Why has the Fire Emblem franchise been less popular than other Nintendo titles?
Since the initial 2012 release of Fire Emblem: Awakening, I have heard much more about the franchise from friends and family than I ever had previously. As of December 2014, the game had moved about 1.8 million units, a great success for a series that typically has sold under 1 million units per game.
But how does that compare to best sellers in Nintendo’s other video game franchises?
Nintendo’s best selling Mario game, Super Mario Bros., shipped 40.24 million units. The Legend of Zelda series’ most popular game, Ocarina of Time (N64), sold 7.6 million. Super Smash Bros. Brawl sold 12.14 million, and Pokémon Blue, Green, and Red sold a combined total of 31.38 million.
* Game sales include bundled products and downloads from the e-shop. NES, GBC, and N64 data was last recorded December 2006. All other data was recorded December 2013, and December 2014. Data retrieved from Nintendo Everything.
The sales of Fire Emblem: Awakening pale in comparison to some of the others. Granted, since the other FE games never broke 1 million units Fire Emblem: Awakening was never expected to do this well, and was very possibly slated to be the last game in the series.
What might have made the difference, then?
1. Games before Fire Emblem: Awakening have been brutally difficult (Radiant Dawn, I am looking at you)
FE: Awakening introduced a game mode called “casual mode” which allows characters that lose all their HP in battle to simply retreat rather than die. In previous games, this option was not available. Once a character was dead, he was gone forever (with the exception of the single use of the Aum staff in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon).
If you are like me and tend to want to rush through turn-based strategy games, and (as a result) end up getting everyone killed off, there are many, many frustrated resets before you get anywhere. While there’s still a difficulty or two capable of causing me to want to throw the game across the room, difficulty settings are much more customizable now than they were before.
2. The relationship system was not large, nor fleshed out, until Fire Emblem: Awakening
The relationship system is probably many peoples’ favorite part of the game. In previous games, like Sacred Stones and Blazing Sword, there was a system in place, involving elemental “affinities” that helped calculate bonus stats given by supports and matching the affinity of the map.
Characters could marry, but often only after the game's end credits, and unlike in Fire Emblem: Awakening, children did not spontaneously arise due to time travel. Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, due to its nature as a remake of the original Fire Emblem, does not have the supports and affinities that people seem to enjoy so much. Instead, little conversations and cutscenes that can be triggered by, for example, having a certain number of character units alive (the Gaiden chapters) or having two units on a specific battlefield speak to one another. Fire Emblem: Awakening has a support system but no affinity system, which arguably made relationships a little less complicated.
Add in Awakening's pairing system and getting those interactions became significantly simpler. In previous titles, units had to be next to one another rather than on the same tile with one unit protecting the other, and that is not always a viable option, especially for squishy spellcasters.
A support conversation between Henry and Tharja.
3. Free and paid DLC
While paid DLC can be seen as a negative, it adds something to the series that had not been present before: the ability to grind for experience and gold. In prior installations, there could be some serious limitations on budget as far as what you could buy for your characters. Sometimes, potentially good characters would never develop into strong units because of a lack of experience points, especially if they showed up late in the game.
The random available battles can be used for grinding, and Sacred Stones introduced random encounters as well as a tower in which to grind out levels and support conversations; neither options were nearly as efficient in providing gold or experience as DLC.
4. More advertisement
I have never seen an ad for most of the Fire Emblem games published in English, and that is probably because there was not much publicity in the media for them in the first place. I had never heard of them until one of my good friends told me about them.
Fire Emblem Awakening was advertised as a demo in the e-shop by Nintendo, giving players a chance to test-run it first before buying it. There was also an exclusive Fire Emblem: Awakening 3DS with a digital copy of the game bundled with it.
Improvements and advertisement certainly mean a larger player base. But what about the popularity of other Nintendo franchises?
Overall, Fire Emblem: Awakening lends itself to more casual players than previous games in the franchise. But for all the improvements, other games are still either much better known, or much more appreciated by the Nintendo fanbase.
Bundling and a combination of slightly different games may help explain some of the success of Super Mario Bros. and Pokémon Blue, Green, and Red, but Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Ocarina of Time are standalone games and were not bundled with systems for any significant stretch of time.
What is it the franchise is lacking that other Nintendo games have?
This just comes with the genre. Fire Emblem: Awakening is a game that requires a lot of planning, especially if you are playing a higher difficulty or are trying to gain support bonuses between a specific set of characters.
Not everyone is a good strategist, and I know sometimes I find frustration when I have to slow down and calculate exactly what I need to do, before I do it. Sometimes one misstep is enough to kill a character off. In some other games, like Zelda or Mario, there is a lot more spontaneity; you figure out things as you go.
Unlike a game that requires stealth, or subtlety, you can usually bumble into things and get away with it (unless you are in the Cave of Origins in Zelda, and stumble into more than two or three darknuts). There is no need to preplan every move, and it is pretty simple to go with the flow.
Movement in Fire Emblem is based on a grid system, and every unit has a certain amount of spaces it can move, based on class and terrain.
2. Yet again, advertisement
Despite the e-shop demo that I saw at one point or another, I have never seen an advertisement on television, or in the newspaper, for Fire Emblem: Awakening. However, I have seen such things for recent Mario and Pokémon titles.
Though Robin (the player avatar) and Lucina have made their first appearance in the most recent installation to the Super Smash Bros. series, that may not be enough to interest a gamer already too absorbed in making other characters defy the laws of physics and fly off the screen. Nintendo may have chosen to invest more in the games it makes for “general audiences” rather than the typical strategy-loving audience of Fire Emblem.
3. Introduction to the rest of the world at the same time as Japan
The original Fire Emblem game was released to the public in Japan in 1990. All games, up to Blazing Sword in 2003, were exclusive to Japan and never reached foreign shores, with the exception of the remake of Fire Emblem in the form of Shadow Dragon.
In fact, the first contact with Fire Emblem many had was with Super Smash Bros. Melee, released in 2001, which featured Marth and Roy (if not for the DLC, in Fire Emblem: Awakening a lot of people probably still would not know who Roy is). ‘Who the heck are these people? What is Fire Emblem?’ My young friends and I asked each other. Until 2009, I still had no idea who Marth was.
The fact is, there were 13 years when the Fire Emblem series did not exist in a form usable to most people outside of Japan. The franchise has had far less time than, say, The Legend of Zelda, to be taken in by the rest of the world. Ocarina of Time, considered a landmark game in the Zelda series, practically made Zelda a household name. This came out 5 years before Fire Emblem even debuted in North America.
Popularity can be fickle
Sometimes a game with potential misses the mark and may drive newcomers away, with, for example, an unfriendly user interface or difficult controls. Fire Emblem has not suffered from user interface or control issues, but rather off-putting difficulty and lack of exposure.
Fire Emblem: Awakening brought some much-needed changes to the series, and given the large increase in sales from what units were moved with previous titles, should still be considered quite the success. Looking into the future, we can only hope that Fire Emblem If meets the same standards set by the previous game, or even tops them.