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Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo (SNES) artwork

Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo (SNES) review

"Other than that, in Monshou no Nazo, there's a certain generic feel to characters. Some guys are faster and get critical hits more often. Others ride horses (which they must dismount to participate in castle levels), so they can cover terrain more quickly. A few more either use bows, can unlock doors and chests or have superior defense at the cost of inferior speed. Overall, most of them tend to mesh together into a big glob of the mundane."

Whenever a series of games survives through multiple generations of systems, it's always neat to experience how they've changed over the years. Obviously, the graphics and sound will improve, but what about the actual gameplay? Will the inevitable changes to the formula over the years provide a superior experience...or will they cause gamers to sadly shake their heads while mumbling something about "if it ain't broke...don't fix it"?

A couple of years ago, I played Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance. It was the first installment in the series released in America and a damn good game despite a few imperfections such as the very easy and overly-long tutorial. Still, after playing it, I was very pleased and felt that the Shining Force series had a more-than-worthy rival in the realm of turn-based strategy fun.

After playing the first SNES entry, Monshou no Nazo, I can safely say that a good deal of tinkering happened with the series between its release year of 1994 and 2003, when Fire Emblem finally came to America. This game didn't possess many of the elements that attracted me to the GBA game, instead leaving me with a large collection of brutally tough maps with next-to-no plot connecting them.

The lack of anything more than a bare-bones story didn't really surprise me. Monshou no Nazo is divided into two separate games. The first is an enhanced remake of the first NES Fire Emblem game, while the second is a sequel created specifically for this cartridge. When you're dealing with an enhanced NES game, you're not going to get a convoluted plot with betrayals happening every other chapter. You're also not going to get characters designed to potentially develop relationships with a few other party members, granting them statistical boosts if they're able to unlock a handful of "support" conversations by staying close to them on the battlefield.

What you will get is the standard Fire Emblem story without any of those frills tossed into the mix to make things more interesting. Marth is a young lord, forced into exile due to the machinations of an evil priest named Garnef, who plans to unleash hell on the world in the form of the evil dragon god Medeus. Controlling Marth and his rapidly-growing band of heroes, you'll go all over the world, righting wrongs and collecting the necessary weapons and items to put Garnef and his god in their place and end the first game. The second is...essentially the same. This time, one of Marth's comrades has seemingly turned to the dark side, so you must, once again, travel the world to find friends and important items before eventually overpowering him and taking on the resurrected tag team of Garnef and Medeus.

Simplistic or not, in a turn-based strategy game, the story is little more than that thing bridging the gap between one large-scale battle and the next, so if the fighting was awesome, it'd be easy to forgive how the plot was lacking. On one level, things were good. Most of these fights were tough and, as one expects from Fire Emblem games, mistakes can be very costly, as when a character dies, they're gone for the rest of the game. It can be very easy to lose a powerful and beloved member of your party due to a miscalculation causing him to be overrun and chopped down by foes while you watch helplessly. A big part of the strategy in this game simply involves utilizing your party members in a way that not only maximizes their effectiveness, but also keeps them alive.

Unfortunately, a very integral ingredient to this hadn't been implemented in the Fire Emblem world as of Monshou no Nazo -- having certain weapons and spells be more or less effective against other types. I loved this aspect. If a horde of axe-wielding brigands were coming after me, I'd put my swordsmen on the front lines, as they'd cut through those bandits in no time! But if those carcasses were being backed up by horse-riding knights hoisting spears, my victory would be short-lived, as lances are as effective against swords as swords are against axes. With each unit being strong against some foes and weak against others, there's a ton of depth to the combat.

Sadly, back in 1994, players got a much simplified version of all this. Let's see. Pegasus and dragon riders get butchered by archers, but are compensated with superior magic resistance and movement than the average melee character. The spells of a mage ignore physical defense, making them great at decimating heavily-armored troops. Other than that, in Monshou no Nazo, there's a certain generic feel to characters. Some guys are faster and get critical hits more often. Others ride horses (which they must dismount to participate in castle levels), so they can cover terrain more quickly. A few more either use bows, can unlock doors and chests or have superior defense at the cost of inferior speed. Overall, most of them tend to mesh together into a big glob of the mundane.

With so few party members having remarkable skills setting them apart from others, I tended to feel that success in difficult battles had about as much to do with a combination of luck and simply learning more about each level through my failures than any legitimate use of strategy on my part. A mid-game map in the first game perfectly illustrates this.

You open with Garnef giving one of those "You stupid kids are trying to challenge me? Time to die!" speeches all villains are compelled to deliver at some point. Unlike most bosses, who stand stationary on a particular building or throne you must seize to win the level, he immediately moves toward you with malicious intent. This isn't good, as he has a really, really powerful spell at his disposal AND you're currently unable to harm him. Making matters worse, a good number of mages and flying foes are also converging on your party's location. Oh yeah, there's also a thief preparing to loot both the level's treasure chests...and you'll have to get past Garnef to stop him!

My goal was to not lose a single party member. I repeatedly failed to even last a handful of turns multiple times. Garnef would grievously wound anyone who got in his range, while the enemy's dragon knights were powerful foes backed up by a number of weaklings who would swoop in like hyenas to deliver the killing blow to an injured character. And then I discovered Garnef is programmed to give a "you're wasting my time" speech and leave the fight after four or five turns! So, all I did was cluster my guys at the beginning of the stage and pick off fliers as they advanced on me...while sending my dragon knight towards the thief and treasure, using her superior mobility to keep FAR away from Garnef. After he left, I butchered everything in my path and won the level. On my third try. That's where luck came into play, as when enemies are connecting with attacks far more frequently than their mediocre hit rate would suggest (or conversely, your guys with great accuracy unexpectedly whiff on a few swings), even solid strategy can lead to failure.

