Ghost of Games Past: Suikoden 1
System: Playstation 1
The 90’s was a great time for the JRPG. Between games like Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile, and Xenogears, it was a crowded market. But it was also one that introduced a lot of classics still held in high regard to this day. One of those games was the very first Suikoden game. Suikoden for me wasn’t a game that I was aware of as a kid. Loosely based on the Chinese novel Water Margin, Suikoden takes you on a journey that initially is familiar with asilent protagonist rebelling against his country in order to bring justice to the land. By the end it has you leading an entire army of (potentially) 108 people as opposed to a party. What follows is a tale of political intrigue, a web of contradictory motivations, and an epic journey in what was the start of a unique series.
At first blush, Suikoden is fairly similar to other games of the era. In terms of graphics and gameplay it certainly does resemble an SNES-era Final Fantasy. The devil, of course, is in the details. The story has you as the son of a leading general of the Scarlet Moon Empire lead a burgeoning rebellion, after discovering just how corrupt and cruel the empire has become. This is a pretty basic premise, but the game also goes out of its way to give you a taste of what your life as the son of a powerful general is like (wealth and respect), before everything goes full fantasy.
This applies to the mechanics as well. While the base gameplay is a fairly simple turn-based RPG, it makes decisions that are remarkable for the time in which it was created. Simple stuff like allowing the player to allow the AI to make its own decisions on whom to attack — albeit with physical attacks. It’s commonplace nowadays, but for a game of this era it’s appreciated. It helps to speed up random encounters, as well as to eliminate some of the drudgery that comes with things like grinding. The game also has 108 separate characters that you can recruit; and while you are locked with certain characters at times, for the most part you’re given free reign to choose the characters you use. This also extends to how you choose to use them, you’re given a great deal of freedom in how to customize your characters, whether you want them to be physically oriented, magic attackers, support, etc.
While not all these characters are meant to be used for combat (some help to level up your castle via giving you access to inns, cooking, an elevator, hot springs), there are a great deal of options; but you’re still only able to take 6 characters with you. Thankfully, the way the game’s leveling system works means there’s not much effort required to bring newer or benched characters up to par with your higher-leveled characters. In that regard, Suikoden puts a lot of work forward in defusing the time sink that grinding can become. However, it’s hardly a waste of time to go out of your way to accumulate your army. Even setting aside that the best endings require you to gather all 108 Stars of Destiny, gathering your army is important for the game’s War Battles. The War Battles are a bit low key compared to say, Fire Emblem, since there is a bit of a rock/paper/scissors element at play with how the type of attack you use impacts your enemy. Where having an army becomes important is in unlocking both new types of attacks to use, as well as various extra moves you can use against the enemy army (i.e. getting to anticipate enemy plans, cause defections). It helps to reinforce the notion that you’re not just a tiny RPG party, but a real fighting force, and that building your forces (or not) has consequences.
While I still have quite a bit of time left to go before I reach the ending (work and school can put a crimp on gaming these days), I can say that, as a first-time player, I am engrossed. Regardless of when they was made, the best games can transcend their respective eras. Unfortunately, unless you have an original copy of the Playstation game, a PS3 or a Vita, you’re out of options. Konami, in its post-Pachinko machine mania stage, seems unenthusiastic about supporting its franchises; and considering the last game in the Suikoden series came out around a decade ago, the prospect of a re-release seems increasingly unlikely. It is worth seeking it out if you have one of those systems, a fantastic RPG can really make the difference.
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