Suikoden I & II
The shift from the 16-Big generation of gaming, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, to the next was an odd one. It was unclear and uncertain. It was a road that wasn't quite paved yet and those shoes you wore as a kid to walk it didn't quite fit anymore. The new kid on the block was Sony. At this time, the only thing anyone ever knew was Nintendo and Sega..even accepting Sega in the late 80s with the Genesis was a major leap,a nd most would agree smart marketing a hell of a lot of luck on Sega's part helped them immensely. For Sony, though, those kids that fell into the Sega marketing ploy of being "cool" and "rad" were a little older and full of a lot more cynicism and angst.
For me, it was even a little odder because it had recently been made public that Squaresoft, the maker of some of my favorite games on the Super Nintendo, the company that single-handedly turned me into a role-playing-game junkie with the likes of Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series, was going to be developing games for the Sony Playstation, not the "Ultra 64" that Nintendo was developing and planning to release.
Sure, I was only about 16 at the time, but I knew that wherever Squaresoft went, I was going to follow…and I was willing to bet many other fans and RPG developers were going to follow as well.
I won't go into the logistics of it all, though. It wasn't even something I concluded by reading video game magazine. I kind of figured it out myself. CDs were the way of the future, Nintendo was holding developers back with a restrictive cartridge medium and Sony was making it easy for developers and publishers to release games…and if Squaresoft was going to be one, then others were going to follow. My mind was made up, though not without reservations, I was going to buy a Sony Playstation.
It wasn't easy, though. In fact by the time I did buy one, the Nintendo 64 (formerly the Ultra 64) was out and wowing people left and right with amazing 3D graphics and analog control. Final Fantasy VII was still a ways off to play and this being 1996, I needed something, anything, to quench my RPG thirst.
Well wouldn't you know it, there was this one little Japanese title that did that and even more.
Holy bad American Box Art, Batman! (To appeal to a more western audience, often times publishers would re-do Japanese art to reflect western styles...and this one is legendarily awful)
How the hell do you pronounce this? Sue-whee-co-den? Swee-koden? Sue-ko-deen?
I can't be for certain. I'm not Japanese last I checked and I've heard it spoken five or six different ways in the past 15 years. The only thing I do know for certain as that the odd little Japaense-phoenetic title is synonymous with a major part of my Playstation memories. It was mid 1997 or so, maybe even before that because I know I picked up the original Wild Arms around the same time, and pretty much expected lacklusterness. The Playstation had been pretty unimpressive up to that point in the realm of role playing. Beyond the Beyond was one of the games I picked up at the same time I purchased the console itself and it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Vandal Hearts was good but not what I was really looking for. This weirdly-sounding game from Konami was something I didn't have high hopes on.
I was wrong. Boy was a I wrong. The original Suikoden sucked me in like few games ever did. It played on my obsessive nature of "collecting" things in the same the Legend of Zelda titles did, had a compelling story of war and friendship and gave you a sense of exploration with a fake-sense of customization and "building" things. Army battles. Castle headquarters you could walk around in and interact with the people you recruited (over a hundred of them). Great music. Gorgeous 2D graphics at a time when everyone and their mother were trying to take gaming to pre-rendred backgrounds and 3D Polygons. It was old-school. Hell, it could have been released on the Super Nintendo even. Perhaps that's why I instantly fell in love with it. It turns out what I just really wanted was a new game, but on my old system that was, by then, completely dead and obsolete.
I played it for an entire week and beat it rather handily. It's a short game. A proficient player could probably get all the characters with no deaths and get the good ending in just a weekend. What was great is that it felt vast and expansive, yet personal and intimate. It focused on a core group of characters and let the others simply "build" a world around them as you went on quests to recruit them, some easier than others, and rage war against your enemies. There was nothing better than going around your massive castle, watching it grow as you got more people into your army, and seeing what they had to say that day or night. There was nothing worse than when you had to permanently say goodbye to a few of them.
The first Suikoden was a rather straight-forward affair. It was a simple story but very well told. Truth is, other than my first discovering it,there's not much to say about it.
Its sequel, though…surpassed it on every level. Its sequel is one of the greatest games ever created.
The opening all makes sense by the end.
After my joy of Suikoden, I couldn't wait for another. Of course, nobody really knew if there was going to be another. Videogame news on the internet was still a bit new at the time, so I can't exactly recall when or where I heard there was a sequel. It was probably a review in a magazine. I remember some loving it, some hating it. Those that hated it noted it wasn't enough of a difference from the first game. Those that hated it were wrong. Not simply in their method of reviewing it, you shouldn't say "it's too much like this" or "not enough like this" to critique something on a made-up weighted scale (amateurish video game reviewing hasn't advanced much it seems), but also because now, many years later, most would unquestionably agree that Suikoden II is one of the finest examples of its genre.
It improved the gameplay, lengthened the quest (was a continuation of the first game's plot, yet standalone in its own right), added little things like running and better animations, but where Suikoden II really shone was its immaculately told story. Again, it deals with the theme of friendship and the horrors of war, but here its told on such a personal and emotional level, it ends up leaving a lasting impression that few games can.
You see, this is why I've always loved Role Playing Games, especially 1990s Japanese RPGs before they got a bit too over-the-top for their own good. They really could tell a great, meaningful, deep story if they wanted to - and in a time when "depth" was still a term that wasn't really required for gaming.
