Fire Emblem Three Houses interview: Intelligent Systems & Nintendo talk bringing the beloved strategy RPG series to Switch

For the first time in over a decade, Fire Emblem is set to make its presence felt on the big screen once again. Last seen on consoles back on the Wii, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems' strategy role-playing series has had a major change of fortunes since then: 2012's Fire Emblem Awakening saw an unexpected surge in popularity for the series, breaking series sales records and going on to be named RPG Site's favorite RPG of 2013, the year of its Western release. 

It's fair to say that Awakening changed everything for Fire Emblem, and since then the series has been on something of a tear: an all-new sequel, a lovingly-crafted remake, an action-focused spin-off and a hugely successful gacha-based mobile release have all served to expand the series - but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is arguably the most important release of all.

Three Houses is an all-new game on all-new hardware, and a great chance for the series to expand its reach and audience to complete newcomers while delighting fans. The Switch is also arguably perfect for Fire Emblem, with its combination of portability and big-screen action ideal - you can grind on the go, but dock and settle in for more difficult, nail-biting encounters or RPG downtime at the game's new school-style setting.

RPG Site got the chance to sit down with two key members of the creative team driving Fire Emblem Three Houses: director at Intelligent Systems Toshiyuki Kusakihara, and Genki Yokota, the director of the game on Nintendo's side of the fence. We spoke to the pair about fan expectation, how returning to TV screens is changing the game, and the thinking behind the shift to a school setting. Here's our chat.


RPG Site: So, this is the first Fire Emblem on a main console since 2007! That's quite a large gap, and a lot of time on lower-power handhelds - how did you initially approach this title in terms of having all this power to use?

Genki Yokota: It was a big pressure for us!

Toshiyuki Kusakihara: It was also for me a real pressure - the hurdle we had to cross was very high. Gamers are very impassioned - they've been waiting for this for such a long time. So we really did our best to provide the best game we could.

Yokota: Regarding the approach, we had to handle the HD screen, you know? We had a lot of meetings and a lot of discussions with Koei Tecmo and Intelligent Systems about what we could do regarding the new HD graphics aspect of development.

RPG Site: Were there any particular challenges that stood out in the switch back? Did the console switch force you to change anything in particular?

Yokota: Well, for example, we worried about the size of the screen. When you're in a battle against someone, up until now it was just one-on-one battles. That worked on a smaller screen, but we thought maybe for the new game generation it was too simple. So we discussed with Mr. Kusakihara, and we suggested what he wanted - what he's wanted for a long time - is a new aspect, which we call battalions. It should be better looking first, but it could also make the game more fun. 

RPG Site: And ultimately, it looks more like a real battle.

Kusakihara: Time after time, the gaming consoles are getting more powerful than before. It became really difficult for us to really demonstrate that this is actually a war when you only had one-on-one battles. It's just not realistic. So it was, of course, a big subject. Also, Koei Tecmo is very good at this sort of big, huge battle simulation. So we had a great amount of help from them in achieving that.


RPG Site: Speaking of this being the first main console game since 2007, we know that there was a cancelled Fire Emblem project for the Wii - and I believe one or both of you worked on it. Is there any lineage here from that title - left-over ideas that you're returning to now or the like?

Kusakihara: To me, everything is linked. I wouldn't say there's any direct link between this cancelled game and Three Houses, but when we developed Awakening we also had discussions about what we should keep or not between the two games. After Awakening we also made new games, and again we were taking into account the experiences from those old games. So really, everything is linked in my mind. To be honest... [laughs] I was the director of the cancelled game!  

Yokota: The first time I met him, it's because I was also working on this cancelled game! [laughs]

RPG Site: Was there anything you feel Awakening got from that project? Obviously, Awakening is an interesting title for you as it was such an unexpectedly huge success...

Yokota: Everything looks so strange to my eyes because I'm really close to it. My most strange experience regarding Fire Emblem is when I was developing Echoes - because when I was developing Echoes, I was really remembering the time I played the first Fire Emblem - I was a huge fan of that game as a player. I found it strange to be the creator of a Fire Emblem at that time.

RPG Site: So, let's talk about the school side of the game... what was the thinking there? Was it inspired by any other school-based stories? The comparisons that seem most common among fans is to think of Persona or Harry Potter as a point of reference...

