GBA's Fire Emblem is a great strategy RPG for beginners

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

GBA's Fire Emblem is a great strategy RPG for beginners
In 2001, Nintendo of America had a decision to make that would have a huge impact on what at the time was one of its least known properties in the U.S.: Fire Emblem.

Super Smash Bros. Melee was set for release that fall, and among its cast were Marth and Roy, whom most westerners had never heard of before. Nintendo of America weighed cutting them for a time, but eventually relented and decided to leave them in. In the early going, I had no clue who they were; soon enough, I grew to like them, just like everyone else. The stage was set for Fire Emblem to make a surprise leap to the U.S.

But while everyone loves to credit Smash Bros. Melee for the series finally getting localized, Fire Emblem itself had a role to play as well. In contrast to its hardcore, permadeath-fueled reputation, the first GBA game was the perfect introduction to the strategy RPG genre, eschewing intense customization for fast-paced tactics and extensive maps. Not only that, it was rather good at showing everyone the ropes before throwing them into the fire. Certainly more so than the older games for the Super Famicom, which really were Dark Souls Hard at times.

At the time, I'll that I was still a little nervous about jumping into fully-fledged strategy RPGs myself. I had played my share of WarCraft and Command & Conquer, but nothing with, you know, hexes. It was sister series Advance Wars that actually got me into turn-based strategy, which I played avidly during the particularly bleak summer of 2004, when I couldn't afford cable or even internet. Having been designed by the same studio, Fire Emblem had a somewhat similar feel to it, so I finally decided to take the leap and give it a fair shake.

One of the first things that caught my attention was the fact that the characters would occasionally address me by name. I was supposedly the "Tactician," and while I didn't have much of a role to play in the game proper, I liked feeling like I was part of the game's events. Lyndis and I would take back her kingdom, then we would fight dragons together. It was superficial, maybe even a little awkward, but it did its job. It drew me into the world of Fire Emblem.

GBA's Fire Emblem is a great strategy RPG for beginners
From there, it continued into a tutorial of sorts that lasted ten missions. I say "tutorial" because the permanent death that has proven so controversial over the years was turned off. When the ten missions were over, the characters would return. In the meantime, I would get a nice headstart on leveling up my characters while learning the basics.

As I quickly learned, it was beneficial to keep my characters together, not the least because they would derive benefits from the support relationships that would follow. I also had to take care to, say, not send my Pegasus Knight into the line of fire of an archer. That wasn't too hard. I think the most annoying thing about the original Fire Emblem on GBA was the critical hits that had the potential to one-shot a character. It made dealing with anyone who had a Killing Edge, a weapon that substantially raised the chance for critical hits, a real adventure.

In the early going, characters were fragile, which could be troublesome. Some of them could be accidentally killed by a pass pretty easily. But once they passed Level 10, they became tough to beat. Promoting them to the more advanced classes made them flat-out juggernauts. By the end of the game, many of them could easily solo hordes of enemies without getting hit even once, especially when using classes with high evasion like the assassin.

The one truly monstrous battle came at the end, when facing down a dragon so big that it didn't even fit on the GBA screen. Most of the normal weapons wouldn't even scratch its impossibly long lifebar. But even then, Nintendo offered a "get out of jail free" card of sorts in the form of Athos, a wizard who shows up at the very end of the game to destroy everything in sight. So if you were struggling with the dragon, well hey, you were set. I eventually stopped using him in the final battle because he made it too easy.

In the end, it wasn't really the difficulty that grabbed me about Fire Emblem. I liked the characters, and I liked that I could get many of them to fall in love with each other, with the reward being some nice stat bonuses. I liked moments like this. I especially liked that I could start over and play from the perspective of Hector or Eliwood, even if it didn't change the storyline all that much. I really liked the music.

I've replayed Fire Emblem many times over the years; having recently finished Fire Emblem: Awakening, I'm kind of tempted to dust off my GBA SP and play it again. It's been a long time, but I expect that I would be able to pick it up again with relative ease. I still find it the easiest Fire Emblem to just pick up and play.

I suppose that's what did the most to help Fire Emblem gain traction in the U.S. Super Smash Bros. Melee certainly helped, but in the end, the game had to be fun itself. Despite its reputation, Fire Emblem proved to be the open hand that the series needed to get established here in the U.S. It's one of the few series out there that has plenty of cachet among long-time RPG fans without being completely inaccessible to new players. Sadly, it's fallen off a bit since then, but Awakening has a good chance to get the series back on track.

I will personally remember it as the game that finally got me past my bizarre phobia of turn-based strategy and into the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. I doubt I'm alone.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.