Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#88 – Gemfire

My first foray into Koei strategy games went better than I expected.

There’s a long introductory scene before this, it’s nice.

To Beat: Win Scenario 4
Played: 5/30/18 – 6/7/18
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
My Video: Gemfire Ending

So here we are at the dreaded Koei game. I was fearful of this day. Koei is responsible for creating strategy games on the NES, often games based on historical figures and their conquest of territories. These are very sophisticated games with thick manuals and a staggering number of options when considering the scope of the NES. When I put together my list of games to play for this project, Koei games were the very first ones to get put aside. One brief look at each game was enough for me to decide that I wanted nothing to do with them. Now that I’m over two years into this project, it was finally time to get acquainted. I did my research and learned that for a first-time player to this subgenre, Gemfire is the one to play first. That turned out to be a very wise decision.

Koei was first established in 1978 by Yoichi Erikawa and Keiko Erikawa. Their first strategy game was Nobunaga no Yabo in 1983, better known as Nobunaga’s Ambition in the west. They became known for creating this and other strategy games in this similar style, including many sequels to Nobunaga’s Ambition. In 1988, Koei created a subsidiary in North America for localizing their games outside of Japan. This is how the NES received Koei’s games. Koei would later acquire Tecmo in the late 2000s and the company is now called Koei Tecmo Games.

Gemfire was developed and published by Koei, just like all of their other NES games. It was first released on the Famicom as Royal Blood in August 1991. It was widely ported to other home computers and consoles throughout 1991 and 1992. The NES version came out in March 1992.

The graphics are quite nice.

Gemfire is a fantasy-based war strategy game with an involved storyline. The kingdom of Ishmeria was attacked by a sorcerer named Zemmel and his Fire Dragon. The water creature Pastha appeared to extinguish the flames of the dragon and keep the kingdom from burning down but it was not enough to stop the dragon. The King of Ishmeria summoned his six wizards and sorceresses to seal the dragon. Just as they were about finished with their spell, Zemmel cursed them before fleeing. This caused the six wizards and sorceresses plus the Fire Dragon to turn into gems. These seven gems were inlaid into a crown called Gemfire. The King discovered the crown held special powers and he used them to help his people and bring peace to Ishmeria.

Eventually the King grew old and passed down both his reign and Gemfire over to his son, King Eselred. Unfortunately, he used the power of Gemfire to oppress his people. His daughter, Princess Robin, was kind and hoped to stop her father. One night she peered into the throne room and found the King asleep, holding Gemfire. She sneaked in, grabbed the crown, and broke the spell. She removed the gems and threw them out of the castle. But just as she was removing the final gem representing the Fire Dragon, King Eselred awoke and stopped her. Feeling betrayed, he locked Princess Robin away in a tower. However, the spell was broken, and the six wizards and sorceresses resumed their normal form. They sought out other rulers of Ishmeria, vowing to use their powers for good. Their hope was for someone virtuous to restore Gemfire and bring unity and peace back to Ishmeria.

At the start of the game, you will choose from four scenarios. The map is the same for all scenarios and is split up into 30 numbered provinces. Icons on each province indicate the ruler of that province. The scenarios differ by which families rule over which provinces, and what families you can choose to control for the game. You pick the scenario and the family you wish to control. You also get to select an advisor that can give you tips during the game. In any case, the goal is the same. You must rule over all 30 provinces. By doing that, you will collect all the gems and restore Gemfire, and of course, beat this game.

You’ll see this screen a bunch.

A large portion of this game is menu-driven, so the controls are straightforward and you can figure them out depending on the situation. Use the D-pad to move a cursor around. Sometimes this is an arrow on the map, sometimes it is an arrow at the bottom of the screen, and sometimes it controls a square box around some icon. You use the A button to make selections and press the B button to cancel or go back. When you need to enter in a number, you press Up and Down to increase or decrease the highlighted digit. On the main game screen, you can press Select to bring up an options menu. Here you can save or load a game, set the text speed, during the sound on or off, and quit the game. If you choose Quit, you can let the computer take over and play out the rest of the scenario. Be warned that this may take hours if you let it run, but it’s neat to see this game have that capability.

