On Sunday I said goodbye to the game that saved my life. This unassuming sixty by thirty-five millimetre cartridge, housed in a special plastic casing to protect it from the elements, was my emotional release during a tumultuous childhood. I sold it for forty dollars, to prevent myself from starving. A few interested buyers questioned the price point, one offered to buy it for thirty, but my price remained firm. If I was now being forced to sell it, I was going to sell it dearly.
Gaming has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. No longer is the playing of games seen as a losers recluse. Playing to vent, to release, is now an acceptable part of our daily routines. Heck, even my ex-stepmother, who would constantly berate me for playing Battlefield after a long day of cashier work, would constantly be spotted playing Clash Of Clans and tuning out the world. Sometimes I wonder what my childhood would have been like without gaming. I happened to start gaming right at the final phase before gaming became mainstream and as a result I also caught the tail end of the “gaming is for losers” stigma.
I must admit to being an awkward child, my mind enveloped with undiagnosed Aspergers syndrome and the omnipresent bouts of depression that too often accompanies it. It was a struggle to make friends and, more importantly, to keep them. Every school I went to, a bullying atmosphere would inevitably arise in it. Even my teachers started getting in their snide remarks and putdowns, with one notably snarking “And they say there is no such thing as a stupid question” when I dared to ask her what a synapse was in Biology. Cue mocking laughter.
I inevitably just strayed away from just trying to talk with people, always keeping in mind the horrifically constant putdowns and remarks. I did eventually find friends in my high school drama class, if only because all the misfits usually coalesce in that area, but these too eventually drifted away. In an atmosphere of intense loneliness, I turned to video games. Because of my family’s rather unwieldy financial and emotional situations, I would almost never have the chance to be connected to the online multiplayer scene. Instead, my attentions were turned toward single player experiences.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of when I first discovered Fire Emblem, most of my childhood memories are just a haze, but I do remember being absolutely obsessed with it. For various reasons, it, Halo: Combat Evolved and a few assorted GBA and Xbox titles, were the few games I had access to over a roughly three year period. I played each campaign of all of them thrice over. This obviously took up an obscenely large amount of time, time that my parents were concerned took away from my ability to make friendships or interact with the world. In retrospect, a lot of their concerns were understandable. Also in retrospect, most of them were infuriating. As if the constant early attempts and rejections were not proof positive already that something was “wrong” with my interpersonal abilities in a way that merely making more attempts could not ever fix. But I digress.
Playing through Fire Emblem is an amazing experience. Even before my critical persona emerged around 2010, I still recognized a great game. The depth of mechanical interplay between story and gameplay was something I had never before experienced, and is a trick notably few games have managed to pull off. It supported a vast array of play styles and strategies, with even those unlocking new content in a pleasant stride for variety and replayability. I even bought the official strategy guide and planned out each new campaign meticulously. By the time of writing, I had basically mastered the game and still was able to find immense enjoyment from simple tactical manoeuvres.
What really hooked me was the writing. To be fair, the main story line in and of itself is medieval fantasy 101, and a lot of the endgame content is fairly hokey material. In practice, the real meat of the writing was in the relationships between the characters. In the game you can have certain characters remain side by side in combat for X amount of turns to unlock support conversations which, aside from the character development, would also provide combat bonuses for the bonded pairs. This could elevate certain characters into game changing powerhouses. To say that this mechanic vastly increased the mechanical depth is to laugh at the mere concept, across hundreds of play throughs and combinations, I still haven’t unlocked all of the supports.
Getting back to the writing. As each play through revealed more and more character motivations, quirks and stratagems, I became immersed into their lives. Characters that seemed, on first glance, to be shallow tropes were revealed to be regular people interacting with the world around them in the only ways they could. Even the main storyline had hints of this, with Mathew the thief grieving over the loss of a childhood friend, Hector, one of the main characters, worrying about his brother and his legacy and Florina the shy pegasus knight freaking out about conversing with literally anybody. I warmly related to the motley band of warriors, brigands and lords that the game assembled for me, in a way that real life, with all its cruelties and slights, simply could not at that time in my life. The permanent death mechanic also made this game great, by making me value my soldiers lives, especially once i’d related to them so much. It showed me that a characters life could be valuable, even if, at first glance, I couldn’t see the depths of their motivations. One can’t help but feel that a bit of this spirit lives on in modern deconstructive games like Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock Infinite, let alone the sequels.
Then there is the music, oh the music. People used to laugh at me for saying that I played a lot of games for the music and yet there is a melodious bent to every single track that never fails to give me warm feelings. From the painful sadness of Requiem to the longing of Lyn’s desire, from the well worn battle heroics of Companions to the calmness of Respite In Battle. There’s not a bad track here, and I remember spending hours in the sound room, just listening to my favourite tracks over and over again.
Fire Emblem helped me weather most of the roughest times in my life, even the depths of depression that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst foes. While there were times I would be playing other games to get away from it, the sheer quality and emotional warmth of it would bring me back. In the darkest days, there was always the warm glow of the Gameboy Advance light to keep my afloat, and I wholeheartedly credit Fire Emblem with saving my life. No regrets.
The game has aged, insofar as its limited sprite work on the battle maps and the admittedly unwieldy tactical interfaces before battles can age. It still stands as a remarkable achievement, to the point where I wonder why it doesn’t place high on the “Greatest Games Of All Time” lists that sprout up everywhere nowadays. I’m not stating that out of rose tinted nostalgia either, most of the games from my youth have fallen out of my favour simply because better games came along and I very much remember being as engrossed with them as I was with Fire Emblem. I fall victim to recency bias just as much as any contemporary game critic and I still cannot imagine any game that has bettered it.
To that end, I also credit Fire Emblem (and, to a lesser extent, Halo: Combat Evolved) with igniting my critical instincts to give credit to greatness where it is due. In recognizing its flaws, I also began to cast a weary eye towards other so-called masterpieces proclaimed as “the Citizen Kane of gaming”. To the extent that my forced exile from multiplayer gaming mattered, I also came to value the single player experience as the true statement of artistic intent, though I have started to come around to multiplayer as of late. I had played games before, but I hadn’t played games that I knew mattered before Fire Emblem. Any list of great games that leaves it off is critically bankrupt.
And now I am forced to say goodbye. I haven’t played the game in the two years since I moved to Vancouver, but it is always present in the back of my critical mind, like the green light at the end of daisy’s pier, a nearly unreachable beacon of quality that I hold all games to. To avoid starving, I must sell it and yet again the game has saved my life. I smiled as I realized that, through all of the pain, it still had my back. And now I say goodbye.
Goodbye Hector, the axe lord, whose campaign, unlocked after the “main” Eliwood campaign, I consider the true main experience.
Goodbye Lyndis, sword maiden of Sacae. Your strength puts paid to the notions of no strong female characters in gaming.
Goodbye Nino, the mage who I went through gauntlets to save, and even more to level you up into the powerhouse of all powerhouses.
Goodbye Oswin, the stout general who I never left off of my rosters in a single play through.
Goodbye to all of the characters who had me hooked through every move, every death, every triumph.