February of 1986 marked the release of the Famicom Disk System. A periphery unit for Nintendo’s highly successful Famicom console, the Famicom Disk System was capable of reading 3 ½-inch floppy disks. Not only did the disks boast superior storage capabilities to contemporary ROM cartridges, but the peripheral also added a new high-fidelity sound channel. These features allowed for the creation of games previously thought impossible. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid saw their debut on the Famicom Disk System. Between their open-ended design and the ability to save the player’s progress without the use of passwords, both games successfully broke the mold for console gaming.
Nintendo wished to release these games internationally following the console’s successful debut in North America in 1985, but plans to export the peripheral were eventually scrapped. It also wouldn’t be long before the pioneering periphery was rendered obsolete. In the years since the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo had vastly improved the semiconductor technology of their cartridges. Among other things, this allowed developers to embed a battery in the Famicom cartridges. Any cartridge with these batteries could record a player’s progress – a mainstay feature of Famicom Disk games. Because there was no reason to continue developing games on an increasingly outdated format, Nintendo deemed it necessary to convert many of the titles that originally debuted on the Famicom Disk System to cartridges. Needing a programmer to port the Famicom Disk System games to a standard ROM format, the company hired a man by the name of Toru Narihiro. He and his auxiliary program called themselves Intelligent Systems, working with Nintendo’s premier research and development branch led by Gunpei Yokoi to see these conversions through.
Using the experience he gained working alongside Mr. Yokoi’s team, Mr. Narihiro and his team switched gears, and began programming games of their own. The first title he programmed was Famicom Wars – a turn-based strategy game that proved to be a hit upon its 1988 release. The game’s development attracted the attention of one of Mr. Narihiro’s colleagues – one Shouzou Kaga. As a budding scenario writer, Mr. Kaga sought to take the strategic elements present in Famicom Wars and combine them with the story, characters, and world of a role-playing game. With this project, Mr. Kaga wished to create a scenario that allowed players to care about the characters. At the time, he observed that role-playing games had strong stories, but rather scant casts. Meanwhile, he felt tactical games had the exact opposite problem, having large casts, but weak stories. Therefore, he decided to provide a solution to this odd discrepancy with his game.
In its earliest advertisements, the game was dubbed Honō no Monshō (Emblem of Fire). By the time the game saw its release in April of 1990, Honō no Monshō was rendered in English – the full title being Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. When the game was released, Mr. Kaga noted that it received extensive criticism from Japanese publications. Despite the team’s efforts to avoid emphasizing stats and numerical data, critics found the gameplay too difficult to understand. Exacerbated by its simplistic presentation, and it would appear that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a failed experiment.
Mr. Kaga and his team saw Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light not as a commercial product, but as a dōjin project made on a whim. A dōjin project is a work intended to attract a group of people sharing the same interests. As many such projects are self-published, they are typically below the quality one would expect from a professional company, although many such artists use them as a springboard to bigger and better things. Because of this, it seemed only fitting that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would gain a new lease on life when one notable journalist devoted a column in Famitsu magazine to the game. Coupled with positive word of mouth, the game saw its sales increase significantly after two months’ worth of flat numbers. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would thus not enter the annals of gaming history as a failed experiment, but rather a sleeper hit.
As a possible consequence of its experimental nature, the game was not released internationally. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2001 with the release of Nintendo’s mascot fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee that international fans even knew of the franchise’s existence. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light would be remade twice with the latter version being released internationally. However, it wouldn’t be until 2020 when the game in its original form finally saw an official release outside of Japan, being offered for a limited time on the Nintendo Switch. In the end, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was a game that ran the risk of becoming an obscure footnote. What did those fans see in it that critics couldn’t?
Playing the Game
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.
A long time ago, the continent of Archanea was invaded by the Dolhr Empire. The leader of the empire were beings known as Manaketes – sapient dragons with the ability to take human form. Leading them was Medeus – the prince of the Earth Dragon royal family. Believing dragonkind to be superior to humanity, Medeus stopped at nothing to ensure complete domination. When all hope seemed lost, a youth hailing from Altea named Anri used the divine sword Falchion to strike down Medeus. And so, peace reigned for nearly one-hundred years.
However, in a development nobody could have seen coming, the evil wizard Gharnef, who had conquered the mage-state of Khadein, resurrected Medeus. The Earth Dragon wastes no time reviving the Dolhr Empire. Medeus and Gharnef form an alliance with the kingdoms of Macedon and Grust in a new bid for world domination. King Cornelius of Altea takes the Falchion and marches into battle, but is betrayed by one of his allies – King Jiol of Gra. Cornelius perishes on the battlefield and the Falchion is subsequently lost. His children, Elice and Marth, attempt to escape, but are quickly surrounded. The elder child, Elice, buys Marth enough time for him to escape with a legion of loyal knights.
Exiled to the island nation of Talys, Marth and his knights live their lives in relative, if anxious peace. However, fate forces them out of hiding two years later when the kingdom is besieged by pirates. Wishing to aid Caeda, the Princess of Talys, Marth and his knights spring into battle, beginning a journey that, if all goes well, will see the end of the Dolhr Empire.
Those who had previously played Famicom Wars may have the interface of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light highly familiar. The broken square you may see in the center of the screen is the cursor. This is what you use to execute each and every action you may take on your journey to guide Marth and his army to victory. Your units are blue whereas the computer-controlled enemy units are red. If you move the cursor to the edges of the screen, the map will scroll in that direction if it is able. Although the camera pans across the battlefield to give the player a preview of the map before the stage begins, you can always examine it manually in detail.
Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light even shares its basic victory condition with Famicom Wars. Your goal is to guide Marth to Castle Talys, thereby regaining control of the country from the pirates. Only Marth can perform this task, though seizing control of the enemy’s soon-to-be temporary headquarters requires but a single turn. This task is easier said than done, as the pirates’ leader, Gazzak, will soon be guarding the gates of the castle. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of getting through his cohorts, so once you have a feel for things, you can begin the game in earnest by hovering the cursor over a unit and pressing the “A” button.
