FIRE EMBLEM: AWAKENING I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.

DON'T FEEL BAD if you've never played a Fire Emblem game. Though the series has been around since 1990, it's remained largely exclusive to Japan. Nintendo didn't start bringing Fire Emblem titles to the US until 2003—and while they've been good, Fire Emblem: Awakening is the first that's truly phenomenal.

As with all Fire Emblem titles, Awakening is a turn-based strategy game with typical Tolkien-esque trappings: dragons battle lance-toting gryphon riders, wizards toss fireballs, and all your vital stats are represented by the standard HP and EXP numerals. Despite these derivative features, combat in Awakening features an intensity almost never seen in Nintendo titles. Lose a character during combat and he or she is gone for good. Nintendo was kind enough to offer players the option to switch off permadeath, but before you get too excited, let me explain why you really shouldn't turn to easy mode.

One of the key problems with bringing games across the Pacific is that certain turns of phrase are inevitably lost in translation. As a result, even the best-written Japanese games become inane. For the most part, this has been afflicting Fire Emblem titles since they first appeared on our shores, but for Awakening, Nintendo shelled out good money to have a proper localization—which means each of the game's characters is as charming and likeable as they are in their native land. Losing one of these troops quickly becomes a painful ordeal to be avoided at all costs, and ratchets up the tension of combat to levels not found in any other Nintendo game. No one will accuse Nintendo of being too original, but by stepping away from the handholding typical of recent Nintendo titles, the company has created what could arguably be the best 3DS game to date—and a game that, given the opportunity, will drain hundreds of hours of your free time.