We revisit the classic PS1-era political warfare JRPG.
There are certain difficulties, or at least unique concerns, when it comes to playing videogames that are a decade (or even decades) old. How well do certain graphics styles and renderings hold up over time? Are there types of gameplay we’ve grown less tolerable of over time? Despite the potential for disappointment, it’s worth noting that videogames can also remain sources of enjoyment years after their initial release. In “How’s It Hold Up?” we look back on videogames from decades past, and reflect on what they have to offer players today.
We’re starting this feature off with the first installment in a somewhat niche but much beloved series, Suikoden. Suikoden II frequently places on lists of the best JRPGs ever made, but what of its predecessor? The original Suikoden came out in 1995 (1996 in North America) and, though rough around the edges, introduced a lot of the series’ trademark features and concepts. So, how’s it hold up?
Suikoden stars a silent protagonist (officially called Tir McDohl, but the player has the option to name him) who is the son of one of the Scarlet Moon Empire’s greatest generals. Tir ends up receiving a magic rune called the Soul Eater, one of the 27 True Runes (a recurring group throughout the series, they are the most powerful magical items in the series canon). Through various circumstances, Tir ends up on the run from Empire officials and learns how cruelly the Empire treats its less fortunate citizens. Tir then joins, and ultimately leads, a Liberation Army in its endeavor to overthrow the emperor and create a more just society.
This political focus is present throughout each Suikoden game, and provides the base reasoning for the series’ recruitment system. The potential party members and most helpful NPCs in the game belong to a group called the 108 Stars of Destiny, the series’ term for the central figures of its protagonists’ armies. Venturing through the Scarlet Moon Empire and recruiting the 108 Stars is one of Suikoden’s main draws, as it enables a large amount of choice in terms of which characters the player wants to use in their battle party.
Unfortunately, the 108 Stars of Destiny are also relevant to many of the original Suikoden’s biggest flaws. The game almost constantly forces players to have specific characters in their party dependent on who is most plot-relevant at any given point. It’s nice to give various characters time to shine and get more development, but it comes at the price of hindering the sense of freedom the vast number of recruits is supposed to create.
Not only that, but all that time spent with forced party members doesn’t leave one feeling like they truly know most of the game’s recruits. Because most of the instances of predetermined parties revolve around the same handful of characters, and most recruitment quests are very short, there are large swaths of characters who get very little fleshing out. It’s hard to feel like one has over sixty options for a battle party (the rest of the 108 Stars fill NPC/support roles) when only half of those receive enough story-time or have cool enough designs/combat uses to be notable. It’s certainly funny to bring a chef into battle once or twice and watch him whack enemies with a pan, but once the novelty wears off it’s easy to feel like the character is somewhat of a waste. Many characters wouldn’t feel worth the trouble of recruiting at all if gathering all 108 Stars of Destiny didn’t have a significant plot reward late in the game.
With that said, Suikoden also gets a lot right in terms of gameplay. The main battle system is turn-based and incorporates both weapons and magic, for a classic sword and sorcery feel. It’s simplistic, but variance in characters’ affinities and weapon types prevent things from getting too repetitive. Battle parties can have up to six characters at a time, which is usually large enough to accommodate all story-mandated party members and a few characters of the player’s choice. Certain characters with special relationships even have unique unite-attack animations. The system may be simple, but I would argue that it is also streamlined. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing so long as it works, after all.
The game’s already solid gameplay is boosted by the inclusion of two other battle systems, one-on-one duels and army battles. Both function according to rock/paper/scissor type formulas, and the high stakes of a good or bad decision help generate tension. Part of the fun of these types of battles is attempting to guess opponents’ next moves based upon their dialogue and previous actions. The army battles are especially crucial to the game’s success because they remind the player that Suikoden is in fact a war game. Commanding thousands of troops really helps sell the large scale of the game’s conflict.
In terms of its actual plot and writing, Suikoden is a mixed bag. All of the components of a great story are present, but while the writing was highly impressive by 1995’s standards, it pales in comparison to more modern narrative-driven games. There’s a fair amount of telling rather than showing, especially in terms of establishing characters’ relationships (Ted, for example, practically beats Tir over the head with the fact that they are supposedly best friends). As I mentioned previously, there are also many characters’ whose story arcs are underdeveloped or practically nonexistent. None of these faults are helped by Suikoden’s English release having notoriously bad translation issues (“All of this killing in front of a children”).
Significant faults aside, the game’s writing isn’t bad as a whole. The various fantasy concepts are intriguing and numerous, and it’s evident that the creators spent a lot of time crafting the series’ base mythology. Some characters’ deaths are downright moving, as are the spirits of determination, resolve, and courage that characterize many of the 108 Stars of Destiny. Suikoden’s villains actually feel like villains; their misdeeds against the less fortunate aren’t just stated, they’re shown. Plot twists pertaining to military strategy and betrayal are exciting to watch unfold, and what characters do get sufficient development are usually quite likable. The plot’s most striking moments are made all the more effective by the game’s solid soundtrack.
Given that Suikoden was released on the original PlayStation over twenty years ago, one might expect it’s graphics to feel extremely dated today. Impressively, they usually don’t. Most of the characters are rendered using sprites which have held up quite well over time. They may not look extraordinary but they’re still passable, which is more than many old games’ 3D polygon-esque character models can say. Suikoden’s backgrounds are where it truly shines visually. Water fountains, trees, castles, and the like are visually pleasing to the eye and still impress with their attention to detail. The consistent style throughout may not be modern or photo-realistic, but it’s still matches the game’s tone and fantasy setting.
With that said, there are aspects of the game’s visuals that leave much to be desired. The most notable of these are the magic spells. The sorcery half of the game’s sword and sorcery just isn’t pleasing to look at. Even most of the game’s more advanced spells lack a visual oomph and sense of power. The world map is also fairly ugly, as you control a miniature version of Tir who is not at all to scale with the locations around him. As much fun as they are to play, the game’s army battles are also laughable by today’s graphic standards. Troops are tiny to the point of being almost imperceptible, and watching them fly off into the sky after being killed is more the stuff of comedy than it is the stuff of gripping warfare.
Overall, I would argue that Suikoden isn’t just a good game by 1995’s standards, but by today’s standards as well. With that said, it’s not a great game from today’s lens. The visuals’ less impressive aspects can be downright laughable, and the recruitment/party-building system’s sense of free choice is bogged down by frequent story intervention and undeveloped characters. Nonetheless, the strong lore, background graphics, combat systems, and political plotlines make Suikoden worth the time of any gamer who isn’t picky about only playing games with modern graphics.