When Nintendo’s battlefield-tactics game Fire Emblem came out in 1990, it was a given that the release would be exclusive to Japan. In that era, Japanese publishers operated on a belief that complex strategy appealed only to the hometown crowd. As a result, U.S. gamers missed out on a generation of rich left-brain gaming—or settled for simplified adaptations like the infamous “Easytype” version of Final Fantasy IV.
Fortunately, the creators of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon didn’t sand down the sharp edges on this DS remake of the Fire Emblem origin story in its U.S. debut. The genius of the game is the way it ramps up difficulty with such care. After an optional prologue that teaches novices how to slide their Archers and Pegasus Knights around the map, the hand-holding ends. In lieu of the clumsy tutorials plaguing modern tactical games, Shadow Dragon introduces new challenges—rough terrain, say, or ornate enemy formations—with a patient rhythm and faith that players will figure it out.
A thin narrative weaves the game’s 25-plus battles together, as fallen prince Marth assembles a ragtag army against a sinister dragon lord. Shadow Dragon isn’t about the story, but you still may get attached to the characters. It’s wrenching to watch a loyal minion, whose fighting prowess you’ve carefully developed, die because you bungled the strategy on the ground. In this game, death is permanent—there are no Revive potions to save your mistakes—so life is that much more meaningful. It’s a simple yet inspired design choice that helped Fire Emblem define the tactical RPG subgenre two decades ago.
Beyond the game: The DS’ top screen, often a vestigial afterthought on retro remakes, is used to great effect here, offering a glut of information to sate your stat-freak urges.
Worth playing for: The chance to play it again. Two difficulty settings and the varied trial-and-error nature of the game make it an enticing replay prospect before you’ve even finished it the first time.
Frustration sets in when: Whether you use the buttons or the stylus, moving a dozen units across the battlefield grid is a tedious tapping exercise.
Final judgment: It shouldn’t have taken 19 years for Nintendo to dig up this Famicom gem.