The game begins in January of Year 1 as noted at the top of the screen. Gemfire plays out a little bit like a board game. Each of the 30 provinces gets one turn per month. The turn order is random. You get to make a turn for each province you control each month. You can also decline to make a move, but there are so many things you can do in this game that you should be able to find something to do. After all turns are taken, the calendar moves to the next month. At the start of each month, there are special events that randomly occur. Weather negatively affects some regions of the map. For instance, snowstorms may affect northern provinces, or flash flooding may hurt southeastern provinces. The plague can come upon any region. There are also elves and ogres that can influence individual provinces. Some help and some hurt in various ways.

The main screen contains a bunch of information. The right side displays the calendar date and the map of Ishmeria. The left side contains province specific information. On your turn, you see your province data here. The top-most box shows the ruling family’s name, province number, province name, and family crest. Below that is the current ruler of that province with a space for a symbol of the status of that province. For instance, one province is the home province and there are certain moves only the home province can make. Below the ruler is a set of province data, four icons representing your commands, and the text box at the bottom.

It’s a good idea to start developing early.

The province data is very important to understand. The dollar sign indicates the amount of gold you have, the apple indicates how much food you have, and the little people icon shows how many soldiers you have in your army. These are your assets for the province. The right side shows statistics. The flag indicates the measure of the people’s loyalty to their leader. The plant icon is your farming statistic. This is how effective you are at growing crops. The castle icon shows the level of protection of the province. The higher this stat is, the better you are at defending from attack or some natural disasters.

The four icons near the bottom left are for your main commands. From left to right, they are military commands, domestic commands, diplomacy commands, and vassal commands. On your turn, you get a cursor hovering over those icons. Pressing A on one of them changes the main commands over to subcommands. Each of the four main commands has four subcommands, so there are sixteen different commands you can select. Some of those commands have even more options available to them as displayed in the text box. This is where the game really got my head spinning at first, but soon enough I got the hang of it and it wasn’t all that bad.

The military commands are straightforward. I’ll capitalize the subcommands so you can see them more clearly. You can Attack a neighboring province. First, choose how many troops you want to send into battle. This costs some gold and you also have to send food with the troops for the fight. You can Recruit more troops into your army which also costs gold. You can Move Troops to a neighboring province you control. While you send troops, you can also send any amount of food or gold along with them. You can also Hire Monster to add a fifth unit to your army. I’ll get more into fifth units later in combat, but all armies have four standard units plus an additional fifth unit. From the Hire Monster command, you can Hire a monster or Dismiss one you previously hired. When you Hire, you get a list of available monsters. You can put the cursor over the monster to display a panel showing the size of the unit, the quarterly cost in gold to retain the monster, and the attack range in battle.

Other provinces may decide to attack.

Domestic commands are also easy to understand. The Develop command lets you build up your province. For ten gold, you can pay for Cultivation to increase your farming stat or Protection to build up your protection stat. You can engage in Trade with a merchant. You can either Buy or Sell food in exchange for gold. Before you decide, you see if food prices are low, average, or high. You can play this like the stock market by buying low and selling high. Another subcommand is Give Food to your people. This increases your loyalty stat. You can also Transport food and gold. This is different from sending your troops from the military command in three ways. You can transport between any province you control, not just your neighboring ones. You can choose whether you want to Send to a province or Receive from a province. Using the Transport command also does not end your turn. You can transport goods as many times as you want, plus get another turn to do something else.

Diplomacy commands are a bit more involved. Use the Ally command from the home province only to either make or break alliances. You can only be allied with one family at a time. If you have no ally, you can send a proposal to any family you want. If accepted, then there is peace between the two families and you are unable to attack each other’s provinces. You can break an alliance if you want out of the deal. The Negotiate command lets you perform a couple of secret missions. Here you can select Defection to entice a vassal from another family to leave them and join you, or you can choose Surrender to perhaps force the entire family to give up if you would really overpower them. A successful surrender turns over all their provinces and gems to you! The Sabotage command lets you choose a province to potentially damage their fields and that ruler’s reputation. The Plunder command lets you send spies into a neighboring enemy province to steal gold and food from them. This also damages the invaded ruler’s reputation.

