Fire Emblem – 1990/1994 Developer Interviews

Fire Emblem – Developer Interviews

These two Fire Emblem interviews offer a good look at the early games in the series (particularly the original 1990 Famicom game and its 1994 Super Famicom remake). The first interview is a fun “Final Fantasy vs. Fire Emblem” chat between Hironobu Sakaguchi and Shouzou Kaga, in which both creators share their love for each other’s work. The second interview with Kaga focuses purely on the original Famicom game and its conception and design.

—To begin, please introduce yourselves.1

Sakaguchi: Pleased to meet you, I’m Hironobu Sakaguchi. I’ve been really looking forward to this meeting today!

Kaga: Likewise! I’ve heard so much about you.

—Sakaguchi, I understand you’ve just concluded the development of Final Fantasy 6. Have you played Fire Emblem: Mystery of the Emblem yet?

Sakaguchi: Not enough! (laughs) I’ve been knee-deep in the FF6 development until just now, and the new Fire Emblem was released during the height of our work. I bought it on the day it came out, but I knew that if I opened it up, I wouldn’t do any work, so it was sitting on my desk there like a decoration. During the most intense parts of the FF6 development, I comforted myself by saying, “As soon as this is done, I can play Fire Emblem as much as I want…”

Kaga: Thank you. (laughs)

Sakaguchi: Anyway, now that my work is done, I’ve started a new game. I made it to about Chapter 8 before realizing the way I was building my characters was all wrong. Leveling everyone equally isn’t the right way to go in Fire Emblem, I now know. I also missed some hidden items from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, and I didn’t get Navarre… I accidentally killed him.

Shouzou Kaga. Profile reads: “Game Designer. Planning/script/direction for the Fire Emblem series. He got his start in the game industry about 10 years ago, after winning one of Login magazine’s coding contests. His hobby is researching military history. Lives in Kyoto.”

—You killed Navarre? That’s pretty impressive. (laughs)

Sakaguchi: Yeah, so last night I restarted my game over from the beginning. I think this is my 3rd time starting over? Of course, now I’m moving through it a lot faster… last night I played almost the entire night, I barely slept at all, and got to Chapter 10. It’s tough, but really satisfying.

Kaga: While we were balancing it, I definitely thought it was maybe a little too difficult. But if you keep your wits about you and play well, you can make progress.

Sakaguchi: When I die, I always reset.

Kaga: Even if you reset, the Loss Counter still goes up.

Sakaguchi: Really? Maybe I should have just started over again. (laughs)

—And what do you think about the Final Fantasy series, Kaga?

Kaga: The one I really got sucked into was Final Fantasy III. The height of my obsession with FFIII coincided with the development of the first Fire Emblem on the Famicom, so I feel like I may have taken a lot of influence from it.

—Yeah, and a number of the character names in Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy are the same. Many of our readers pointed that out in letters they sent to us.

Kaga: Those probably weren’t intentional, I don’t think, but when you’re caught up in the same struggle—the same genre, the same material, the same kind of development—there’s bound to be some coincidences like that.

Sakaguchi: Yeah, game development… it’s not easy. (laughs) We’ve had the same problem internally at Square. The Square Osaka team making Mystic Quest created a thief character named Locke, but we also have a character in FF6 named Locke, who is a thief… err, treasure hunter. (laughs) Neither team knew what the other was doing, and when we popped the lid off and saw each other’s work for the first time, it was like, “What?! You guys made Locke too?!”

Hironobu Sakaguchi. Profile reads: “Joined Square while he was a student at Yokohama National College. After that he became the director of software development and worked on Final Fantasy I. Currently, he works as a game director and Representative Director Vice President. His hobby is film. He lives in Tokyo.”

—You mentioned FFIII, but I found the ending of that game to be incredibly hard.

Kaga: Yeah, the final dungeon is a beast. You have to keep fighting for almost 2 hours without a save point.

Sakaguchi: You guys at Famitsu really took us to task for that one. Yoshida Sensha made fun of it in his manga, I remember. (laughs)

Kaga: Yeah, but after restarting who-knows-how-many times, and finally beating it and seeing the ending… it was extremely satsifying. That’s why I don’t think easy games are so great. Isn’t the important thing how you feel after it’s all over?