The simple act of selecting a unit demonstrated to players in 1990 just how different of an experience Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was to provide compared to Famicom Wars. They realized all of their individual units had their own names, stats, and inventory. Conversely, the units in Famicom Wars were nameless and generic. The purpose of each unit depended on their class, and savvy players knew how best to utilize them to achieve victory. While a class system does exist in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light as well, and it is vitally important to the gameplay, there is now a far greater emphasis on how each individual unit performs.
Accompanying Marth on his journey are his loyal retainers who accompanied him to Talys during his escape. Three of them, Cain, Abel, and Jagen, charge into battle on horseback, a fourth, Draug, is clad in heavy armor, and the fifth, Gordin, wields a bow. Princess Caeda notably does not stand idly by as her kingdom is invaded, and therefore joins Marth on his journey. She herself charges into battle upon a winged horse – a Pegasus.
Every unit in the game has nine stats: HP, Strength, Skill, Weapon Level, Speed, Luck, Defense, Movement, and Resistance. HP, or Hit Points, measure a unit’s health. If they are depleted, the unit dies. It would be naïve to assume that reviving a character is as easy as paying a priest for a resurrection spell. This game is meant to simulate a war, and as the acting tactician for Marth’s army, you must accept the real possibility that there may be casualties on the road to victory. You are afforded a single opportunity to resurrect one fallen unit near the end of your journey, but otherwise, you should make your decisions with the foreknowledge that once a comrade is gone, they’re gone for good. Should Marth fall in battle, the game is over, and you will need to restart the chapter.
After selecting one of your units, you can then move them to a valid area. A character’s Movement determines how much distance they can cover in a single turn. One needs to be aware of a map’s topography when moving a character. Forest and mountain tiles cost one and two extra points of movement to successfully traverse. As horses would have a much more difficult time traversing a forested area than humans, mounted units such as Cain, Abel, and Jagen require an extra point to pass through them. Trying to get Cain and Abel past mountains is out of the question. Certain terrain such as mountain peaks cannot be traversed at all on foot, acting as a natural barrier for all earthbound units.
Once your unit has moved, a menu appears, listing all available actions. If your unit is on a tile adjacent to that of an enemy, you can declare an attack on them.
When an attack is declared, a round of combat is played out. Naturally, all of the stats determine a unit’s viability in combat. Strength dictates how much damage a character will inflict with a given weapon. How this is calculated is straightforward enough; each weapon has a set Might, which is added to the user’s Strength. The total is then subtracted from the defending unit’s Defense to calculate the total amount of damage to be inflicted. The defending unit is then permitted to launch a counterattack with the same conditions applying in reverse.
If the Attack Speed of one unit exceeds that of their opponent by four, they can perform a follow-up attack, potentially doubling their usual damage output. Each weapon also has a set Weight. Intuitively enough, the Weight of a weapon is subtracted from a unit’s base Speed stat in order to determine whether these follow-up attacks can be performed. The attacking unit acts first, but the faster unit is allowed to perform a follow-up strike regardless of who instigates combat.
When engaging the enemy, you may notice one combatant’s attacks missing altogether. Whether or not the unit lands a hit with their attack, their action is thus spent. Therefore, if an attack misses, it effectively nullifies the damage that would have been inflicted. Various stats factor into how likely a given unit is to strike true, but the most important ones are Skill and Speed. The odds of an attack landing are equal to the attacking unit’s skill plus the innate Hit rate of the equipped weapon. This number is then subtracted by the defending unit’s evasion rate. This number is the unit’s Attack Speed plus any terrain bonuses. While it can be difficult to move your character onto a forest or mountain tile, doing so will substantially increase their evasion rate. It is important to know that terrain bonuses are not conferred onto flying units such as Caeda, who attack enemies from the sky.
If you’re especially lucky – or unlucky depending on the circumstances, you will learn that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light keeps the proud tradition of rolling a twenty in Dungeons & Dragons alive in an electronic, tactical format when a character performs a critical hit. These attacks triple the amount of damage inflicted and are completely unavoidable. The rate by which critical hits are performed is determined by combining the unit’s Skill and Luck and dividing the sum by two. Certain weapons such as Killing Edges are known for providing innate bonuses to a unit’s critical hit rate. As every single enemy in the game has a Luck stat of zero, it is something the player benefits from far more often, although one must exercise caution all the same.
Once a unit has expended an action, they turn grey and can no longer act for the rest of the turn. After all of your units have moved, you can bring up the field menu by pressing the “A” button on an unoccupied square or the “SELECT” button. This will allow you to end your turn – the Player Phase. As soon as your turn has ended, the computer is allowed to move its units in what is called the Enemy Phase. When the Enemy Phase comes to an end, the player is allowed to act again. This process continues until one side has achieved victory.
There are five types of martial weapons characters can equip themselves with: swords, axes, lances, bows, and ballistae. Swords are typically the weakest of the five weapon types, but in exchange, they are the lightest and the most accurate. Axes and lances are the theoretical opposite to swords, having a higher raw damage output in exchange for weighing down their users significantly. This means you can typically count on swashbucklers to perform follow-up attacks regularly while axe and lance users struggle to do the same. Lastly, bows and ballistae can only be used from two tiles away. This allows archers and ballisticians to attack close-range combatants without fear of a counterattack.
After experimenting with the kinds of available weapons, one may be tempted to try to distribute as many copies as possible of the most effective ones to all of their units. However, there are limits to what weapons a given unit may equip. These limits can be deduced from two different factors. The first is the unit’s class. Most foot units are only capable of wielding one weapon, which you can infer by observing their map sprite. Armor Knights such as Draug and all mounted units can wield both swords and lances. The second factor to keep in mind is a weapon’s level, which must be reached by that unit’s corresponding Weapon Level stat in order to wield them. Once both conditions are met, the unit may equip the weapon.
As you progress through the game, the setting’s fantastical elements become more pronounced. Eventually, you will recruit practitioners of magic – mages – into your army. Magic in this game comes in the form of tomes and staves. Tomes are a completely different beast from the standard physical weapons. When a mage attacks using magic, the amount of damage inflicted depends on the defender’s Resistance. The Strength and Skill stats are completely irrelevant for a mage; the damage and hit rates are entirely dependent on the tome equipped. It’s also important to know that the chances of dodging a magical attack is equal to the unit’s Luck; neither Attack Speed nor do any terrain bonuses factor into this calculation.
