The runup to the release of Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo’s mobile entry into its tactical RPG series, was celebrated by a character poll. Which Fire Emblem characters were your favorite? Separate lists were made for male and female characters, and the winners would receive an extra costume in Heroes.
To my mind, the poll results reflected a rather savvy crowd. Sure, the characters that had appearances in the roster of Super Smash Bros did quite well, but they certainly didn’t dominate the charts. Number one on the list of women was Lyn from Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword, and the representative of Fire Emblem to non-fans, Marth, clocked in at number six on the men’s list. In fact, the way the poll was divided by game meant that Ike, the only Fire Emblem character to play lead in two games, was going to have his votes split, and be at a disadvantage.
This handicap just means his victory is all the more astonishing- not only did he get first on the men’s list for his role in Path of Radiance, he also got fifth for his role in the underplayed, fairly rare Radiant Dawn. His dominance on the list is a manifestation of the heart of Fire Emblem’s fandom- you can keep your Marth and your Roy, Ike is the true heart of Fire Emblem.
He’s not in Fire Emblem Heroes yet. I understand why not- you’ve got to keep some of the surefire hits in your hand to debut later. When he first gets added to Heroes, the game will see a big bump. But maybe there’s another reason that he’s not in the game yet: he’s going to make what’s already there look bad.
Let’s look at Super Smash Bros. for a second. The all-star ensemble fighter has the unenviable task of summarizing these characters with their own games, and sometimes own franchises, within a set of moves and a few choice voiced lines. In particular, taunts are chosen very carefully. When you have three non-combat animations to demonstrate personality, you have to be precise. How do you boil a character down that much?
Luigi poses comically, and kicks the dirt- he’s an eternal player two who tries to draw attention even though he’s always in his brother’s shadow. Samus inspects her armcannon, does a quick fistpump, and checks her corners- she’s a cool, collected professional fighter. Kirby waves, dances, and twirls around- he’s just a friendly character having a good time.
What does Ike do? He slams his sword into the ground and poses dramatically. Makes sense- Fire Emblem loves anime bravado and badassery. He holds his massive sword in one hand, and declares “Prepare yourself!” It’s equal parts posturing and genuine advice- like most main characters in Fire Emblem, Ike is a military commander, and preparation is the first step to a strategic victory. And lastly, he informs you, “I fight for my friends.”
I fight. For my friends. This is where the makers of Fire Emblem Heroes refuse to meet my eyes, because they have just figured out what they fucked up. In Fire Emblem Heroes, no one is friends. In fact, no character seems aware of any other’s existence.
In fact, it’s wrong of me to refer to the game’s titular “Heroes” as characters. They aren’t, because they’re not people. They’re action figures or, if you’re feeling saucy, body pillows. And I sincerely hope you are feeling a little excited, because Fire Emblem Heroes sure is. One of the character artists is a former BL artist- that’s Boys Love, if you’re not acquainted, and it’s exactly what you think (though perhaps not as pornographic as your mind might imagine). The Heroes even undergo “battle damage” when dropping below half health, their clothes shredding suggestively. The game encourages you to tap on them to trigger some voice lines, but tap too many times and some will comment on how inappropriate but not undesired your touch is. Y’all, this game is horny.
The thing Heroes doesn’t understand is that you can’t be horny in a vacuum. Sexuality has a context, and a relationship- it’s about relationships. Sure, you can draw these characters with their clothes falling apart, but that’s only a jumping off point. Sex is a connection between people, and again, there are no connections between people in this game. There are no lovers, friends, rivals or even family outside of a few tossed off dialogue sequences for a handful of missions. Every Hero you draw from the gashapon is just one more figurine on your shelf, to admire and make pose dramatically: thoroughly unrelatable and nonhuman.
It’s strange because the genre of tactical RPGs is about the connections people make, both in story and in systems. The main Fire Emblem games have the Support system, where characters that fight together repeatedly start talking to each other in their free time, becoming friends or in some instances lovers. The latest entry, Fire Emblem Fates, even went so far as to have “skinship” mechanics, where you could wake your chosen fantasy spouse with a gentle hand on their cheek, or blow on them to cool them off when they come back from a bath overheated. Ike is hardly alone in fighting for his friends- it’s a commonality through the series’ entire history.
Naturally, this exploration of developing character relationships extends beyond merely Fire Emblem. The fairly goofy Disgaea series nevertheless has a Master/Student system where new characters you recruit are the Students of whoever created them. They gain stat boosts when working together, and Students can even learn skills from their Master that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Final Fantasy Tactics has a concept of permadeath, and when one of your team is bested in battle, the only way to keep them is for another teammate to head on over and help them out. Otherwise, after a few turns they’re gone forever. Tactics Ogre literally has a game called “Let Us Cling Together.”
This is one of the key differences between a strategy game and a tactics game- in StarCraft, no one cares about the thirtieth Zergling you lose in an attack. Some characters are Important because of their story significance, but in the big picture, the individual is of little value. In tactics games, every person under your command is meaningful and important. From Master/Student to Supports, fighting for your friends to poking your anime husband, tactics games are about people. And Fire Emblem Heroes… isn’t.
I have plenty of other complaints about Heroes, of course. I take umbrage with the pricing on its free-to-play implementation, I grouse at its roster, and I bristle at how little there is to do. But valid as these complaints are, they are ultimately not that important. I find Heroes fun to poke at every now and then, even in its current state. When you trade out the colorful and friendly cast of the main series for cardboard standees of them, though… that’s a bridge too far. Fire Emblem is about Heroes, and until the mobile game figures out how to represent that, I won’t care how many five star drops I get. Who cares that the stats on this doll are better than the other? Give me characters, not action figures.