—What are your thoughts on the Final Fantasy series as a whole?

Kaga: I’m extremely jealous of the gameplay system, the graphics, and the music… Square is at the top level of this industry. Their games are easy to understand, and anyone can pick up and play them. In the beginning, the Final Fantasy series had a bit of a “hardcore” reputation in some ways, but those elements have been progressively refined. On that point, I think I have a lot to learn myself from studying them.

Sakaguchi: I’m very happy to hear you say that.

Kaga: Two years ago, when I was making Fire Emblem Gaiden, I had an interview with Nakaji for Famitsu (in his “Fire Emblem Priest” column). We talked a bit then, about Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I remember telling him that, between the two, I really preferred Final Fantasy, which felt fresh and new compared to Dragon Quest.

When Fire Emblem first came out on the Famicom, the early reviews were really harsh. Every game magazine gave it pretty bad scores. There weren’t really many games back then that combined the RPG and strategy / simulation genres, you see. It stung to see it get so much criticism for being “hard to understand”, or for not looking that impressive graphically… for those reasons, the reviews said it felt like some old game from yesteryear.

A half year later, though, Nakaji praised Fire Emblem in that column of his for Famitsu… that was really when things started turning around, and the sales gradually picked up.

Sakaguchi: When Fire Emblem came out for the Famicom, it made a big impression on us at Square.

The famous Fire Emblem opera commercial. According to the Fire Emblem strategy guide, the filming was a real challenge: the armor for the opera singers was so heavy that they needed those staffs just to stay standing. The horse was a “famous” actor horse used in previous operas like Aida; however, the flashes of lightning and the size of the chorus made the horse skittish, and they had to restart over 20 times to get a good take.

—Oh really?

Sakaguchi: Everyone wanted to know what kind of game it was. Back then there was nothing like it, and I would say its closer to an RPG than a simulation game. So at Square, when it came out, we bought it right away, and everyone gathered together to play and study it. I can’t say it was the easiest game to pick up and play, but I felt something very special and addicting in it. And of course I’ve been playing it ever since!

Kaga: Yeah, that was something many people remarked on—that it was hard to learn, and wasn’t easy to get into. On the flipside though, once you did figure it out, it was impossible to put down!

Sakaguchi: Exactly!

—Like getting trapped in quicksand. (laughs)

Sakaguchi: When someone walks by and sees me playing Fire Emblem and says something like, “man, I could never play a game that hard, I’d throw the controller against the wall!”… I get annoyed. (laughs) What can I say, I’m a convert. (laughs)

—The Super Famicom re-release of Fire Emblem has a lot of changes. Some of the strategies don’t work anymore either—Bantu can’t tank like he could before.

Sakaguchi: I used to have a trick where I’d use Warp magic to send a character I wanted to level near a fort that released archers. I’d surround the fort with guys, so that the archer couldn’t move, and level up as much as I wanted!

—A bold move.

Kaga: There’s strategies for every map, to be sure, but there’s no single “correct” strategy, even what you read in the guidebooks. I think finding your own tactics is the right way to play.

—Finally, please offer a final word about your own work.

Kaga: It’s not a big problem if some of your characters die in Fire Emblem; I want each player to create their own unique story. Don’t get caught up trying to get a “perfect ending.” Have fun!

Sakaguchi: Final Fantasy 6 is a game you can replay many times: there’s lots of character combinations, and you can teach anyone any magic. Anyway, for all those who bought it, I can’t wait for you to see the ending!

—Thank you for your time today!

The joy / embarrassment of posing with Mog and Chocobo plushies.
Fire Emblem – 1990 Developer Interview

from the APE Encyclopedia Fire Emblem

—How long did Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi take to complete?

Kaga: From its initial conception, about 3 years.

—What do you think the genre of Fire Emblem is?

Kaga: I call it “roleplaying simulation.” It’s a new genre. Basically, it’s a strategy game. But strategy games typically are kind of “hardcore” and dry. (laughs) You only care about winning or losing the battle, and there’s no space for the player to empathize with the characters or story.