Because of their offensive utility, tomes can be seen as an analogue for Black Magic from the Final Fantasy series. Appropriately, the other conduits by which this mystic power is channeled, staves, serve as an analogue for White Magic. Before the first chapter ends, Marth can gain his first recruit by visiting the village near Castle Talys. By doing so, a humble curate named Wrys joins his party. He cannot fight, but the staff he carries can heal your wounded. Because the only other way to heal is to use a vulnerary, you will be very glad you decided to take him along. Permitting a character to act while also healing the damage they take on the same turn is an invaluable asset. While staves are primarily used for healing, two prominent ones serve different utilitarian functions: the Warp Staff and the Barrier Staff. The former allows the caster to teleport an ally to any valid tile on the map while the later increases an ally’s resistance by seven, decreasing by one every turn from that point onward.
If your unit lands a hit and survives a round of combat, they gain experience points (EXP). Experience points are distributed based on the total amount of damage your unit inflicted upon the enemy. This means if your unit misses entirely or cannot counterattack, they will not gain any experience points. Because Curates cannot attack, they provide the sole exception to this rule, gaining a substantial amount of experience point if they survive an enemy’s onslaught. If your unit manages to defeat the enemy in combat, they will be given a set amount of experience points. To learn how many experience points will be awarded upon a certain enemy’s defeat, all you need to do is look it up their profile. Generally speaking, you can count on enemies to give at least thirty experience points upon defeat and for tougher enemies to yield a greater amount.
One important thing to keep in mind is that, unlike your average role-playing game, weapons in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light have finite uses. A weapon’s durability is indicated by the number next to its name. Once it reaches zero, the weapon will break, permanently removing it from the character’s inventory. Even if your unit’s Attack Speed exceeds that of your enemy’s, one cannot perform a follow-up attack with a weapon only a single strike away from breaking. Only a successful hit will reduce a weapon’s durability. Because the only way to repair a weapon is the Hammerine Staff, which you won’t receive until fairly late in the game, you should make an effort to preserve the stronger ones until you really need them. This is especially so given that it cannot be used at all on certain weapons.
Once your unit gains one-hundred experience points, they will ascend one level. Every time your character levels up, one of their stats has a random chance of increasing by a single point. The exact odds, referred to as growth rates, depend on each individual character. For example, Marth’s HP, Strength, Skill, Speed, Luck, Weapon Level, and Defense have, respectively, a 90%, 50%, 40%, 50%, 70%, 30%, and 20% chance of increasing with each level up. Although the exact numbers are not disclosed to the player, they can typically be inferred from the unit’s base stats along with the roles they play in combat.
The maximum level a unit can achieve in a given class is twenty. However, for many units, their path of self-improvement doesn’t end there. Cavaliers, Mercenaries, Mages, Curates, Archers, and Pegasus Knights can use a special item in order to change their class. This process is usually called promotion due to the new class having greater base stats than the old one.
When a character promotes, their stats will be raised to the base stats of the new class. A character can be promoted as early as level ten. While promoting as early as possible may sound tempting, waiting until they reach level twenty affords them ten extra opportunities for growth, allowing them to potentially exceed all of their potential base stats. Most units gain a point of Movement – an otherwise completely static, yet invaluable stat – upon promotion, so there is that to consider as well.
Once Marth and his army regain control over Talys, the grateful king arranges for their passage to the mainland so they can fell the Dolhrian Empire. In his parting advice, he tells the young prince to watch out for any new allies he may recruit along the way. Indeed, many good people have been forced to fight in the name of Medeus – some unwilling, others misguided. For the most part, you can tell if an enemy character can be recruited if they are named and have a unique portrait.
You will learn that words have the potential to be the greatest weapon of all as these people join Marth’s cause – all without spilling a single drop of blood. Most of the potential recruits require Marth or Caeda to speak with them, but on occasion, they may only respond to a specific character. In these situations, it is usually made clear through the narrative who, exactly, will need to do the convincing.
When examining Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light in the context of its original release, it is easy to see why contemporary critics didn’t think highly of it. In 1990, there was practically nothing with which one could easily compare this game. This type of gameplay isn’t entirely without precedent. Kōji Sumii’s Bokosuka Wars, which saw its original release in 1983 on Sharp X1 computers, was what laid the foundation of the genre that would eventually be known as the tactical role-playing game – domestically referred to as the simulation RPG. Nonetheless, without the right frames of reference, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light couldn’t help but look like an incomprehensible mess.
Although innovation was expected out of development teams throughout the 1980s, games – particularly those that debuted on consoles – were defined by their genre. This was partially caused by technical limitations at the time; to radically change the gameplay would usually require programming a separate engine for each new idea. However, while the idea of a game having two or more distinct styles of gameplay was largely unheard of in 1990, seldom did artists attempt to circumvent technical limitations by merging genres together. This could be seen in how the sequel to The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, was received. Although it fared well critically and commercially upon its 1988 release, it left many people in utter confusion. Role-playing games at the time were almost exclusively turn-based, so to see elements of the genre make their way into a platformer was something most enthusiasts had never seen before. Zelda II managed to codify many important elements for the budding series, yet its radical departure from the original’s gameplay ensured it would have a strange afterlife.
Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light found itself in a similar predicament because it too offered gameplay most enthusiasts had never seen before. The main difference is that this time, the critics were lost. It was therefore up to the fans to give the game its dues, and once they figured what, exactly, Mr. Kaga and his team were going for, they found themselves rewarded with an experience equal parts rewarding and engrossing.
The most admirable aspect of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is the sheer amount of thought that went into its creation. On the face of things, two types of units would be absurdly difficult for the player to circumvent: Armor Knights and Cavaliers. Knights have high physical defenses, rendering most martial weapons impractical. While Cavaliers don’t have the same capacity to shrug off damage, their movement ranges coupled with their high strength would make approaching them quite difficult.
