The first thing you might notice upon booting up Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light on Nintendo Switch is how good it looks for a Famicom game. Static screenshots don't do justice to its detailed portraits and simple but attractive sprites, which are so evocative of the comics and anime of the era, particularly Shonen Jump. Once you get past the rather basic, flat-shaded map screens, it's startingly attractive; almost like an intentional demake of the modern Fire Emblem games.
Released in 1990, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light is part of the latter generation of 8-bit games that took a more cinematic approach to its storytelling. Though hardly as detailed, its animated portraits are reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden, released just two years earlier by Tecmo. Upon completing the first mission, it even flashes a "To be continued" message, as if you're actually watching an anime—the type of flourish that would become a large part of the appeal of later 32-bit games like Sakura Wars.
But despite its self-evident quality, and the recent popularity of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, most Americans have never played the original Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light. Denied an official English translation on the NES, Fire Emblem was famously unknown in the west until Super Smash Bros. Melee came along in 2001, followed soon after by Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword for the Game Boy Advance. The closest Americans have gotten to Marth's original adventure is Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, a charmless 2.5D remake for the Nintendo DS that largely tanked with casual and hardcore fans alike.
That's what makes this (frustratingly limited) release so enticing; it's an opportunity for Americans to finally experience a crucial bit of video game history, one which has been locked behind emulators and unofficial fan translations for 30 years. The original Fire Emblem was a genre trailblazer that helped to popularize the turn-based tactics genre on console, and it deserves to be experienced by retro gaming aficionados and series fans alike.
Happily, the overall experience holds up surprisingly well in the modern era, especially in light of the quality-of-life features that have been added to the Switch version. At 2x speed it moves at a brisk clip, with an optional rewind feature making it easy to roll back the inevitable mistakes that arise from the lack of a preview feature for hero and enemy units. The Nintendo Switch version likewise makes it possible to bookmark progress, freeing it from the limited save system of the original.
Without these quality-of-life improvements, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light would probably be nigh unplayable in the modern era. With them, its obvious strengths become more apparent, particularly its presentation. They help to turn it from sluggish, simple historical curiosity into a charming bit of retro arcana.
It's further buoyed by the surprising sophistication of its gameplay. In designing Fire Emblem for the first time, Intelligent Systems clearly wanted to capture the spirit of the RPGs of the day, which is evident in the way that Marth can recruit characters, buy items, and seek out unique treasures. In effect, it's Dragon Quest with more than 52 party members to choose from, down to the way that it encourages you to talk to villagers to learn crucial information. Thus, long-time Fire Emblem fans will find a stripped down but still enjoyable version of the classic series, one that puts the spotlight on fan-favorite characters like Marth, Caeda, Wolf, and Minerva.
What they won't find is Fire Emblem's trademark Support system. Though it's a staple now, romance wasn't introduced to the series until Genealogy of the Holy War was released on Super Famicom several years later. Plenty of fans will argue that romance has become a little too much of a focus for the series, but that doesn't diminish its overall popularity, as Fire Emblem Awakening can attest (insert joke about Advance Wars remaining dormant because you can't romance a tank).
That doesn't make Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light any less of a compelling experience, though. While I have plenty of qualms about the limited nature of its release, I think Nintendo is ultimately doing gaming history a service by releasing an official localization. Up until this point I had largely dismissed the original game, figuring that it was too archaic to enjoy in 2020. Instead, I found a true genre pioneer, with a cleaned-up English localization and enough quality-of-life improvements to elevate its relative strengths.
Even if you can't get that dope collector's set, you should spend the six bucks and download it anyway when it arrives on Dec. 4. It's a piece of Nintendo history that's definitely worth owning.