It turns out Mario isn’t actually Nintendo’s best bet for mobile supremacy.
As a fan of the Fire Emblem series and its special brand of turn-based strategy combat, I was skeptical when Nintendo announced that it was taking the franchise to mobile. After spending a good amount of time with the iOS version (it’s available on Android too), I’m now a believer that Fire Emblem belongs on the platform.
I also think it could help Nintendo make a lot of money in the $36 billion mobile gaming market.
What you’ll like
At its core, Heroes feels like a standard Fire Emblem game. You battle on a grid-based map where you take turns against the enemy positioning heroes and attacking. You must stay aware of the weapon triangle, Fire Emblem’s paper-scissors-rock mechanic where certain weapons do more damage against others. For example, swords beat axes, axes beat lances, and lances beat swords. The game even puts a small diagram on the bottom of the screen that helps you remember these weaknesses.
Nintendo did apply some smart changes to make Fire Emblem work better on mobile. Fights take place on a smaller map, so everything fits on one screen, and it’s easy to drag-and-drop your heroes with your finger. The touchscreen works great; you can easily slide units across the map and attack.
You also only carry four heroes with you into battle, so fights don’t drag on as long as they do in traditional Fire Emblem games. This makes it so you can fit in a quick, 5 minute fight during a bathroom break, instead of having to set aside 30 minutes for one battle.
It’s a much more graceful transition than Mario had with Super Mario Run, where Nintendo had to turn the game into an auto-runner so that the platformer could work for smart devices. And, unlock the Nintendo social app Miitomo, the game is actually fun enough make you want to come back to it day after day.
Gotta catch ’em all
The premise of Heroes also provides for Pokémon-style collecting. You are a hero summoned to the game’s world, and you have a special gun that can summon other fighters (yes, a gun that shoots out Fire Emblem characters). These other warriors come from past games in the series, and you can unlock them through a shop with in-game currency or real money.
What you’re really buying is a random hero, so you’re hoping to unlock a rare fighter each time. You’re gambling, but you can’t really lose. You just have a lesser chance to unlock the series’ most iconic characters, like Marth and Robin.
It appeals to me in the same way Overwatch’s loot crates do. I enjoy getting new characters without knowing exactly what I’ll end up with.
The sights and sounds
Heroes is a good-looking game. Nintendo didn’t just replicate the art or reuse assets from recent Fire Emblem games like Awakening and Fates. It’s going for a more colorful, cartoonish look. This works well for mobile, since the brighter colors and larger heads make it easier for the large cast of characters to stand out as individuals.
I also love the music, which has new versions of classic Fire Emblem songs. When you start the game, you’re treated to an operatic (and wonderfully over-the-top) version of the series’ main theme. You also hear a riveting rendition of the franchise’ iconic “Together We Ride” song when you’re unlocking new characters.
You don’t have to spend money
Free-to-play games usually come with an asterisk. Sure, you don’t have to pay anything to download them, but their micro transactions often feel mandatory.
That isn’t the case in Fire Emblem: Heroes. I haven’t spent a dime on the game, and I haven’t even felt tempted to. The main currency, Orbs, allows you buy heroes. But you only need four heroes to play the game, and you’ll have enough Orbs and starter heroes to get by until you can earn more and unlock more powerful characters.
Along with rewards from completing quests (like “kill so many of this kind of enemy”) and log-in bonuses, I’ve been able to buy about 20 heroes. Two of them have been 5-star characters, the most powerful kind in the game. Maybe I’m just a little lucky and would feel more temptation to spend money if I hadn’t been rolling such nice heroes, but even a team of 4-star and 3-star characters can get you through long enough until you unlock stronger units.
What you won’t like
Stamina is the more annoying free-to-play aspect of Heroes. Each mission costs so much Stamina, a resource that maxes out at 50 and slowly regenerates. Basically, this limits the amount of the game you can play.
Now, this hasn’t actually impeded my progress too much. The Stamina refills relatively quickly, and the game gives you a bunch of Stamina potions for free that can refill the meter. Still, right now the game is discounting the Stamina costs for some activities as part of its launch celebration. Once those go back to normal and run out of Stamina potions, this restriction could become a real nuisance. It feels like a cheap system that only exists so that the game has a reason to send your phone notifications when your Stamina is full
Not much of a story
Fire Emblem: Heroes does have a story, but it’s really more of an excuse as to why all of the Fire Emblem characters from different games and universes are together. And it’s not one that makes a lot of sense. You actually play as yourself, a guy summoned from our planet to help some anime characters protect realms of heroes from slavery by using a gun that shoots other heroes to fight in your army.
It’s nonsense, and the game’s original characters don’t stack up to series’ favorites like Marth and Robin.
Heroes manages to feel like a traditional Fire Emblem game, with all of the changes made helping the strategy-based combat work better on mobile. Even though Stamina is an annoying concept, the game doesn’t pressure you into spending money.
Sure, it’s not as deep a game as Awakening or Fates. Permadeath is gone — as we reported — a sad omission that I can understand (you don’t want to frustrate players by taking away characters they paid for after they die in battle).
It’s still fun and requires you to be smart. It gives you plenty of room for strategy, including picking which heroes to take into a fight and agonizing over their placement during each round.
This is Nintendo’s best mobile effort yet.
Fire Emblem: Heroes is out now for iOS and Android.