Despite five numbered entries over eleven years, Suikoden remains a much loved but little known RPG series. Sam Brooks writes about one of his favourite video game series ever, and what makes it so special.
If there’s a niche that I occupy that very few other people do, it’s that I love video games based on 14th-16th century Chinese novels. That’s not a pre-requisite for me enjoying a game, but given on my enjoyment of games based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it doesn’t appear to hurt. Which brings me to Suikoden, a now sadly defunct video game series which is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the Water Margin novel, written by Shi Nai’an in the 14th century about 108 outlaws (read: probably criminals) who form an army to overthrow the government but then are actually sent to deal with other uprisings and foreign invasions. It’s essentially Game of Thrones about six hundred years before Game of Thrones was a thing, except less sad. You’ve all got a copy on your bookshelves, I’m sure.
Suikoden falls in that bizarre place between well-loved and little-known. Despite not having a main series game in twelve years, nor an actual game in the proper canon in about the same time, it shows up on many ‘best RPG series ever’ lists, and has a warm home among the incredibly cool people who have been lifelong fans of JRPGs. It is also, hands down, my favourite video game series of all time. (Sorry, Final Fantasy, Princess Maker, Kessen and other inanimate things that absolutely cannot respond to me.)
What the Suikoden series has that other RPGs of its time – and really most of the period since – don’t is a true sense of both scale and depth. Even though the games were never graphical beasts (the first two Suikodens were 2D sprites at a time when it had become fashionable to move to 3D models) there’s a vibrancy and a sense of life to the world of this series that is rarely equalled.
From the very first game, itself a perfectly sturdy if a little unwieldy turn-based battler, the Suikoden series was dead set on building a massive world and populating it with countries, cities, armies and people who felt genuinely alive. And from the very first scene of the first game, where Tir McDohl wakes up and sets off for his first day at work for the Imperial Army and goes to see the King of the Scarlet Moon Empire, you know the game is setting itself up for something that might be legitimately world-changing. It’s got political intrigue, it’s got people dying for their nations rather than for their loved ones, and it’s got power-mongering.
Which, in all honesty and fairness to the genre, every roleplaying game attempts to do. Games that start off with a dude being woken up in bed by his mother in the morning can end with a giant malevolent space entity from the other side of the universe coming to destroy time and space as we know it. The only person who can stop it? The dude who couldn’t get out of bed before 9AM to get to work. RPGs have always existed, for better or worse, on a big scale – if you’re not saving the world then you’re saving the universe. The difference between most games and Suikoden is that Suikoden sets that big scale up from the very start and slowly fills it out – with countries, with lore, with cities, and finally, with people.
The first game – and I guess avoid this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled about a twenty three year old game – ends with you raising an army to depose the corrupt Scarlet Moon Empire. This is the general structure of the Suikoden games: at some point you raise an army, then you find a castle to house that army, and then you fight a large scale war against the established power.
The other big sell of the games is the huge array of characters in them. In every game you have to recruit 108 characters, which match up to the Stars of Destiny from Water Margin. These range from the mysterious, ageless and unfortunately scantily clad runemistress Jeane, to the chef who lets you play the surprisingly deep cook-off mini-game to the octopus that occupies your castle lake. Suikoden is a weird game, with a lot of very weird things to do, you guys.
But more than just giving you a lot of things to do, the wide array of characters does two important things. One, it reminds you how wide the world is. You have to really search, hunt and capture to get these 108 characters, and even though I can still do most of them by memory at this point, if you’re doing it for the first time without a guide you’re not gonna have a fun time. You will be going over places you’ve gone before, talking to random pedestrians on the street, playing seeming pointless games of chinchorin and getting the most of what the world you’re fighting for has to offer.
And two, it gives you a sense of actually building a force to fight with. As you recruit more characters, whatever castle your ragtag army has ended up in gets bigger, it gets cleaner, it starts to feel like an actual fortress to launch an invasion (or a defence) from. There’s a sense of genuine achievement there, and it’s physically (or at least as physically as 2D sprites or 3D models can be) building before your eyes. It feels tangible in a way that so many of the collectathon, trophy-hoarding achievements in games fail at completely.
But honestly what I miss about Suikoden that few other games have picked up on is a true sense of nuance. There aren’t good guys and bad guys (even though the series gives us one of gaming’s greatest villains in the unimaginatively named Luca Blight), there are just people on one side and people on the other. Characters on both sides have surprising amounts of depth, and there’s a fair bit of existential philosophy. As in all the best novels and books, the true villain ends up being the systems that cage these characters, rather than the characters themselves.
Nowhere is this more present than in the second game, which is the clear highlight of the series. The game is a direct sequel to the first game in the series (it’s amazing how rare continuing stories are in this genre), with the scars of the Toran Liberation War being felt even north of the border, in Dunan. Riou and Jowy, two best friends, have joined the youth brigade of the Highland Army, and within about five minutes of the game starting an attack is launched on their camp. The twist? It’s a raid by the Highland Army themselves, with the intention of blaming it on the Nation States. The best friends, who have lived in Highland all their lives, end up surviving the raid and joining the Nation States, until they eventually end up on opposing sides of the conflict and even end up, somewhat improbably, as leaders of what becomes of the Nation-States Army and the Highland Army respectively.
Even though the biggest villain of the series leads the Highland Army for a good half of the game, the game does a very good job of reminding the player that there are heroes and villains on both side. The strategist of the Nation-States army is taken to task repeatedly for putting people in danger who shouldn’t have been in danger, and at one point puts an infant who has been under the care of the protagonist in mortal danger solely to safe his life. It’s the kind of nuance that’s missing from games nowadays, where things are usually resolved with big laser-fights between the forces of good and evil, without any concept of the actual human beings who populate those forces.
Weirdly, the one game that has managed to pick up what Suikoden did is Dragon Age: Inquisition. At times it feels unintentional, and Dragon Age: Inquisition is easily a 250-hour experience where the Suikoden games tap out at about 50 hours, but there’s the same sense of scale, the same process of building an army and a castle to take on the world against extreme odds. Even more impressively, there’s the same nuance. Even though you’re taking on a literal god who wants to destroy the world and remake it in his own image, Inquisition treats the world of Thedas with the same kind of complexity and even-handedness that Suikoden always has. There’s none of the basic ‘elves be like this, dwarves be like this’ hackery, there’s insights into systems and how those systems define and destroy people.
We’re unlikely to see another entry in the Suikoden series. RPGs, especially JRPGs, haven’t been heavy-hitters since the PS2 era, and while the Suikoden games were critically acclaimed they never managed to hit it big with the public. You know, unlike most game series based on Chinese novels that are probably the closest we’re going to get to a proper video game adaptation of Game of Thrones. I try and play them every now and then, and even though I’ve probably spent literally hundreds and maybe even thousands of hours on this series, I still find little things – a pedestrian lamenting the fate of his world, a stray teleporter’s comment about a city she accidentally teleported me to – that I hadn’t yet found in this beautiful, rich and strange world. And it keeps me playing.
If you have a PS3, you can buy Suikodens 1-4 on the Playstation Store, and I would highly recommend that you do!
This post, like all our gaming content, comes to your peepers only with the support of Bigpipe Broadband.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.