Fortunately, there are weapons that can get around these potential problems: Armorslayers, Hammers, and Ridersbanes. Armorslayers and Hammers deal bonus damage to Knights while Ridersbanes can be used to easily defeat any mounted unit. If bonus damage can be inflicted, the might of the weapon is tripled. While these weapons are fine enough in normal situations, the ability to defeat a Knight or mounted unit in one turn is oftentimes invaluable.
Similarly, while flying units can seemingly get around the basic topography of a given map, you will have to keep them out of the range of archers. This is because every bow in the game deals effective damage to flying units. It serves to limit their movements while also giving players another factor to consider during their turns. Do you move your flyer into an archer’s range to secure an advantage, or do you move them alongside everyone else, thus potentially letting a golden opportunity slip through your fingers? These precautions are also why you should check an enemy’s inventory before acting. Many players favor Cavaliers for their superior movement, so to accidentally run into an enemy unit wielding a Ridersbane could result in them falling an instant.
One may question the purpose of these safeguards when it would appear magic bypasses the problems just as effectively. As spells can be cast from one or two spaces away, they are, in many ways, more versatile than martial weapons. They are also usually your best option for taking down heavily armored foes, as they ignore the Defense stat. On top of that, almost every single unit in the game – including the final boss – has zero Resistance. Magic isn’t exactly something you can use to solve all of your problems, though. This is primarily because mages aren’t known for their survivability, as most of them have low HP and Defense growths. Because an overwhelmingly majority of enemies use physical weapons, exposing mages to the front lines is usually a bad idea. These checks and balances emphasize that every class has its purpose, and using them effectively is key for achieving victory with minimal causalities.
What makes Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light especially commendable is that, while it certainly had the “tactical” half of the equation down, delving into the experience reveals it delivered on the role-playing front as well. This is especially evident once you reach the end of the fifth chapter of the game. Marth’s journey takes him to the kingdom of Aurelis. There, he is aided by the king’s younger brother, Hardin. Accompanying Hardin is his order of loyal knights, the Wolfguard. Unlike in the chapters leading up to this one, the battle does not end after Marth walks up to the castle gates. More Dolhrian soldiers lurk inside, so it is up to Marth and his army to defeat them all.
In this chapter, the sense of scale changes drastically. All of the preceding chapters took place on what would be known in a role-playing game as an overworld. This chapter is therefore what would happen if one guided their character into a castle on the overworld in a standard role-playing game. That is, their sprites would effectively shrink in size so they can enter and explore the castle proper.
Most of what you learned about how the game still applies when fighting indoors, and Mr. Kaga ended up translating those rules in creative ways. While outdoor maps have forests, indoor areas have pillars, which serve the same benefit. While outdoor bosses are guarding the castle gates, their indoor counterparts sit upon a throne. Both tiles heal the boss at the start of every Enemy Phase and give them a sizable bonus to their evasion rate.
Outdoor battles are often a race against time to stop thieves from burning down villages. If Marth visits a village, he can warn them of the incoming danger whereupon the grateful citizens will give him a reward. Indoor skirmishes incentivize the player to move as effectively as possible by having the thieves make a beeline for the various treasure chests that invariably litter these castles. In doing so, Mr. Kaga ends up better contextualizing and justifying the existence of these chests than his peers. Whereas chests in most role-playing games can show up in a random dungeon or a metaphysical plane of existence with no explanation, here, their presence is much more grounded in reality. These chests belong to the castle’s rightful occupants, and as such, are appropriately locked. Unlike in other games where you can have anyone open a chest, in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, you will need a thief’s assistance to do so. Even better, when Marth gets ahold of the titular Fire Emblem, he can open any chest you may come across himself. Because Marth and his forces are acting as a liberation force, it can be safely assumed that they have the owners’ permission to use the contents for their own benefit. If they don’t, then it can be safely assumed that by conquering these lands, Marth effectively gains ownership of the items anyway.
The most significant difference between outdoor and indoor maps would be the walls. Walls act as barriers much like tall mountains do in outdoor maps. However, there is a caveat in that while flying units can move onto mountain peaks easily enough, they obviously cannot phase through walls. Less intuitively, units capable of attacking from two tiles away can still do so even if there is a wall between combatants.
I also find that Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light does a great job putting a unique spin on something role-playing fans usually take for granted. Typical role-playing games pit protagonists capable of inflicting a lot of damage against antagonists with amounts of HP far exceeding what the former can ever hope to obtain. At its most basic level, this is primarily done so healing factors into the player’s tactics, as mindlessly attacking an enemy until they fall would make for a boring game.
This is not so in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light; all units whether friendly or antagonistic have comparative amounts of health. While your units do eventually become much stronger than those representing the Dolhrian Empire, that there is no significant gap in terms of health between the factions emphasizes the sheer amount of caution you must exercise to preserve your lynchpins.
Playing the game in the context of its original release reveals that, as far as technical accomplishments go, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light goes several steps beyond the groundwork Bokosuka Wars laid. While Kōji Sumii’s award-winning effort was itself laudable for 1983, the player’s complete dependency on the luck of the draw ensures the task of playing it from a modern perspective is nearly insurmountable. This was especially apparent whenever you were forced to use the main character, King Suren, in battle. Although he was a powerful unit in his own right, his defeat marked the end of the game. That he was required to defeat the final boss ensured even the most prudent players would need to gamble the outcome of their game on bad odds just to have a chance of winning.
Even without that, it was immensely frustrating to have your competent knights fall victim to an enemy just because the random-number generator said so. While the units you’ve been handed in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light can miss with their attacks, that uncertainty is now simply one of the factors you must weigh in your mind as you command your troops. As with any war, you have to run the numbers and determine whether or not each decision has acceptable odds – and formulate secondary plans in the event of a potential loss.
Meanwhile, playing both games back-to-back reveals that Marth is far more competent on the battlefield than King Suren ever was. While King Suren often had to take a backseat role lest you compromise your run, Marth is perfectly capable of fighting alongside his troops. In fact, one could make a fairly reasonable case that he is the single best character in the game. While he cannot promote and his initial stats are unassuming, his growth rates are more than enough to carry him through the experience. Even better, he has exclusive access to rapiers. Rapiers deal effective damage against both armored and mounted units, which also happen to compose a majority of the enemy lineup. Just place him on a mountain or forest tile near a throng of armored units and watch him destroy every single one on the Enemy Phase. There isn’t even a need to preserve the rapier Marth starts with, as they can be purchased from most armories for a very low price.
