Fire Emblem 5: Thracia 776. The Holy Grail of Fire Emblem games for a lot of hardcore fans, famous for its high difficulty level, rarity, and cult following. Most people who've played a Fire Emblem game or two have probably heard of it, but even those gamers have probably never played it, even on an emulator. That's a real shame because FE5 is an excellent strategy RPG. It was one of the last games (some would say the last) released for the Super Famicom, in late 1999, about three years after the release of Thracia 776's wildly popular predecessor, Genealogy of the Holy War. FE5 did comparatively worse, and was actually one of the worst-selling Fire Emblem titles ever. Of course, FE5 had a few strikes against it from the start. As mentioned above, FE5 wasn't released until 1999, and most gamers (Japanese and otherwise) had long since moved on to other, newer consoles. The game was also not initially released on a game cartridge, but rather through a Nintendo Power service in which gamers would have games of their choice written to a ROM cartridge at various store locations. And Thracia 776 didn't have any unique gameplay elements (such as FE4's love system) that would appeal to somebody who wasn't already interested in the series.
In fact, the game itself is more or less what fans had come to expect from the Fire Emblem series (in terms of story, at least). A hero with blue hair (or in this case, brown hair) embarks on a quest to save his kingdom from some bad guys who want to resurrect the "dark god". This time the story revolves around Leaf, the brown-haired Prince who featured in FE4's second generation, and his Liberation Army in their quest to help Leaf reclaim his birthright - the throne of Lenster - and prevent the Lopto Church from resurrecting Dark God Loputousu, hunting children, and taking over the continent. Leaf's epic journey takes him from the small village of Fiana all the way to Lenster Castle, where he reclaims the Throne of Lenster, then back to Manster Castle where he defeats Riedrick (the bad guy) and Bishop Berdo (the other bad guy). Leaf thus liberated Northern Thracia (with Southern Thracia soon to follow), ushering in a new age of peace and prosperity.
But let's step back for a minute.
Thracia 776's storyline actually begins at the end of FE4's first generation. Lord Alvis, ruler of Velthomer, wants to create a peaceful world without prejudice. Archbishop Manfroy (head of the Lopto Church), on the other hand, wants to resurrect the Dark God and the Lopto Empire. Alvis is strongly against this, but Manfroy blackmails him, knowing about Alvis's secret Lopto heritage and that any discovered Lopto descendants are burned at the stake. For this reason, Alvis reluctantly works together with Manfroy. At the other end of the Grandbell Kingdom, Dukes Leptor and Langobalt have fallen out of favor with the Grandbellian prince. Worried that they might lose their power and influence, these two noblemen conspire against Prince Kurth. He is killed and the blame is placed on Sigurd, the main character, and his father, Duke Vylon. After Sigurd defeats the men who schemed against the royal house of Grandbell, Alvis takes advantage of the situation and has Barhara's Royal Guard lure Sigurd, the "traitor", and his troops into a trap. At the end of FE4's first generation, Sigurd's army is slaughtered in an event known as the Battle of Barhara.
Back in Lenster, Fin is watching over the newborn Leaf. His parents, Cuan, the Prince of Lenster, and Ethlin, had been killed by Trabant, King of Thracia, and King Lenster was later betrayed and killed by his allies, the Conote Army. After the two of them are dead, the Thracian army begins its attack on Lenster Castle. During all the chaos, Fin somehow manages to escape with his daughter, Nanna, and infant Leaf. The three of them flee to Alster and Tahra before finally settling down in the small village of Fiana, on the eastern coast of Thracia.
Eyvel, the head of Fiana and resident sword-fighter, defends the nearby villages from bandit attacks. One day, while she is away from the village, Imperial troops take over Fiana in search of Prince Leaf. As he was out with Eyvel, Leaf is nowhere to be found. However, while they were out, Reidrick, ruler of Manster, captured Mareeta (Eyvel's daughter) as well as Nanna and took the two of them back to Manster. Leaf decides he must go to Manster to find them, and so the journey begins.