All other commands go into the Vassal commands. The View command is an expansive command that allows you to look up just about all data in any province. You can View any single province, a list of family members from any family, a list of land data for any family, and look at any fifth units you have hired. The only thing you can’t look up freely are enemy’s fifth units. The Change Lord command lets you appoint vassals to any province you control. This can only be done by the home province. The Entrust command lets you give control over to the current ruler of the province. When you do this, you no longer provide monthly commands from that province, thereby speeding up the game. These three above commands can be done as many times as you want within a turn. The Search command lets you spy on another province to see its fifth unit or any gems they hold. This costs five gold.

You can look up the enemy army size before you invade.

The rulers and vassals also have statistics associated with them. You can use the View command to look at the ruler data. The sign icon represents leadership and how effectively he or she can rule a province. The sword icon is for commanding ability when going to war. The heart icon is for charm which gives you a better chance at making alliances or recruiting other vassals. The last icon is for fame which helps you with secret missions like sabotaging enemy provinces. You can also see which gems that leader holds.

A large part of Gemfire is in the combat system. You can initiate battles on your own with the Attack command or respond to an enemy’s attack on your land. If the enemy engages you first, you have the ability to either Fight, Retreat, or Surrender. If you Retreat, you must choose either a neighboring province or the home province and the enemy will take control of your province. Surrender is an option of last resort since you turn over your goods to the enemy. If you decide to invade an enemy province, then you get to choose how many soldiers to send over. You also need to send food along to sustain your troops for the expected duration of the battle. In either case, you also must choose a fifth unit. This can be one you hired or one of the wizards or sorceresses if you hold their gem. For the wizards and sorceresses, there may be a number next to their name. They are required to rest a certain number of months between battles and this number means they still need to recharge and cannot be used in this fight. Hired monsters or soldiers do not need this rest and can enter any battle without limitation. You also get to see the attack power and attack range of the fifth unit. If you do not have a fifth unit available then you can go without one, putting you at a significant disadvantage for the fight.

The battle screen contains a bunch of information. The attacking side is always on the left and the defending side is on the right. At the top of the screen on each side is the name of the ruler in charge of the battle. Below that are two numbers. The first one is how much food you have with you, and the second number is how many days you can last on your current food supply. The top center shows the day of the battle along with a picture depicting the time of day. Battles begin on Day 1 and days are split up so that each side gets four turns per day. The sides of the screen show the battle units along with how many soldiers are in that unit. Each side gets four units automatically, which are one cavalry unit, one archer unit, and two infantry units. The number of troops you bring to the fight are divided evenly among these four units, so for instance if you bring 200 troops then each unit will have 50 troops each. The fifth unit you brought along also appears here. The center of the screen is the battlefield. Battles are fought using a grid-based system.

Strategize for both the offensive and defensive.

Each battle unit behaves a little bit differently. On your turn, you may command all of your units. Select a unit to get started. First you can move from one square to another. Cavalry units can move up to three spaces, while archers and infantry can only move up to two spaces. Fifth units may move either two or three spaces depending on the unit. After you move, you can select an additional action. All units can simply wait, ending control of that unit for the turn. If you are in attack range, you can attack an enemy unit. Archers can only attack two spaces ahead, while other units can only attack adjacent units. Fifth units have their own range, and some can attack from several spaces away. Archers and infantry can build a fence on an open, adjacent square. This occupies the square and can set up a blockade. Fences may also be broken, which takes a turn and may not always work.

Press B to bring up an options menu. Choose Done if you have made all of the movements you want for your turn. You can Retreat if the situation is out of hand and the options are the same as retreating prior to a battle. You can select Auto Mode and the computer will play out the rest of the battle for you. You can also turn the battle animations off and on.

Attacking a unit brings up the battle animation screen. You will see the size of the units on each side of the fight. The bottom of the screen shows what kind of attack you are performing. Attack an enemy straight on to do a frontal assault. You can also approach the enemy from the side for a flanking assault, or if you get the opportunity you can approach the enemy from behind for a rear assault. You will do more damage catching an opponent with a rear or flanking attack, and similarly you should be mindful you don’t put yourself in a position where the enemy can attack you from the rear or side. The defending side counterattacks automatically if they are in range, reducing the amount of attacking units to a lesser degree. Attacking with a wizard or sorceress loses attack power every time. If an enemy unit is reduced to zero, that unit is defeated and removed from battle. Wizards and sorceresses cannot be defeated and will flee the battle on their own if they are low on power.