In fact, when using Marth, you run the risk of leveling him up too quickly. This would be a bad thing because he later gains the Mercurius, which is one of the three Regalia weapons of Archanea. Not only is it the most powerful sword in the game, but any potential stat increase has a twenty-five percent chance of doubling when he has it equipped. Coupled with the Falchion he receives in the final stretch of the game, which is indestructible and prevents most units from attacking him, it becomes clear he doesn’t need the ability to promote to be good.
Now, having combined two genres in a time when the medium was relatively young, it stands to reason that there are certain respects in which Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light has not stood the test of time. This inference would be entirely correct. If it’s any one aspect capable of preventing someone from enjoying their time with this game, it would be the interface. In the interest of fairness, I will say that the interface is a good effort for its day. While contemporary computer role-playing games often featured interfaces that made players use every single key on the keyboard, Mr. Kaga and his team deserve a lot of credit for making the interface easy to understand. As it’s the kind of game that would ordinarily beg to be played with a mouse and keyboard, their accomplishment is all the more laudable.
So, while the interface is perfectly intuitive, it ultimately suffers from a lack of polish. The biggest problem with the interface stems the limitations of the Famicom controller. It’s just about the most economical interface one could imagine when attempting to program such a complex game for a console whose controller only has a directional pad and four buttons. To select a unit, you press the “A” button, and after their HP and inventory is displayed, you can then use the cursor to move them. If you want to examine a character’s stats, you must press the “A” button while highlighting them twice in a row. You must also do this if you want to closely examine any enemy units, which is advisable if you’re playing the game cautiously. Certain nameless enemies can prove to be a nasty surprise if you don’t check their inventory or stats, after all. Unfortunately, this proves to be a tedious process, as the split seconds waiting for the menus to load adds up over time.
It’s even worse if you’re trying to engage an enemy exactly where one of your units stands. In these situations, you have to press the “A” button six times in a row; the first time to select a unit, the second time to display their stats, the third time to cause the menu to appear, the fourth time to select the “Attack” command, the fifth time to select a weapon, and the sixth time to select a target. If your character doesn’t have the desired weapon equipped, you must use the directional pad to select it. And once you’ve done that, you must then make sure you target the correct enemy; if the cursor doesn’t default to them, you have to move it yourself. It may not seem so bad at first, but the sheer number of times you have to confirm choices for such a basic action can cause the player to make an error along the way. Those trying to get through the game as fast as possible must take great care to realize what each individual button press does or else one could very well compromise their progress entirely.
For that matter, the interface itself makes assessing risks unnecessarily difficult. In order to determine how much damage a given attack will inflict, you have to check the profiles of both your own unit and the intended target. This too becomes tedious very quickly – especially when you’re trying to assess the threat level of multiple enemy units. Granted, there is little variance between similar units, but you never know if one of them happens to hold a weapon that deals effective damage. Considering the weapons in question tend to target units that can either traverse many squares per turn or hold up chokepoints, you can see why this would be a problem.
It doesn’t help that the battle screen itself only shows vague approximations of each combatant’s relevant stats. It’s not something you should rely on during your turn because by the time you see it, you’re beyond the point where you can do anything with that knowledge. What makes it rather harrowing is when you witness it during the Enemy Phase and you’re desperately hoping you didn’t make a fatal error. Even worse – the likelihood of landing a critical hit isn’t conveyed at all, which can easily lead to one of your characters dying out of the blue.
What makes this especially egregious is that the game has a bad habit of withholding important information from the player. Specifically, there is no in-game method of checking a weapon’s stats. This could easily result in several miscalculations including, but not limited to, attacking with a weapon that weighs down your unit to an excessive degree, regularly missing because the spell tome has terrible accuracy, and just generally coming up short of finishing off an enemy. This means, in order to fully gauge how a given encounter will pan out, you need to look up a given weapon’s stats from a secondhand source. While this was somewhat tenable in the era wherein players were expected to read the instruction manual, it didn’t account for the real possibility of losing it somewhere down the line. In such situations, the player in question would simply have to forgo the information entirely.
On top of that, it is nearly impossible to assess a unit’s potential simply by looking at them. The individual growth rates of a character are not disclosed to the player in any capacity. This might result in the player pouring experience points into a unit whose poor growth rates will effectively waste every single one of them. Even if you’re banking on unpromoted units to have more growing room than promoted ones, such assumptions don’t always line up with reality. To wit, one member of Hardin’s Wolfguard, Roshea, starts off with fairly respectable stats, but his speed only has a 10% of increasing per level. While Cavaliers are great units, there are plenty, including Hardin himself, who are much more useful due to not possessing such a glaring weakness.
In fact, as you go through the game, you may be surprised to see just how many seemingly redundant units there are. The idea behind this design choice is that the audience was meant to adopt an ironman playstyle. Not unlike Dungeons & Dragons, any unit that fell in battle would be treated as a tragic, irreversible loss, but the player was meant to accept it and move on. The new, inferior units would thus be a punishment for being careless enough to lose the better ones obtained earlier. In practice, if the player invests enough care and attention to any unit, they’re not going to be keen on losing them; especially if they had gone to the trouble of promoting them. The most common reaction in such scenarios would be to dive for the console’s reset button. Consequently, the sole contribution of many of these units is to provide the army with free weapons before they spend the rest of the expedition warming the bench.
Another significant problem becomes apparent whenever you purchase new weapons. As a majority of the weapons in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light have limited durability, you will find yourself running to the armory quite often. To begin with, purchasing weapons in the middle of combat is irritating. There is a reason why, in most role-playing games, procuring supplies is handled in a town or other safe area. By doing so, you can easily optimize your party members without fear of a surprise enemy attack. There is a silver lining in that you can visit an armory without expending a character’s turn as long as you don’t purchase anything, thus allowing you to browse the shopkeeper’s inventory for free. This doesn’t change the fact that attempting to purchase anything in the midst of a battle often requires you to divert your forces, which can drag out a battle longer than necessary.
