Alright! It’s time for Ron to get all preachy (and third persony) and tell you about another one of his beloved JRPG franchises that you should definitely get to know better. I’ve already covered both the Dragon Quest and Shin Megami Tensei franchises in a similar fashion, but today we are going to be covering something even more near and dear to my heart:
Suikoden. Yes, inspired my the “better late than never” release of Suikoden II on the PlayStation Network, I am finally getting around to an article that I should have done years ago.
Konami’s cult-classic franchise is pure gaming bliss and my own kind of private heaven. Famous for its exceptional world building and enormous cast of characters, the series enjoys a nearly perfect line-up of memorable and expansive adventures. Their tales destroy the misconception that all JRPGs are about “saving the world from evil” or “teenagers with fashion issues being all angsty.”
Each Suikoden game is home to a wonderful self-contained story full of tragic events and blooming friendships, each occurring with the backdrop of war. If you think we handle the topic “maturely” enough in this day and age of violent video games, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve experiences Suikoden’s brand of warfare. Politics, relationships, tensions between races and countries.
No other series handles the topic of “war” better I would say.
Luckily for me, Suikoden is much more straight-forward than both of the other RPG series I have extensively covered with five main games and only a few spin-offs worth mentioning. Without further adieu, let us get started!
Bandits in a Swamp
The first “Genso Suikoden” game, the franchises’ name in Japan, was released for the PlayStation in 1995 and then the following year in 1996 in America, one of the four localized pre-Final Fantasy VII RPGs to grace the system. Konami put a young director named Yoshitaka Murayama on development, and he would secure this position for the first three entries of the series.
For what its worth, the game is definitely not a product of the world around it. By 1995, many Japanese developers were coming to grips with the ins-and-outs of the brand new PlayStation hardware and getting 3D to a point where it could be made affordably and effectively.
By comparison, Suikoden was an altogether unimpressive looking game. Its old and stiff sprites looked like they could have worked on the Super Nintendo, and indeed, the game did start life on Nintendo’s rapidly aging platform. When it became clear that PlayStation was the future, Konami swapped platforms, added a few 3D effects and a distorting camera to the battlefield, and called it a PlayStation game.
To the untrained eye, Suikoden is also unimpressive on the gameplay front as well, sporting an RPG battle system that only stands out at first for allowing six characters at a time: three front row fighters and three back row fighters. How did such an “ugly” and “simple” game become such a cult hit over the years?
Well, for one thing, it takes a little bit of digging to get to what makes Suikoden so wonderful. Sure, the battle system is simplistic, but the six character battles provide a nearly infinite level of customization when you consider the massive 108 characters you can recruit throughout the game.
Yes, 108 characters! 108 Stars of Destiny as they are called. Some optional, some story related. Some are able to fight in battle and even combine attacks with other closely related characters, and others are simply good for opening weapon and items shops in your fort. Some are good for absolutely nothing, but for the best ending, you’ll have to hunt down each and every last one!
Where does the number 108 come from? For inspiration on his story, Murayama turned to the classic Chinese novel “Water Margin,” also titled Suikoden in Japan. Water Margin takes place in a marsh in ancient China where 108 bandits join forces to resist the government. Their story involves recruiting members to build an army, and eventually they are turned to for aid in times of need to resist foreign invasions.
Very similarly, our protagonist is a member of royalty in Suikoden, the son of the empire’s most highly decorated general. A few twists of fate later and he finds himself the leader of the resistance against the very same empire he once served after seeing how its generals have abused their powers and wreaked havoc and tragedy across the countryside.
He is called upon in a time of need, and sets out to recruit an army worthy of defending the people from a wayward emperor. What was once a mere rebellion is built up into a liberating force to bring peace to the land once again.
Suikoden’s world is home to every race from the fantasy books, from elves, dragons, and dwarves to lesser common races like Kobolds. While searching for team members to recruit, you will interact with every one of them, and really get a feel for how this world’s social structure ties itself together. The rich live in the capital, the poor like in villages scattered throughout the countryside. Industry is just taking off as a character invents a “steam engine” before the quest is up.
Not everything is important to the story, but this is World Building 101, and it at all serves a purpose in the the sequels.
What makes Suikoden so great is that it feels like a full package. It’s not the deepest of games, but it has everything where it matters most: great personalities, a wonderful story, a complete world with vastly different social classes and environments, great music, and best of all, not an ounce of padding.
