Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

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 Because there was no reason to continue developing games on an increasingly outdated format, Nintendo deemed it necessary to convert many of the titles that originally debuted on the Famicom Disk System to cartridges.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?

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Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

Nintendo’s Famicom console had sold 2.5 million units by the time they looked to international markets. President Hiroshi Yamauchi was particularly interested in marketing to North America, being where the medium originated in the first place. The success of the Atari 2600 console suggested there was a market there just waiting to be tapped into. However, the games console market was suffering from the effects of the industry’s 1983 crash. To have any chance of selling their console abroad, Nintendo had to market their console as an entertainment system instead. Thus, the Famicom became the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Among its launch titles in North America was Super Mario Bros. Whatever success the console may have enjoyed up until then was eclipsed by the sales following the release of Super Mario Bros. A mere four months later, tens of millions of consoles were sold, and the seemingly interminable North American recession came to an end.

As Super Mario Bros. was being developed, Nintendo also worked on a coin-operated arcade machine dubbed the VS. System. One of the games to be featured in this system was a port of Super Mario Bros. called Vs. Super Mario Bros. Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two main minds behind Super Mario Bros., took this opportunity to experiment with new, challenging level designs. Though the original game is considered a classic, certain level designs ended up being reused. By the time Vs. Super Mario Bros. made its debut, all of the repeated stages had been replaced with original designs. Enjoying these new stages, they sought to give fans of the original game a sequel that would push their skills even further. By this point, Mr. Miyamoto found himself leading Nintendo’s fourth R&D division, working on a game to be titled The Legend of Zelda. Lacking the time to design new games by himself, Mr. Tezuka found himself in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. He collaborated with Mr. Miyamoto’s team, using the original’s engine to create this sequel.

This game, simply titled Super Mario Bros. 2, was released in June of 1986 for the Famicom Disk System – an add-on for the Famicom that utilized floppy disks in lieu of cartridges. Exactly how well it would have fared in the West is unknown because the newly established Nintendo of America declined its release. Howard Phillips, the man in charge of evaluating games for Nintendo of America’s president, deemed Super Mario Bros. 2 unfairly difficult. He believed that “not having fun is bad when you’re a company selling fun”. A game named Super Mario Bros. 2 surfaced in the United States shortly thereafter, but Western enthusiasts would have no idea that it was, in reality, a retrofitted version of one of Nintendo’s other titles.

It wouldn’t be until the year 1993 that the original Super Mario Bros. 2 saw the light of day in the West. By this point, Nintendo had released the Super Famicom – the successor to the Famicom and known as the Super NES internationally. In its earliest phases, the console was going to be backwards-compatible. When the associated costs rendered this effort infeasible, Nintendo opted to remake the Mario installments that debuted on the NES in a compilation named Super Mario All-Stars. This included the Western Super Mario Bros. 2, which was renamed Super Mario USA domestically. Conversely, the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was renamed Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels for its international debut. How does the original Super Mario Bros. 2 compare in the face of its predecessor’s legacy?

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Transformers: Mystery of Convoy

In 1984, five people, Kojin Ono, Takashi Matsuda, Hideaki Yoke, Hiroyuki Obara, and Satoshi Koizumi designed twenty-eight figures using molds from the Japanese toy lines, Diaclone and Microman. Hasbro, a high-profile American toy company brought the distribution rights to the molds, rebranding them as the Transformers for the North American market. They would later buy the entire toy line, giving them sole ownership of the intellectual property. In exchange, Takara, the company that originally owned the line would retain the rights to distribute the products in Japan.

Taking cues from the Diaclone toy line, the biggest selling point for Transformers was that, true to their name, they could transform. All of them had a default robot form, but through shifting the parts, they could turn into vehicles, devices, or even weapons such as pistols. The robots were divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons (named Cybertrons and Destrons respectively in Japan). In the eighties, a majority of Western animated series were created with the goal of advertising toys to children. This was due to many factors such as regulations regarding appropriate content becoming stricter and the industry as a whole being on the verge of disaster. This is the approach Hasbro took, and with help from help from Toei Animation in Japan, a three-part miniseries based off of Transformers debuted in September of 1984. Both the animated series that spawned from it and the toy line were among the greatest successes of the eighties, and many more incarnations would follow in the coming years.

Shortly before the toy line’s conception, Nintendo launched their first gaming console to use programmable cartridges in 1983: the Family Computer (Famicom). The first consoles were prone to failure due to a bad chip set, but after a product recall and subsequent reissue with a new motherboard, its popularity soared. Its following became even greater in scale once it was released in the West rebranded the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whether it was in its native homeland or overseas, games on this platform often sold thousands or even millions of copies. This was especially true if the game bore a famous license from another medium.

As the Transformers franchise reached the height of its popularity, a developer named ISCO was commissioned to create a tie-in game. It was released in 1986 under the name Transformers: Mystery of Convoy – the titular Convoy being the Japanese name for Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. Strangely, despite the franchise’s success in the United States, Mystery of Convoy was never released outside of Japan. Is this an instance of the medium’s first Western hobbyists being unable to experience a classic?

