In 1990, Intelligent Systems released Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Ken for the Japanese Famicom system. The tale of Prince Marth and his quest to rid his homeland of a horrid dragon quickly inspired a cult following and a sequel in Japan, but never expanded overseas. The third Fire Emblem game eventually found its way to rest of the world, but it seemed like the original would never reach foreign shores.
Nineteen years later, the classic came back to life as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. By keeping most of the old traits of the original, updating the graphics, and spicing up the gameplay, Intelligent Systems attempted to give everyone the chance to relive its first crowning achievement. Did they succeed?
For the most part, yes. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is an incredibly good game. It follows the standard turn-based strategy formula: you control a small army of soldiers, move each one once per turn across a top-down map, attack, and allow your opponent to do the same. When you attack, the game switches to a side-view for the turn-based battle animations. The Fire Emblem series adds a separate twist to it, however: each character has its own personality, its own abilities, its own back story, and its own life. Meaning when a character dies, that character is gone forever: you lose one, and that character, along with any side story or extra characters that could be unlocked with it, disappear. This adds an emotional tie to the characters, and gives you the extra incentive to keep everyone alive.
Generally speaking, the game plays well. The button-based controls work well, though the stylus-driven controls can be cumbersome. Battles are fun, if you can get past the somewhat slow pacing that naturally comes with the genre. Success relies on using your units together: sending one unit off alone, no matter how strong, will find it promptly surrounded and slaughtered. Those that can utilize teamwork reap the rewards: a fitting message found throughout the series, and is, for the most part, a good mechanic to build a game on. It is frustrating, however, when you lose a unit, because if you want it back, you have to restart the entire level. And when an hour has already been invested in the fight, the game can become down-right unbearable; I often had to put the game down and walk away for a day after losing some climactic battles.
Fire Emblem spins a stereotypical tale: Marth, prince of Altea, has his home invaded by the armies of a resurrecting dragon, who kills his father and kidnaps his sister. Fleeing from his homeland when it needs him most, Marth is filled with regret and the desire for revenge. Flashing forward a few years, Marth builds a small army and sets out to rid the continent of the dragon. Over time, he grows from a youth bent on revenge to an adult fighting for the good of the poor and defenseless. The story is one place in the game where it shows its age: it's basic, it's predictable, and it's quite forgettable.
While the original game's graphics were acceptable for its time, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon takes advantage of the Nintendo DS's drastically improved hardware to produce excellent images. The maps are spectacularly detailed and varied, and while the characters' movement animations are nothing to brag about, the battle animations are gorgeous. The anime art-style works well with the game's overall Japanese feel. I was personally disappointed with the lack of cut-scenes and videos, as the last two console-based games included stunning ones.
As far as sound goes, the game does a decent job: its melodies are pleasant, but not memorable. The background music fits the battles and scenes, though I doubt you will find yourself humming the tunes when you put the game down. The sound effects fit well, and while they never get annoying, they are not memorable, either.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon also includes a multiplayer option, which allows you to pit your best troops against another army via local connection or online. This is Intelligent System's first crack at online functionality with the Fire Emblem series, and it works fairly well. It suffers from its own mechanics, however, as it takes a well-groomed and carefully trained team with the highest stats possible to even hope to do well at it. Still, it is a fun distraction for those with the time and willpower.
Nintendo is known for creating morally-acceptable games, and this one is no exception. There is no profanity that I could find, although the boss characters are highly insulting. There is fantasy violence, but no blood, and bodies simply fade away after death. Minor occult references are made throughout the game, but always on the villain's side, and at no point in time must the player take part in them. There are no sexual references, and characters' clothing properly covers themselves.
Overall, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is a great game for anyone with patience. I can not stress how much patience is needed to progress through the game, especially for completionists who try to finish with all of the characters. Beyond that, it is fun, moral, and satisfying in its presentation.