I love strategy games like that too, but I also love RPGs. By adding RPG elements, I wanted to create a game where the player could get more emotionally invested in what’s happening. Conversely, one of the drawbacks of RPGs is that there’s always just a single protagonist. Thus, to a certain extent, you can only experience the linear story that the game creator has prepared for you.

I wanted to create a game where the story and game will develop differently for each player depending on the units they use. Thus I added the strategy elements and arrived at this hybrid system.

—And do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do?

Kaga: I think I made an RPG that borrows the frame of a strategy game. The battlefield is like a strategy game, but each character is a protagonist in their own right, and you can actually get attached to them, making it closer to an RPG, I think.

—There’s many ways to finish the game too, since each person will have a different mix of strategies and units they like to use.

Kaga: I think this is something people understand once they play the game, but most of the characters are usable. And characters who at first seem like crappy, throwaway characters–if you take the time to build them up and nurture them, they can become incredibly powerful. We made a lot of characters like that.

It allows friends to brag to each other, “Hey, I did it this way. Here, let me show you!” I think that’s a key difference between Fire Emblem and Dragon Quest. When people share their experiences in a game like Dragon Quest, it’s more like “I got here, how far did you get?”… but in Fire Emblem, it’s all about “I did it this way.”

There hasn’t beeen a lot of room for the player’s originality in previous RPGs, because if you gave the player too much control, it would break the structure of the game. That’s the advantage of including strategy mechanics: there’s a million different ways to accomplish the same goal, and there’s actually room for the player to make choices. And the accumulation of all those choices made leads to a very different experience for each player.

I don’t consider Marth to be the protagonist either, except in the sense that if he dies, it’s game over. It’s totally fine to see the story as revolving around the particular characters that you’re partial to.

According to magazine surveys taken at the time, Lena and Hardin were the Japanese fan-favorites.

—I’ve heard some people complain, though, that Fire Emblem is actually too light on the strategy. What do you say to that?

Kaga: Well, that is an understandable response from the perspective of hardcore strategy buffs and those who design games with them primarily in mind. I think there’s a similar thing going on right now in game centers, too, and hardcore arcade fans.

But for Nintendo-made products, the baseline for the development is always that it be easy to play to the end, something “anyone can pick up and enjoy.” And I think that is a perfectly fine approach in its own right. Even if the strategy mechanics are lacking some depth, the important thing is its overall balance as a game, after all.

Actually, the first person to beat the game was a graphic designer at Nintendo, someone completely unrelated to the development. I think the selling point of Fire Emblem is that anyone, even non-gamers, can enjoy the strategy, so that made me really happy.

—So Fire Emblem was made so that even children would be able to pick it right up?!

Kaga: Yeah, as much as possible, we tried to remove “stats” and numerical data. We tried to make it so that even without relying on stats, players could still get a sense of an enemy being really powerful by how much damage they dealt.

—What things did you really want to express with Fire Emblem?

Kaga: I wanted to make a strategy game that was more dramatic, something where you would really be able to feel the pain and struggle of the characters. That’s why characters can’t be revived once they’re killed, to impart a sense of gravity and seriousness. In turn, I think the result is that the more love you have for your characters, the more rewarding the game is.

—Was there anything you wanted to include this game, but were unable to?

Kaga: I wanted to add some kind of multiplayer feature.2 With Fire Emblem I’ve made a “role playing simulation” game, but at the same time, it’s very linear. And I think players who spend so much time building and developing their units will probably feel like, for all that work, they didn’t get to use the units very much. So for the next game, I’m thinking of some kind of simultaneous, multi-scenario setup, where there’s a number of different paths to explore.

Comic taken from the Fire Emblem strategy guide, poking fun at character perma-deaths and Jeigan. It reads: “Lord Marth! If I die, I beg of you, reset the game…

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  1. This interview was originally featured in the 4/94 issue of Famicom Tsuushin.

  2. Kaga says “multiplayer” here in katakana, but based on the context, I suspect he means multiple protagonist / multiscenario structure, as elaborated on below.


  1. Funny to hear NES fans complain about how difficult the first Fire Emblem was when it’s by far the easiest game in the series and ready milktoast by typical NES game difficulty standards.

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