The Nintendo DS recently celebrated its fifth birthday. And for these last five years, gamers have been asking repeatedly, “Why no Fire Emblem DS yet?” At long last, their calls have been answered as “Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon” — yes, it’s a silly name — came stateside mid-February.
For those unfamiliar with the “Fire Emblem” name: First, shame on you, and second, it is a longstanding tactical-RPG series that, until recently, remained largely unreleased outside of Japan. Now U.S. gamers enjoy five “FE” titles, on GameCube, Wii, DS and GameBoy Advance. In fact, the widespread desire and expectation of a “FE” game for the DS stemmed from the critical and popular success of the two “FE” titles for GBA, making obvious the formula of “Fire Emblem on a portable console equals success.”
So how does “Shadow Dragon” stack up? On the whole, quite well, though it is not flawless. A remake of the series’ first installment back in 1990, “Shadow Dragon” tells the story of Marth, who you may recognize as “the blue-haired guy” from Super Smash Bros. Melee, and unfortunately doesn’t win many points for plot. In fact, it is so thinly developed that you’ll stop reading the fluff dialogue after a chapter or two. Something about reclaiming your lost kingdom and fighting an evil dragon that is somehow behind it all. No juicy betrayals, love scandals, twists or emotionally charged moments. Borrring.
But typically the plot is not the main appeal of the “FE” games, but rather the coleslaw to the main dish that is the game play. And fortunately the DS port delivers in this category. Although there are really little new innovations to the series template of turn-based grid-movements, story chapters and the rock-paper-scissors fighting method, the staleness doesn’t overwhelm the solid mechanics. Talk about not fixing that which isn’t broken.
There are a few new features on “Shadow Dragon,” ranging from useful to transparent afterthoughts. As anyone familiar with the series knows, the most hair-pulling aspect that makes you want to smash the controller is getting to the end of a chapter after 45 minutes of gameplay, only to make a false step and have a character die. While the characters remain unrevivable after death, “Shadow Dragon” allows for in-chapter save-points that allow you to log progress during a battle so all is not for naught should your archer get ambushed.
Also new to the series on the DS port are online capabilities. While the option to battle online via Wi-Fi or playing wirelessly against a friend seems pretty neat, it feels somewhat underdeveloped. The online-shop also feels completely unnecessary and almost a gimmick to get players to open up to the games online capabilities, since “Shadow Dragon” is entirely playable without accessing them.
Poor story and weak innovations are just minor quibbles really compared with the major flaws of “Shadow Dragon”: characters and graphics.
One of the aspects of the “Fire Emblem” series that has always contributed to its high esteem was the characters and the class-system. “Shadow Dragon” essentially pisses all of this. First of all, there are about twice as many characters as there ought to be. When the player essentially will only use about 15 units, offering 30 plus is excessive and very unnecessary — why on earth would anyone need four different Pegasus knights to choose from? Superfluity aside, the excess strongly detracts from the character development — even by the end of the game it remains vague or a complete mystery who half your units are and why they’re fighting for you. The game then further hinders character development by opening up the class-system, allowing the player to freely change the class of their characters as they wish. The ridiculousness of seamlessly having your mage deftly wield up a lance instead aside, the option offers too much customizability, to the point where it’s not even worth accessing.
And lastly, the entire game looks as if it could have been a beefed-up GameBoy Advance game, but with two screens. For the five years producers Nintendo and Intelligent Systems had to make “Shadow Dragon,” the final product could have had so much more sheen.
While “FE” fans will rejoice having another set of chapters of addicting gameplay to plow through, the effect is a somewhat unfulfilling one. Not a bad game by general standards, “Shadow Dragon” falls short on its own standards as a “Fire Emblem” installment.
3 1/2 stars out of 5.