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Final Fantasy III

Although suffering from quite a few execution issues regarding its central gameplay mechanics, Final Fantasy II nonetheless proved to be another success for the once-struggling Squaresoft. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team took a then-unusual approach to this project wherein they conceived the story first then programmed an actual game around it. The result outsold the domestic sales of its predecessor, and it became evident that the Final Fantasy franchise wasn’t going anywhere. To keep this success going, development of a sequel began almost immediately.

As was the case with the previous titles, an Iranian-American expat by the name of Nasir Gebelli served as the game’s primary programmer. However, roughly halfway through the game’s development, Mr. Gebelli’s work visa expired, forcing him to return to Sacramento, California. Undeterred, the rest of the team followed him to the United States with the necessary materials and equipment, concluding development of the project there. Named Final Fantasy III, the completed game was the company’s most ambitious tile to date, being published on a 512 kilobyte cartridge filled to its absolute capacity. Once again, Squaresoft’s effort was lauded by both critics and fans alike. It moved 1.4 million copies in Japan, and a panel of four reviewers working for Famitsu magazine each awarded it a high score, achieving a similar level of praise in 1990 as Chunsoft’s Dragon Quest IV and Nintendo’s F-Zero. Such was the lasting appeal of Final Fantasy III that readers of Famitsu magazine voted it the eighth best game of all time when polled in 2006.

Similar to the fate that befell its direct predecessor, Final Fantasy III in its original incarnation failed leave Japan. Squaresoft was working to catch up to the new technology afforded to them courtesy of Nintendo’s newest console at the time, the Super Famicom, and they lacked the personnel to work on an English version. An old promotional poster included cover art for a hypothetical English release of Final Fantasy III, but it wasn’t to be. In fact, because the final product filled the cartridge’s storage capacity to its brim, even the newer platforms that would emerge in the coming years lacked the space required to handle an updated version with new graphics, sounds, and other content. This effectively prevented any realistic chance of the game being remade for the longest time. Though a game named Final Fantasy III emerged in the West for the Super NES, the international equivalent of the Super Famicom, it was, in reality, the sixth installment renamed. Both were the final installments on their respective platforms. Did Squaresoft help end the third console generation on a high note?

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Final Fantasy II

As Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Squaresoft developed Final Fantasy, the management decided to have 400,000 cartridges manufactured in order to make a sequel possible. To their amazement, the game was a success and they ended up selling all of the copies along with an additional 200,000. In doing so, the fledging Squaresoft created the first JRPG capable of standing on an even playing field with the Dragon Quest series. Suddenly, the possibility of a sequel was not a pipe dream; it was an inevitability.

From the project’s inception, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team lacked any concrete ideas. As a result, they decided to go in a new direction, not including any characters or locations from the original game. Simply named Final Fantasy II, the game was released for the Famicom on December 17, 1988. According to Square’s publicity department, the game exceeded the domestic sales figures of its predecessor by moving nearly 800,000 units.

Two years later, Square took a chance with their newfound success by localizing the original Final Fantasy, bringing it to the Western world. In an unexpected turn of events, it sold even more copies overseas than it did in its native homeland. Naturally, Square wished to capitalize on this newfound market by localizing the sequel as well. An early prototype cartridge was eventually created, bearing the name Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow over Palakia.

Unfortunately, although the game was advertised in various Squaresoft publications, it ultimately failed to cross the Pacific Ocean. There were many reasons for this from the game having been two years old by the time the original was localized to the development cycle dragging on for too long. Kaoru Moriyama, the employee assigned to this project, admitted that, despite the prototype’s existence, the translation was far from complete. Running into memory issues compounded with their boss having no understanding of the amount of work it takes to create an English translation sunk any chances of the game had of venturing outside of its homeland. A game named Final Fantasy II did surface on the SNES, but unbeknownst to Western gaming fans, Square had skipped over the remaining Famicom installments and localized their then-newest entry, Final Fantasy IV, under that name. It was far more sensible to localize a game for Nintendo’s newest console than to sink resources in bringing over an old one for an outdated system. How does the true Final Fantasy II fare by comparison?

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Takeshi’s Challenge

takeshis-challenge

In the seventies, two friends, Takeshi Kitano and Nirō Kaneko (also known as Kiyoshi Kaneko), formed a comedy duo known as Two Beat. Taking on the stage names Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi, their manzai routines, a sketch which involves back-and-forth banter between a funny man (boke) and a straight man (tsukkomi), became a massive success when they performed on television for the first time in 1976. Mr. Kitano’s risqué material was the true source of their popularity. As far as he was concerned, there were no unacceptable targets, as the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, children, and women among others found themselves the punch line of his humor. Despite being one of the most successful acts of its kind during the late seventies and early eighties, Mr. Kitano decided to go solo, dissolving the duo.

