Mission Tenpossible

I recently played the first eleven missions of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn for the Nintendo Wii.

This breaks something of a tradition for me. I recently played the first ten missions of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance on the Gamecube. Last year I played ten missions (each) of Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones on the Gameboy Advance. I abandoned all of those games after ten missions.

Why only ten missions?

Because – with the exception of the new Radiant Dawn game – the Fire Emblem games are a great example of games written by small-minded people who hate humanity, because they have completely punishing and broken save point systems. After 10 missions, the games got hard enough that I had to interact with the broken save system. So I stopped playing.

The Fire Emblem games are turn-based strategy wargames. They’re developed by the same house that creates the superb (and life affirming) Advance Wars series, and shares some similarities in that franchise. There’s a central difference, however. In Advance Wars the loss of a unit is not game-killing. It’s expected that units will suffer some attrition, and that you will build replacements. In Fire Emblem the members of your army have some individuality and character. That’s good. And in Fire Emblem, death is permanent. If one of your favorite characters dies, you will have to finish the game without him. At least, that’s how the system is usually described. I prefer to describe it a bit more accurately:

“If a character in Fire Emblem is killed, the player is forced to reset their console and replay the entire mission from scratch until she or he can complete it without getting a character killed.”

Reggie Fils-Aime

There are some people who will insist that I am overstating the case, that no one is forcing players to reset their games, and perhaps there are some players in various halfway houses, mental institutions, and bondage clubs that like to continue playing after their favorite Myrmidon has been slaughtered. These people are lying. I recently spoke to Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime, and he confirmed for me that Nintendo research shows that no one, anywhere on the entire planet, has ever continued a game of Fire Emblem after losing a favored character. (See footnote 1)

Since Fire Emblem missions tend to have bosses, and since the bosses are inevitably at the end of a map, the common failure mode for the older game is that you have been playing a mission for an entire hour, and lose a character in the last 2 minutes of a battle. So if you want to keep playing, you have to go back and replay the entire hour-long battle.

This mechanic is game-breaking because it harshly punishes the player for even the most modest experimentation. For me, the interesting part of a wargame is trying out different strategies. Previous Fire Emblem games made that so painful to bear. How painful? So painful that, after buying the Fire Emblem GBA game on eBay, I put it on my shelf and instead played the game on an emulator so that I could use the instant save/restore features in the emulator to work around the game’s pointless cruelty.

Which brings us to Radiant Dawn, which improves the situation substantially by allowing you to save the game at any time during a battle. There are still some restrictions placed on this. While you have a number of save game slots, you only have a single “quicksave” slot that can be used during a battle. You can save after every move, if you like, but you can’t keep a whole library of saves going back to the first turn. In other words, you can still hose yourself, but the situation is much improved: experimenting is at least possible At this point it would be traditional to talk about how much improved the graphics in Radiant Dawn are, but let’s face it: this is the exact same game that they’ve been making for 20 years, and if you’re playing it it’s because you enjoy solving tactical puzzles, not because you want to admire lighting effects. So let’s just take all that as read and cut to the chase: finally, Intelligent Systems has made a Fire Emblem game that I can play more than 10 missions of. Maybe this will let psu play more than 10 turns too

It’s about damn time.

Footnote 1: I didn’t actually speak to Reggie Fils-Aime. I completely made that up. But it turns out it’s still true.