Seldom is it a good idea to tarry in this game, as enemies can call reinforcements at any time. Reinforcements are insufferable to deal with because they can move and carry out an action on the same turn they’re summoned. It’s especially bad when they seemingly appear out of nowhere and kill off a unit with low health. The truth is that their spawning points aren’t random. The idea is that they spawn from set locations on a map. In outdoor areas, they emerge from fortresses whereas in castles, they appear from staircases.
It is possible, and even encouraged by the game itself, to place your own units on these tiles to prevent reinforcements from appearing. There are two problems with this, however. The first is that it is not at all intuitive. Even placing an unarmed curate at a fort’s entrance apparently inconveniences the enemy reinforcements so much, they just give up in frustration. While forts do provide excellent terrain bonuses and heal your character at the beginning of each of your turns, the idea of simply placing one of your units on the tile to block reinforcements doesn’t sound like it should work. The other issue is that doing so also tends to divert your forces. Many forts are far away from objective, meaning if you do place a unit there, chances are they will be sidelined for the remainder of the battle. This means your options are typically between fighting with a weakened force or attempting to take all of the reinforcements head-on. Adding in the inherent unfair advantage of fighting units that can spawn and act on the same turn, and it quickly becomes clear either option is disadvantageous.
Although I give Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light a lot of credit for providing such a well-thought-out experience for its time, the reality is that it isn’t balanced especially well. Although there is a surprisingly large variety of weapons at your disposal, you have no practical reason to ever invest in axes or ballistae in the long term.
This is reflected in how the kingdom of Archanea has legendary weapons known as the Three Regalia: the fire bow Parthia, the lance Gradivus, and the sword Mercurius. This means that while you can eventually train your units to use either the Parthia or the Gradivus, there is no such standard for any axe combatant. Early on, you can receive a weapon known as the Devil Axe, which rivals the Three Regalia in terms of raw power. However, there are so many downsides to using it that you’re better off dropping it at the first opportunity. It is one of the heaviest weapons in the game, only has nine uses, and, most damningly, may harm its user. The exact odds are determined by taking the number 21 and subtracting it from the user’s luck. The maximum value for each stat in the game besides HP or Movement is twenty for all units, so if the character in question has twenty Luck, then the Devil Axe does become a viable weapon. Or at least it would if it didn’t effectively prevent follow-up attacks, which are absolutely essential in the late-game chapters. The other weapon types typically provide far better results with much less effort, making axes useless. Adding in the fact that no axe users can promote, and their long-term is completely stopped.
Ballistae, on the other hand, are fairly useless for another reason. Like axes, they are incredibly weighty, essentially preventing follow-up attacks against all but the slowest of foes. However, the real problem is that ballisticians themselves are incredibly difficult to use. They can only traverse four spaces per turn and from exactly two spaces away – no more and no less. This means they have trouble reaching the enemy in the first place let alone do any significant damage to them. While they boast high defenses, the advantage is entirely useless considering they can’t counterattack close-quarters combatants on the Enemy Phase. Conversely, their damage output, though respectable on paper, is typically eclipsed by units capable of performing follow-up attacks.
The mechanic that determines what weapons your characters can use is poorly thought out as well. The Weapon Level stat’s sole purpose is to lock characters out of using certain weapons before they raise it to a high enough level. It doesn’t factor into any other aspect of combat at all. This is particularly glaring when you crack the game’s code and realize that even the most powerful weapons only have a level requirement of fourteen. Once that threshold has been reached, your characters may level the stat all the way up to the universal maximum of twenty for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. In fact, sword and magic users won’t need to level the stat up beyond nine. Moreover, because Marth has three great exclusive weapons that he can use regardless of his Weapon Level, he can comfortably go the entire game without leveling it up at all. The result? You have a stat that either doesn’t factor into any aspect of your decision making or acts as an arbitrary, if short-lived barrier to entry until it has been sufficiently raised.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that inventory management in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is a nightmare. Considering contemporary role-playing games often had problems with inventory management between two or three party members, placing you in command of an entire army would naturally make the task even more daunting. I do give Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light credit because it’s not quite as bad as it could’ve been. Each character can only hold up to four items at a time, and when they obtain a fifth, you’re given a choice between either sending it to the army’s convoy or dropping another item to make room. In that respect, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was remarkably ahead of its time. In most contemporary efforts, players were forced into the latter option. If a storage option did exist, you could count on it to be so difficult to use that it wasn’t worth the hassle. Therefore, giving players the ability to add an item without giving up anything showcased a remarkable amount of foresight on the developers’ part.
So, what is the real problem with inventory management? Everything else. Even the simple act of trading items is rendered unnecessarily difficult. While units can give items to one another, trades can only occur in one direction. Specifically, only the selected unit may give their item to one of their comrades. While a unit can give away any number of items per turn, their turn is ended after the transaction is finished. This means if you’re trying to exchange one item for another, both units have to waste a turn.
Accessing the convoy itself is a matter of guiding your units to the appropriate tile on the map and selecting the option when it comes up on the menu. This is every bit as irritating as shopping for new items in the middle of a fight, as it typically involves either diverting your attention away from the objective or otherwise wasting several turns so you can optimize your characters’ inventories. While you can store and withdraw an item on the same action, leaving the convoy’s tent after having performed a transaction ends their turn automatically. This prevents other characters from accessing the convoy on the same turn. If you need to outfit multiple characters, you often need to waste several turns doing so, which also runs the risk of causing enemy reinforcements to show up. Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light deserves a lot of credit for adding tactical elements to the role-playing-game formula, but these unpolished facets demonstrate a significant number of growing pains.
Analyzing the Story
On the surface, the plot of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is fairly easy to dismiss as your typical third-generation fare. That is, you, playing as the good guys, must defeat the bad guys and save the world. Despite Marth leading a force significantly larger than any other role-playing protagonist at the time, it would appear to be the case with Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light as well. Indeed, the plot has a very mechanical, stream-of-consciousness feel to it typical of games from its era. You receive exposition at the beginning of each chapter explaining where Marth and his army are and what they’re doing. Upon completing the chapter, you are debriefed about what his victory signifies and where he should go next.
