Nintendo's 'Fire Emblem Heroes' is a 'Gacha' Game. What is That, Exactly?

How the mobile version of Nintendo's popular tactical RPG intends to relieve you of your money

'Fire Emblem Heroes' Nintendo

During its giant Fire Emblem announcement-blast on Wednesday, Nintendo revealed its third mobile game – Fire Emblem Heroes, which will premier on iOS and Android devices on February 2. Rather than porting something from the series' 27 year history and just tweaking it for smartphones, this new game is billed as an "original" strategy RPG that has been designed specifically for mobile. It follows the fundamental Fire Emblem turn-based strategy formula, but leans hard into both good and ugly elements of mobile game design. The good part is that you play it with your phone vertically oriented so it's more comfortable, and the hand-drawn art used throughout looks absolutely beautiful. You build an army of heroes pulled from the entire history of Fire Emblem games and then throw them into tactical battles on small 8x6 grid-based maps designed specifically for smartphone screens. The potentially ugly part is how Nintendo is choosing to make money from Heroes.

Unlike the "free to try" premium approach of Super Mario Run that lets you unlock the full game with a $10 in-app purchase, Heroes is a full-on, no-holds-barred free-to-play game that's been designed around a system known as "gacha." If you follow any outspoken Nintendo fans on social media you may have seen some of them throwing this term around and bitching about it when the game was announced and wondered what the hell it actually means.

Fundamentally it's a way of encouraging you to spend lots of money in a free-to-play game by mimicking a toy machine that's very popular in Japan. You put money in, and the machine spits out a plastic egg containing a prize – usually a collectible toy figure. The key is that you have no idea what you're going to receive, so getting what you actually want is based on chance. Part of what makes it so effective is that it routinely provokes a strong emotional response, whether that's excitement, elation, or (more often) frustration when you spend money and receive a duplicate of something you already own.

The way this system works in Fire Emblem Heroes is that you summon a random hero to join your army by using orbs, which are essentially its stand-ins for those plastic eggs. You win an orb by winning a battle in the game, but summoning a hero requires five of them (less if you add five heroes or more at once) – so if you want to accumulate heroes more quickly, you'll need to buy more orbs from the in-game shop. In Nintendo's announcement video, it revealed that three orbs will set you back $1.99, and spending more cash gets you a better deal. $5.99 gets you 10 orbs, $19.99 gets you 35...all the way up to a bundle of 140 orbs for a whopping $74.99.

If you get hooked on the game, it could become punitively expensive, which was the reason that Nintendo's late president Satoru Iwata was said to be dismissive of gacha-style systems. The company is saying that Heroes is aimed at players 13 and over, and Japanese financial journal Nikkei has reported that the company is introducing a means of capping purchases made by minors at 12,000 yen ($104). A nice gesture, but how many parents will really be cool with their kids spending $1,200 on a mobile game in a year?