Gather round, children, and let me tell you a tale. A tale of an RPG made by Konami. Now, you may not believe it but there was once a day when Konami was not the raging suppository of the gaming industry. No, children, once, Konami made great games like Contra, Castlevania and a little known RPG known as Suikoden.
Suikoden was odd in that it both stood out against the crowd and also fell into the background. The first game came out in the US in November 1996 for the Sony Playstation, making it one of the earliest RPGs on the console and beating Final Fantasy VII to market by about three months. Despite coming out during the advent of 3D console gaming, Suikoden decided to use 2D sprites much like the Super Nintendo featured. This made it stand out against its polygonal competitors although, at the time, not in a good way. In terms of graphics, Suikoden was seen as a step backwards, albeit a beautiful step back. Also, with the world eagerly awaiting Final Fantasy VII, Suikoden was mostly ignored by the gaming public.
It was a shame, too, since to this day, Suikoden is a shining example of everything an RPG can be. The series was conceived back in 1993 when the series creator was asked to help Konami break into RPGs. The script they worked on eventually evolved into… Suikoden II. Yeah, weird as it was, Yoshitaka Murayama came up with a deeply political storyline involving betrayal and rebellion and decided, “nope, we need a prequel to this.” That prequel became Suikoden.
Fortunately, this worked out well for the duo as Suikoden managed to introduce players to the world very well. For the most part, Suikoden’s world resembles medieval Europe much like any other fantasy RPG but with a few unique aspects. Magic is dictated by runes which can be used by people for varying effects. While there are many runes out there, there are 27 “true runes” that are basically super runes. These are not only extremely powerful runes but they also make the bearer live forever. A nice little side effect, I must say.
Much like Game of Thrones, though, the world isn’t dictated by these magical runes, rather they are simply a small aspect of a world defined by human nature. Thus, while the true runes are the catalyst for the story, the main plot is much more about human politics. You play as the son of a general in the Scarlet Moon Empire and thus, are expected to go and work for the army when you come of age. Early on, you realize that the army is filled with asshats who want to kill your best buddy who just so happens to have one of the true runes on him. Long story short, you get the true rune and are forced out of the kingdom.
The major gameplay element that has defined the Suikoden series is the 108 Stars of Destiny. See, in each game, there are 108 recruitable characters, many of whom can be added to your party and will fight with you. Others will add passive effects to your army and your castle. Yeah, that’s right, you get your own castle. Getting kicked out of the kingdom doesn’t hurt so badly now, huh? Most folks won’t just join your crazy 100-person rebellion against the largest empire in the world though. They have to be convinced. Help Joe Schmo get his cat down from the tree first and then he’d be happy to risk his life for you!
While you can play the game through linearly, you’ll be missing a huge part of the game if you don’t scour the world looking for each recruitable character and figuring out what they want. It may sound tedious but the game is well designed to make the task easier on you. Characters that can be recruited will have a portrait shown whenever they speak, letting you know who is and is not important. Also, each character has a meaningful impact on your game. Sure, many of the characters are just added fodder for your war effort but others will add shops to your castle, an inn or even cool side features like adding a sound test option to your game. Each added recruit gives a tangible benefit and makes it fun to seek them all out.
If the collect-them-all gameplay reminds you of a certain game featuring a certain yellow, electric rat, you aren’t far off but it’s worth noting that Suikoden came out two years earlier than Pokemon Red and Blue in the US. The Japanese version came out a year before Pokemon Red and Green came out in Japan so Suikoden had them beat! The game also features a much more adult storyline and each character has… well… character. Plus, combat is more than just a 1-on-1 affair.
There are actually three types of battles in Suikoden. The first is your traditional turn-based gameplay you’re used to seeing in JRPGs but they have polished the system to a shine. You can have up to six characters in your party at once. Each character has their own special moves, weapon styles and even combo attacks they can pull off with other characters in the party. To accommodate the larger party size, turns also move much quicker than other games of the time. Characters can attack enemies simultaneously making each battle feel quick and action-packed. It’s a small change but you’d be amazed at how much of a difference it makes.
The second type of battle is the duel. This is where your main character enters a rock-paper-scissors battle with an enemy. You think I’m exaggerating here but I’m really not. You get three actions to choose from: attack, defend and special. Attack beats defend, defend beats special and special beats attack. Before each turn, your enemy says something to you and you need to figure out what action they will take based on that sentence. It sounds boring and that’s because it is boring. It’s a system that survived through all five entries in the series and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. It’s not too bad though since there are only a handful of these fights throughout Suikoden.
The last type is a grand battle where you wage all out war with your entire army against theirs. This is done by also playing rock-paper-scissors but it’s a better rock-paper-scissors than duel. Your party members are separated into archers, ground troops and magicians. You get various groups of each based on who you have recruited. Ground troops beat archers, archers beat magicians and magicians beat ground troops. There are a couple of things that make this battle type more interesting though. The first is that this battle type actually incorporates all of your recruited characters and makes you feel rewarded for getting more characters by increasing that group’s attack power. Secondly, you also have some characters that fall into an “other” category. These units can provide other bonuses like trying to spy on the enemy to see what type of attack they are going to try or even recruiting some enemy soldiers to come join your side.
Suikoden isn’t without it’s problems. Duels aren’t much fun and war battles aren’t all that much better but the rest of the game’s setup more than makes up for these shortcomings. In the time since Suikoden came out, the sprites have aged significantly better than early polygonal graphics making it one of the prettiest RPG’s from the Playstation. The storyline holds up very well with some emotional moments and strong characters. Finally, collecting the 108 Stars of Destiny is just a blast. I had so much fun seeking everyone out that I never wanted to put the game down.
It took me about 40 hours to complete Suikoden 100% and when I was done, I was more than ready to pick up the second one. Too bad original copies of either game go for a ridiculous amount of money. Fortunately, both Suikoden 1 and 2 are now available on the PSN so if you’ve got a Playstation 3, 4 or Vita, you can pick it up for only $10. I couldn’t recommend that path more. Frankly, if it were still 5 years ago and the only way to play Suikoden was to pay $100 for a copy on eBay, I’d tell you it’s worth it. To this day, Suikoden is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. There are very few games like it (Radiata Stories for the PS2 is one of the few that has tried to emulate it’s style) and none have managed to capture the style as well. For $10, this is one of the best deals available on the market today. But to bring our tale full circle, Konami hasn’t made a Suikoden game in over a decade and seeing as how they have decided they actually hate video games, I wouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. Moral of the story: fuck Konami but enjoy this masterpiece of a game.