Consequently, the connecting plot threads tend to serve exactly one purpose before disappearing into the ether. This is especially apparent when assessing the role of certain boss characters in the story. Every chapter in the game has a boss guarding the objective. The idea is that the earlier bosses are your typical antagonistic cannon fodder while the latter ones have actual plot relevance. In practice, all antagonists with three exceptions tend to be rather disposable, having absolutely no importance beyond their introductory chapter.
Two boss characters, Jiol and Morzas, stand out as especially egregious examples illustrating this disconnect. As the king of Gra, one of Altea’s allies, Jiol’s betrayal is one of the factors that led to the death of Marth’s father Cornelius. Despite this, he is practically indistinguishable from any other general you have fought before him, not even having especially interesting dialogue. Meanwhile, Morzas is the underling Medeus placed in charge of Castle Altea. Morzas taunts Marth by revealing that he had killed the prince’s mother, Liza, while she and Elice were held captive by the empire. In a more fleshed out story, Morzas would be the Darth Vader to Medeus’s Emperor Palpatine. That is to say, on paper, Morzas is the kind of antagonist who may not be the main catalyst behind the protagonist’s suffering, but Marth has a personal stake in vanquishing him. Just like Jiol, he is introduced only to be subsequently killed off in the span of one chapter. Had any of these antagonists been given more presence, they could’ve made for a richer experience. As it stands, these characters are highly forgettable, which doesn’t seem possible given the scope of their atrocities.
Much like the gameplay itself, these issues are primarily a result of the medium’s natural growing pains. By 1990, design teams began realizing that rich storytelling can enhance one’s gaming experience. The problem is this epiphany occurred long before the constraints of the technology available at the time could keep up with these ideas. There simply wasn’t enough storage space with which to insert large amounts of text. PC developers often got around this by including a miniature novel with in the game box, imploring players to turn to the appropriate page when prompted. Partially owing to the smaller boxes in which cartridges were packed, this practice didn’t catch on so much among console game developers, meaning even role-playing experiences tended to be comparatively simplistic.
Even so, playing through the game reveals that, in terms of storytelling, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light actually managed to be fairly subversive for its day. One element in particular stared players in the face before the first chapter even began: Princess Caeda. In an age when princesses were invariably damsels in distress whose rescue signified the end of the game, Caeda defies the stereotype by fighting alongside Marth. In terms of design, she stands out from contemporaries such as the Princess of Moonbrooke from Dragon Quest II in that she specializes in melee combat rather than in magic. Having a female character be every bit as competent as her male counterparts on the front lines was exceptionally rare in 1990.
On top of that, she eventually proves to be one of the most indispensable characters in the game when you realize she is only rivaled by Marth when it comes to persuading enemy units to join their cause. The manner in which she does so demonstrates a remarkable amount of cunning on her part. Then again, given her status as the princess of a peaceful kingdom, it makes perfect sense for her to be skilled in the art of diplomacy.
This goes a long way in showcasing that, when examining the plot in closer detail, it managed to be remarkably ahead of its time in one key area. That is, in an era when designers began realizing how important a story can be in this blossoming medium, Mr. Kaga took the idea a step further by justifying his game mechanics with actual narrative choices.
One sequence in particular shows that many characters in this game go beyond their use to the player in combat. After retaking Castle Aurelis, Marth and his army head south to Archanea Palace, passing through Lefcandith Valley. There, General Harmein has set up an ambush. The ambush is spearheaded by Princess Minerva of Macedon, who leads a troop known as the Whitewings. Minerva’s older brother, Michalis, had killed their father, King Osmond, and allied with Dolhr. Shortly thereafter, Michalis convinced his youngest sister, Maria, to become Dolhr’s hostage under the pretense that Macedon’s citizens would suffer unless they showed complete loyalty to their new allies. Maria naively agreed in a bid to please her brother, but this was just a ploy to ensure Minerva would not betray him. If she even thinks about rebelling, then Maria will be executed.
The idea of a video-game plot boasting this much underhanded political maneuvering in 1990 when most villains were simply giant enemies for the player to beat up is surprising by itself, but what is especially interesting about these developments in how they’re expressed in gameplay. When confronting Marth’s army in Lefcandith Valley, Minerva, who never wanted to ally with Dolhr in the first place, finds she cannot stomach the idea of turning against Marth’s foces, and begins retreating from the battlefield, prompting her subordinates to follow suit. Once the dialogue has occurred, the artificial intelligence changes so all four of them will cease attacking your units and begin moving away from them, eventually disappearing from the map entirely.
A few chapters later, Minerva takes to the battlefield once more. This time, however, she intends to fight to the death, making a beeline for Marth’s army as soon as the chapter begins. It’s pretty uncomfortable because you don’t want to kill her, yet because she rides a wyvern into battle, she will catch up very quickly. Fortunately, there’s a solution to this problem. It just so happens that this chapter takes place around the fortress where Maria is being held captive. If you infiltrate the fortress and successfully break Maria out of her cell, Minerva will stop attacking and try to speak with Marth. If she does, she will join his army automatically. Characters outside of Marth and his advisors don’t have much in the way of dialogue outside of their introductory chapters as a result of the narrative being structured around the possibility of any one of them dying. Nonetheless, it is touches like these that go a long way in getting the player to think about the cast as actual characters rather than glorified chess pieces.
Even the basic premise manages to find ways to be subtly subversive despite its laconic nature. Just by observing its subtitle, one might get the impression Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light operates on the very simplistic, black-and-white morality you would expect from most older video games. The dragons are evil, and the humans who oppose them are good. For the most part, this does end up being the case, but a deeper look reveals that, while Marth and most of his followers are unquestionably good, there are shades of grey to be found in the conflict.
While a majority of the humans are innocent people suffering under Medeus’s oppressive rule, the fact that so many of them side with the Dolhrian Empire out of self-interest or moral cowardice confirms there are monsters to be found among both species.
