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Nearly a year before the ever-hyped Final Fantasy VII hit US shores and changed gaming forever with its popularity, there was another Japanese gaming import that deserved to reach the same success, but somehow didn’t.
That game was Suikoden for the original PlayStation, and now that it and both of its sequels are available to download on Sony’s more modern consoles via the PlayStation Network store, you should consider giving them a try.
Suikoden was way ahead of its time, and it had a ton of features that many games still haven’t caught up on, not to mention a storyline that was far from predictable (unlike most of its contemporaries). But it’s not hard to see why the game went largely unnoticed outside of Japan: it also offered dated Super Nintendo-style graphics, baffling Playstation 1 owners who were keen to show off their fancy new consoles. Look past the graphics, though, and Suikoden and its sequels are incredible games.
It starts out like many other Japanese games of the era: you’re a nobody who quickly finds out that your destiny is to save the world, usually alongside an amnesiac mage, an anthropomorphic rogue and a black guy with a gun for an arm. But Suikoden also tosses in a hefty dose of politics. With a dash of Star Wars inspiration, you soon find yourself switching sides from the Empire to the Rebel forces as corruption ravages the land. Each game in the series build on the intrigue and political backstabbing of the former, and for a series that’s relatively small by modern standards, Suikoden offers a huge sense of scale.
That’s also down to the series’ main selling point: its ridiculously huge cast of characters, many of which are fully fleshed out and interesting, and most of which can be added to your party to fight alongside you. And there’s a remarkable amount of continuity throughout all three games: many of the 108 recruitable characters in the first Suikoden can be transferred to Suikoden 2 and then to Suikoden 3, provided you put the work and time in. Having that personal through-line across multiple games is more common in modern games, but at the time it was incredible.
Early on in the original game, you establish your own headquarters, a dilapidated castle, in which your many recruits can reside. At first, it might look like a wreck of a building, but the more people you entice, the better the castle gets. There’s a little bit of pride every time you return from exploring and find that the castle has gained a new floor or is looking a touch shinier and newer than before. Forming your own village, you end up with working shops, a blacksmith for improving your weapons, a library full of informative tomes, and even a place to conduct gardening. Not all of it is essential to the story, but it gives you a great sense of being part of something bigger, and part of something that’s worth protecting.
And unlike most similar games, battles in the Suikoden series aren’t limited to a handful of fighters. The stories involve massive wars, which means you can end up with full scale battles between warring armies. While the likes of Final Fantasy VII might offer scale through impressive graphics and a world that seems huge but is actually quite barren, Suikoden grabs you through massive battles and continuity that makes the game’s world seem alive.
It sounds complicated but in reality, the Suikoden series is frequently more simple than most other Japanese role-playing games. That simplicity doesn’t obscure the satisfaction of watching a genuinely epic storyline unfold, however, or seeing how beloved characters develop over the years and across multiple games. All it does is leave you wondering why more games haven’t followed in Suikoden’s footsteps, and why more people aren’t clamoring for a Suikoden remake too.
Jennifer Allen is a freelance writer based in not-so-sunny Wales. She’s been gaming for over 20 years and cites Final Fantasy VII and Goldeneye as “life-changing.” Jennifer has written for outlets such as GamePro.com, G4TV.com, and PasteMagazine.com. In her free time, she pretends she knows what she’s doing at the gym.