Detailed battle animations are neat to look at.

There are several ways to end a battle. Each side has a flag as one tile on the battlefield. If an opposing unit occupies the flag, the battle ends immediately. Battles end when all units are defeated or if one side retreats. One side wins if the other side runs out of food. If you are on the defensive side, you win if you repel the enemies for five days. The winning side attains control of the province. Furthermore, if the attacking side wins, they may decide the fate of the defending ruler. If there is enough gold or food remaining, they can buy their way free from you. Otherwise, you have some options. You can try and Recruit the ruler to join your side as a vassal. You can simply Release the ruler to retreat elsewhere, or you can Banish the ruler away from Ishmeria forever.

This was my first time playing through Gemfire and my first attempt at a Koei game period. These games attracted a small number of loyal players and most of them are on the uncommon side. Gemfire is a late NES release and one of the harder ones to find. I bought my cart only copy used for $62 in early 2015. It sells for around $80-$90 today and my price was maybe a touch above market value at the time I bought it. Gemfire was one of the last twenty or so licensed games I bought for my collection. Going through some old emails, I see I bought it just a few days after my daughter was born! My copy of the game came with a hard plastic case with Power Line instructions glued on the inside, which I later sold.

My run began by selecting the Gemfire scenario with Erin of the Blanche family as my ruler of choice. I have read that the last scenario is usually the one you want in these games, so I chose that here. My first name is Aaron so it made sense to choose my namesake as my character for this game. It turns out this is as close to easy mode as Gemfire gets. Erin begins with seven of the thirty provinces under his control, comprising the entire northeast corner of the map. The game manual gives some advice for the early part of the game which I followed for the most part. The first several turns I focused on developing my cultivation and protection. Cultivation is especially important because food is the only resource you can provide on your own. Once harvest rolls around in September, you can begin trading food for gold and using that to build your army. Early on, the Divas family approached me to form an alliance. They controlled a row of provinces just south of mine, providing an instant protective border between me and the Lankshire family with King Eselred, so I accepted that easily.

The end of the game becomes a formality with all this power.

This setup allowed me to begin my conquest of the map. My overall path for the game was in an S shape. I struggled for the first two or three battles and had at least one embarrassing loss when I left my flag wide open for no reason. That was all I needed for the combat system to click with me. My main idea was to gather troops into provinces with only one or two neighboring enemies and then steamroll them into defeat. Ideally, I could empty out a province of soldiers when attacking, leaving my old province defenseless but also landlocked away from any further threats. I focused mostly on military might and didn’t bother with trying to negotiate my enemy into surrender. I had it set up where my enemies hardly messed with me, allowing me to drive the offensive. Soon enough I was taking over fortified provinces with relatively little loss. Adding gems and the corresponding wizards and sorceresses helped me even further. It took time, but I took over everything with little issue after my first few struggles. Maybe I could have sped things up by pushing toward forcing surrender instead, but I had fun the way I played it.

These Koei games are really involved titles from the NES perspective, and if you’re like me you would probably find them intimidating without much fun to be found. For this type of game, I found Gemfire engaging and fun. The initial complexity is going to be an issue. In time, I was able to weed out what options weren’t so important and identify a successful strategy that led to a surprisingly easy completion. This is a beautiful game. The graphics are clean and the animations looks great on this hardware. The soundtrack is so good. This has to be one of the most underrated NES soundtracks just because of how obscure this game is. I need to repeat and re-emphasize this point. There is absolutely a steep learning curve here. This may be the most inaccessible 3/10 difficulty game on this entire list of games in my assessment. This game is not for everyone and I think most people won’t bother with it. If you have wondered what playing one of these games is like, I don’t think you can go wrong with trying out Gemfire. I think it’s a great game and a perfect introduction to this specific genre. Now I feel much better about tackling one of the more complex strategy games by Koei later in the project.

#88 – Gemfire

Posted In: Finished

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