The original Fire Emblem game was hard. How hard? So hard that the very first line in the theme song is “Fire Emblem, difficult simulation.” They hired an opera company to sing it in costume and everything. Maybe they were singing about the tricky enemies, the expertly crafted maps, or the permadeath (permanent death). Whatever it was, they weren’t wrong.
There were several factors that made this early strategy RPG series so tough. Weapons, unlike in most other RPG games, had a durability mechanic. If a unit used equipment too many times, it would break. There was a heavy element of luck involved. Even if a player had calculated a good outcome in a clash between their unit and the enemy’s, fickle fortune always discovered a way to tip the scales at the worst moment.
Other games in the Fire Emblem series have added things to the formula with varying degrees of success. The weapon triangle (introduced in the fourth game) was a persistent feature of the series, basically only absent in the latest two entries. Meanwhile, dungeon-crawling was only present in Fire Emblem Gaiden and its remake. All of these contributions served to add more variables to the strategy element.
Ultimately though, players recognize permadeath as a signature of the series.
Permadeath: The only realistic death in video games
When you lose a character in Fire Emblem, they’re gone forever — real death. Late in the game, one character can perhaps use a revive spell once, on one specific map. Otherwise, when a unit loses all their hit points, there’s no inn, no phoenix down, nothing that can bring them back. This lends a sense of fragility to even the most robust General, as one wrong move or one bad roll of the dice can hobble an army permanently.
How permadeath became ingrained in the series so instantly is up for debate. The original Fire Emblem game, Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, was released in 1990 for the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in the West). As previously noted, this generation of gaming was exceptionally difficult. It could be that there was still a mentality of making arcade games – the harder a game was, the more money people would put into the machines to continue. Perhaps there was a sense of competition among developers, always trying to make games their rivals would have a hard time completing. Whatever the reason, this series rightfully earned its reputation for being difficult, even in the NES days.
The series reveled in this reputation for decades. In fact, the first game to allow players to turn off permadeath was 2011’s New Mystery of the Emblem, 21 years after the original. Playing on Casual mode, defeated characters would return for the next map. This offset the toughness immensely and has been a controversial decision ever since.
Is death a feature or an option?
The question, then, is whether players enjoy the difficult simulation promised all those years ago. Well, until 2013, the highest-selling Fire Emblem game was the 1994 Super Famicom title Mystery of the Emblem, at 776,000 copies sold. The average game up until then sold 314,250 copies.
However, Fire Emblem Awakening, a game that many aficionados consider to be one of the easiest in the series, has sold 2.24 million copies to date. Admittedly, Awakening has more going for it than just a Casual mode. To make Fire Emblem more accessible to the average gamer, a huge emphasis was placed on a character-centric story, innovative and fresh-feeling maps, and a whole shipping sub-game that allowed units to give birth to new soldiers. It’s possible that, without this outreach to new players, the Fire Emblem series would have been put on the back burner.
Like other advancements before it, Casual mode can be seen as a quality-of-life adjustment. The difficulty, bolstered by permadeath, was a harsh obstacle to overcome for players who wanted to enjoy the story. In Fire Emblem Fates‘ Phoenix mode, if a character died, they would return at the beginning of the next turn. Shadows of Valentia introduced a rewind feature. And many, if not most, players would restart their game from the last save if a vital unit died.
The core of Fire Emblem has evolved, perhaps beyond permadeath
Fire Emblem as a series has gone through fewer changes than most other franchises, but it still has had evolution of its own. Super Mario is now more than just pixel-perfect 2D platforming. The Legend of Zelda is now more than a top-down open-world dungeon-crawler. Likewise, Fire Emblem now is more than a grid-based strategy RPG.
The series has embraced the character-centric story elements that helped make Awakening so popular. The main objective has evolved past clearing specific maps one after the other, and experimentation has reached beyond simply equipping different weapons and gear. Of all the changes to the franchise, the one that’s changed its appeal to a mass audience the most has easily been elevating the importance of the narrative.
In this regard, I would argue that permadeath gets in the way of the parts of the franchise that so many fans enjoy these days. I’m not saying that older Fire Emblem titles lacked compelling stories. They just tended to take a backseat to the strategy game in ways that limited the accessibility of the titles.
Is permadeath still necessary to enjoy Fire Emblem?
The answer is — it depends.
Many gamers enjoy a good challenge, and permadeath is unarguably an element that increases the difficulty. Additionally, it is a hallmark of the series, something iconic that Fire Emblem will always have a claim to. If you enjoy playing with it on, whether for the challenge or for the bragging rights, then there’s little reason for you to play on Casual mode.
However, there are many reasons to play with permadeath turned off. Perhaps you wish to enjoy the story. Maybe you want to pair two characters together to create a child unit greater than the sum of their parts. It could be that you don’t have the time to play a strategy game over and over, experimenting with different builds.
Or possibly, you don’t enjoy that level of challenge as much as you enjoy the other elements of Fire Emblem.
All of these are valid reasons to turn off permadeath and enjoy the game the way you want to.
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual player. If you’re reading this, you know what your preferences are. If you’re feeling weird about playing on Casual though, ask yourself this: What way of playing would bring the most enjoyment? Is it conquering the challenge using a set of ancient rules? Or is it appreciating the rest of what the series has to offer?
It’s up to you to enjoy your media in a way that maximizes your own fun. The presence of options for others, however, is never a bad thing.
For an alternative perspective on permadeath in Fire Emblem, check out Steven’s feature, also published today!