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Gemfire (NES) artwork

Gemfire (NES) review




Koei released Gemfire in 1991 for the NES, with SNES, Sega Genesis, and even DOS ports released soon afterward. Like other Koei titles, Gemfire is a turn based strategy game. Unlike Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however, Gemfire takes place on a fantasy European-like island that looks a bit like a squashed Great Britain rather than historical East Asia. Game flavors include one player, two player, and demo modes. 


Princess Robyn steals King Eselred's crown and releases six of its seven gems into the night sky. The gems hold powerful wizards captive, who ally with opposing nations upon their release. Now armed with the wizards, rivals seek to dethrone king Eselred and rule the isle of Ishmeria. However, Eselred still possesses the dragon, the seventh and most powerful gem. 

Controls and Mechanics 

As leader of one of the various nations, you fight battles, hoard gold, stock crops, protect your lands, and all the while keep the populous happy. Victory is achieved when you ''unite'' Ishmeria (i.e. forcefully take over the opposition). 

You can choose between four scenarios and four families per scenario. In two player mode, both players choose a family. The four scenarios are different starting points along a time line. The family leader rules over his home territory and his vassals are appointed lords of loyal states. Each character has attributes in military ability, politics, and charisma, which affect the outcome of battles, state development, and negotiation tactics, respectively. Likewise, towns have ratings in loyalty, cultivation, and protection, which rate how much gold, crops, and shelter from disasters towns receive. Ishmeria consists of thirty providences, and each receives one ''move'' per month. The order of turns is semi-random. 

Controls are simple and the learning curve level for a Koei strategy game. With only sixteen simply labeled commands, there's not much mystery to the basics of game play. Commands are grouped under four general actions for military, development, negotiation, and miscellaneous uses. Under military are actions for attacking other territories, recruiting new troops, moving troops to another territory, and hiring monsters and mercenaries. Development actions include developing agriculture and city protection, buying and selling food, giving food to the populous, and transporting resources to another territory. Negotiation activities feature ally with a foreign nation, negotiate surrender of an entire nation or just a vassal, sabotage of a foreign territory, and plundering of resources. Finally, miscellaneous actions include viewing statistics of lands and lords of any nation, changing the lord of a state, entrusting a state to the computer, and a search command. 

Sixteen commands are few enough, but the realistically good ones are even fewer. Notably negotiation tactics are worthless as they either do not provide enough to warrant a spent turn or they fail miserably unless the lord has ridiculously high charisma. Also, the entrust and search commands are absolutely worthless which brings the generally usable commands down to ten. 

Occasionally, battles must be fought to expand the nation or protect against invasions. Horses, bowmen, two types of infantry, and an optional ''fifth unit'' (a wizard or monster/mercenary) line up on opposite sides of the screen. Battles are won when all troops on either side are obliterated or the other team's flag is captured. 

Battles are generally quite enjoyable. Fighting isn't as easy as holding down a button as a fair amount of strategy is required to win. Each territory has a different landscape, and troop positioning is a key element. Knowing when to advance, retreat, and swap fresh troops for vanquished ones is required for victory 

However, battles are a bit clunky, and they sometimes seem to take a little longer than they should. The computer generally moves its troops only when it is the aggressor, so when you attack, you have to go all the way to their base, which takes about six or seven turns. When swords clash, nifty animation sequences depict the action. However, these visuals add even more time to the already long battles; fortunately Koei had the foresight to include a toggle to turn animations off. 


Atypical for Koei, Gemfire is quite easy; shockingly so, in fact. Perhaps the game's biggest flaw, Gemfire never offers a huge challenge. While one would imagine that the scenarios became more difficult as they went on, they actually become easier: the fourth scenario is by far the easiest. This happens because on the time line, Eselred is strongest in the first scenario, possessing nearly half the game's map, but by the fourth scenario, his holdings chip away to a mere thirteen percent. Additionally, the other families roughly split the map equally, so you can easily take out two entire kingdoms before the computer even notices. In fact, scenario four can be won in less than a year (twelve turns). 

The main problem is that the computer's artificial intelligence is terrible. It places poor generals on the frontier, does not properly develop its lands, makes terrible decisions in battle, and is not aggressive enough in general. The most difficult situation is choosing the fourth family in the first scenario. You get one territory, a mediocre leader, a weak wizard, and a very powerful next door neighbor. By all accounts it should be impossible to win, but it's not. In fact, there is almost no challenge increase by choosing weaker families; essentially, conquering the game just takes a little longer.


Being that there are only two main views in the game, map and battlefield, Koei spent a lot of the storage space on graphical extras, and Gemfire shines in that area. Especially lavish are the introduction and ending sequences with detailed pictures of Princess Robyn, pleasant palette selections, and impressive lighting and shading techniques. The battle fight animations are also quite impressive and extravagant and change depending on types and numbers of troops. However, since you'll most likely want to turn off battle animations, most of Koei's extra work is in vain. The map and battle views are purely functional and break no barriers, but each vassal has his own recognizable portrait, which is a nice touch as it adds personally to otherwise statistical characters. 


Gemfire includes decent music, which is necessary considering the amount of time spent listening to each piece. Unfortunately, there are only four music pieces for the map view and barely more battle music tunes. Even the best music becomes unlistenable after hearing it for hours on end, and Gemfire's is no exception. Adding to the plight is the fact that the battle musics are much lower quality than the map music. Overall, Gemfire's music is good, but you may want to turn it down after an hour or so. 

Gemfire lacks sounds effects in general; mostly they are relegated to informative tones to alert the player of an action. In battle, sounds play when troops march, and a few primitive effects play during the optional battle animations. 


Despite its lack of challenge, Gemfire is an extremely enjoyable game. The controls and actions are quite responsive, the game moves at a reasonable pace, and sometimes it's just fun obliterating the computer in an easy game. The learning curve is level, which means you can pick up the basics in minutes, but the play is interesting enough to keep you enthralled for hours. Four scenarios with four families each virtually ensures replay, and each game takes several hours to beat, which means that even this simple strategy game holds at least twenty hours worth.

Gemfire would be more fun if the computer was more aggressive and if there was more continuity between scenarios. A lot of story line potential exists that is not used. While the two player mode is a nice touch, Gemfire is not the kind of game you play with a friend. Demo mode is completely boring. It was probably included to help a player get used to the game mechanics, but it is completely pointless as the computer does not show you what moves it is making. About the only worthwhile aspect of demo mode is a glimpse into the occasional battles, but they're painful to watch since the computer fights so terribly, even against itself. 


To sum it up in a phrase, Gemfire is the Final Fantasy Mystic Quest of strategy games: this is a good starter strategy game but simplistic play and low challenge may leave players craving more, which may be what Koei hoped. No matter how you slice it, however, Gemfire is surely one of the best strategy games on the NES and should be in every strategy lover's collection.

whelkman's avatar
Community review by whelkman (May 26, 2008)

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