Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Intelligent System
Release Date: February 16, 2008
When Super Smash Bros.: Melee hit stores, it included a duo of characters who seemed a bit odd to most players. Characters like Captain Falcon or Ness may have been unusual, but both had been seen in English-translated games before. Marth and Roy, however, were from a franchise never before released outside of Japan: Fire Emblem. After their appearance, Nintendo began translating the Fire Emblem titles, although none of those imported games featured Marth and Roy (barring a brief cameo by Roy at the end of Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken, which came over here as just Fire Emblem).
Marth had the honor of being the first Fire Emblem protagonist when the original game Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikaru no Ken (or Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light) was released on the Famicom, but he hasn't appeared in any games on modern consoles. This changed with the release of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, a remake of Ankoku Ryu to Hikaru no Ken for the Nintendo DS, which marks Marth's first English appearance outside of the Smash Bros. arena.
Shadow Dragon is a remake of a Famicom game, and it's most noticeable in the plot, or lack thereof. Marth is a displaced prince who wants to rally troops to overthrow the evil army who took over his kingdom, killed his father and stole the family's sacred blade Falchion, the only weapon capable of defeating the evil Shadow Dragon. Marth's own story is deeply uninteresting, and it only gets worse because there are no characters for him to play off. Characters are a lot more simplistic and lacking in personality in Shadow Dragon than in any of the series' previous offerings. With the exception of Marth and a few other minor characters, nobody in your party really has a personality. They'll show up, make a few offhand comments when recruited, and you'll never see them again, except for those extremely rare occasions when a character is needed to recruit another character
As mentioned, the relationship system has been completely removed, and with it goes all semblance of personality for the minor characters. They may have unique facial art, but nobody in your army is a character on par with the recruits in the GBA or console Fire Emblem titles. This makes it a bit easier to accept a lost soldier in battle, but it also means that the plot is a lot duller.
It may be updated visually, but Shadow Dragon is still an 8-bit RPG at heart, and after the lively and memorable casts in the earlier Fire Emblem titles, one can't help but find Marth's allies rather dull. This might be less frustrating if his enemies were any better, but they're not. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the names or motivations of any of the enemies in the game, and even the titular Shadow Dragon is basically a nonentity who exists for Marth to beat up in the final stage. Even Marth seems to lack motivation and barely seems to react to any of the events. He's the very definition of a cardboard protagonist and somehow manages to display more personality in his handful of Super Smash Bros.: Brawl cut scenes than in the entirety of Shadow Dragon.
Thankfully, while the plot may be weak, Shadow Dragon's gameplay is solid and enjoyable, if unexceptional and a bit dated. The basic gameplay is the same as all other Fire Emblem titles, which are turn-based tactical RPGs. There are many different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The most basic of these is the weapon triangle, which is a rock-paper-scissors mechanic between the ax, lance and sword. You also have the introduction of other elements, such as heavy armor to repel weapons, archers who can attack from afar, flying and mounted units, and even the all-powerful magic ability. On top of that, each unit gains levels as it survives combat; some units begin weak and grow more powerful as you progress, while others begin as powerhouses but level up far slower than their weaker counterparts. You can even modify characters by equipping them with different weapons, some of which add extra attacks or do extra damage against certain classes. The downside of this is that each weapon has a limited number of uses, and the more powerful a weapon, the fewer times you can use it before it breaks.
Despite all of these features, Shadow Dragon is actually more simplistic than most of the Fire Emblem titles that have made their way to the U.S. It's a remake of a Famicom game, and while it has certainly gotten some modern updates, it lacks a lot of the basic features that U.S.-only Fire Emblem fans may take for granted. Gone is the ability to pick up and carry lighter soldiers, which significantly changes how the paladins and other heavy units are used when compared to their roles in the previous titles. Likewise, many of the optional stat-influencing aspects, such as special skills and character relationships, did not end up in the remake. The result is a much more simple game, which is a mixed bag. While it makes the game more accessible for newcomers to the Fire Emblem series, it also means that gamers who've been following the franchise will find the gameplay lacking. On the plus side, the weapon forging system found in the console Fire Emblem titles is also available in Shadow Dragon, allowing to you to spend extra money once per stage to upgrade a weapon's stats and abilities and give it a custom name.
Despite the changes, Shadow Dragon retains the permanent death feature for which Fire Emblem is infamous. If you lose someone in battle, except for Marth, he is permanently lost, and when you lose Marth, the game is over. However, Shadow Dragon introduces a few new features to make it more forgiving to less skilled gamers. First and foremost is the addition of special optional bonus missions, which you get only if you lose a certain number of characters or fail certain objectives. These extra stages tend to exist entirely to get you back on your feet after a particularly disastrous rout of your forces. While you lose any troops who have died, these bonus stages will give you access to special weapons and characters that wouldn't be available on the regular path. These weapons and characters are fairly rare and powerful, which make it a lot easier to get back on your feet. However, if you're a particularly good gamer, this probably won't even occur to you, and it's quite possible to go through the entire game without seeing hide or hair of these bonus missions.
