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 Because there was no reason to continue developing games on an increasingly outdated format, Nintendo deemed it necessary to convert many of the titles that originally debuted on the Famicom Disk System to cartridges.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

With Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, Yoshiaki Koizumi gave Nintendo’s mascot two unforgettable, interstellar journeys. Players would launch Mario through the reaches of space, often having him jump between planets in an effort to save Princess Peach. Both games were complete successes, selling well over five million units apiece. When playing them, it is clear Nintendo’s Tokyo branch gave it their all; the sheer amount of creativity it took to conceive such games is something that only occurs a scant few times per generation. Given that both games demonstrated Nintendo’s continued relevance going into the 2010s, a sequel would seem inevitable. This was easier said than done. How could anyone possibly go about following up not one, but two of the most monumental titles of its generation?

The year 2012 marked the launch of the Nintendo Wii’s successor: the Wii U. Despite its initially positive reception and launching with the latest installment in their popular New Super Mario Bros. subseries, consumers were slow to adopt this console. There were various reasons why this ended up being the case. Many people assumed the Wii U was a mere upgrade of the Wii rather than being a separate console. A larger strike against it, however, concerned its lackluster library. Although several highly praised games such as Bayonetta 2 and Super Mario 3D World would debut on the Wii U, they weren’t enough to sway the market in Nintendo’s favor. The general consensus among independent critics is that Nintendo jumped the gun in their attempts to release a console before Sony or Microsoft. Damningly, it was the first console to lose money for the venerable company. Compounded with their rivals releasing the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, Nintendo found themselves in a dire situation.

A journalist writing for The New York Times felt Nintendo’s hardware sales were comprised thanks to mobile gaming gaining steam around this time. The president of the company at the time, Satoru Iwata, felt they would cease to be Nintendo if they entered the market, though he eventually relented, securing a business alliance with mobile provider DeNA. Tragically, he would pass away on July 11, 2015 due to complications from cholangiocarcinoma – also known as bile duct cancer. He was 55.

Despite the fact that they retained a devoted fanbase, Nintendo’s fate looked grim with gamers gravitating towards the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and one of their greatest technical wizards dead. Even with the odds stacked against them, Nintendo had no intentions of giving up. As early as 2012, they drafted ideas for a console to follow the Wii U. However, they didn’t want to settle for making this new piece of hardware a mere successor to the Wii U or the portable 3DS. Tatsumi Kimishima, the new president of Nintendo, stated the new console was to provide a “new way to play” that would have a greater impact than the Wii U.

The company had historically always featured one handheld console and one home console in a given generation starting in the fourth. One of the criticisms lodged toward the Wii U concerned its GamePad. While players did enjoy using it, they wished it could be used as a standalone console. As it was, it would stop functioning if moved too far of a distance from the console. Therefore, this new console was to bridge the gap between Nintendo’s two major markets, being a portable home console.

Dubbed the Nintendo Switch, the console was released in March of 2017. Despite market analysts expressing skepticism over the Switch, it quickly became a bestseller, moving more units than the Wii U ever did within a year. Keeping to their strange pattern, a mainline Mario installment akin to Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy was not among the Switch’s launch titles. However, unlike the GameCube or the Wii, gamers wouldn’t have to wait long for Nintendo’s mascot to make a triumphant debut on the Switch.

Immediately after the release of Super Mario 3D World in late 2013, the same team began work on a new Mario installment with a little help from 1-Up Studio. This company was formally known as Brownie Brown – the company best known for having developed Mother 3 alongside Shigesato Itoi. Led by director Kenta Motokura, this new installment was going to revolve around the concept of surprise. Taking note of the surge in popularity of open-world sandbox gaming, Mr. Motokura and his team sought to make next Mario installment appeal to the series’ core audience. Up until that point, they had focused on capturing the attention of causal players.

This game, Super Mario Odyssey, was released in October of 2017. It was notable for having been released in the same year as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This made 2017 the first calendar year in which Nintendo released both a console Zelda installment and a console mainline Mario game since 1986. On top of that, 2017 is popularly considered one of the greatest years in the medium’s history. With no shortage of strong competition, did Super Mario Odyssey stand out from the crowd?

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Though Skyward Sword was released to a positive reception, certain players voiced their displeasure over the sheer amount of filler present and the hand-holding nature of the game. The latter aspect was especially ironic given the challenging nature of Skyward Sword. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, though mostly satisfied with what he and his team created, ended up agreeing with these reservations. The series’ next installment, A Link Between Worlds, seemed to openly defy the design choices behind Skyward Sword, featuring a terse narrative and a largely non-linear design. In an era when gaming placed a great emphasis on storytelling, A Link Between Worlds would have been a sleeper hit had it not been part of a famous franchise. Emboldened by this installment’s success, he and his team sought to “rethink the conventions of Zelda” for the series’ next console installment. He made their intent known at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo when their newest project was unveiled. He planned to reform dungeons and puzzles, the elements the series had hinged upon from the very beginning, and arrange them in a way to allow players to reach the end without ever engaging in the story. In other words, their next project was to be an open-world title.

The success of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series throughout the 2000s helped popularize these kinds of games. Players could fulfill mission objectives or explore the large world at their own leisure, occasionally completing a side objective to obtain a helpful reward. Despite the franchise’s success, it wouldn’t be until the 2010s that these open-world games took on a life of their own. Whether it was Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Just Cause, this style became the standard in the Western AAA scene. Such was the extent of its influence that even long-running series known for their linear structure saw sequels placing protagonists in a metaphorical sandbox. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon in action was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which not only drastically changed the series’ gameplay, but also received widespread acclaim for it.

