Fire Emblem: Three Houses and the Nintendo 4DS

I just finished my first playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Black Eagles all the way), but this is not a review of the game. Instead, I want to use this otherwise excellent game as a way to focus on two areas of concern when it comes to Nintendo games. The first is the almost slavish deference which the games media gives to Nintendo products, and the second is the way that Nintendo positions its own products.

I’ve been a Fire Emblem fan since Marth and Roy were included in Super Smash Bros. Melee all the way back in 2001. When Fire Emblem Blazing Sword was localized, I found a Gameboy Advance SP specifically to play it. I’ve played every Fire Emblem since, with the exceptions of Radiant Dawn, Echoes and the Shadow Dragon remake. I haven’t beaten them all, because Fire Emblem can be very hit or miss.

I’m trying to establish my Fire Emblem bona fides here because I have some unkind things to say about FE3H. Overall, the game is absolutely a hit, and tied for my favorite in the franchise along with Binding Blade. I’m looking forward to replaying the game from the perspectives of the other protagonists and delving even deeper into the leveling and reclassing systems. I’ve enjoyed the story, and FE3H has the most memorable characters for me since, again, Binding Blade. Several of the game’s songs are on my phone (including this banger). But there is one major problem with the game which is unescapable- it’s ugly as hell.

Despite the wide cast of colorful, attractive characters, they share the same set of limited animations. The backgrounds during dialogue are straight up bad, looking blurry and indistinct. Many of the game’s major story related events aren’t even animated. They are instead replaced with blackout screens or still images where the player must use their imagination as the characters talk. Outside of the scarce animated cutscenes, most of FE3H ‘s story is told by 3D models which are basically doing the same thing as the talking heads of 2D Fire Emblems, which is a whole lot of nothing.

Blurring the backdrop to hide visual shortcomings is a standard part of Nintendo games recently.

I could go on about the visual shortcomings of FE3H, and maybe I should, because the gaming media sure as hell didn’t. Of the seven reviews I read when the game was released, not one included a negative remark about FE3H’s visual presentation. Some reviews minimize their discussion of the game’s visuals, while others compared the visuals favorably to previous entries in the series. One review even lauded the “visual splendor” of the game in the same sentence in which it decried the lack of map diversity. People of good faith can disagree about the quality of videogame visuals, but I have a hard time accepting that FE3H’s visual presentation is objectively good when we can fairly compare it to the presentation of Spiderman.

If you think that’s an unfair comparison, then you’re falling into the same trap that so many professional reviewers do of giving Nintendo a pass when it comes to effective use of technology. Both Spiderman and FE3H are third-party developed, first party published. Both games were released on current-gen consoles. But most importantly, both games cost full price when they were released. I almost wish I’d never played Spiderman, because everything Nintendo publishes looks awful and feels limited in scope by comparison. Reviewers continue to let Nintendo get away with it by not even mentioning the shortcomings of the game, much less adjusting their scores to reflect them (how IGN gave FE3H a 9.5 and Spiderman an 8.7 is baffling to me). If Nintendo is asking me to spend $60 on a videogame, then I want comparable quality to other $60 videogame products. Reviewers refuse to tell me that I’m not going to get that, and that makes me distrust everything else they say.

It’s probably in Nintendo’s best interest for reviewers to blindly lavish praise on their products, because Nintendo has committed itself to giving its fanbase less for their money. This was made clear to me after my brother finished FE3H. When I asked him what he thought about it, he replied, “Before I answer that, I want you to play the opening of Batman: Arkham Knight.” I’d just downloaded it as this month’s free Plasystation Plus game. As soon as I booted up the game, I knew what he was trying to say: FE3H is fun, but it’s not this. “The story was good, but the cutscenes suck because the 4DS can’t do good graphics,” he said.

Calling the Switch a 4DS is so painfully accurate that I wish I’d thought of it first. Nintendo finally succeeded in accomplishing what they tried (and failed) to do with the 3DS: sell a premium-priced handheld. There’s a precedent for premium handhelds going all the way back to the Atari Lynx, and an equally long precedent of those expensive handhelds ultimately failing. Nintendo found the way to get people to spend home console money on a handheld by simply calling it a home console even though it’s still a handheld. And if there was any doubt about what Nintendo is doing, they removed it by announcing the Switch Lite, which drops all pretense of being a home console.

The result, in practice, is a handheld which is the same price as a PS4, with inferior quality games for the same premium price. In the past, the tradeoff between handhelds and home consoles was that the former was cheaper because the hardware was less capable and the games were less impressive. Nintendo has pulled a masterful bait-and-switch. FE3H is an amazing handheld Fire Emblem game; it can’t hold a candle to a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which came out six years ago on last-gen hardware. The games media aids and abets Nintendo by turning a literal blind eye to the apparent shortcomings of Nintendo’s efforts. Read the gushing reviews for the Switch Lite as an example. Guys- IT’S A CHEAPER NINTENDO SWITCH. THAT’S IT. Sony and Microsoft do hardware revisions like this as well without the breathless coverage.

Ultimately, I want someone to hold Nintendo accountable so that they start pushing the envelope on the games they produce. Nintendo easily has the best IP in the gaming world, and skates by on the reputation that IP has built over time instead of the strength of the latest versions of individual games themselves. Fans (including myself) continue to eat it up, and the gaming media, which is allegedly being paid to review games and hardware dispassionately, aren’t even pretending to give accurate reviews. As long as this continues, I’m not sure how I can trust in buying any Nintendo game and getting my money’s worth.

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