Mission Tenpossible

On November 15, 2007, in Games, by peterb

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.


12 Responses to “Mission Tenpossible”

  1. Nelson says:

    It’s very rare these days to have a game where death has meaning. We’re a long way from Ultima II and popping open the Apple ][ floppy drive to prevent the game from being saved at a bad moment.

    But once I got over the “OMG I lost a character” aspect of the GBA Fire Emblem games, I found it really liberating. There’s a generous allowance in the game for losing characters. You can lose about half of the party over the game and still be completely viable. You may miss a few quests, yeah, and not get the super secret fancy ending. But once I got used to the idea it was OK to lose a couple of characters, I enjoyed the game all the more because the stakes were higher than zero.

    The other game where death has meaning is Eve Online. But there your death is usually at the hands of another person. And you get to be that dread pirate, too, and take great joy in destroying the expensive T2 fitted ship your prey is flying.

    And of course there’s the polar opposite, Planescape: Torment, where death truly had no meaning at all except for the part where you had to die on purpose so you could resurrect and finish a quest. Alas, only one game in the history of man is allowed to use that gimmick, and it’s been done.

  2. Ben says:

    It is an odd system, but it never spoiled the game for me. One save is probably a good compromise. Wouldn’t playing with an infinite save system be like playing chess with infinite undos – it would completely change the style of the game. Why bother working out what happens when you move your pawn if you can just make the move and see what the computer does, then hit undo?

    Is there really much room for experimentation in a Fire Emblem game anyway? You always know where the enemy can move and attack (using the overlay) and the amount of damage units can do to each other. I guess you could experiment to see how dumb the AI is.

    I think I let one character die in my Fire Emblem(GC) normal campaign, one of the axe warrior guys.

  3. Thomas says:

    I only made it through level 5 when I tried a Fire Emblem game.

    Worst game mechanic ever.

  4. Ben says:

    I think the point of the permadeath is that it forces you to think about positioning. If you’re struggling with the tutorial missions, perhaps Fire Emblem isn’t the series for you.

    It’s pretty easy to level up weaker characters without exposing them to danger – whittle down an enemy’s health with ranged weapons or stronger characters first, then use the weaker character to finish them off. The GC game gives you bonus XP as well you can dish out to any character.

    Personally, I like the Fire Emblem games because they become essentially logic puzzles on the later levels. For those that don’t like that kind of thing there’s simpler strategy RPGs like FFTA.

  5. peterb says:

    I think the fundamental brokenness of Fire Emblem is very well demonstrated by the responses here. There are two points being offered:

    (1) Death has “meaning”, which improves the drama in the game.
    (2) If you’re good at the game, your characters will never die, n00b.

    Both of these statements can not be true.

    In addition to being a per-mission strategic puzzle, Fire Emblem also has a long-term training element. Characters who do not come into proximity with the enemy (I’m ignoring a few exceptions), don’t gain levels. I have certainly encountered situations in every Fire Emblem game where the only way to kill a given strong enemy unit was to take a risk: if this weak unit hits the enemy, the enemy will die. If this weak unit misses, the enemy will retaliate and the weak unit will die.

    In other words, the claim that one can waltz through the middle levels of the game risk-free assumes that one already knows all of the things you learn from gamefaqs (and that are not even hinted at in the in-game tutorials): Don’t use the pre-promoted “strong” unit in the early battles, work hard to ‘exercise’ your archers and priests, don’t use these characters here because they’re going to disappear after mission 4, and so on. So for example, a player who takes the obvious path through Path of Radiance and spends the first few missions heavily relying on Titania, Gatrie, and Shinon, is going to reach the midgame and be utterly and completely screwed.

    Combine those attributes with permadeath and no (reasonable) in-battle saves, and the only way to make the games playable would be to add a new feature: an in-game web browser that pops up an overlay window bringing the player to the Gamefaqs “turn by turn walkthrough” so he can make sure he plays it “right.”

