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Nintendo's latest mobile gamble doesn't quite pay off

Fire Emblem Heroes has quality and style, but it's lacking spark.

Back in March 2015, when the aftershocks from Nintendo's announcement of its partnership with mobile giant DeNA were still being felt, the then president Satoru Iwata soothed the concerns of investors enquiring whether the company would pursue the controversial gacha model for its forthcoming collaborations. "I naturally believe it impossible that they will be offered to consumers via a business model to which Nintendo cannot agree," Iwata said while taking questions in an investor's briefing, and for a short while that's been true of Nintendo's mobile games.

Yet following Miitomo and last December's Super Mario Run, Nintendo's third mobile outing - Fire Emblem Heroes, developed alongside long-time affiliate Intelligent Systems - is a gacha game. Here, instead of a one-off payment, players are ushered in for free and later encouraged to pour money in for a chance to unlock part of Fire Emblem Heroes' sizeable roster. It's gambling, in a fashion, and already players are putting eye-watering amounts of money into the game in order to attain high-powered characters.

Fire Emblem Heroes' story is hollow muck, but the writing at least maintains the pep and wit of the main games.

Nintendo's change in tack when it comes to its monetisation models for mobile games has been swift, although it's hardly counter to the company's DNA. While in recent years it's prided itself on its family friendly image - a self-styled Disney of the video game world - gambling is in its blood, the business being built upon the success of hanafuda cards that were popularised by Yakuza in illicit parlours. For all that, though, Fire Emblem Heroes feels like Nintendo making its first tentative steps rather than diving in with both feet first.

The very fact it's a Fire Emblem game, for starters, suggest that Nintendo's merely testing the waters. This is a series that never made its way out of Japan for the first 13 years of its life, and that by its creator's own admission was on its last legs before the release of 2012's Awakening. Any fallout or friction is going to be lessened when the profile's slightly lower - you can't imagine this flying if Nintendo were to pull the same trick with the Mario or Zelda IP - but it rubs both ways. Even though the latter 3DS games have been a critical success, they've hardly captured the popular imagination in the west, and given that Fire Emblem Heroes is built around the player's familiarity with the series' huge cast, it's unlikely many over here will feel the desire to unlock a cast of relative unknowns.

Fire Emblem Heroes feels like a soft launch for this particular strand of Nintendo's mobile efforts, in the west at least, softened even further by the generosity of the game in its early days. Play through the campaign on normal difficulty and there's no real need to spend any money of your own, relying instead on the payouts of orbs - the currency used to summon new characters - that come after completing each quickfire level, with later levels only requiring a few brief rounds in the training tower to grind your team up to an acceptable level.

Here's further proof, if last year's Super Mario Run wasn't quite enough for you, that Nintendo's games don't feel entirely out of place when played on another company's hardware. Here's more evidence, too, that the quality that's so often marked out Nintendo's software survives intact on mobile. All that aside, though, Fire Emblem Heroes isn't quite as convincing a distillation of one of Nintendo's existing series as Super Mario Run, even if it remains a modestly entertaining game in its own right.

Maybe that's because of how much has been cut in the move to mobile. Whereas Super Mario Run held on to the core of its parent series - the thrill of maintaining momentum, and the simple pleasure of Mario's expertly engineered movement - the edits developer Intelligent Systems has made here are more brutal. Maps are simple and compact, and there are no items to take with you out on the battlefield. The Support system that's been a staple of the series ever since it became a fixture in the west is entirely absent - most importantly, that means you can't get your units to bone each other to help create the tiny pitter patter of a newborn soldier's feet. A Fire Emblem without the romance? Having been spoilt in recent times by the dynasties and dramas of Awakening and Fates, that doesn't seem much like a Fire Emblem at all.

The fundamentals of Fire Emblem Heroes are faithful, at least, and there's a pull to a bite-sized take on Intelligent System's beautifully crafted turn-based strategy. It feels exquisite too, and while it's a disservice to other mobile games to say it's a class above anything else on the platform, the production values certainly match those seen in more recent Fire Emblem games. There's an enjoyable elasticity as you move units around each map, a flash of drama in each encounter as full-screen character art of Fire Emblem Heroes' considerable roster rolls on-screen. This is one good looking game, and it's a treat just to be able to play Fire Emblem in HD for the first time.

And bite-sized Fire Emblem has its hooks, it turns out. The tiny 8x6 grid you work on in battles retains the simple strategies emboldened by the series' trademark weapon triangle, and there's always pleasure to be found in levelling up your favourite character while knocking seven shades of hell out of preening knights and nobility. The campaign is entertaining enough, and there are enough extra-curricular activities to ensure you're rarely short of anything to do when logging into Fire Emblem Heroes.

Hit the endgame, though, and the grind becomes all too real. It's here you'll be battling the numerous currencies that dictate progression rather than pitting yourself against the challenge of Intelligent System's delicious brand of strategy, and too quickly it just stops becoming fun. At that point, it's too easy to see Fire Emblem Heroes as nothing more than a glorified slot machine, even if it is one that boasts an endearingly ornate finish complete with marble and pearl fittings.

It might not be as openly exploitative as other gacha games, but too much of Fire Emblem's essence has been taken out of Heroes for it to be truly worthwhile. As a shopping window for the series proper it works - it certainly sent me packing to my 3DS to polish off the gargantuan Fates for a proper fix - but that's not quite enough. In its early days at least, this feels like an experiment rather than a fully-formed game, and for a series that's always boasted an irresistible spirit it can all come across as rather half-hearted. Nintendo might have embraced the gambling nature of gacha games quickly enough with its third mobile effort, but with Fire Emblem Heroes it feels like it's hedged its bets.

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About the Author
Martin Robinson avatar

Martin Robinson


Martin worked at Eurogamer from 2011 to 2023. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.

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