Many moons ago, when I was a younger lad, my best friend would talk to me about a particular RPG series he loved. We were both fans of the genre, but we each had a different perspective when it came to the games we played. This was around the time I was in high school, somewhere in the early 2000s, during the height of the big JRPG boom sparked by the arrival of Final Fantasy VII. Coming from a modest-income family, my experience consisted primarily of the major releases of Squaresoft (later Square-Enix,) sticking primarily to the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. My friend, on the other hand, was a bit braver in his purchases.
While I was enjoying my chocobo rides and slime hunts, my friend preferred to explore an under appreciated gem called Suikoden. For the better part our high school tenure, this strangely named JRPG would be the game most recommended to me by my dear ‘ol pal. Unfortunately, both of them would remain completely alien to me until I grew up and gained the means to use my disposable income to feed my addiction to niche video games. As such, I would not get around to actually playing these games it until they were both released digitally on the Playstation Network last year. I am so glad I did.
Since the beginning of the year, my relationship with video games has been strained. The tragic loss of dear friends, poisonous environments caused by certain Twitter hashtags, and an overwhelming pessimism for where the industry is going has had me feeling quite low on my favorite hobby. The fun was still there, but the white-hot passion I had for discussing and analyzing games had cooled into a tepid, miserable little puddle. Suikoden brought me back from the brink and made me fall in love with this medium all over again.
The first Suikoden game is an anomaly as it somehow manages to feel both familiar and fresh at the same time. From the minute I booted it up, I was greeted with an enthralling intro cinematic complete with sweeping theme song and saccharine JPRG optimism. Almost immediately, the pleasure centers of my brain were reignited and I was reminded of the various reasons why I fell in love with this genre in the first place. Being released in North America in 1996, the game displayed little of the influence of Final Fantasy VII while retaining the charm from its 16-bit forebears.
Suikoden is the definition of inelegant, but it is from its flaws where I was able to appreciate the game’s true beauty. After getting into the game proper, I was taken in by its stripped down visuals, consisting primarily of 2D sprites with some rudimentary 3D elements thrown in during battles. While this style may have been considered mediocre during the rise of 3D gaming, today it is a much-needed breath of fresh air from the aesthetic excess of the modern era. Likewise, the music, while featuring a few stand-out tracks, does little to break the mold of the classic soundtracks of its peers. But, those few standout tracks are so earnest and lacking in cynicism, it is hard not to want to listen to them even when you are not playing (The guitar version of the game’s main theme nearly had me in tears, so make of that what you will.)
The game’s narrative hits all of the major check boxes required for a story in a Japanese role-playing game. You play a silent protagonist (check) who lives under the rule of an evil empire (check,) only to eventually join a group of rebels to save the world (big check.) Yet despite the cliche set-up, Suikoden is able to tell a compelling story thanks to its strong and likable cast of 108 characters. Yeah, the game’s big gimmick is how many playable characters are available through out the course of the story. This is great because it meant lots of versatility for me in combat, but also meant most characters don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of the story. Thankfully, the game’s localization (minus a few botches) was able to capture most of these characters personalities in a few lines of dialogue. Through out the course of the game, I found myself legitimately caring about every one of them, even the ones I didn’t use in combat, which is really saying something.
I walked away from Suikoden with a renewed appreciation for video games. Suikoden is not the prettiest, the most exciting, or the most challenging role-playing game you’ll find, but it doesn’t need to be. The game’s atmosphere is grand without being self-indulgent, the music is simplistic while still being invigorating, and the straightforward story remains charming during its relatively short playtime. Suikoden reminded me of a Charlie Brown holiday special; crude and rough around the edges, but so lacking in bull-crap, you cannot help yourself from loving it. Suikoden is the best example I can find of a game adding up to more than the sum of its parts, and I could not be happier to now be a fan.