Newcomers might take 16 hours to beat this game in its entirety, and veterans maybe 12, but what resonates most with this game is that you are getting exactly 12 hours of content out of the game. No grinding, no needless wandering across open worlds, no pointless treasure hunts, and an ultra fast battle system with rarely any excessive animation. Suikoden’s break-neck pace is the best staple of the franchise, delivering exactly the amount of content you paid for.
This would carry over into its 60 hour sequel, one of the greatest video games of all time.
Taking the Higher Ground
Suikoden II is a lot like its predecessor in many ways, just a lot bigger. And I don’t mean bigger like a bloated AAA kind of way, but rather, more of the same but perfected in every last possible way. At the time, critics derided it for playing too safe, but hindsight hasn’t been too kind to those opinions. Many who played it now hold Suikoden II as one of the finest RPG experiences ever localized into English, and luckily for newcomers, it’s just as accessible today as it was 15 years ago.
Much like Suikoden, it was not a product of its time. If 1995 was too late to be developing games with sprites, then where does that leave 1998? It didn’t help Suikoden II’s sales figures after it launched just weeks after Final Fantasy VIII. Massive summon monsters and enormous 3D worlds became the norm, and beyond Pokemon, sprite based games had no place in the gaming world anymore.
Of course, Suikoden II’s graphics were no simple jump from one game to the next. By this time, Konami knew its way around the PlayStation’s hardware and could get a lot more from these graphics than the stiff original game ever could. In a single opening scene where our protagonist meets up with his younger sister, her sprite undergoes far more animation than the entire previous game allowed for!
Towns became much more habitable, bursting with color and detail, leaving the dark and muddy world of the previous game behind. Characters also fleshed out better from the backgrounds, and even NPCs were given a fair deal of animation to go about their everyday lives, giving a real sense that this was an actual place, not just an RPG world for an adventure.
The point is that even in the post 3D world, Suikoden II’s graphics were still a remarkable leap, and many just failed to appreciate them at the time because they were blinded by the competition. Some might even call it the finest use of 2D sprites ever found in an RPG, beating out traditional heavyweight Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Much like Alundra, Suikoden II used tried-and-true techniques to reach a level of perfection that few achieved in its day, mostly because everyone else was just being experimental at the time, trying to figure out what worked graphically.
Because of its adherence to these older trends, it has aged flawlessly over the years, where as Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross both look a little rough.
What about the 108 Stars of Destiny? They are certainly back, yes? Correct, Suikoden II does sport 108 characters to recruit, some returning faces from the previous game and some newcomers as well. Suikoden’s ugly character art was given a full overhaul this time around, giving each new recruit far more personality than before.
Our protagonist can still take five allies and himself into battle, and each of these characters can equip up to three ruins to allow for even more customization. Suikoden II is again home to a massive home base which expands upon recruiting new characters, and it is again home to some dud characters which serve as little more than jokes.
The world is far more expansive to with new races to interact with like the winged slum-dwellers, new politics to wrap your brain around, and an entire new region of the same world which finds itself embroiled in its own conflict.
It’s here where we find Suikoden II’s shining point, its story. Once again, we are treated to a silent protagonist, an adopted son of a legendary martial arts master. He is drafted into the military during the closing days of a war between the City State of Jowston and the Kingdom of Highland. As a Highland cadet, he and his friend Jowy witness the betrayal and slaughter of their comrades at the hands of a Highland prince named Luca Blight, one of video gaming’s most vile villains. They escape the chaos and eventually find themselves on the separate side of a new conflict.
Suikoden II’s story stands the test of time, holding dear themes of friendship, war, and the never-ending truth that there is no such thing as “good guys and bad guys” in war. Both parties in Suikoden II are rife with heroes and villains who would use the backdrop of war to further their own ambitions, and like all the best war stories, it falls on the protagonist to expose these war profiteers no matter which side their loyalties lie.
The Suikoden franchise also started a new tradition which was revolutionary at the time. The next time you carry a save file from one game to its sequel, remember that it was Suikoden II which popularized this practice on consoles. Loading a completed data file from Suikoden into Suikoden II grants level bonuses, extra armor, and even a new side-quest which would allow the previous game’s protagonist to become a playable character! And he is all sorts of brilliant in battle!
