Version tested: DS
First! Nintendo's a strange crowd. If Fire Emblem sales are stupendous anywhere - and they're bound to be reasonable somewhere, or this wouldn't be the eleventh instalment in a series spanning six systems - then it's probably not here in Europe, where the GameCube one was a complete bitch to track down and we still haven't found an actual shop selling the most recent Wii version, Radiant Dawn. And yet here we are celebrating Shadow Dragon - a remake of the original, 18-year-old NES game - months ahead of anyone else in the Western world. Not that we're complaining.
As its many disciples already know, Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game lovingly smothered by earnest, swashbuckling little RPG characters, who imbue each procession of movement, attack and equipment inputs across colourful battlefields with more personality, and give those actions greater resonance, than you'll find in Intelligent Systems' other series along the same lines, Advance Wars. This one tells the story of Prince Marth's return from exile to rescue his sister, claim his kingdom, and tame the influence of dragon-forming firestones, and as ever - and as you'd hope - it's a virtuous, matinee quest full of rekindled friendships, helping people in need and trust forged in the fires of polite and well-groomed battle.
Shadow Dragon also spreads all this across the DS' dual screens for the first time - no doubt benefiting from lessons learned in Advance Wars - and it feels right at home. Optional stylus input is slick and intuitive, although the button controls are more familiar and comfortable, and the interface is calmer for the use of two screens, with stats elevated above the hinge and the dancing character sprites with their at-a-glance health-bars scattered around an uncluttered top-down world map below the fold. Cutaway battles and conversations between subtly 3D models are sent off to the top screen, and the animations are as sweet and tactile as ever, from the gallantry of a paladin to the appreciable heft of a knight's flying javelin, and the dancing glory of a Pegasus knight's critical hit.
As with previous Fire Emblems, although not always with the NES original, Shadow Dragon's core gameplay is notable for its various weapon relationships (most basic of which is the one between standard weapons, with sword beating axe beating lance beating sword), the unpredictable (Whitewings disagreeing with their commander and going AWOL, giving you an unexpected strategic advantage if you can seize it) and including chance encounters (i.e. new recruits with a story to tell, often enlisted by speaking to an identified enemy). Its mixed charm of varied combat options, collect-'em-up character-gathering and mothering units forgives a lot of its dalliances and makes up for the absence of Advance Wars' greater love of terrain and resources.
The mothering has also given Fire Emblem compassionate support from beaming corners of the internet, and they're onto something: you'll protect Shiida, for instance - your blue-haired Pegasus knight - through her fragile infancy, gradually reinforcing her through carefully selected battles until she's capable enough to sit on the front lines, as which point you start to favour her over other units you should probably be spending a bit more time developing. Thanks to the Arenas, where you can grind your units up above the difficulty curve, it's possible to transform her and others into dainty monsters of war. (They're open to abuse, but no more so than, say, doing all those mini-games to excess in Fable II).
But all this mothering has also given rise to a concerted, albeit fairly mild backlash at Fire Emblem's other big thing: permanent character death. Once they're gone, you either switch off and start from a previous save-game, or soldier on without them. Forever. Or at least until you finish the game's 20-plus chapters and start again. So it's to Shadow Dragon's credit that Intelligent Systems has introduced occasional, single-use mid-level save-points, which can be used by sending a character off to a particular spot at any time, and allow you to roll back the occasional misjudgement and only lose a bit of time to repetition as a result, at least for the first half of the game.
Shadow Dragon also introduces a reclassing system, which allows you to transform one type of unit into another - for example, to repurpose a spare archer as a knight - and you can do this during the preparation phase, where, as is traditional, you can also review the battlefield, retool your units and buy/sell/forge weapons. There was a danger here of losing some of the core team's identities in a whirlwind of Faking It, but if anything we found the opposite: incidental characters coming into their own in new roles, rather than languishing, greyed-out at the bottom of the character-select like the kid you never picked for football at break-time. As with everything in Fire Emblem, there's a lot of hidden depth to reclassing too, as there is to the new weapon rank system, even though they're arguably attempts to simplify, and sensibly you can't just turn everyone into the same unit halfway through.
There's also multiplayer, with online options (and voice chat for those with Friends codes), which allows two people who own the game to set up five-character parties and battle to kill each other off or seize and hold a fortress, with options like fog-of-war and card usage for players who've earned them in previous battles. You can also loan units, replicating them in a friend's game, and these can be used alone or in multiplayer, and there's even an online shop that sells stuff in return for in-game currency, with an Animal Crossing-style rotating inventory that adjusts for particular days and weeks of the month.
None of which - online or off - elevates Shadow Dragon to new heights, but all of which works well together. There are fewer lovable characters than we're used to, perhaps, and the story isn't as nuanced, but there's enough to sustain all but the most demanding players and far more to love than you'll find in the vast majority of its turn-based peers, which were hardly any sort of majority to begin with. Like we said at the start, we're not complaining. Shadow Dragon will live long in a lot of DS slots - and probably even long enough to show the US gamers who's boss for a while in 2048 or whenever it comes out over there. Sorry guys.
8 / 10