    I am perfectly comfortable taking the addition of the in-battle quicksave as an admission by Intelligent Systems that they were completely wrong, and they sincerely apologize for their utter perfidy.

    Apology accepted.

  6. Ben says:


    A fair point, although IIRC on my first Normal playthrough of PoR I did concentrate mainly on Titania and another couple of Paladins and never had much trouble: things like “Rescue” and that character with the ability to untap other characters come in very useful. It’s only in hard mode that you have to be really careful. Presumably on Easy mode it’s much more forgiving.

  7. Nelson says:

    I agree that both of the statements don’t have meaning. My enjoyment of Fire Emblem stems from the fact that I did have characters die, and that I could finish the game effectively anyway. Without spoilers or much knowledge of how Fire Emblem works.

    I think there’s two different arguments with Fire Emblem’s design. One argument is that Fire Emblem is not well balanced, in that if an average player loses a character occasionally and doesn’t reload then they can’t finish the game. That wasn’t my experience, at least in Sacred Stones, and I’m not some uber-gamer. But maybe it’s not well balanced and is a little too hard. You could imagine that being tuned.

    The other argument is that the core mechanic of Fire Emblem is itself broken. That death-with-consequences makes for a bad tactical strategy game. I really disagree with that; I loved the added element that death brought to the games. I like that you have to take risks in the middle game to level your characters, because those risks are even more fun since they have significant consequence. Again, I’m assuming with good design the consequence isn’t “I can’t win the game” but rather “I have to find a different way to win with the abundant resources I have”.

    The bit about taking characters away from you is pretty cheap, though. I agree on that score.

    I’ve only played the GBA versions, so maybe I’ve missed something.

  8. Doug says:

    I thought the biggest problem was that you had to kill something to level up. The dancer didn’t dance better because she did it a lot, she had to run in and slit some goblin’s throat. We’re back to basic D&D here. I still enjoyed playing through the game (in a marathon session in a car drive from Texas to Oregon). There were a couple battles I had to do a number of times to preserve my favorite characters. But towards the end I stopped caring about it as much.

  9. peterb says:

    Update: Mission 18 (“Crimea Marches”), Boyd dies again, another god-damned reload.

  10. Alex Groce says:

    Hrm. I don’t know. On normal mode, both Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance just didn’t frustrate me that much, and I’m not even terribly good at these games (I can’t win Advance Wars DS, which peterb can roll over easily). But maybe it’s a different tolerance for restarting a level — I don’t mind in Fire Emblem because, once you know what you’re doing, and you turn off all animations, running back through a level is not much more time consuming than, say, running back through the last bit of a Super Mario Galaxy level. At least I don’t think it is — if the # of iterations was 5, instead of about 3, I might hate it; if the game-play was much slower, I might hate it. As it is, it’s slightly more irritating than backtracking to last checkpoint in Halo, but I can also do a little polishing of my moves now that I see how I could have given the kill XP to the crazy anime gal myrmidon I’m trying to level instead of the already overpowered knight, or something.

    That said, I’m looking forward to saving at the boss, on the Wii.

  11. Nelson says:

    I don’t get it, peterb. Why reload? I haven’t played the game; is Boyd essential?

  12. Eliot says:

    I’ve never played any Fire Emblem. Ever. Not Once.

    And yet the situation described feels like deja vu. Anyone remember the original Mechcommander? Pilot death was just as severe after passing the early levels, there was no in-mission save feature, and it was quite likely that a pilot would be splattered by a single shot from a heavy weapon (PPC, Gauss Rifle, I’m looking at you). Worse, it was real-time, so you could also get your pilots killed by slow reaction time in your orders. I don’t recall how many times I restarted a level and I don’t think that I ever finished the original campaign.

    Yet the fact that your pilots mattered really did add to the feel of the campaign. I remember the game fondly, despite the level of frustration that I went through while playing it. They just never got the balance quite right in that franchise (in Mechcommander 2, I breezed through and almost never had to worry if my pilots bought the farm). The holy grail is the tactical game that does hit that perfect balance.