After snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on the Nintendo 3DS, Fire Emblem is finally back on a main console - and its directors hope it's the biggest and best entry yet.
In 2012, Fire Emblem's days were numbered. At the time a B-tier Nintendo series, after a string of titles with middling performance the series was on its last legs. Development studio Intelligent Systems was tasked with creating a Nintendo 3DS entry, intended to be the series finale. Then the unthinkable happened - that grand finale was massive.
Fire Emblem Awakening became the best-selling game in the series in the West, while in Japan it was the fastest-selling entry on record. Fire Emblem had been thrown a lifeline - and now, a few games later, the series is preparing for a triumphant return to big-screen gaming with Fire Emblem: Three Houses for Nintendo Switch.
"To tell you the truth, it was a very big surprise," Three Houses director at Intelligent Systems Toshiyuki Kusakihara says of Awakening's success. "To tell you more, I can say... I honestly still don't understand why it was such a success, as we didn't realize - we didn't make any change to our philosophy to make Awakening be liked outside Japan.
"I still don't understand why it's so popular," he adds with a laugh. "It's strange."
Strange, yes, but also fortunate. Awakening's success secured Fire Emblem a place as one of Nintendo's most prestigious series', which in turn has led to its big-budget return to consoles. Kusakihara says that Awakening's legacy runs deep - right through to the team now being more aware of their Western audience and their tastes when developing a new title.
"When making games, it's really difficult to be loved by everyone. But it's easier to start thinking 'what should I do not to be disliked by everyone' - this way of thinking is easier," Kusakihara muses when asked about the team's approach to design. Through this, he says, the hope is that taking the series' newfound Western audience into account won't change what has historically made Fire Emblem great.
The hope is that Three Houses will be the biggest and best entry in the series to date - but coming off the back of 3DS games, Intelligent Systems couldn't make a RPG of the scale of Fire Emblem: Three Houses alone - and that's where Tecmo Koei come in.
"As far as this game goes, I'm pretty sure that without the help of Koei Tecmo it simply wouldn't have been possible," Kusakihara says of the studio.
"Or maybe it was possible, but it would have taken a lot more time," adds Genki Yokota, Three Houses' director on the Nintendo side of development.
Tecmo Koei is obviously a perfect fit for Three Houses; for a start, the studio has worked on Fire Emblem before with its musou-style action spin-off Fire Emblem Warriors, but the studio also has a rich strategy game history in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga's Ambition.
Through Dynasty Warriors, the studio also has much technical experience in creating large-scale battles with a lot of characters on-screen, something Kusakihara marked as a key addition to Fire Emblem's traditionally one-on-one encounters for Three Houses. In Three Houses, instead of one recognizable character fighting another in a given encounter, each character will lead a whole squadron of characters into a proper, more realistic-looking skirmish.
"When we were developing Fire Emblem Warriors, it was of course an action game. But Mr. Hayashi [Yosuke Hayashi, head of Team Ninja] was the producer of Fire Emblem Warriors, and he introduced us to a very strong strategy team," Yokota says of the partnership. "Now, we're working with that same very strong strategy game team on Three Houses."
"Regarding the design aspect - Koei Tecmo didn't do so much," Kusakihara clarifies. "It was especially us at Intelligent Systems who did all of the graphics and design. For example, we had the help of a freelance illustrator Kazuma Koda [Nier Automata, Bayonetta 2] and also Chinatsu Kurahara [Uta no Prince-sama, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters], who was the character designer. My team and I were in charge of designs like weapons, monsters and other details like that. So in design terms, it was mainly Intelligent Systems."
"The main plot, the game system, all the ideas, all the gameplay mechanics - that basis was all decided with Intelligent Systems also," Yokota adds. "Then after a lot of discussion with Koei Tecmo, we figured out all of the details, and Koei Tecmo helped with programming the game."
There is one aspect of the game that the developers admit may have been subconsciously inspired by Koei Tecmo, however - its setting, which sees the player character torn between three different rival factions - something that bears something of a passing resemblance to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the beloved 14th century historical novel that has formed the bread and butter of Koei Tecmo's productions.
"We can't say it was very conscious, but you know, we always talk with Koei Tecmo people - and some of them have been working with Three Kingdoms for a very, very long time," Yokota says of the similarity between the Chinese classic and the rival countries and their heirs the player must choose between in Three Houses. "In our discussions, maybe it was an unconscious decision. We didn't say 'let's make a homage to Three Kingdoms' - it didn't happen like that."
"Perhaps it was for us a good starting point - to say okay, let's do our version of three kingdoms with three people, three countries," Kusakihara adds.
Three Houses certainly looks like the most expansive and accomplished entry in the series to date. Yes, there's the previously-mentioned more dynamic battalion-based clashes and HD visuals, but the expansion to the game that has me most intrigued is the Garegg Mach monastery, a neutral zone slap bang in the middle of the continent that the titular three houses are jostling for control of. The monastery is the protagonist's home, and it's where the player will get to know characters that hail from all three nations.
The monastery is a significant expansion to Fire Emblem's role-playing side - players will spend a lot of time in and around it getting to know characters through conversation and training, effecting both character relationships and combat prowess. The school-like setting and increased focus on relationships brings to mind Persona, but the developers say Atlus' hugely popular series was not their inspiration. In fact, the game has been built with the fact that this might not be for everybody.
"If you're not a very big fan of RPGs but like strategy, you can avoid all the RPG parts. If you only do battle you will automatically become stronger; it's better to also do it with monastery mode, but you can also play without the RPG part," Yokota elaborates. "On the contrary, if you're a fan of RPGs but not of strategy games, you have some free map battle areas so you can quickly take part in battles to get power very quickly - and then you can step back and enjoy a lot of the RPG part in the monastery."
"Some of your students will be very nice to you - you'll have strong feeling towards them," Yokota laughs. "For very emotional people, we suggest to you the casual mode, where characters can't die forever!"
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is set to release for the Nintendo Switch on July 26.