After ridding the nearby villages of pirates (and recruiting the pirates' leader), Leaf reaches the Gate of Kelbeth, entrance to Manster and child-hunting headquarters for the Lopto Church. Leaf learns from August, his tactician, that children are being kidnapped from local villages, taken away to Manster, and being "reborn" as followers of the Dark God. After storming the fort and freeing the children who are currently held hostage there, Leaf is captured by Reidrick. He is taken to Manster Castle, stripped of his weapons, and thrown in a prison cell. This brings us to the best part of the game: the escape from Manster Castle.
The escape itself is split into three chapters: the escape from the dungeon, the escape from the castle itself, and finally the escape from the nearby village. Chapter 4, the escape from the dungeon, is particularly well done. In FE10, you're presented with a similar scenario - the main character is captured and thrown in jail (your cellmates are characters from FE9). And of course, during the opening cutscene your friends break you out of prison and give you weapons. FE5, on the other hand, forces you to do all the hard work by yourself. Sure, you have some friends to help break you out of jail, but also you have to steal all of your items back, fend off reinforcements, and
protect two groups of civilians while they escape. On top of all that, there's a recruitable character among the armor knights in the final room of the dungeon.
Once you escape the dungeon, your party finds itself inside the castle. Eyvel and Nanna are inside the arena, attempting to fend off the troops Riedrick has sent inside. After telling Eyvel that he would let her see her daughter, Riedrick unleashes Mareeta into the arena with a cursed sword that is supposed to deprive her of free will and turn her into a killing machine. It doesn't work out exactly as planned - Mareeta and Eyvel hesistate to attack each other. Leaf finally arrives to save Nanna, but he is too late to save Eyvel and Mareeta, as Eyvel is turned to stone and Mareeta is taken away by Bishop Berdo. The level itself isn't particularly difficult, and the objective is simply to escape the castle. But FE5 manages to make it challenging anyway by forcing the player to rescue Nanna and ensure Mareeta's survival (she's a great unit and joins your group later in the game) before the rest of your party can complete their escape.
I could probably devote an entire essay to the rest of the events of FE5, but there's no need for that since the story is essentially a reworking of the standard Fire Emblem plot (see above), and FE5 is just a side-story to FE4 anyway. The highlights: after Leaf escapes, Riedrick, the guy who just missed out on his best chance to have Prince Leaf killed, places a bounty on Leaf's head. Leaf manages to elude the clutches of the mercenaries, too, and finds an ally in Thracia, the kingdom responsible for the death of his parents. With their help, he flies across the face of the Thracian Peninsula, finding sympathizers and allies among the Empire's soldiers and the inhabitants of Thracian villages; the size of his Liberation Army grows every day. After a long journey (and several frustrating chapters), Leaf eventually reaches Lenster and wins back the throne. The Empire decides to counterattack, and Leaf and his Liberation Army are besieged for six long months. They manage to hold out, though, and after the battle is over Leaf departs for Alster, where he meets up with Celice (Sigurd's son and star of FE4's second generation). Leaf, along with his army, continues towards Manster, fighting a tough battle against Cyas and his leadership stars at the Thracian River. Finally, Leaf returns to Manster Castle, defeats Riedrick, and afterward Archbishop Manfroy, thus freeing Northern Thracia from the influence of the Lopto Church.
Scenarios like the escape mentioned above are the reason why FE5 has gained such a good reputation among fans. With multiple objectives, enemy armies, and goodies to steal in each chapter, the game really forces you to think strategically in a way that no other Fire Emblem game does. (The rest of the games also say that you need to use a strategy to win, but usually if you just move your troops wherever you want that's good enough.) Of course, later games would add their own twists in an effort to make the game more difficult, but high difficulty in the later games has almost always been approached from the wrong angle. The "Hard Mode" of later installments just increases the number of enemies (they're not always stronger) and occasionally removes a handy feature that was present in lower difficulty levels. This makes the experience more irritating, not more difficult.
FE5, on the other hand, succeeds in challenging the player. One of the more noticeable changes is the increased price for weapons and items at the shops. Even a regular iron sword is too expensive (2200 gold). Most of your characters will not have any money when you recruit them, and they will probably stay that broke for the entire game because small villages will not offer you enormous sums of money. Sure, this scenario is realistic (you are the commander of a small liberation army, after all), but more importantly, this lack of funds forces you to use the capture feature, which allows you to capture enemy units and steal their weapons and items. You'll have to capture enemies eventually, since your units will inevitably run out of weapons and items. Plus, enemy units frequently have nice items in their inventory.
