Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo - Staff Retroview  

Marth the Dragon Slayer
by Mike Moehnke

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Very Hard
60-80 Hours
+ Engrossing Fire Emblem action
+ A lot of length for one game
- Dismounting is an enormous pain
- Interface is lacking many refinements from later in the series
- Slow-moving battles
+ Second Book is exclusive to this game
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   Fire Emblem's first series outing on the Super Nintendo took the form of a partial remake combined with new content. Intelligent Systems remade the original NES game while dropping a few of the battles, putting in their place an entirely new second 'book.' Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo (Mystery of the Emblem) is thus a mixture of the content that was originally on the NES and is now on the DS as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, with a slightly longer portion exclusive to this cartridge. The two books use the same interface and many of the same characters, but characters who return have their levels reset and their statistic growths changed for the second book. Thus, the game should probably be considered two games in one.

   Book 1 is the remake of the original NES Fire Emblem. Marth, prince of Aritia, is called upon by Sheeda the Pegasus Knight to help out against some nasty guys in the service of a real dirtbag called Garnef who seems to be trying to conquer the world. Garnef is himself in thrall to Medius the evil dragon lord. Book 2 features a lengthier and somewhat more developed story as Hardain, one of Marth's staunch allies in the first Book, has seemingly gone mad and is attempting to conquer the world five years after the battles with Garnef and Medius. Marth must reassemble an army capable of opposing this effort and discover what happened to Hardain to make him into such a monster. Considering that this game was released in 1993 and is half a remake of a game from 1990, the story is fine without being great.

   Combat in Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo is clearly a precursor to the battle system that would define subsequent games in the series. It is also just as clearly a preliminary version of that battle system. At the core it is the standard overhead view of characters moving around a battlefield composed of square tiles and attacking with differently-ranged weapons. Damage from these attacks is the difference between the attack and the defense of the target, with physical defense and magical defense being different categories. Characters receive experience points from fighting, and every 100 experience points means a level-up at which character statistics randomly increase. Weapons can be used a certain number of times before breaking, and in a mechanic that has always been with the Fire Emblem series, characters who fall in combat are dead. There is the Ohm staff, which can be used once in Book 1 and five times in Book 2 to revive the dead, but it only appears at the end of the game.

Lesson #1: thieves destroy villages here, not bandits. Lesson #1: thieves destroy villages here, not bandits.

   The differences between Monshou no Nazo and subsequent titles in the series are many. The famous weapons triangle is absent, and in its place is a simple strongest-attack-wins system. Axes are powerful but very inaccurate, and the absence of any playable axe-wielders in Book 2 from the roster shows their lack of value. The statistics of the unit about to be attacked are displayed when the player is initiating an attack, but not the chance of hitting or the chance of a critical - these pieces of information only appear once the combat animation starts. Critical hits do triple damage and will often kill a character, thus being forewarned would be very helpful. A strange and unwelcome quirk is the fact that every statistic is capped at 20 (save HP) with a promotion merely offering more opportunities to raise those statistics and not increasing their limit.

   There is one facet of Monshou no Nazo's combat that has never been replicated, and it is the ability of any character on a mount (cavalry, horse archers, and fliers) to dismount. This aspect could have been very useful, as arrows are the bane of fliers and enemies like to have weapons that are strong against mounted knights. There are several problems with the dismounting aspect however, the first one being that only dismounted characters can enter indoor areas. This ties into the second problem, wherein a mounted character can only use lances and a dismounted character can only use swords. If a Pegasus Knight is loaded with four different varieties of lance and the next battlefield is indoors, the player must switch some weapons around or the character is useless. Character statistics also go down with dismounting because the mount and not the character possesses them: this is most obvious with dismounted Pegasus Knights who suddenly lose their magic defense.

   Menus are fairly simple, at least. Each character can hold four weapons and four items simultaneously, with Marth serving as the inventory in battle and everything able to be traded in the pre-combat phase. Trading items is not quite as easy in battle, but the only real impediment is requiring the trading characters be adjacent to each other. In battle the major difficulty is the fact that a broken weapon (though not a broken spell) remains in the character's inventory as a hunk of junk that does not increase base attack, instead of vanishing and clearing the way for the next weapon in line. Somewhat annoying as well is the inability to determine the starting positions of units prior to battle, which can make a few skirmishes harder.

Two guys wander into a back alley with swords.  One comes back to tell the tale. Two guys wander into a back alley with swords. One comes back to tell the tale.

   Outside of the combat animations Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo is decidedly unimpressive for a SNES game. Its combat animations look a lot better with big characters attacking each other, but the game is still not very pretty. The combat sprites lack detail aside from their size, and the colors used throughout the game are very muted. This soft pastel look has little to catch the eye and the graphics quickly become monotonous.

   The audio is a mixed bag. Book 1 gets a terrible mark for having exactly one battle theme from the first to the second-to-last battle; this theme is not awful but does become very boring by the end. Book 2 does not reuse the music from Book 1 and varies the music quite a bit more. Its final chapters possess a catchy march theme that is very memorable.

   The two books together will probably require somewhere around 65-75 hours to complete: some battles take a while to finish and the game moves at a more leisurely pace than later installments in the series. Fire Emblem games have never been easy, but this game packs a powerful punch in the challenge field, even to veterans of later games in the series. Book 1 is hard but manageable. Book 2 gets harder, and its final battle depends upon good player luck to be won. Part of the difficulty in both books is that plenty of dragons with attacks that ignore defense appear, and characters tend to have comparatively few HP. Another part of the difficulty lies in the tendency of enemies to critical characters with low luck, an unfortunately common affliction among the game's cast. Replay incentive is low unless one wishes to test a different group of characters.

   Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo feels different in one other way from those mentioned prior: its speed. Characters move a little more slowly around the map, menu options are accessed a little less efficiently, and combat animations play out over a longer period. In 1993 this was inconsequential, but after seeing the advances made in the series since it becomes quite noticeable and distracting. The game is still worth seeking out by a tactical fan, but is not at the head of its genre in the way most subsequent entries in this series have become. Its being only in Japanese does not help to make it more accessible either.

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