Whatever else it may have wrought, our turn towards digital ownership has made retro gaming a much more viable pastime.
Suikoden is an excellent example: the first two games in Konami’s sleeper franchise have long been hailed by RPG enthusiasts as two of the best in the genre (with the second in particular often being singled out as a contender for the empyrean throne of “best JRPG evur!”). But they also quickly became hard to find, the few copies floating around with outrageous prices attached to them. Regardless of their reputation, there was no way I was going to fork over that kind of money.
But for $6-10 on PSN, I’d be willing to give them a try, although part of me regrets the absence of that glorious American box art from my shelf. My initial thoughts are below the fold.
The original Suikoden is an unusual artifact. It was released in 1995 as one of the earlier Playstation titles, two years before Final Fantasy VII set the tone for how the genre would function, post-Nintendo dominance. As a result, it shares more in common with the 16 and 8 bit titles that preceded it (or were contemporaneous with it) than with the 32 bit ones that succeeded it; and it offers a brief glimpse of how the genre would perhaps have played out if FFVII hadn’t unleashed its mainstream, blockbuster potential.
Theoretically based on the classical Chinese novel, Water Margin, Suikoden casts you as the son of Teo McDohl, a decorated general in the Scarlet Moon Empire. You’re just beginning your own military training when it dawns on you that the Empire is, in fact, hideously corrupt. Also, the emperor is being manipulated by an evil witch who is seeking out an extremely dangerous magic artifact which just so happens to fall into your possession. So naturally you go on the run and get involved with the local insurrectionists.
None of this is territory that hasn’t already been mapped out by Star Wars (heck, make a few tweaks and you’ve got the premise of Final Fantasy IV and VI as well). What makes Suikoden a little more unique is how the hero’s journey stuff is largely sidelined in favor of a narrative more interested in the politics of building up a rebel faction. There’s a matter-of-fact, almost dry tone to proceedings which Final Fantasy would have milked for melodrama, and there’s something refreshing about that. Also refreshing is the idea of a fantasy story about political intrigue that isn’t a dreary exercise in grimdark miserabilism. Suikoden‘s cast is charming and peppy in a 90s anime fashion.
And it’s a pretty big cast – 108 recruitable characters in total (the 108 Stars of Destiny, which seems to be the conceit most indebted to Water Margin, although I couldn’t explain its significance further). Given that you are, indeed, attempting to overthrow an empire, the triple digit figure actually makes narrative sense; even a throwaway, quota-fulfilling character adds to the scope of the affairs.
Gameplay-wise, Suikoden doesn’t remake the wheel. But it does, unlike many RPGs, respect my time. Combat is your usual turn-based affair, but with a twist: after inputting all your party commands for a turn, the game forgoes the usual leisurely approach of resolving each action individually in favor one where everything plays out in a short battle scene. The balancing itself also rewards a tactical approach that tries to end the battle as soon as possible, so the random encounters wind up feeling more like speed bumps than interruptions. And this also extends to the money and experience points, which are doled out in a manner that makes them a non-issue.
This is all good stuff for someone who ostensibly has a life and a career to worry about. The worst I can say about Suikoden‘s approach is that it’s a bit too bread and butter, and suffers from the expected interface clunkiness of a 21 year old RPG.
Aesthetically, the 2D sprite art for the characters is often charming, but a lot of the area designs betray how low budget the game is – compared to a contemporary like Chrono Trigger, it isn’t much of a looker. I do give it credit for being an early Playstation title that actually understands how to tastefully make use of its 3D elements, given the limitations of the time; they’ve aged a lot better than I expected. Aside from the memorable battle theme, much of the music is just kinda blandly workmanlike.
I can see how this game is often overshadowed by its successor: it feels solid, but a bit unrefined, like the early episodes of a TV show where the cast and writers are still trying to get a feel for things. So I’m interested to see if it manages to live up to its promise.