An excellent story, entrancing soundtrack, and better graphics and gameplay are once again completely supplanted by the game’s pacing. Free from five minute summon animations, Suikoden II’s battles are lightning fast, providing all the depth of a great RPG with a fraction of the usual time. Further story arcs, travels, and exploration flow freely and naturally from its 60 hour time frame. Again, for a 60 hour game, you do get 60 hours of content. Zero fat around the edges.
It’s an astonishing achievement very few games are able to achieve anymore.
From here though, Suikoden would make a jump that killed a good many of its other peers at the time: the leap to 3D! Alas, Murayama and his RPG team at Konami were granted wonderful permission to develop in 2D on the PlayStation, but the same would not hold true for the PlayStation 2. How would they handle the transition?
A Jump That Few Survived
Suikoden III is a bit of an oddball in that seeing how safe Suikoden II played its formula, Suikoden III takes it in dozens of different directions.
First off, the most noticeable difference is the graphics. While not as impressive as contemporaries like Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts, Suikoden III’s polygons get the job done in creating a memorable gaming world that leaps from your television.
Also a huge difference from Suikoden II is the choice between not one but three main characters: a young village boy, a female knight captain, and an aging mercenary leader. Not to worry because you will eventually be taking control of all three characters, but Suikoden III best succeeds in a wonderful new experiment not tried in games before it: telling a story from three different perspectives.
No matter who you choose to start with, you’ll be given the chance to witness every event from a different point of view, eventually leading up to the major wartime conflict. For example, taking the role of the Grassland dwelling Hugo puts you in perspective of the destruction of his town by a group of knights. His friend is killed before his eyes, and he is forced to flee and unite the tribes in rebellion. If you were him, you’d want some revenge for this, yeah?
Well, taking perspective of our female knight Chris puts you in the perspective of an apprehensive, yet peaceful approach to the same town, only to be waylaid by villagers who don’t want you there. Before you know it, the situation escalates and our female protagonist kills a young boy in the heat of the moment, Hugo’s friend.
Suikoden III delivers many moments like these until its triple-layered storyline combines into a single path. The series’ ever-present theme of “two sides to every story” is in full effect with this game, and for the most part, it succeeds with shining colors. Heck, even an optional post-game chapter tells the side of the true villains.
Suikoden III also has 108 characters to recruit, but only a few familiar faces return from Suikoden II. Much more time has passed between games, and the continent is much further of a distance this time around. That being said, a few characters return to give a sense of continuity, like the Dragon Knight Futch, now grown into a powerful young man.
Battles continue to sport six characters, but their simplistic nature has been replaced with a complicated buddy system. Suikoden has always been home to three characters in the front and three characters in the back, and Suikoden III continues this. However, characters are paired off with whichever they line up with in the formation, and the two must work in tandem, whether it is attacking, using magic or items, or defending.
Overall , Suikoden III is that “wascky experimental” one, and most of its risks worked out pretty well. Its overall story is less impressive than Suikoden II’s, but seeing it from so many angles gives it a lot of value. For what it’s worth, the bonus chapters starring the main castle’s owner, Thomas, are the best in the game.
Sadly, the series would lose its central figure, Murayama, after this game wrapped itself up and before it was released. His absence would leave a huge hole in the franchise, one that would stick out greatly with Suikoden IV.
Remember how I said Suikoden was nearly perfect? Well…
Sinking Ships and Poor Hit Detection
If you need to look up a classic way of ruining your fan-favorite franchise, than look no further beyond this game. Suikoden IV is universally seen as the worst game in the franchise, and fans only disagree to what extent. Some don’t see it as a true blight and only a mere misstep, and others would just rather dismiss this loathsome game for all the negativity it represents.
I think it’s clear which side I fall on.
What does Suikoden IV do so wrong? Well, from the start, our hero is just of a different ilk than his predecessors. Each of the previous protagonists are all charismatic leaders with faces that attract the people around them and inspire them to want to do better. Needless to say, they are a cool bunch you want to hang out with. This newest hero though is just a sad waste of a human being. He never smiles, never loses that sorrowful droop to his eyes, and even his ruin is the Ruin of Punishment.
He’s a lot darker than what the series had seen until that point, and not in a good way. Rather, in a “this is the dark trend in anime storytelling” kind of way. His story isn’t altogether interesting either, and the nicest thing defenders can really say about the scenario is that the protagonist has interesting relationship with his friend Snowe. I don’t think I am willing to trust any RPG character with that name anymore though.
