By JJ Ulm
Nintendo never wanted to be in the mobile game business. For years they dragged their feet against investors insisting they make something for the exploding smartphone market. But eventually they caved, and now that they’re here, they are not shying away from the things that have made mobile gaming an unapologetic money pit.
And Fire Emblem Heroes is exactly that, far more than any of Nintendo’s previous mobile games.
Right up front, Heroes uses a mechanic borrowed from the basest of Facebook games, a mechanic that serves no purpose but to get you to spend money: a “Stamina” timer. Every battle costs Stamina, and once you run out you have to spend an Orb to replenish it. And just like that game your aunt keeps sending you automated Facebook messages about, there’s no actual gameplay point to it. It is an artificial roadblock, full stop.
Orbs are, of course, Heroes’s microtransaction currency. They trickle in as you play, but there are plenty of things you might want to spend them on, and getting more involves actual money.
Most importantly, Heroes is what’s called a “gacha game”, after the Japanese term for capsule toy machines. Whereas your standard American grocery store capsule machine is filled with the junkiest of junk, Japanese ones usually have tiny but nice figurines, but which one you get is random. And maybe you get one of your favorite characters on your first coin, but most likely you end up with a dozen Shinjis before you get your Kaworu. (In my experience, 90% of blind-box contents, regardless of series, are Shinji Ikari.)
Fire Emblem as a series is perfect for this, especially since the last two iterations of the notoriously hard tactical RPG took a sharp turn into matchmaking territory. But it’s hard to fault that change. The series was nearly cancelled for lackluster sales, with Awakening for the 3DS intended to be the last one, but with an unusually charming cast of characters and a plotline involving children from the future based on which characters you nudged into each other’s arms (including your own avatar character), Awakening became a huge success not just for tactical RPG nerds but also for shipping-obsessed fangirls.
Between Awakening and its follow-up Fates, there are a lot of favorite characters. So of course the best way to get you to spend your hard-earned lucre on Heroes is to randomize the characters you summon with your Orbs, making you try and try until you get that Camilla. In some cases, a lot of your hard-earned lucre.
It gets worse, though. Each character comes with a quality rating of one to five stars, and that dramatically affects how good the character is in the actual game. So you could finally get your waifu just to find it’s a disappointing lesser version. You can upgrade them, but that takes a lot of Hero Feathers and Great Badges, because what this game really needed was more forms of currency. But what that translates to is a lot of gameplay, and that just takes us back to Stamina.