I don't dislike Monshou no Nazo; it just felt outdated to me. More recent games in the Fire Emblem family gave players a deeper combat system with enough dialogue and exposition to allow me to look at characters as being more than "this guy's brother" or "that chick's subordinate". The battles can get very challenging, but seem primitive compared to those in other games. Overall, it's a reasonably fun turn-based strategy game, but not one I'd consider essential for fans of the genre for any reason other than nostalgia.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (February 26, 2010)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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randxian posted March 14, 2010:

That's where luck came into play, as when enemies are connecting with attacks far more frequently than their mediocre hit rate would suggest (or conversely, your guys with great accuracy unexpectedly whiff on a few swings), even solid strategy can lead to failure.

Granted, this is one of the downsides to the series. To me, Fire Emblem is a combination of chess and Texas hold em' poker. The latter is a combination of luck and skill, which is what Fire Emblem as a series sometimes amounts to.

I think a 5 is a fair score if it didn't really impress you, although I strongly disagree with knocking it for feeling "outdated" and not being as in-depth as more recent installments. This was the first FE released on the SNES; of course it's not going to be as advanced as later games.

To me, this would be akin to going back and giving the original Legend of Zelda a poor/mediocre score just because newer games have essentially the same story, but with better graphics, a more fleshed out story, and more NPC interaction. Knocking classic games for feeling classic seems kinda silly to me.
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overdrive posted March 17, 2010:

You know, in a way you're right. It's one of those weird things about reviewing retro games. I think Zipp's Myst review is a perfect counterpoint example of the same thing.

If it's a retro game that you have fond memories of, that will be reflected in your review, score, etc. If I picked up Zelda with the intention of writing a completely fair staff review, it would likely end up very similar to the unabashed praise-fest my user review of it is. I have too many great memories with that game.

But what if it's a game you've never experienced before? All you have then are your initial feelings about it. Or in the case of this game, my feelings of IT compared to those of a more modern Fire Emblem.

To counteract that, I alternated playing Monshou and the first American GBA FE. The simple truth was that I found I much preferred the newer game because of the ways the series had evolved. To me, that justified the score I gave it.

But, yet, back when the game was released, I'm sure it was quite critically acclaimed, so is it fair to review it when I'm not familiar with it...but familiar with a more modern game in the series?

Brings up an interesting dilemma. Is there really any purpose to reviewing those 8/16 bit systems other than personal desire/for the hell of it/fancy contest writing/etc.? The general theme of a retro review tends to be "I used to love/hate this game and here's why it's great/sucked!" or "This game was considered awesome, but BOY! Has it aged badly!"

It's something I've been thinking about for a good while. Over the last couple years, I've probably gone from 35-40 reviews to 25-30 reviews and a big part of that is simply that I do more modern games (which tend to be longer...and cost money, oftentimes) and fewer retro games (shorter on average and easily emulated). A lot of times, if it's a retro game, it's one I'm familiar with or one that I know I'll HATE, so I can put forth a good ol' fashioned bash. And the main reason for that is that I really don't know if it's possible for someone who's kept up with every new gen of systems to truly be fair to the average quality retro game that was the shit back then, but has been outdone big-time by more recent versions.
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zigfried posted March 17, 2010:

I've often seen the argument made that if rated in comparison to modern games, Zelda and Super Mario Bros and Ys would score poorly. In other words, those people -- supposed fans of the games in question -- are saying:

"The Legend of Zelda sucks now."
"Super Mario Bros sucks now."
"Ys Book 1&2 sucks now."

Really? They do?

Feeling classic and feeling old are two different things. If a game has been trumped in all ways by newer games (especially newer episodes in the same series), then what point is there in playing the original? Is it really a classic?

In other words, if reviewing a fun retro game, focus on what it did well, not on what it did first. It's fine to be impressed by ingenuity, but that's not an excuse to award pity points. It's hard to gush praise if newer Fire Emblems do the same stuff and more. But if there's something interesting or naively charming about a particular old instalment, then by all means, focus on that!

If nothing grips the reviewer, then it's fair to say that it just feels outdated, clunky, and old. After all... it is.

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randxian posted March 18, 2010:

what point is there in playing the original? Is it really a classic?

Because although newer versions are similar, there will always be subtle nuances that make each game in a series unique. Sure, LttP and OOT are basically the same thing as the original in terms of plot, but LoZ has a spookier and more lonely feel. Tell me another game that didn't literally scare people a bit with that fantastic dungeon piece. I've talked to people that admitted the music used to scare the shit out of them. Hell, it's still one of the more well known pieces to date. None of the newer Zeldas ever had that effect on people. Have you met anyone who was every the least bit intimdated by anything from OOT?

Having such a psychological effect is pretty gosh darn good for some clunky old fart of a video game. It's the little things that matter.
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honestgamer posted March 18, 2010:

Yeah, the original LoZ probably wasn't the best example since that game is brilliant all around. I agree with the general point that you're trying to make, though. Old games should be fun to play now because they offer something that transcends technical limitations. That should be the goal of every game made, ever. It should be the goal of games made right now and in 10 years, the stuff we find amazing now should still hold up to scrutiny.
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zigfried posted March 18, 2010:

In other words, it's fair for people 10 years from now to rip on today's hits if they aren't having fun.

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randxian posted March 18, 2010:

but that's not an excuse to award pity points

Agreed. I certainly never intended to insinuate such. If a game is good, then it should get praise. If it's garbage, then it's garbage. If it's mediocre, then it's mediocre.

I'm just advocating that we give games their due, that's all.

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