And of course, the game has plenty more up its sleeve to keep the player honest. There are overpowered ballistae covering every map tile in most chapters, preventing you from abusing your flying units. The fatigue system encourages you to spread the experience points around. Leadership stars improve enemy performance, and enough of them can turn a mediocre (or even below-average) army into a formidable fighting force (Cyas has ten in Chapters 17A and 22). And then there's the variety of mission objectives that the game presents you with: in addition to the usual seize/rout map, Thracia 776 has survival maps, escape maps, as well as a combination defend/rout map. The game even features a branching chapter scenario that allows you to choose one of two different paths to Lenster Castle.
The brilliance of the game, though, lies in the variety of ways with which it allows you to adapt to these challenges. Cyas has ten leadership stars, but many of the units in the player's army have leadership stars too. Using the units in your army with leadership stars can effectively cancel out any bonus that the enemy units receive. The final boss has one-hit kill tome, but he isn't very strong. And yeah, your units' statistics are lowered when you capture an enemy, but the same happens to the enemy when he captures one of your units, which makes the enemy units easier to kill. The fatigue system forces you to use more than a few of your favorite (ie, strongest) characters, but the game also presents you with a large number of characters who are actually strong enough to be used in battle, even if you recruit them late in the game. There are plenty of recruitable staff users, too. Most double as magic users, and each of them already has a few useful staves. These staves have a wide variety of functions in addition to the usual healing ability. The staves range from predictable (live/relive) to useful (repair, unlock, silence) to just plain awesome (the berserk staff, which induces enemy units to kill other members of their army), and the clever player will realize that strategic use of long-range staves can greatly turn the odds in his favor.
Shortly after Thracia 776 was released, Fire Emblem Creator/Game Designer/Scenarist/Director/Mastermind Shouzou Kaga left Nintendo/Intelligent Systems, and the most complete tale of the Fire Emblem universe, behind him. He formed his own company, Tirnanog, enlisted the help of Mayumi Hirota (the man responsible for the character designs in Thracia 776), and went on to develop a pair of really good FE-style games for the PlayStation (TearRing Saga and its sequel, Berwick Saga). Nintendo was left to figure things out on its own, and it came up with a weak Thracia 776 clone, an English Fire Emblem game, the worst Fire Emblem game ever, and a wildly popular princess-saving, blue-haired mercenary. These games have had varying degrees of commercial success, but really all of these efforts have failed to live up to Shouzou Kaga's games. Nintendo has Fire Emblem's namesake, but it has not yet recreated Kaga's magic.
That leaves us, then, with Thracia 776. All the pieces of a near-perfect strategy RPG experience are present here, in Thracia 776, and together with Genealogy of the Holy War, it marks the high point of the Fire Emblem franchise. This has only become more obvious as each new Fire Emblem game is released and fails to live up to the lofty standards that were set by the Fire Emblem series on the Super Famicom. Even Path of Radiance, which at the time of its release was the first Fire Emblem to appear on a home console in five years (in 3-D, no less) failed to impress. (It managed to get a ton of "best game ever" hype anyway, and to its credit managed to introduce some new features such as bonus experience and "balance", as well as the main character Ike found in Super Smash Bros. games, but was still an incredibly boring game overall.) Like most Fire Emblem games released after Thracia 776, Path of Radiance made a deliberate attempt to accommodate newbies. This resulted in a watered-down difficulty level (see above), not to mention some seriously dull storylines and gameplay (see also: FE8). This is a common complaint amongst fans, who also insist that the "older games" were "better". (Of course, by "older games" they mean the Game Boy titles, and by "better" they mean that the "older games" had way cooler
critical-hit battle animations.)
In any case, despite the wealth of strategy RPG titles available today, with 3-D battle animations, CG cutscenes, and even voice acting, Thracia 776 shows little sign of age. Its graphics still look crisp and colorful, the gameplay is sharp and challenging as ever, and the narrative is quintessentially Fire Emblem. No Fire Emblem game since has managed to surpass it, and it's unlikely that any Fire Emblem game ever will. The latest Final Fantasy Tactics game might sell more copies, but those two magical Fire Emblem games that took place on the faraway continent of Jugdral will always be every bit as good.