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., taking the entire world by storm and forever changing how artists went about creating 2D platformers. Mr. Kitano observed the game’s overwhelming popularity and decided to create a live-action version – the result being Takeshi’s Castle in 1986. Each show involved anywhere between 100 and 142 contestants undergoing a series of grueling physical challenges with the goal of reaching Mr. Kitano in his castle. This proved to be easier said than done, for the difficulty in accomplishing this task was such that only nine people ever won. It was a beloved show in its native homeland, and it would become a cult classic when it began broadcasting overseas, reaching an unexpected level of popularity in Spain.

In the same year Takeshi’s Castle debuted, Taito Corporation, the company behind the 1978 arcade sensation, Space Invaders, planned an adaption for Nintendo’s Famicom console. When he learned of this, Mr. Kitano himself contacted the designers about ideas for an entirely original game. Inserting his trademark brand of black comedy, the fruit of this endeavor was released in December of that year under the name Takeshi’s Challenge. Other video games bearing the name of a celebrity had been developed prior to this one, but Mr. Kitano was the first to actively contribute to the development process. Partly because of his fame, Takeshi’s Challenge ended up moving 800,000 units, and it left a profound impact on all who played it.

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Earthbound Beginnings

EarthBound Beginnings

In the eighties, a man named Shigesato Itoi rose to prominence as a prolific copywriter, a profession which encompasses a wide range of activities from coming up with catchphrases to conceiving marketing campaigns. He became known for his strange, yet concise writing style. One of his most notable successes was his 1983 slogan for a Seibu department store advertisement, “Tasteful Life.” It broke new ground and featured Woody Allen, who was unknown to the Japanese at the time. His fame was such that he was even solicited by the famous studio, Ghibli, whereupon he helped promote the works of Hayao Miyazaki, considered by many to be one of the greatest animators in history.

Mr. Itoi wasn’t content to limit himself to a single profession, however, and often dabbled in various fields. He held a satirical column, and wrote songs for other artists, and co-authored a collection of short stories with Haruki Marukami, who would later pen Kafka on the Shore. During all of this, he noticed a trend that was becoming increasingly popular by the day: video games. In 1987, he had an idea for a video game, believing that the medium’s unique qualities could be used to explore new avenues of storytelling. There was just one problem: he had no idea to whom he could propose his idea. One day, he received a phone call from Nintendo about the ad campaign for Square’s 1987 dating simulator, Miho Nakayama’s Heartbeat High School. Mr. Itoi took this opportunity to mention his project, and to his amazement, the correspondent of this rapidly growing company seemed interested. Shortly after this call, Mr. Itoi was interviewed by none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, the creative mind behind Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Mr. Itoi realized this would be his only chance to convince Nintendo to help him make his game. Unfortunately, Mr. Miyamoto remained skeptical, thinking that it was a case of a celebrity making a game for its own sake and rejected the idea. It seemed as though all hope was lost.

However, Nintendo’s CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi, felt games lacked innovation in recent years, and that someone with such an impressive repertoire would provide a perfect solution to the problem. This resulted in another phone call from Mr. Miyamoto himself to notify Mr. Itoi that the project had been greenlit. Thus Ape Inc. was founded, and Mr. Itoi spared no expense to make sure that his game would match his vision. He employed a skilled visual artist and two composers, one of whom was Keiichi Suzuki, a personal friend and the leader an alternative rock band called Moonriders. When asked for a title, Mr. Itoi chose “Mother.” There was a twofold reason behind this decision. The first was to pay tribute to John Lennon’s song of the same name, saying that it made him cry the first time he listened to it while the second was to grant his game an atypical title to differentiate it from the numerous “quests,” “legends,” and “stories” floating around. Aside from a few balancing issues, development of Mother went smoothly, and the game was released in 1989 to a warm reception with reviewers unanimously praising its unique qualities. It wasn’t just kids who had good things to say about Mother either; it had a cross-generational appeal which helped it become a hit with adults as well. To this day, Mother remains a beloved classic and regularly places in polls regarding the best games ever made.

Shortly after the success Mother found in Japan, Nintendo made efforts to localize it overseas despite Mr. Itoi being entirely unknown in the United States. The English translation was completed in 1990, and it looked as though Mother would see a North American release under the name Earth Bound, but it was not to be, for the impending release of the Super NES dissuaded the executives from taking a risk with it until it was canceled outright. Eventually, a prototype cartridge of this localization surfaced in online auctions in 1998 where it was bought by of a group of hackers named Demiforce. The cartridge’s ROM was subsequently dumped onto the internet. It wouldn’t be until the year 2015 that Mother would officially see the light of day outside of its native land on the Nintendo Wii U’s Virtual Console digital distribution service. As Western gaming fans already had exposure to Mother 2, which inherited its predecessor’s tentative North American title and was released as a standalone game rather than a sequel, the original Mother was dubbed Earthbound Beginnings.

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