Listening to: The Wind Waker Symphonic Movement – Koji Kondo (The Legend of Zelda, 25th Anniversary)
Spoilers of a general nature follow for The Legend of Zelda and Fire Emblem.
As I was sorting through my library of games earlier this week trying to decide which of my eight copies of Fire Emblem to play (the ninth is at home), I was struck by a sudden flash of insight. It was the kind of insight that, in hindsight, seems completely obvious, but in the moment it occurs seems completely staggering–like, for instance, the word “mayday” being derived from the French “m’aidez”.
In this case, the insight was “Every Fire Emblem has the same plot.” Normally this would be an earth-shattering revelation for me: after all, as evidenced in my earlier post, I’m not the type of person who looks kindly on repetition. Yet, for some reason, the Fire Emblem series is my all-time favorite. If that’s the case, shouldn’t I be vanishing in a puff of logic? Not necessarily, apparently, but this got me to thinking. I realized that my other favorite Nintendo-published series, The Legend of Zelda, reused their plots just as frequently. What exactly is it that makes me want to play through each of the new games in these series if I already know how the plot is going to go?
In each case, it’s in no small part due to familiarity. Humans are naturally biased towards ideas that they’ve encountered (and agreed with) before. In the case of Zelda, this means that fans can always count on Link to be the protagonist and Zelda to show up in a supporting role. It also refers to the core gameplay components: Zelda will always be an adventure game, while Fire Emblem is a turn-based tactical RPG. In essence, when you buy each of these games you know what you’re going to get. If you found one of the past entries in the series enjoyable, then you probably will find the current entries enjoyable as well.
On the other side of the coin is novelty. While the entries in the series can afford to be similar, they’re not exactly the same. Thus, in keeping with the title of this post, I ask “What’s new?”
The plot of most of the Zelda games I’ve played can be summed up fairly easily: you collect the first set of Plot Coupons, get the Master Sword, collect the second set of Plot Coupons, and storm the final dungeon to save the kingdom. Simple. Easy to remember. However, as the common saying goes, the journey is more important than the destination.
Zelda, as an adventure game, is all about the journey. There needs to be a feeling of discovery in any adventure game, which is why each new game in the series has a different overworld, new dungeons, and new items to play around with. While there are some fixtures of the 3D games, such as the bow, bombs, hookshot, and boomerang, the way that they are incorporated differs between games. Both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask used the items in question in their most basic form, while subsequent Zelda games were able to get more creative with the application: Wind Waker put a cannon on Link’s boat that he could launch bombs from, and allowed him to target up to five things at a time with his boomerang (which, in turn, led to a wider variety of dungeon puzzles and boss fights). Twilight Princess introduced item combinations, giving Link the ability to use his bow like a sniper rifle (when combined with the Hawkeye, an item similar to Wind Waker’s telescope) or a rocket launcher (when combined with bombs), or do the slowest ever Spider-man impression by using two hookshots at the same time. Skyward Sword lets you use the Beetle, a new item, to pick up bombs and drop them on your enemies from halfway across the area. And so it goes.
The tone of the game is also an important way of making the games distinct from each other. Ocarina was a fairly optimistic game until around halfway through, when Link receives the unpleasant revelation that everything he has done so far was playing directly into the villainous Ganondorf’s hands. Ganondorf’s portrayal in the first half of the game is an insidious evil that only the youngest members of the cast recognize for what he is. In the second half of the game, however, he is literally monstrous, ruling over Hyrule with an iron fist while monsters under his command ravage the land. Contrast this with Wind Waker’s Ganondorf, a tired old man who speaks of the trials his people faced living in the desert, and seems to be an almost tragic figure. Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess deal more with the theme of death than any other game in the series–Twilight Princess was the first game in the series to get a T rating for that very reason.
Back to Fire Emblem. Its common plot, while still relatively basic, is a bit more complicated: an idealistic (and almost always blue-haired) hero sets forth in order to protect their homeland from a hostile foreign power. In the background of the hero’s fight against the invaders is some sort of nebulous evil organization, which quickly gains prominence as the true villains of the story. The motive of this organization is always to bring about the return of some Dark Power in order to wreak destruction on the entire world. In every case, the hero gathers a small but loyal band of followers, leading them against ever more powerful enemies until at last they overthrow the invaders and bring down the Dark Power once and for all. Then there are fifteen minutes to half an hour of credits (which nobody pays attention to because they’re too busy reading the story of what happened to each individual in their army) and possibly some ominous foreshadowing hinting at a sequel.
Similar to Zelda, one of the major differences between the games is in tone. The seventh game in the series, Blazing Sword (simply titled Fire Emblem in the West) is a fairly standard fantasy epic, tying its cast into an intrigue-filled story where the power of friendship prevails over all the adversity in the group’s way. The Japanese exclusive Genealogy of the Holy War, on the other hand, is the next best thing to A Song of Ice and Fire: a crisis over the succession of a kingdom, incest as a plot point, religious unrest, and the frequent, brutal deaths of sympathetic characters, with no chance of salvation.
For me, however, the main draw of Fire Emblem is its ever-changing cast of characters and the way they interact with each other. Each game has more than 30 playable characters, all of them with distinct personalities of their own. While some are more fleshed out than others, each and every one has something to make them interesting, regardless of how much focus they receive in the story. Most of this is tied into the mechanic of support conversations: dialogue between characters that has little or nothing to do with the main plot of the game. Supports, in addition to providing a tangible gameplay mechanic in stat bonuses to the affected parties, can also have an effect on character endings or even some of the main story events. Mostly, though, they exist to add interest and flesh out minor characters who don’t get featured as much. A major example of this is in Blazing Sword. Bishop Renault, a character who appears for only two chapters out of almost forty, is given an incredible amount of depth: a troubled and bloodstained past, a history with the main villain, and the vague implication that he became nearly immortal due to magical experimentation. The fact that all of this is optional and unlikely to be seen at all (as Renault is considered to be a mediocre character at best, and standing in place long enough to achieve sufficient support ranks to view all of his conversations would be a considerable waste of time at the climax of the game) makes it all the more impressive.
Awakening, the latest installment in the series, takes the support mechanic a step further, with the return of Holy War‘s inheritance system and the removal of the limits on the number of supports allowed per character. While the North American localization did an excellent job with the translation as a whole, many of the most hilarious, heartwarming, and emotional moments in the game are filed in the Support Log. Seeing all of the different combinations of characters, each one of them excellently written, is the reason I’ve played through the game in its entirety eight times. …the main reason.
To sum up: by innovating in puzzles and items, the creators of Zelda have “itemized” how to create fun gameplay. By devoting so much time and effort to fleshing out the cast, the creators of Fire Emblem have truly put the “care” in “character.”
I will brace myself for the slings and arrows that those puns deserve. See you next week!