Given that America dwarfs our tiny little island in terms of economic importance, it's hardly surprising our transatlantic cousins tend to get their hands on most video games before we do.
Bearing this in mind then, the European launch of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon is something of a revelation. This fantasy-tinged strategy title – best described as Final Fantasy meets Advance Wars – has been unleashed on our shores before the Yankee release has even been scheduled.
We'll assume this move is intentional on Nintendo's part (although given the company's traditional ambivalence towards Europe, we're not ruling out some kind of administrative error), but whatever the reason, it's granted us DS owners another killer app to hungrily consume before Christmas.
The name Fire Emblem might be a fairly new to western turn-based strategy fans (2003's GBA title was the first English-language version of the game, despite it being the eighth in the series) but the studio behind it surely needs no introduction. Intelligent Systems is one of the best developers for Nintendo's hardware and has previously been responsible for games such as WarioWare: Touched! and the Paper Mario games.
Still, if you've played any of the Advance Wars games, once you've acclimatised to the swords and sorcery setting, you'll slip into your comfort zone almost immediately.
Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (essentially a remake of the very first entry in the franchise Shadow Dragons and the Blade of Light) shares many similarities with its stable mate; you marshal several unit types around a grid-like game world, engaging enemies in turn-based combat, levelling up and changing classes, and using different items and special attacks to improve your chances – all via a wonderfully intuitive stylus-driven control system. (There is a D-pad and buttons option, too.)
However, whereas Advance Wars focuses on elements such as resource management, unit creation and the ability to occupy various strategic structures, Shadow Dragon places a far stronger emphasis on taking part in a grand story – prince Marth is on a quest to rescue his kidnapped sister and win back his home kingdom by killing the Shadow Dragon –as well as watching your other characters grow in strength and experience.
Instead of generic troop types, your army is made up of individuals, each boasting their own backstory and personality, which ultimately means you care a lot more about their welfare. You see, in the world of Fire Emblem, death isn't merely a temporary status effect; when one of your peripheral characters dies, they stay dead permanently. (The death of a main character results in Game Over, however.) This caveat encourages you to be a lot more thoughtful with your tactics; placing your underlings in harm's way is usually followed by nail-biting moments of tension as you await the results of each engagement.
The game spans 25 epic chapters (some of which take hours, rather than minutes, to complete) and therefore provides an astonishingly large dose of high-quality strategy entertainment. However, the appeal of the game doesn't end once you've reached the conclusion of this epic quest; Shadow Dragon also makes use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to offer online multiplayer battles.
Assembling a team of up to five characters, you can face off against a human opponent on one of six different maps. The sweet taste of battlefield supremacy is made even more delicious by the fact the game uses the DS microphone to allow voice chat, so it's possible to bellow boisterous taunts at your humbled nemesis.
Traditionalists will be pleased to learn that in visual terms, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon keeps itself rooted firmly in the past. There's very little difference between this and the two GBA instalments, and to be brutally honest in some respects it ends up looking a little worse than its forebears. For example, the battle sequences are populated by 3D-rendered character models that have been flattened to appear as 2D sprites (think Donkey Kong Country). While they are excellently animated, they lack the charm of their hand-drawn ancestors.
However, minor aesthetic issues aside, it only takes a few minute's worth of play to realise that with Shadow Dragon you're privy to a truly outstanding piece of electronic entertainment. Intelligent Systems has skilfully taken the original Fire Emblem game and augmented it with new features – such as new character classes, stylus control and online battles – while retaining the excellent core narrative.
And seeing as western audiences were denied the opportunity to enjoy the birth of the series in 1990, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's release goes a long way to making amends. The fact that Europe is getting to sample its delights before the US is an added bonus to make us inhabitants of the Old World feel that little bit more smug at this year's end.