Presentation: progressed. Story/character: Regressed. I'll take the 90s era of RPGs any day...
I personally ordered a copy of Suikoden II while I was working at a video game and movie rental store in a shopping center of my hometown. It sat next to some crappy-looking lawyer's office, a tanning salon and a quick stop that I would buy Gatorade and beef jerky at during my breaks. The corner-stone of any high-schooler's diet and that I probably regret now. I liked working there in high school more because I got everything at cost and loved movies and video games, not so much because I actually liked working. I was in high school, my last year actually. Nobody in high school liked working. Whatever, I got awesome games and eventually a car as a result, so the cost was worth it.
Of course, when it came to Suikoden II, we only ordered one copy. One copy for me. We didn't even order one to be put out for rental. It wasn't a big title, it was also bit costly even at cost, so ordering "stock" was looked at pretty much a waste. Sure, Final Fantasy VII might have made JRPGs more popular, but Suikoden II was a weirdly named title with heavy anime look and unimpressive 2D graphics.
That's unimpressive to the hordes that simply wanted more games that looked like Final Fantasy VII (by this time Final Fantasy VIII as well and Ocarina of Time for that matter). Truth is, Suikoden II has some of the finest sprite graphics you could ask for. Plus…which one still looks fantastic and undated? Yeah…
Quality Sprite graphics will always be timeless.
Suikoden II was a tale of two friends that become caught up in a war between a rebellion and an empire. As you might expect, one goes one direction and falls in league with the Empire, the other (you) to the Rebellion. It's a been-there done-that plot. What made it interesting is that it's not a good versus evil story despite that, as most stories of this nature (especially in a fledgling videogame medium) often paint it as such. The Empire, one might expect, will just be ruthless and brutal. Well, it kind of is, kind of isn't. In fact, you begin to see their side once the "evil" men become a thing of the past and your former-friend its leader. He wants to bring peace. He wants to understand the rebellion. You don't want that. You want peace, but not at the cost of freedom. During all this both are conflicted due to their past friendship. You see both the best and worst sides of it all. You become attached to various characters on both sides as even the smallest characters were memorable. The best and worst sides of humanity was shown in all in forms of text boxes and subtly animated characters. It's three-dimensional. Nobody is "insane" or "hungry for power" and those that are end up on the bad-side of the war. The heart, and there's a lot of it here, is found in the understanding that nothing is cut and dry, black and white. Especially war…and especially friendship.
Yeah, it was and still is the single best story for an RPG found on the Playstation and in the entire genre. While many went to buy the latest Final Fantasy and latest wannabe Final Fantasy, I would try and sell them the one (sometimes two if we had one used) copy of Suikoden II. They'd flip it over and shake their head and give it back. It didn't look "cool" enough I guess.
In their defense, the two main characters did look like they were sleeping...
That's what I hated about this time. There were some fantastic and imaginatively creative games, but gamers didn't want to be "embarrassed" by what they played. They wanted it to look and sound "cool." Suikoden and Suikoden II didn't look cool enough for the masses. Both didn't even sell all that well. Of course now you have to scrounge on ebay if you want either, and probably shell out a pretty penny for Suikoden II due to its limited prints.
Like its predecessor, I couldn't stop playing it. Knowing I was going to be going to college soon, I knew I had to beat it. Well I did. Twice. And a few more times in college. I've always recruited all 108 characters. Found all the secrets. Even got the special-super-hidden cameo that I wouldn't dare spoil here for those that are fans of the first game. And I've gotten a few of the different ending - the "good" ending really being the most fitting and lyrically-purposeful to the entire point of the game's story.
I haven't touched the game in years. I still have it. I probably won't ever get rid of it. It came at time when I was still really into videogames, but moving and shifting out of it as well. I might go even so far as to call Suikoden II the last "Great" Japanese RPG I ever played. It holds a special memory for me as many of the other games in this series have, but on a different, almost mature and respectible level. I'm still incredibly nostalgic about it, but less because of its impact on my youth and more because of the respect and admiration it made me develop.
In the tradition of Link and Chrono, the main character of Suikoden I and II don't speak. This allows us to pretend he's enjoying thoughtful far-off stares like this as everyone else does all the work.
The series has continued on. I still play them and, like many games today, still hope for that one instance where it truly grabs me. But I suppose you only get those once in a while, and more when you're younger than older. Either way, despite some flashes of brilliance and uniqueness, the games have all bee good, but not great. Suikoden III was ambitious, but it was bogged down by poor execution, Suikoden IV a pale shadow to what the series wanted to be and Suikoden V a good return to form, but perhaps too little too late. Konami's banner series has now found home on handhelds, which is good because there hasn't been a single great Japanese RPG on a console in years due to over-costs and the genre slowly dying.
Suikoden I and II sit proudly on my shelf of videogames. I keep very, very few and most that I do keep tend to be in the RPG genre. I may never play them again, but I respect the craft of them so much and the dedication it takes to create a unique gaming experience that I wouldn't just give them up or sell them either. I may never play them again, but there may come that itching when I'm 60 years old and want to. I may never play them again, but I like the safety net in knowing that I could. I may never play them again, but I can look at them and remember, as I've done today, every minute on screen as the drama unfolded, and every minute off screen of a happy time of a high-school videogame player.