10 Years and 20,000 Leagues – The Suikoden IV Retrospective

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In August of 2004, Gensosuikoden IV was released in Japan. Since that day, it has been held up as the Anti-Christ of the series, the game that shattered the ethos of the Suikoden series and left fans and Konami alike to try and pick up the pieces. It has also been championed by a minority who feel it is a hidden gem; a game that wasn’t exactly what people imagined it would be and was damned regardless of its positive features. Whatever opinion you hold, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that for the series as a whole, Suikoden IV was one of the most important titles.

It came out in a time of, what could be retrospectively be called, naive optimism for the fandom. With the success and high critical regard given to Suikoden III, it would appear that Suikoden IV would continue to lead the charge for the series as it approached its tenth year.

However, warning signs existed from the start. The paring down of the battle system to four party members and the stated intent of the game developers to return to the “simple thrill” of the first title. In what seemed at the time like a deliberate backlash against his predecessor, Suikoden IV’s senior producer, Matsukawa Noritaka, stated the belief that the Suikoden series had somehow lost its way at some pointi.

Of course, it must be noted that such an opinion would not be isolated to the Suikoden IV development team. For all the critical acclaim Suikoden III garnered, especially in the west, it was also, and likely still remains, the game that has divided the fanbase the most in terms of polarising opinions about its gameplay quality. Still, this new creative direction, along with the implication that original Suikoden character designer, Kawano Junko, had been brought back to represent this “original feeling”, raised some eyebrows from those that felt the 400k selling (in Japan) Suikoden III was a financial success, if nothing else.

The high profile of Chiepoo and the presence of the Nay-Kobolds in general stemmed from Kawano Junko's own personal obsession with cats.

The high profile of Chiepoo and the presence of the Nay-Kobolds in general stemmed from Kawano Junko’s own personal obsession with cats.

Dengeki PlayStation magazine would reveal that Suikoden IV would be a prequel title, the series’ first. The decision to set the newest title in the Suikoden series some 150 years before the events of the first Suikoden title was something that immediately sparked a fan backlash, with arguments for and against this creative shift ranging from the thoughtful to the incoherentii.

Then a curious thing happened; Konami issued a statement to deny this was true. Whether Konami were worried that a secret would be spoiled or that such a setting would have to be broached more cautiously to find acceptance among a conservative fanbase, Dengeki would stick to its guns and insist that what they published was accurate. In the end, as we all know, Dengeki would be vindicated as Konami later confirmed what we had all been told.

Still, hype and promotion is a potent tool. People were especially attracted to the idea of a new, darker hero even as Matsukawa insisted he had no intention of showing or depicting any depressing subject matter. The announced return of Ted, meanwhile, first revealed with the simple shot of his back, which can be seen in the opening video to the game, was an excellent piece of marketing and promotion which did much to alleviate the fears of some fans that the extreme distance in chronological setting would negatively impact the gameiii.

Eventually, on August 19th, 2004, Gensosuikoden IV would be released in Japan and the response was middling. At least, critically. Make no mistake, despite a slower start, Suikoden IV sold about as well as Suikoden III when all was said and done, give or take a few thousand copies. Critically, on the other hand, this latest title was something of a mixed bag. Famitsu might have rated it at just a notch below Suikoden III (Suikoden IV scored a 30, compared to Suikoden III’s 31) but elsewhere, such as Dengeki PlayStation, the reaction was slightly more lukewarm.

Matsukawa's distaste for what he termed "filthy stuff" led to the concept of a cursed rune which forces its bearers to relive the painful memories of past hosts to be depicted by a series of monologues by glowing orbs.

Matsukawa’s distaste for what he termed “filthy stuff” led to the concept of a cursed rune which forces its bearers to relive the painful memories of past hosts to be depicted by a series of monologues by glowing orbs.

By 2005, when the game was released in North America and Europe, reception was especially harshiv. The “return to basics” trumpeted by Matsukawa and Kawano seemed to mean a stripped down battle system. The “feeling of the first Suikoden” apparently replicated by a plot that sometimes did not seem so much truncated as it did castrated. When Kawano claimed, as she did in a Dengeki PlayStation interview, that Suikoden IV would be the most ancient of the series, did she mean in terms of creaking gameplay punctuated by obnoxious battle load times?