The second is the game's Reclass feature. With the exception of those few rare characters who have a unique class, any character in the game can be Reclassed at any time. Depending on the character's default class, he can be turned into one of the other character classes in the game. You can transform a paladin into a heavily armored knight, or an archer into a swordsman. The character's basic stats remain the same, but are modified by whatever his new class is. This means that if you feel the need for more heavily armored knights or long-range archers in a stage, it is only a button press away. This also means that you're not completely doomed if you should lose one of the rarer units, since you can simply replace them with a class-changed unit. It's worth noting that not all characters are created equal, so even if a character can change into a class, that doesn't mean he'll be very good at it. On the other hand, some class changes can turn a seemingly useless character into an unstoppable powerhouse. It's going to be up to each gamer to figure out what does and doesn't work.
Finally, Shadow Dragon gives players a limited version of in-mission saves. Located in the stages are glowing save points, which are usually found near the beginning and end of a stage. Stepping on this save point allows you to make a save in battle, from which you can then choose to restart at any time. However, these saves have a fairly strict limitation. Each save point can only be used once per battle, although careful usage of these save points can make a critical error far less painful if you decide to reload instead of soldier on through a bad situation.
Shadow Dragon is also the first title in the franchise to offer online play, although what is offered is not particularly impressive. The coolest feature is the ability to loan units to your friends, at which point your version of the loaned character is given to your friend as a "special" iteration. Whoever gets the "loan" unit can choose to deploy it in place of his own. The loaned unit doesn't gain experience points but slowly gains bonuses to their attributes, which are transferred to your own version of that character. Loan units have a few weaknesses. If you don't have a particular character in your party, you can't borrow it from a friend. Likewise, if the loan unit dies, so does your version of the unit. Finally, using a loan unit takes away precious experience from your characters, which may hurt you more in the long run than losing a few units. There is also an online shop, but this isn't particularly impressive, and simply allows you to buy certain powerful items, most of which are available fairly easily in-game.
The final online mode is Multiplayer Battle, where you pick any five of your units and deploy them onto a stage against five of an opponent's units. These custom multiplayer maps are basically identical to single-player maps with one major exception: the fog of war. This means that while the basic map is visible, most squares are "blacked out," preventing you from seeing exactly who or what is in those squares. There is a diamond-shaped radius of vision that extends from your characters, but if they run into an unseen enemy, they stop in their tracks and lose their turn. Although this feature is in later Fire Emblem games, it doesn't appear in the single-player campaign, but the entire multiplayer game takes place under the cover of the fog of war. Most of your weapons and items are available, including custom-forged weapons and any of the special items earned throughout the game. There are two ways to win in multiplayer: kill all of your opponents or capture the castle by moving a unit to its entrance. Whoever is holding the castle at the end of 10 turns is the winner.
Unfortunately, multiplayer mode is profoundly unbalanced. Unless you're playing with friends, you're randomly matched up with anyone else who's playing, regardless of level. This means that unless you've already finished the game, there is absolutely no reason to touch the multiplayer segment, as max-level super warriors will crush you most of the time. Even when I played it, using an unoptimized team I brought from finishing the game, I was paired up against unfortunate opponents with low-level teams, which made the fights extremely unfun for both sides. Unless you're using a perfectly optimized max-level team, there is basically no reason to touch the online play. You're either going to face people you absolutely can't defeat or foes who you will step on without even trying. If you're willing to go through the trouble to optimize your teams, there may be some fun to be found there, but the game is clearly not balanced for it, and every single "optimized" team I encountered was made up of five of the same seven characters, all with basically identical equipment, classes and stats.
Visually, Shadow Dragon is not much of a change from the GBA games. The map graphics are almost identical, and despite the change in art style, the character animations aren't a particularly big upgrade. The models used in Shadow Dragon are a bit blander compared to their GBA counterparts, even though they're larger and slightly smoother in animation. There are very few special effects, and they didn't even bother to create a special animation set for Marth's trademark weapon the Falchion, which looks identical to a regular sword except that a flash of light pops across the screen before each attack. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is fantastic, featuring a lot of remixed version of classic Fire Emblem songs, almost all of which are memorable, including a number of tunes that will sound familiar from Super Smash Bros.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon makes for an interesting introduction to the series, but it's going to feel a bit backward to anyone who has played the "older" games in the franchise. Since it's a remake, the gameplay is understandably archaic, but at the same time, its status as a remake doesn't mean that it's OK to regress. It's fun, but anyone who has made it through the GBA or console versions of the game will find Shadow Dragon to be terribly limited. This might be more forgivable if the story line were not dull and lacking any interesting motivation or characters so that you could overlook the scaled-back gameplay. While the online features provide a little extra gameplay, it isn't enough to keep a gamer's interest for long. At the end of the day, Shadow Dragon is still a Fire Emblem game, so there is plenty of fun to be had. It's just that it's tough to recommend this one over the older GBA titles, even though it's more accessible to the masses.