In the face of these numerous success stories, Nintendo found themselves in something of a conundrum; they had never worked on a modern open-world game before. This was quite ironic given they themselves invented what many consider the first interpretation of an open-world game in the form of the original The Legend of Zelda in 1986. Though considered one of the most influential titles of its day, the series began gradually shifting away from the kind of design its debut installment codified. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemed like an anomaly when it forced players to adhere to a strict sequence. A Link to the Past was considered a return to form of sorts when it allowed players a degree of freedom in the game’s second half. The series could have continued on as it did with the developers placing all of their effort in gameplay like the Mario franchise. This changed when Yoshiaki Koizumi was allowed to pen the scenario for the series’ first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening. Suddenly, the man who was limited to outlining the instruction manual of A Link to the Past now found himself changing the direction of the series. To accommodate the fact that the plot of Link’s Awakening had a definitive beginning, middle, and end, developers strategically placed roadblocks to ensure players couldn’t deviate from the narrative’s intended sequence. Traces of the series’ debut were seen one last time in the second and third acts of Ocarina of Time before Majora’s Mask made the Link’s Awakening model the standard.

It wouldn’t be until A Link Between Worlds, which was released twenty-two years after the debut of A Link to the Past, that the exploration elements thought to have been completely abandoned made a triumphant return. However, creating a non-linear experience on the same scale as A Link to the Past was a relatively simple task. Translating that knowledge to the home console industry, which had long since adopted three-dimensional gameplay as its bread and butter, would prove significantly more challenging. Nonetheless, the team, led by Hidemaro Fujibayashi and Eiji Aonuma felt they were up for the task. Looking for inspiration, they felt it appropriate to extensively study a highly popular game that took the world by storm upon its 2011 release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

As gaming evolved, an interesting dichotomy emerged between Western and Eastern enthusiasts. This was especially noticeable when observing how the two cultures conceived role-playing games. Non-linear experiences were allowed to flourish in the West, for those kinds of enthusiasts preferred the freedom to do as they pleased without interference from the plot or any other outside influence. Meanwhile, the Japanese RPG was often maligned by Western enthusiasts for precluding the ability to explore on one’s own and forcing players to grind levels. Many of them were unaware their Eastern counterparts preferred their games to have a clear goal at all times and grinding levels tied into a common belief that hard work results in a proportionally satisfying payoff.

In other words, when Mr. Fujibayashi and Mr. Aonuma began this project, they had their work cut out for them. In order to bring these concepts to reality, they had to go back and examine the series’ debut installment with a fine-toothed comb.

Before they began developing this game in earnest, the developers designed a playable 2D prototype bearing the distinct 8-bit visuals of The Legend of Zelda to experiment with physics-based puzzles. To ensure everyone was on the same page and to recapture the original’s essence, the staff had to periodically cease working on the game. Whenever this happened, they were tasked with playing through The Legend of Zelda in its entirety. Over the course of this development cycle, the developers had played through the game at least ten times.

Their game was to be released on the Wii U, making extensive use of the touchscreen features on the console’s tablet. Developers then reconsidered when they found looking away from the main screen was distracting. Eventually titled Breath of the Wild, it was originally slated for a 2015 release. However, later in the year, Mr. Aonuma announced that it would be delayed to 2016. In April of that year, another delay was announced, but this time, it would be for a different reason. Around this time, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo Switch. After having dominated the handheld market for the past four console generations, the Switch was to be a unique hybrid. Making use of a docking station, the gameplay projected itself onto a television screen. By removing it, one could easily transport it as though it were a tablet. Despite having a selection of quality games, the Nintendo Wii U was a commercial failure. To make their newest console all the more appealing, Breath of the Wild was to be one of the Switch’s launch titles. Because many people claimed to have purchased a Wii U purely for the sake of getting to play Breath of the Wild, a version would be made available for both consoles.

After much speculation, Breath of the Wild was at last released worldwide on March 3, 2017. Though the gaming press had no shortage of praise for the series, the universal acclaim previous titles had no trouble amassing seemed to be utterly dwarfed by how critics felt about Breath of the Wild. A mere few days after its release, countless critics were quick to call it a masterpiece and one of the greatest games ever made. This acclaim translated to a stellar commercial performance. By March of 2018, Breath of the Wild had moved nearly ten million copies across both platforms, making it the best-selling game in the franchise at the time.

When taking a look at what critics had to say about it, one would rarely find a less-than-perfect assessment. Despite this, fans of the series were slightly divided. As the game was being showered with praise, they took to aggregate review sites such as Metacritic to write negative pieces in protest. At one point, it boasted a 7.0 fan rating – a noticeable contrast to what critics had to say. Some fans accused the series of selling out to Western sensibilities while others, observing the greater amount of praise Breath of the Wild got compared to the latest open-world experiences such as Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry Primal, concluded that critics let the Nintendo brand cloud their judgement. It should also be noted that the mid-to-late 2010s marked a severe deterioration in the relationship between fans and critics. Fans would say critics were out of touch; critics insinuated fans had no taste. The takeaway is that while the mainstream media unanimously deemed Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games of the decade, fans weren’t completely convinced. Could the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Breath of the Wild have been the result of the critics’ close relationship with developers at the time? Did the fans overstep their boundaries?

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