Kaga, the first with any exploration or grinding… and possibly the worst FE game in existence. Yeah, this is what you’d call a “sophomore slump.”
In fairness, FE Gaiden was a good game for its time. It’s always best to evaluate games based off of their time period, and by this metric, FE2 is certainly no worse than any other contentious-yet-respected NES sequels such as Castlevania 2, Zelda 2, Mario 2, or Final Fantasy 2. If I’m being honest though: I’d rather replay FE Awakening than touch this game ever again. Even if Awakening was a much worse game for its time, it still has a bunch of QoL stuff that Gaiden does not.
I won’t harp on Gaiden for being a sluggish, ugly game because that’s just part and parcel of being a NES game. Nor will I criticize it for lacking QoL features like being able to see what items can do. However, I will lambast its piss-poor map design. It’s some of the worst and blandest I’ve seen in any SRPG. I find it remarkable how these maps were designed by Shouzou Kaga, the same guy who gave us a panoply of amazing maps in Thracia, TearRing Saga, and Berwick Saga.
Maps in FE2 are needlessly large, excessively plain, and in many cases, sadistically frustrating. As one example of cruel map design, there are some maps where the enemy has an entire squad of archers all tucked safely behind a wall.
I should give FE2 credit for its innovations, however. It was the second SRPG to allow for any exploration (Crystal Warriors was the first, and wasn’t as extensive with this anyway). It was the first SRPG to use a communal experience system: in FE2, every time a unit fights an enemy, there will be some “group experience” added to a pool which is then distributed at the end of the battle.
Most importantly of all, it was the first SRPG that splits up your party, allowing you to control two armies at once. I’m not sure any other SRPG game developer would’ve thought to do this. Although this game was flawed, it nonetheless displayed some of Kaga’s unorthodoxy. And that’s a good thing; the army split is one of the things that Gaiden actually does right. You control two separate armies – Alm’s and Celica’s – and starting with chapter 3, they go their separate ways (worlds apart). The two routes never intersect, but you do have methods through which you can send items from one army to the other, or even units from one army to the other… admittedly, the latter seems more like a glitch because it involves getting a unit killed in one army, and then resurrecting it with the other army.
Later games such as Tactics Ogre or Feda would allow you to move around on the overworld like this. (Little Master actually pioneered this idea back in 1991.) But FE2 was the first SRPG that had you control two separate parties. If we’re being fair, then we must acknowledge FE2’s innovations. This was a game which had legitimate potential to be a terrific game.
…Unfortunately, I don’t believe it ever fulfills that potential.
Map design is, again, FE2’s greatest weakness… and it’s a pretty big weakness. In addition to the terrible map design, FE2 features some really bad difficulty curves. You could say it was the proto-Tactics Ogre in this regard. Thankfully, the game gives you tools on each route to completely curbstomp everything that comes your way. In Alm’s army, Alm + Silk are sufficient to clearing every map; in Celica’s army, Celica + Palla + Catria will be doing most of the heavy lifting; and for the final chapter, Mycen absolutely destroys everything he gets his hands on. It’s just too bad that almost every other unit is anywhere from mediocre to useless.
Perhaps the game was designed with the intention of making players grind. If so, that’s not good game design, especially for a SRPG. The presence of permadeath makes this (lack of) balance even worse; whereas FE1 gave the player plenty of units, FE2 is very stingy, so if even one of your lynchpins dies, that always merits a reset.
Anyone who asserts that FE2 was an improvement over FE1 is flat-out incorrect (unless we’re talking about the music, which IMO has a case for being better). FE2 was certainly not a bad game for its time and we can certainly appreciate its innovations, even 30 years later.
At its core, however, its underlying gameplay is a mess. FE Gaiden is objectively the worst-balanced and worst-designed game that Shouzou Kaga ever engineered. A lot of the bad things you could say of FE Awakening were, uh… pioneered by FE Gaiden. When it comes to bad FE map design, Kaga did it first. When it comes to stupidly overpowered main characters, Kaga did it first. And when it comes to awful difficulty curves, Kaga did it first. Thankfully, Kaga got better and eventually went on to direct some legitimately amazing games. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Currently, I’m very much interested in playing FE15. Did it successfully manage to stay faithful to FE2’s ideas while dispensing with the frustrations? 25 years after FE2 was released, was this finally the year when it would realize its full potential?
Developers: Intelligent Systems
Get the translation patch here: https://www.romhacking.net/translations/1445/