The graphics also took a major hit, indicating that Konami was not interested in slapping this game with a worthy budget. If Suikoden III properly brought the lively world of Suikoden II into 3D, it could be argued that Suikoden IV properly brings to life the dead, blocky world of the first Suikoden. Nondescript towns pollute the archipelago this game takes place on, and resident are lifeless models left walking and standing around with not a lot to do.
Even our hero has gained a reputation over the years for only being able to bend his knees as he jogs, the rest of his torso remaining stiff as a board.
For some inexplicable reason, probably money, Suikoden IV’s battles have been reduced to four characters, and all of Suikoden III’s unique ideas were tossed out the window. The result is bare and boring gameplay that didn’t even work well when released, let alone age well.
The biggest offender though is actually navigating the map. Suikoden IV takes place on an archipelago, meaning boats are naturally a part of the civilization. Konami must not have properly known how to introduce hit detection into its RPGs though as most fans complained about not being able to navigate around islands or find docks to land on, constantly bouncing off their destinations if they didn’t steer absolutely perfectly.
I remember it taking at least an hour to land a boat for the first time, and it never got any easier! The trade off for these boats though is a pretty decent “Boat Battle” simulation, one of Suikoden IV’s salvageable positives.
Every series needs a stinker, and Suikoden IV fits the bill nicely. What puts it in a league of its own when it comes to other stinkers though is that it ruined my paradise. Suikoden was a perfect franchise until this point, and that vanished in a heartbeat with the release of this game. This was was stolen when my college dorm was burglarized, and it was one of the few games I didn’t bother to replace. Don’t play this one. Don’t ever!
Luckily, Suikoden V spelled a nice return to form… for those who tried it.
The Ultimate Apology and One Last Farewell
Sadly, I’m not able to recall any personal memories of Suikoden V, mostly because I don’t have any. I’ve never gotten around to playing it, and I can’t exactly remember why. In March of 2006, I wasn’t yet gaming on an Xbox 360, and the scar of Suikoden IV had long since faded. It just, never happened…
If I remember correctly, World of Warcraft probably had something to do with it, and the impending release of Final Fantasy XII probably had me saving my pennies. The school year was ending, I was at the end of my summer savings, the break-in at my college dorm sent me on a quest to replace my favorites, Persona 3 had not yet recharged the rapidly staling JRPG genre, or maybe I just plain, old-fashioned didn’t want to play another Suikoden game at the time.
All were viable reasons, and all were probably a little bit responsible. I honestly can’t remember. All I can say is that those who have played it say it is a masterpiece and a return to form. Some even rank it higher than Suikoden II, but I’m not entirely convinced of their reasoning.
Suikoden V returns the franchise to roughly the same time period as the first three games, taking place just a few short years before the first game in the franchise. A few familiar faces return, and familiar locations are revisited, but mostly, there is just a sense of youth, adventure, and loyalty to he continuity about the whole game. A genuine sense of rebirth that the series seriously needed…
…and was quickly done away with. For all the energy and excitement this game’s plot supposedly brings to the canon, Konami killed the franchise after this game. To date, no main Suikoden games have capitalized on this one’s critical success, and it’s very unlikely any other games will. Konami has stated that it has no plans for Suikoden the future, and Murayama is still off doing other things with his life.
Who am I to complain though? I still have Suikoden V to play through! I’ve always wanted to give it a go in retrospective, but Konami has made that task exceedingly difficult. Sticking with series tradition, Suikoden V’s limited print on the PlayStation 2 makes it really hard to come by completely intact. Following that, I lost the ability to play PlayStation 2 games after all of my consoles kicked out and died, meaning even securing a copy of the game is not enough.
Konami also has not issued a digital re-release yet through the PlayStation Store, but now that we have Suikoden II, who knows what will happen!? Outlooks are a bit brighter for a re-release happening nowadays, but as it stands, hoping, praying, and waiting seem to be the best way to break into Suikoden V at this point.
Every Franchise’s Gotta Have Spin-Offs
Yes, Suikoden is no stranger to the world of spin-offs. I won’t go into great detail on each of them, but here they are.
