Like many old-school Nintendo fans, I first discovered Fire Emblem from Super Smash Bros. Melee. The long-running strategy RPG series was Japan-exclusive for the longest time, since Nintendo thought the games would be too complicated for our tiny Western brains. But once I unlocked Marth, and his hot-headed counterpart, Roy, in Smash, I just had to find out where these dashing anime sword-slingers came from. Luckily, the hype was finally enough to bring the series stateside, with 2003’s Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword on the Game Boy Advance. This game was my life when I was a teen, but I haven’t played it since then. So how does it hold up today, nearly two decades later? (I feel old just typing that.)
Like later games Fates and Three Houses, Blazing Sword has three separate story arcs, each following its three protagonists: Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector. Lyn’s tale is self-contained, and deals with the nomadic swordswoman discovering her noble heritage and rescuing her long-lost father. Eliwood’s and Hector’s tales, which take up the bulk of the story, are all about ending a bloody war with dark magic lurking just below the surface. (I should mention that Blazing Sword is a prequel to the previous game, the Japan-only Binding Blade, but you don’t need to play that game at all to understand the story here.)
As far as Fire Emblem stories go, it’s pretty average. But having each tale focus on a different protagonist gives the game some of the strongest main characters in the series. Hector is a roughneck with a heart of gold, and an absolute beast with his halberd. Eliwood is more your generic good-boy Shonen protagonist, but his character arc is so tragic that I had to warm up to him by the end. But my favorite by far is Lyn, one of the coolest female characters in the franchise. She’s strong, sensitive, a little tsundere, and can crit like 5 times in a row while dodging every attack that comes her way. Can we please put her in Smash already?
The GBA’s limited hardware has aged Blazing Sword’s presentation a bit, but Intelligent Systems still did their damndest to make the game feel epic. Cutscenes are barely animated lip flaps and a lot of reading dialogue, but the beautifully drawn character art gives the story the feel of a theatrical costume drama. The battle animations are incredible, packing a ton of style and personality into just a few frames. And while the GBA’s sound chip left a lot to be desired, there game still has a sharp sound design and some blood-pumping tunes. You’ve probably heard “Together, We Ride” from Melee, but the main battle theme is also a climactic banger:
The most refreshing part, for me, was how well the gameplay holds up. Although it lacks a lot of the quality of life features introduced in later games, the battle system is almost exactly the same. By this point, Intelligent Systems had nailed the Fire Emblem formula: tactically maneuvering your units across the map, fighting hordes of enemies in pitched battle, screaming at your system when your favorite Pegasus Knight gets perma-killed by an unlucky crit. Every turn can be a life-or-death situation, and seizing the throne at the end of an hour-long fight is immensely satisfying. I remember thinking this game was brutally hard when I first played it, but Eliwood’s tale was a walk in the park this time around. Good to know I’m at least a little smarter now than I was when I was 13, I guess…
The main difference between this and later games is that everything happens in battle. There is no hub or world map: whenever you want to visit towns or shops, you have to do it while dodging enemy fire. And there are no random battles, so you can’t rely on level grinding and brute force to win. While this can be stressful and makes the game very linear, it does make it a more “pure” strategic experience. I prefer the World Map used in Sacred Stones and Awakening, but each approach works for its respective game.
Unfortunately, recommending Blazing Sword has the most frustrating caveat in media. It gets good… about 10 hours in. See, Nintendo apparently still thought Western gamers were too dumb to understand how to play a strategy RPG, so they turned Lyn’s entire campaign into a painfully slow forced tutorial. And by “forced”, I mean the game literally does the entire first battle for you. Oh, you can skip the tutorial, but not until you beat the game! Sure, strategy games can be complicated, and explaining things can be useful for players new to the genre. But as I’ve now played, oh, probably too much Fire Emblem, having so little freedom felt stifling and a bit patronizing. Lyn’s story is still fun, but it should have let players skip the tutorial from the start.
And maybe this is a nitpick, but I don’t think the supporting cast is as memorable as other games in the series. There are over 40 playable characters, but a lot of them are just kind of… there. You keep the good ones, and the rest sit on the bench forever. To be fair, the support conversations, a staple of the series, help flesh out their personalities a little bit. But it takes forever to unlock these cutscenes, and you can only have five per unit. If you want to see all the supports, you’ll have to replay the game, uh, too many times. (Or just watch them all on YouTube, I guess.)
Despite the slow start, though, Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword is a fantastic game that still holds up. The series would only get bigger from here, but this one has a certain old-school charm that’s missing from the newer titles. If you love strategy RPGs and don’t mind a little jank, it’s a perfect introduction to the “classic” era of Fire Emblem. Other games might have more challenging maps, more intricate plots, or more gratuitous fanservice. But Blazing Sword was my first Fire Emblem game, so I’ll always have a special place in my heart for it.