Credits: Illumio, Michael “Hardin” Ingram, Pandorakun, Crazy Foxie (proof-reading), Sami R (translation)
Notes: This interview was first published in July 2010.
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2. Savouring ‘a pleasant feeling of tension’
Iwata: How about you Narihiro-san? You have been involved with the series from the very first instalment all the way to this title. What do you think is the essence of Fire Emblem?
Narihiro: Yes. Well… This is a very difficult question to answer.
Iwata: Yes. It is, isn’t it? When talking about the essence of a series with such a long tradition as this, there is no way you can describe it in only a few words. As Higuchi-san said just now, opinions are scattered. Just like when we’ve talked about the essence of Zelda or the essence of Mario, everyone has their own opinion on the matter.
Narihiro: That’s why I really can’t give you an unconditional answer. Each time we are working on a new Fire Emblem game, we have similar discussions in the office. I think that the last year or two, especially, has been the period when I have faced this question more than ever.
Iwata: So having grappled with this difficult question, what is the conclusion you have come to?
Narihiro: To put it simply, I think that the core of Fire Emblem is offering the player ‘a pleasant feeling of tension’. I’ve begun to think that Fire Emblem is just like the two of you described earlier among other things, about growing attached to your characters and knowing that, should they perish, they will never return. It’s about getting the players to taste a supreme kind of tension.
Iwata: While sitting on the edge of your seat, you get to use your head and enjoy seeing your enemies defeated one after another by the strategy you devised, and then feel the relief and the strong sense of accomplishment when you manage to attain victory without losing any of your units. This is the ‘pleasant’ part, isn’t it?
Narihiro: That’s right.
Iwata: But a ‘pleasant feeling of tension’… Tension isn’t usually a very pleasant experience, is it? (laughs)
Narihiro: (laughs) That is certainly correct.
Iwata: It’s the fact that you are able to overcome it that makes it a ‘pleasant’ feeling of tension, isn’t it?
Narihiro: I think games in general are something in which you can enjoy feeling tense. However, unlike the relative intensity of action games, in Fire Emblem you take your time thinking through each of your moves. That’s why we can talk about a pleasant feeling of tension.
Even people who are no good at action games, or people who can’t get any enjoyment out of their concept of tension, can enjoy Fire Emblem. That is because in the strategy RPG system, you can play at your own pace and be entertained in a different way compared to action games. That’s how my thoughts on Fire Emblem have settled recently.
Iwata: I see. So what you are saying is that while in the Super Mario action games you can enjoy ‘a pleasant feeling of tension’ through skilfully controlling your hero, in Fire Emblem the ‘pleasant feeling of tension’ is captured in gameplay, which emphasises considering your actions slowly and deliberately.
Narihiro: That’s right.
Iwata: In addition, you could say that the fact that your fallen comrades can’t be revived works as an interesting and very effective ‘spice’ in the game system, which raises the tension you feel during the game.
Narihiro: That’s correct. By adding these kind of ‘spices’, we have been able to take this series towards this ‘pleasant feeling of tension’.
Iwata: By the way, Narihiro-san, looking at the development history of Fire Emblem, what kind of things have you done with the series?
Narihiro: Well, other than the hardware evolving, core elements of the game have also changed.
Iwata: I guess it’s granted that, along with improving hardware, graphics will be prettier, maps will be larger and the number of characters you get will increase. What else have you done with the series?
Narihiro: In a sense, the history of Fire Emblem has been about us thinking about what kind of ‘service’ we should provide this time, in order to express its “essence”.
Iwata: What kind of things do you mean?
Narihiro: For example, Genealogy of the Holy War for the Super NES was a very challenging project for us in many ways. As was previously discussed, this series is partly about the strategy system and partly about presenting a charming cast of characters and a fascinating world to the player. The games consist of these two elements blended together. I think Genealogy was a game where we decided to enlarge the portion of ‘service’ on the RPG side.