This comes to a head when Marth visits a certain village only to happen upon a human committing one of the most morally depraved crimes in existence: slave trafficking. Naturally, this incenses the otherwise kindhearted prince, who chases off the criminal instantly. It turns out the slave the man was attempting to sell to Marth is Linde, the daughter of Pontifex Miloah of Khadein. The mage-state of Khadein was founded by a powerful sage named Gotoh. His two best pupils were Miloah and Gharnef. The latter had considerable talents, but Gotoh became wary of him, realizing he lacked compassion. An envious Gharnef then proceeded to steal an artifact from Gotoh called the Darksphere, with which he forged a new spell tome he named Imhullu. The tome is so devastating that anyone challenging its wielder without the power of the Darksphere’s opposing force, the Lightsphere, will find themselves unable to attack them at all. A royal going from the life of luxury to nearly being sold off as a slave is one of the many signs of what a horrible impact this war has had on Archanea.
In light of these aspects, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light stands out from its contemporaries by beings surprisingly gritty. It doesn’t go as far as Final Fantasy II did with its utterly hopeless scenario, but much like that game, the fantasy elements are rather subdued. Magic exists, but its applications are stripped down and serve practical functions, being used as weaponry or medical supplies.
The game throws a curveball in the final third when Marth and his forces reach the Kingdom of Grust. Much like Jiol, Grust’s king, Ludwik, is a cowardly man who sided with Dolhr out of self-preservation. While Grustian soldiers do compose a significant amount of the enemy forces you fight, one of them does have a sense of honor. A knight named Camus acts as the leader of the Sable Order, who are some of the finest knights on the continent. When Dolhr invaded Archanea, the country’s princess, Nyna, was captured. As she was the only remaining member of Archanea’s royal family, Dolhr intended to execute her. Fortunately, Camus found himself sympathetic to Nyna’s plight and sent her to Castle Aurelis, placing her under Hardin’s protection.
Unfortunately, this incurred Medeus’s wrath, and the Earth Dragon took measures to ensure Camus would not betray him again. With the innocent civilians of Grust in danger, Camus takes to the battlefield against Marth. What I like about this is that it plays with the conventions the audience had grown accustomed to up until now. Before this point, Marth could convince every single sympathetic character to join his cause. Here, the only solution is to defeat Camus in battle. While bringing an end to Medeus’s reign is correctly painted as a good thing, Camus’s story serves to remind the player that true heroes can end up fighting for a bad cause.
Medeus’s status as the main antagonist is brings to mind a typical heroic fantasy wherein knight in shining armor slays a dragon and saves a princess. However, in Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, the dragons – or Manaketes as they are known – are another sapient race, having reasons for oppressing humans that go beyond simply being evil. Indeed, you learn through various characters that humans and Manaketes have had a history of mutual oppression. This means that Medeus’s enslavement of the human race is revenge for the horrible treatment his kind received by their hands. However, in doing so, he eventually becomes the very kind of evil he sought to destroy – “He who fights monsters…”, one might say.
This contrasts nicely with the ideologies of the two Manaketes who join Marth’s cause: Bantu and Tiki. Both of them rise above any potential enmity and refuse to hate humans. Considering that most video-game antagonists were one-dimensional megalomaniacs who wanted to take over the world because it’s there, Medeus having this degree of nuance is remarkable.
In light of these facets, while the plot of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light might be considered bare bones, it is apparent that Mr. Kaga sought to get what they could from the few moving parts allotted to them by the Famicom hardware. It may be difficult to appreciate now, but the effort is commendable.
Drawing a Conclusion
Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is to the strategy role-playing game what Dragon Quest III was to its Japanese parent genre. In other words, while Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light didn’t necessarily invent the concept of the strategy role-playing game, it did greatly help solidify the genre – particularly in Japan where it was exclusively released. Before 1990, Bokosuka Wars was among the very few titles with gameplay even remotely comparable to that of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. However, Mr. Kaga’s was by far the more sophisticated implementation. Bokosuka Wars constantly forces players to rely heavily on unfavorable odds in order to succeed. That’s not to say Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is completely devoid of moments requiring players to gamble with their units’ safety, but by giving them tools with which to avoid the risks in the first place and even just the ability to save, it does have a sense of fair play to it.
However, even with everything good that can be said about it and its influence on the medium, there is one unfortunate similarity between Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light and Dragon Quest III: neither game has held up especially well. While both games are revered in their native homeland, this can be attributed to a combination of nostalgia and the typical propensity of the medium’s earliest adopters to hold up innovators as the best in their field – even after they’ve been surpassed. The game had a lot to offer in 1990, but today or even just a few years later? Not so much.
Between 1990 and 2020, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light was remade twice. The first remake was bundled with its direct sequel, Mystery of the Emblem, in 1994 for the Super Famicom. A standalone remake would be released in 2008 for the Nintendo DS under the truncated name Shadow Dragon. The release of the latter notably marked the first time any version of the series’ inaugural installment debuted internationally. While both remakes do address many of the issues present in the original game, recommending either would be a tricky proposition. The version included with Mystery of the Emblem cuts out several chapters and characters, thus stripping content out of an experience modern audiences would already have found lacking. While Shadow Dragon is a more faithful recreation, it too has deep flaws. It discards certain mainstay features the series had introduced in the intervening time, and the requirements for unlocking certain bonus features, which involves purposely killing off one’s own units, are absolutely ridiculous. Worse is that the design doesn’t account for the mainstay features it decides to keep, which, among other issues, places the protagonist at a significant disadvantage for most of the experience. So, while the remakes arguably streamline the original’s gameplay, their own problems ensure revisiting Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light in any form is a tough sell.
It certainly isn’t impossible to pick up Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light or its remakes and have fun with them, but I can only realistically envision historians or fans getting anything worthwhile out of the experience. In the grand scheme of things, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light comes across more as an outline for the strategy role-playing game rather than a fully conceived work in its own right. Still, much like the case with Dragon Quest III, somebody had to write that outline, and every successful strategy role-playing game made since 1990 owes at least some of its existence to Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Even if you have no intention to play it at all, Mr. Kaga’s game has earned its place in history, and its influence is a lasting one worthy of your respect.
Final Score: 5/10