It seems like such a lifetime ago, but there was a point in Nintendo history where Fire Emblem simply wasn’t on the radar as far as western releases went. Not just that, Marth and Roy were almost cut out of Super Smash Bros. Melee’s western release altogether so not to confuse non-Japanese fans. Thankfully, Nintendo did not gut their game of content and the rest is history.
While not every Fire Emblem game has been released in the west since Blazing Blade on the GBA (please localize New Mystery, Nintendo,) the franchise has been healthy for a good few years now. Arguably healthier than ever, at that. Unfortunately, the series has fallen into something of a niche, catering to a very specific subset of its audience. What was once a fairly consistent series when it came to quality is now all over the place.
Note: Spin-offs (Fire Emblem Warriors) will not be considered.
Fire Emblem Fates was destined for failure right out of the gate. Not only was it succeeding the critically acclaimed Awakening, a game Intelligent Systems put all their best ideas in (believing it would be the end of the series,) it was then decided that Fates should be split into three games. The worst of the bunch, Revelation promised the world and delivered nothing of substances.
With a terrible story, horrible unit availability, some of the worst map design in the franchise, and the fact that the game’s “true ending” is locked behind a paywall, Revelation doesn’t do enough to justify its existence.
One-third of Fates, Birthright isn’t so much bad as it is bland. As far as games go, it doesn’t do anything particularly offensive. It has generally better maps than Awakening, the story isn’t insulting, and the characters are at least aesthetically interesting if a bit uncompelling. So where does it fail?
Well, nowhere really, but it doesn’t succeed anywhere either. Birthright is content in mediocrity with its one clear improvement over Awakening generally left unappreciated simply due to Birthright’s surprisingly easy difficulty. As is the case with Revelation, there’s also a lack of substance to the whole SRPG holding it back.
The final third of the nightmare that is Fire Emblem Fates, Conquest is the definition of “mixed bag” as far as Fire Emblem goes. Boasting some of the best map design to grace modern Fire Emblem, Conquest is bogged down by featuring some of the worst content literally everywhere else in its campaign.
The story is bafflingly bad, boring on nonsensical; the villains are completely lacking in both depth and nuance, while the main cast is the worst they’ve ever been with little organic growth. Furthermore, the music is alarmingly lackluster in spite of the series’ track record. It’s worth playing for the gameplay, but get ready to skip every single cutscene.
Shadow Dragon gets a bad rap. A straight remake of the first game with minimal updates, for better and for worse, this is a very faithful representation of the NES original. While the game might seem outdated and even archaic at times, it’s an incredibly tightly paced strategy RPG with great maps and a fantastically written story.
Where it fumbles, funnily enough, is in its new mechanics. The weapon triangle doesn’t lend itself well to Shadow Dragon’s overall game design and the reclassing mechanic isn’t nearly as fleshed out or polished as it should be (while simply also starting a fairly messy precedent.) Characters are fairly one-note as well, but Shadow Dragon is leagues above the Fates trilogy.
Awakening is a bit of a mess, all things considered. The maps are pitifully simple, grinding is too exploitable, and the story plays out like Fire Emblem’s “Greatest Hits” instead of anything remotely original. That said, it’s a very polished mess that’s substantially better than the sum of its parts.
Although it wasn’t the first game to introduce the Avatar mechanic, it was the first (and so far only one) to pull it off successfully. The main cast is incredibly likable, the second generation is handled well enough where they could have led the game themselves, and the DLC maps more than makeup for the lacking main game. Awakening may not deserve all its praise, but there’s a reason it saved the franchise.
A remake of arguably the worst game in the series, Echoes: Shadows of Valentia takes all of Gaiden’s best ideas and irons them out splendidly. Better yet, Shadows of Valentia does not fundamentally change the game. Rather, it keeps the spirit intact in order to prove that Gaiden could have been quite good all along.
Of course, in being a straight remake Shadows of Valentia does end up with some pretty dreadful maps, but it is made up for with a welcome emphasis on more overt RPG design elements (something Gaiden played around with but didn’t quite pull off.) Topped off with an excellent script and cast, Shadows of Valentia more than deserves its spot in the top five.
Sacred Stones is an interesting game. Where it was once rather reliably considered the worst of the GBA Fire Emblem games, the passage of time has been incredibly kind to it. Not only has it been praised for its story and villain over the years, but fans have also been won over by the rather unique elements it brought to the series (in large part due to them serving as a basis for Awakening.)
The route splits mechanic, a sympathetic villain, a dedicated post-game, and grinding along with decently designed maps, Sacred Stones feels like the whole package. Of course, not all its mechanics mesh well together leading to some unrefined gameplay moments, but it’s hard not to appreciate how ahead of its time Sacred Stones actually was.
The first Fire Emblem game to leave Japan, it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with Blazing Blade. While it certainly has its flaws (an overly long tutorial and an awkwardly paced plot,) it’s a game with a ton of heart and a ton of content. The main trio’s chemistry is incredibly natural and the map design has some incredible highs.
Blazing Blade was the first game in the series to feature a self-insert character, but Mark’s presence isn’t nearly as egregious as Kris, Robin, or Corrin’s. There’s also the unlockable Hector Mode, which not only fleshes out the story but actually features new maps. Blazing Blade might hand-hold a bit too much at times, but it’s an excellent game nonetheless.
A direct sequel to Path of Radiance, Radiant Dawn fleshes out just about every gameplay and narrative beat its predecessor laid bare (except Supports). This is one of the biggest games in the franchise, taking place over the course of four distinct Parts, each of which could be its own game if fleshed out just a bit more.
As a result, the pace does get a bit uneven by the end, but the story is incredibly gripping, the political intrigue is the best of the western released games, and the maps are genuinely out of this world. Radiant Dawn excels in map design and core gameplay, even the game's unit availability leaves much to be desired.
The first home console release after three straight games on the Game Boy Advance, Path of Radiance didn’t sell particularly well in either the West or Japan. Nonetheless, it remains one of the best entries in the franchise, if not the best. With a smaller scope narrative, Path of Radiance ends up feeling like a rather intimate game.
Its maps never really hit the same highs as other games in the series, but they never hit the worst lows either. An all-around well-made entry with virtually no glaring flaws, Path of Radiance is an unforgettable experience. If there’s one Fire Emblem worth playing, it’s this one.