That’s why we decided to depict things like parent-child relations, love affairs and so on, so that the players would develop an even stronger emotional reaction to the game. Nevertheless, we also developed things on the game system side, strengthening it by inserting new elements. Because of this, in some aspects the game’s difficulty level might have become quite high.
Iwata: I have a feeling that around that time, the number of gamers who wanted a more challenging Fire Emblem had gradually started to increase. These are gamers who enjoy an intense feeling of accomplishment by overcoming the games in a harder, ‘super-stoic’ kind of play style.
Narihiro: Yes. (laughs) I think Thracia 776 (10), the game which came afterwards, was the peak of that development. It was around then that doing ‘Perfect Plays’ had become popular.
Iwata: A ‘Perfect Play’ being, for example, even if you lose an ally by pure accident, you immediately press Reset and start the chapter from the beginning. You strive to complete the game without losing a single character.
(10) (Fire Emblem) Thracia 776: A strategy RPG game released in September 1999 for Nintendo Power, a download service using rewritable cartridges (it was later also sold as packaged software for the Super NES). The 6th game in the series.
Narihiro: Indeed. However, we originally designed these games without considering such styles of play. That’s why we had provided plenty of extra units to the players.
Iwata: Should you happen to lose an ally, new ones are provided to you, one after another. Even if you make big mistakes and lose units, the game is designed in such a way that you should still be able to finish it without a problem.
Narihiro: That’s right. Even so, the number of ‘super-stoic’ players increased; people who absolutely wouldn’t lose characters they had developed a powerful emotional attachment to. I am very happy that there are so many people who love Fire Emblem to such an extent. However…
Iwata: I understand. When such a style of play becomes common, and when the structure of the game expands, the difficulty level of the game starts to rise rapidly.
Narihiro: That’s why, when we began making the first game for the GameBoy Advance, while also adapting in order to make our first handheld game, we decided to shift the weight of the gameplay to create a more easily enjoyable experience. We wanted the players to enjoy a simpler, purer strategy RPG experience. When it came to the graphics, in that area too, we decided to aim at expressing a lighter, less serious world.
After that we came out with a game for the GameCube (11) and another one for the Wii (12). Again, with those games, we wanted to offer a different kind of ‘service’ to the customers; things we couldn’t have offered on a handheld including better graphics and FMV cut scenes. That being the case, if one were to look back on the history of the series and summarise it shortly, one could say that with each game, we have strove to mix up the ratio of the two basic elements, while molding the game to fit and bring out the special personality of the console or handheld in question.
(11) The GameCube game: Path of Radiance: A strategy RPG released in April 2005. The 10th game in the series.
(12) The Wii game: Radiant Dawn: A strategy RPG released in February 2007. The 11th game in the series.
Iwata: While steadily producing new games in the series like this, you can shape the series to the wishes of your fanbase, allowing yourselves to create ever more charming experiences for them. But on the other hand, there is the danger that the number of new players trying out the series becomes ever smaller.
Narihiro: Yes. That’s why, when we were making the previous game for the DS, Shadow Dragon, one of our big goals became introducing lots of new players to the series. Therefore, Higuchi-san and Maeda-san decided to try to re-evaluate that one big feature of the series: the fact that your fallen comrades can’t be revived.
That’s because we thought that this system was pretty severe for the people who, with the Nintendo DS, were playing games for the first time or others who had not played the games for a while.
Iwata: So you were considering the people who might be playing the series for the first time?
Narihiro: That’s right. We gave this problem a lot of consideration, but at that point, we couldn’t come up with a way to solve it. That’s why we decided to give the players locations mid-chapter where they could save the game. If you handle them well, they can be used as guideposts. And if you lose a character, you can start again from there by pressing Reset. It was meant to be a system to alleviate the trouble of retrying for those who feel they don’t want to lose any of their characters.
Iwata: However, even if you don’t start again from the very beginning, it doesn’t change the fact that you still have to start again.
Narihiro: That’s very true.