The Suikogaiden games, Volumes 1 and 2, are a pair of text adventures which take place behind the scenes of Suikoden II’s events. While not exactly “fun” in a way that Phoenix Wright games are “fun” to play, they do a good job fleshing out both minor and major characters from the main story.
They also give a look into the life of Nashe, a blonde haired secret agent who would later appear as one of the 108 Stars of Destiny in Suikoden III. His adventures often see him interacting with familiar faces from Suikoden II, mostly the younger, cuter females.
Still, they really are just digital books with gorgeous art, animated cutscenes, and the occasional branching decision which might alter the story a little. Plus, they are naturally heavy in Japanese, with no English versions available, and they are not recommended for anybody with little experience with the language.
Suikoden Card Stories again uses the world of Suikoden II as a backdrop, but rather than bring new elements to the story, this one just simplifies it as an excuse to put the franchise on a mobile platform, the Game Boy Advance.
I’ve looked for this game all across Japan since moving here, but I have yet to find a copy. I’d like to give it a go because I like its cute art style, but I’ve never been that big on “card” based battle systems.
Suikoden Tactics sounds like a game that would be a dream come true! Taking the world of Suikoden, expanding it with a Final Fantasy Tactics style battle system, and delivering a wonderful RPG experience on its own. How could this go wrong?
Oh, that’s right. It used Suikoden IV as a model. Despite Suikoden II being home to a super-fun strategy mini-game begging to be expanded upon, we get more of Droopy McSadface’s depressing world. The game has fans who swear it only helps the world of Suikoden IV, but my thoughts are there is no way to go other than up. It’s merely a default.
Again, this was a victim of my college break-in, and I just never got around to replacing it.
The last we saw of Suikoden in the States was on the Nintendo DS. Suikoden Tierkreis was a reboot to the franchise, which kept alive a few traditions the series was known for. Mostly though, it boiled down its themes into an accessible story meant for all ages, and much of the lore and gameplay was lost in the translation.
Not that it matters. Konami was adamant when releasing the game, saying that it was out of canon and not supposed to fully represent the older games.
The Nintendo DS’ limited 3D capabilities didn’t do it any favors in the looks department. Hey, at least we got it though. Some Suikoden is better than no Suikoden, am I right? Well, not if it’s only Suikoden by name. Most will say that’s it’s a very solid game, just not a very solid Suikoden game.
The last Suikoden game to be release was Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki, another reboot to the franchise released only in Japan for the PSP. Most fans who have played it report nothing but disgust and say that we aren’t missing out on much here in the states.
I’ll believe them, but there are worse places that Suikoden could forever close its book on, namely, as a social browser game or a mobile free-to-play abomination game. Poor poor Breath of Fire…
Where to begin??
This is the part where I hand pick the games and tell you the best place to start getting to know the franchise. However, in this case, there is only one correct answer: the original game.
The Suikoden franchise is a continuous story with an evolving world. Themes are layers and piled with each release on as it bounces throughout time, so only experiencing it in order throughout its entirety can truly give you all that there is to offer.
The first Suikoden game is just $5.99 on the PlayStation Store, and it can be played on the PlayStation 3, PSP, and PS Vita if you connect it directly into the PS3 and physically transfer the game that way. It’s only 12-16 hours long and will cost you just a rainy weekend to experience all it has to offer. Do it!
From there, take your time with Suikoden II. Really battle with your mind and come to terms with how well it balances and accomplishes absolutely everything it sets out to do. People paid over $150 for this game for 15 years, and most have reported that the game was worth even that. $9.99 is a fraction of the price you’d find it for on Amazon, and you can play it on the PlayStation 3, PSP, and PS Vita. It’s also my all time favorite video game, if that is any assurance to you.
From there, unless you have a working PlayStation 2, you’ll just have to wait and pray for Suikoden III and Suikoden V to come to the PlayStation Network as PS2 Classics. It could happen, and it has a better chance than an HD Remaster, that’s for sure.
Don’t bother with Suikoden IV. It’s as pointless to the franchise as I made it out to be.
As for the future, I am perfectly fine with there never being another Suikoden game. Five is a decent number to stop at, and further attempts at rebooting it showed that Konami isn’t really up to task at recapturing what made the older games so popular. Trust me, there are plenty of fan-fictions out there, so go read one of those if you need closure, My mind is at peace, especially now that I know Suikoden II can travel with me in my man-bag wherever I go.