Kusakihara: In truth it's not from Harry Potter, or Persona, or anything like that - it actually links back to an older Fire Emblem. Back a long time ago, we developed a game for the Super Famicom called Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War. When you look at the story, the three characters were from a monastery - they were friends, they worked together - and then they have to go to battle against each other. That's almost the same plot as that older game, if you look at that. So we had the image of this old game in mind before  - that's maybe our most significant influence on this project.


RPG Site: Do you feel the setting opened up a lot of opportunities for you in storytelling, design, gameplay and so on?

Kusakihara: There was a very great advantage of proceeding with this sort of story - when you look at the older games, you meet a lot of new characters one after one throughout the story. You get to know them in an uneven way, and you might know some better than others when you get to the last part. With our new system, all of the characters are here from the beginning of the game, so you have time to get closer to them, to build a good, deep relationship with them. That's a very different approach for us concerning relationships between characters.

Yokota: In this game, you'll enjoy time as a teacher, too. Becoming a teacher changes a lot - you have to take care of your students, you have to teach them a lot of things... so you can really have a different kind of relationship with them when you compare it to other games.

RPG Site: I just want to touch on your approach to the balance between genres and play styles. Fire Emblem is a mix of strategy games and RPGs... how difficult is it to find the balance between the deep RPG character management stuff, the tactical combat encounters, and of course the story downtime...?

Kusakihara: You're right - it's really very hard to keep a good balance between the strategy part of the game and the RPG part of the game. For Three Houses there is a big part which is called the monastery - that's the part that's inside a school. This part is almost fully an RPG part. We tried a lot - we did a lot of playtesting, and discussed it a lot with other members of the team, to see if it's too much, not enough - we made a lot of balance tweaks and changes to reach the final version.

We also have great news for people who love to exchange with characters and people who love to enjoy character designs and so on, too. It's not only for Three Houses - it's maybe the common point across the entire series, really - but we've developed very special character designs, and of course they speak during battles and outside battles. This time, inside the monastery you can have a lot of exchanges between all the students and all of the characters. You can really enjoy life inside the game outside of combat. 

RPG Site: You throw the characters you create out most times, to create something new. Is that daunting - trying to recreate the magic of characters who take on a life of their own like Marth and Tharja?

Kusakihara: Yeah, of course. But also, we're always never very far from the legendary characters from the Fire Emblem series. We have games like Fire Emblem Heroes and Fire Emblem Warriors - so fans can enjoy the legendary past characters in those sorts of games. When we have games like that, all-star games, we're really happy to create a whole new game of characters from scratch.

RPG Site: Which is your in-game house, then? You're wearing the badges today... is that your allegiance in the game?

Yokota: So, we're wearing the pin badges from our houses, but we actually change badges every day [laughs]

RPG Site: But do you have a particular favourite?

Kusakihara: It's too difficult to answer - we've spent so much time with them. We love them all equally.


RPG Site: I just wanted to ask about where you feel like RPGs are at in general. The feeling among some fans is that we're in a new golden age - do you guys feel the same? Like this is a new great time to be an RPG fan again?

Yokota: Well, in Japan... if you compare to the good old times of the Famicom and Super Famicom, the number of RPGs is decreasing.. but as you mentioned, we're in a time when some RPGs are really, really great again now.

RPG Site: Do you feel like there's an increased sense of confidence in the genre at Nintendo? For me, it feels like there as a period where Nintendo wasn't putting out many RPGs at all, especially on console - but now it feels like they're doing a lot of them again.

Yokota: I'm not a spokesman for Nintendo, so I can't answer that question in that sense, but as a creator, and a creator involved in a lot of RPG games, I really do love this genre and I really hope that this success will continue - that the genre will develop more and more, really.

RPG Site: Do you feel like the Japanese RPG scene has sort of benefited from some of the ideas and successes in the Western RPG space? It feels like a lot of Japanese developers are looking at large-scale Western RPG successes and getting ideas and confidence from that, too.

Kusakihara: Personally, I think we should play Western RPGs to learn from them. Today we've talked a lot about Japanese RPGs, but personally, I'm a huge fan of Western RPGs going back a very long time. When I was younger, I played Might and Magic, Ultima 6... and more recently Skyrim and so on. So I've played Western RPGs for a long, long time. 

For example, inside Echoes, you can eat a lot of food, right? If there wasn't Ultima before that, we wouldn't have had this kind of feature! [laughs]

RPG Site: One last thing... are you aware of the sort of immense fan fever, the demand, for Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE to come to Switch?

Yokota: Ahhh. [laughs] Well, thank you for the comment - I will go to Atlus, and perhaps we can talk about that!