How Fire Emblem Heroes is still Nintendo’s best mobile game (and why it may not stay that way)

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp? Super Mario Run? Um, Miitomo? If there’s a common theme with Nintendo’s mobile outings, it’s been that they’ve all translated a home game formula better than expected, but without the true charm and staying power to keep people playing in the long term.

Except, well, for the other one.

With its new 2.0 overhaul, Fire Emblem Heroes has expanded a game that’s tantalizingly profitable for Nintendo and hopelessly addicting for its dedicated player base. It’s found a formula that reminds its players of Fire Emblem without attempting to replicate it, finding its own appeal under the auspices of an appreciative fan base. It’s a “gacha” game, yes, and one in which whales have a clear advantage. But Heroes smartly builds around ideas that aren’t purely head-to-head, offering interesting tactical challenges for all players to enjoy while limiting whale domination to the highest tier of arena play that only offers modest extra rewards to those involved.

How did Heroes work when others failed? Why can’t you just do this with Mario? It’s a huge problem in the industry to try to make money on games without ruining base game balance. The common mobile game solution is “power creep,” constantly making new units just a little bit better than the old ones in a scheme borrowed from the world of collectible card games. You can’t make, say, Luigi with a slightly “better” jump, because a bigger jump isn’t necessarily better. Mario isn’t a numbers game.

Fire Emblem‘s a numbers game. You get a better sword and you do more damage. And slowly, but surely, you can get better swords in Heroes. What makes this work, though, is that while you can grab new units with these great new swords (or tomes or bows or… you get it, I’m simplifying for the sake of rhetoric here), you can also upgrade the old swords. It takes a bit of time, and you may not have exactly your ideal team, but you can build a competitive squad with no money. And that is the true appeal! You can make a great team with lots of money, or you can make a great team with tactics. And that’s what Fire Emblem‘s all about.

The 2.0 update is great about this. That old Eliwood looking sad in comparison to his offspring, Brave Roy? Now he can upgrade his Durandal to the better version. Staff and dagger users not worth using? They get a boost. Units are going to get stronger, and impatient rich people are going to fund the game’s development as a result. But with care and planning, everyone else can reap the benefits.

There’s also a new system to keep you from using the same teams week in and week out. The new elemental Seasons mean that certain special units will be stronger in certain weeks, and so will companions you designate to receive that elemental Blessing. It’s an incentive to build out, say, a Water squad with infantry bonuses or an Earth team of horses and see what they can do in combat. Maybe you don’t use Reinhardt in arena every week! That’d be refreshing.

But wait! There was that parenthetical up in the headline! What was that all about, G-man? Well first of all, most of you don’t know me well enough to call me G-man, and secondly that’s not even a nickname of mine. But you have a good point about that headline! I was going somewhere with that. And it’s this: with the new update, Fire Emblem Heroes has added Blessings, Arena Medals, Refining Stones and Divine Dew to an ever-increasing list of collectible currencies. It’s a scheme designed to keep you playing and getting each one, and one designed to limit analysis paralysis by making each spent on one or two things only.

But it could be overkill! At launch, players sought out Feathers and Orbs, with Badges and Shards thrown in from time to time. Feathers were the real bottleneck for building your team, so it made events like the Voting Gauntlet that let you earn them so important. With too many currencies, it’s just about watching numbers go up, a well-trodden realm full of phone-game failures. It could sap the motivation of the player base while it overwhelms them with systems. So this brave new era for Fire Emblem Heroes could be the beginning of its end.

Or not. After all, we still need Leif and Micaiah.

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