Fraught Relationships: How Fire Emblem Saved Itself and Became Controversial

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Fraught Relationships: How Fire Emblem Saved Itself and Became Controversial

The main controversy over Nintendo’s Fire Emblem games used to be how few of the tactical titles ever got released outside of Japan. For a series that didn’t see a stateside launch in its first 13 years of existence, Fire Emblem now has international fame that’s coupled with fresh, politically-motivated bickering about the hows and whys of modern localization. The newest sequel, Fire Emblem: Fates, pushes the envelope with the kind of risqué romantic situations Nintendo traditionally avoided. But not everyone likes how those elements are being implemented across the globe, including some alterations that make Fates one of Nintendo’s most contentious games to date. Certain websites and message boards are full of self-important indignation over “censorship” and “political correctness” because Nintendo has removed some of the blatant fan service from the American version. Ultimately, the issue comes down to relationships—between Fire Emblem’s many characters, between games and the larger culture war, and between fans and the long-running series itself.

Fire Emblem’s current reputation seems unlikely when you look at the first dozen games in the series. From the NES/Famicom onward, Fire Emblem was merely (in)famous for deep, punishing strategy action, boasting few visual frills and a divisive permadeath system that turned off some would-be fans. Stories and characters always felt secondary to grinding your way through Fire Emblem’s next grueling dungeon. Hell, most of the simple plots played out in stripped down scenes between two talking heads—not the most engaging storytelling.

In the days of pricey imports and dial-up modems, few Americans knew about Fire Emblem before heroes Marth and Roy appeared in 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Their popularity in the brawler led to the first ever Fire Emblem localization in 2003. This was the eighth Emblem game to date, yet the presentation hadn’t changed all that much from the 8-bit days. Brief dialogue scenes moved along an average fantasy plot supporting the punishing-yet-deeply-satisfying turn-based strategy. This first North American entry gained a small, dedicated fanbase that didn’t appear in danger of growing anytime soon.

Each new Fire Emblem sequel seemed like a new opportunity to entice new fans, but no matter the console (GameCube, Wii, DS), the games weren’t gaining many new converts. It came to the point where 2010’s DS entry, Fire Emblem: Heroes of Light and Shadow, didn’t garner a western release. For the cult of Emblem fans, it looked like the series was finished. And not just internationally—the developers were told that the next sequel would be Fire Emblem’s last. Despite that grim outlook, that 3DS entry would end up taking Emblem to new levels of success and notoriety.

Fire Emblem: Awakening brought back many elements from franchise history, partially as a proper sendoff. That included a relationship element only present in a 1996 spinoff that allowed players to marry off their soldiers, allowing you to play as their children in later chapters. Thanks to Awakening’s time travel MacGuffin, said progeny could teleport in as teens who then battle alongside their parents. To get the kids, of course, that meant many scenes of branching dialogue that set up dozens of heterosexual pairings the player could choose from, introducing many dating sim elements that aren’t all that mainstream in the west.

Dating sims and other romance games garner sizable audiences in Japan, and aspects of them have been used to great effect in Fire Emblem contemporaries like Sakura Wars and Persona. There’s also a growing list of independent titles—like Hatoful Boyfriend—making romance games even more conspicuous abroad, to say nothing of the works by North American developers like BioWare. Fire Emblem: Awakening built on the series’ history and simple “talking head” storytelling to create much deeper investment in character relationships than any previous Emblem game, reaching a wider audience than ever before.

Originally planned as a final game in a faltering series, Fire Emblem: Awakening sold nearly two million copies worldwide, selling better outside Japan than any previous Emblem release. Yes, the flashier graphics and easier difficulty options definitely made Awakening more approachable, but the romance and other smaller character moments connected with fans like no other Emblem entry before it. Whole new subsets of western fans were ready to cosplay as their favorite Awakening couples, replaying the game multiple times just to experience fresh romantic entanglements.

Fire Emblem: Awakening’s love of love also spurred some of its first controversy. Upon release, there were complaints that the game lacked any queer romance options, a similar controversy seen with another 3DS offering, Tomodachi Life. Then came edits to some gratuitous scenes in Awakening’s DLC, obscuring some of the “fan service” moments you come to expect/roll eyes at in more niche games. The online chatter about these was only the prologue to the troubles of Awakening’s successor.

Fire Emblem: Fates builds on Awakening’s unexpected success in just about every way: more branching stories, more romance, and more fan service too. In an impressive first for Nintendo, Fates even includes same-sex options for coupling, along with some minigames that expand on the level of intimacy between the characters in your party. But the question of how that intimacy plays out is where the newest controversy begins.

Months before the North American release, importers were saying Fates contained a fantastical subplot of mystically tricking a lesbian to fall in love with a male character, which is problematic to say that least. Not only that, but there were reports of touch screen functionality for “petting” characters, a decidedly vanilla recreation of similar features in more straightforwardly sexual 3DS games like Senran Kagura. When Nintendo of America confirmed some of those elements were edited or cut altogether, the suspect narrative of censorship really got out of control.

We’re way past the days when different regions of Nintendo could make cuts to SNES games with only a very small percentage of fans noticing. From a PR standpoint, Nintendo seemed unprepared to deal with folks savvy enough to share information about the Japanese version, which was released several months before the American launch. Additionally, early fan translations of Fire Emblem: Fates got to define those elements long before anyone could touch the official localization. This all placed Nintendo of America in the difficult position of having to confirm or deny someone else’s more dominant interpretation of the game they were publishing.

The situation got even more complex with NOA’s vague answers about the changes in localization. This lack of a firm response opened up Fire Emblem: Fates to become the latest banner for an online clown car of politically-motivated jackasses searching for instances of “censorship” by the “PC police.” Amateur interpretations and secondhand reports of edits to Fates makes the game an enticing new battleground in a culture war that sees gaming as secondary to the outrage of the commentators. And no detailed explanation of how localization has dealt with adaptations like these for decades, how word for word translation and localization have always been two wholly different things, is likely to deter the obnoxious narrative that’s taken hold. For some shameless agitators Fates has become less a game than just another tool to divide and anger in a manipulative campaign against perceived slights and imaginary threats.

Jumping to such conclusions about Emblem’s localization is sadly just a new facet of gaming today. Audiences know more than ever about how games are made, though that hardly means they know everything. Also, if you know the language well enough to correctly catch all the changes made, why not just play the Japanese edition if you prefer that region’s approach? I suspect most of the folks assuming these changes ruin the game are merely going by secondhand accounts, lacking the ability to accurately gauge the level of alteration, and just assuming the worst.

Chalk it up to cultural differences or simply lack of awareness, but controversies like Fire Emblem: Fates’ is the price Nintendo pays for adding novel dating sim concepts to its long-running series. And given that the romantic subplots pulled in enough new players to literally save the beloved series from cancellation, this is certainly the preferred outcome. If there’s any lesson to be pulled from Fire Emblem’s fate, it’s that Nintendo can’t wait for others to define their game for them. If it means closing the gap on releases in Japan and North America, or simply being more active in giving clear answers about edits, they can’t leave it up to reactionary social media to get too far ahead of them.

Henry Gilbert splits his time between writing, recording podcasts, and clearing his StreetPass Plaza. He’s on Twitter @hEnereyG.

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