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The original Fire Emblem is great on the Switch, but Nintendo’s retro strategy continues to confuse

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A classic gets a first chance with a new audience

Like many longtime Fire Emblem fans, I’ve never actually played the first game in the series. 1990’s Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light kicked off what has slowly turned into one of Nintendo’s most important franchises, a series that blends tense tactical battles with character-driven storytelling. It’s not my fault, though: the original game never actually launched outside of Japan.

Three decades later, that’s finally changing with the release of Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light on the Nintendo Switch. It’s a solid, no-frills port that’s only $5.99, making it an enticing option for fans looking for a history lesson. But it also points to Nintendo’s increasingly confusing strategy for its large library of classic games.

First, the game itself. If you’re coming to Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light after playing a more recent entry in the series — like, say, 2019’s Three Houses — you’ll probably be shocked by how straightforward the original game is. It doesn’t have any of the relationship-building that eventually became a staple of the franchise. Instead, the focus is almost entirely on turn-based, strategic combat. You control Marth and a small army of soldiers, traveling to different kingdoms to ward off enemies. This almost always means defeating every soldier and capturing the castle.

There are some nice twists in terms of your goals and the map’s geography, and the game neatly interweaves story with combat. I actually found it surprising how well Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light holds up. It’s particularly great as a Switch game, where I can knock out a battle, or even just a few turns, whenever I have free time. While it’s mostly a straight port, there are some nice modern touches, including a rewind feature, the ability to bookmark mid-battle, and an option to fast-forward through the incredibly slow enemy turns.

As much as I’m enjoying the game, I do wonder why it’s not part of Switch Online. Selling classic games individually is how Nintendo used to operate, of course, with its Virtual Console on platforms like the Wii and Wii U. But that changed with the Switch. In order to lure players to its fledgling online subscription service, Nintendo added a Netflix-like feature, featuring a growing library of NES and SNES titles to play through. It’s turned into one of my favorite things about the Switch.

In the past, Nintendo has even added unreleased games, most notably Star Fox 2, a canceled SNES game that first debuted as part of the SNES Classic mini-console, as well as Mario Picross, which didn’t originally launch in North America. These kinds of surprise releases are important to drum up excitement for any streaming service. It’s why Netflix spends so much on original series and Microsoft dropped $7.5 billion on Bethesda to beef up Xbox Game Pass.

Switch Online isn’t quite the same as those, but it still needs a steady stream of new (retro) releases to keep people subscribing. And it’s in the unique position where most of the games it announces as coming soon, whether it’s Donkey Kong Country or Super Metroid, are ones that fans are already familiar with. A release like Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light changes this. It’s a rare surprise.

I fully understand that rereleasing the original Fire Emblem is more involved than most Switch Online titles. Not only does it have some new quality-of-life features, but it’s also a text-heavy game that had to be localized. So in some ways, it makes sense as a standalone release. But it would also be a boon for the subscription service, one that would help simplify Nintendo’s often frustrating approach to its own history that’s scattered across platforms and devices. (To make matters even stranger, much like Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the game will only be on sale until March 31st, 2021.)

Nintendo Switch Online solved some of this, with a steadily growing library that was easily accessible for subscribers, all on an incredibly popular piece of hardware. It’s also not hard to envision a future where that subscription follows you to future Nintendo devices, whatever they may be. Maybe one day I won’t have to repurchase Super Metroid for every new Nintendo console.

I highly recommend Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light for fans looking to dig into how the series evolved. Playing the original Fire Emblem in 2020 is a fascinating experience that’s long overdue. I just wish the process of playing it, and the rest of Nintendo’s enviable lineup of classic games, was a little more straightforward. Now where is Mother 3.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light launches on December 4th on the Nintendo Switch.