But let’s not get carried away. Suikoden IV was by no means a perfect game but it did have its charms, which appealed to quite a few people. Although most agreed that sailing was a bore, its attempts at a nautical setting were still generally applauded. The opening acts, from the game’s beginning until (more or less) the events on Iluya Island possess a fairly strong narrative drive. Character designs were generally praised, with even minor characters finding their fans. The game’s soundtrack was also almost universally declared to be an improvement over its predecessor, if not the equal of Higashino Miki’s work for the first two games. Its battle system, though bare bones, was fundamentally functional. So why the hatred as opposed to apathy or neutralityv?

Now we venture into OP-ED territory but, really, the reason why Suikoden IV attracted so much negative flack is for two reasons. The first is because it was a fundamentally unbalanced game. As mentioned, its narrative drive practically evaporates. This is a big problem for a series that was enjoyed by many fans as a character-focused, story-based game.

Even this, however, may not be the fault of Matsukawa and Kawano. You see, an argument could be made that Suikoden IV had its legs cut out from under it by Konami pretty soon into its development cycle. The title was announced soon after the release of Suikoden III but what was not announced for some time was that a second title was being developed concurrently. Not Rhapsodia/Suikoden Tactics but Suikoden V, in collaboration with Hudson Soft.

Kooluk's internal struggles as well as the mystery behind Rune Cannons would be picked up in 2005's Rhapsodia/Suikoden Tactics.

Kooluk’s internal struggles as well as the mystery behind Rune Cannons would be picked up in 2005’s Rhapsodia/Suikoden Tactics.

Of course, there is no real evidence of this but the existence of Suikoden Tactics, a game that for all its faults possesses a much stronger narrative thrust than Suikoden IV ever managed to pull together, as a “make up” game. Suikoden V may have been a prequel like Suikoden IV but one which insulates itself into the grander Suikoden canon much more snugly while Suikoden IV was let to drift a century and a half before anything of importance.

The second reason for Suikoden IV’s poor reputation is the retroactive opinion that Suikoden IV marked the end of the Suikoden good times. The theory goes that a high point was reached with Suikoden III and when Suikoden IV came out, everything went down hill. The magazines, the merchandise, the hype; it all ended when that damn ship came sailing along that awful rendered ocean.

The truth is that the Suikoden bubble probably popped in 2003. The Genso Shinsho quarterly magazine had shut down just as Suikoden IV was announced, not after its release. Suikoden III had, frankly, an obscene amount of game guidesvi at a rate that could not be reproduced by Suikoden IV. Suikoden IV also had less merchandise pumped out for it in general and, lest we forget what was mentioned earlier, sales for the title were strong, if slightly behind that of its predecessor.  It seems like Suikoden IV had stumbled onto a crime scene only to get fingered as the murderer, a symptom not a cause.

In recent years, opinions have mellowed out slightly on Suikoden IV. Removed from the hype and fandom hysteria of the early 2000s, most seem content to regard it as a mediocre game that marked a decrease in expectations for the series. Its reputation has likely been helped, inadvertently, by the release of Suikoden Tierkreis in 2008 which managed to split the fandom into even more fanatical camps than “prequel yay” and “prequel nay”vii.

Suikoden IV's rediscovers its sense of narrative drive late in the game with the optional Ted recruitment. These scenes form part of the game's highlights from a story telling perspective.

Suikoden IV rediscovers its sense of narrative drive late in the game with the optional recruitment of Ted. These scenes form part of the game’s highlights from a story telling perspective.

Disappointingly for those who like to dabble in extremes, that may end up being Suikoden IV’s real legacy. Not as the villain who damned the series nor as the Velveteen Rabbit of the series, harshly abandoned by those whose love it wanted most but simply as a half-way decent game caught between the financial decisions of a profit-seeking company and the whims of a fanbase who were only interested in the future insofar as it could become the nostalgia of tomorrow.

If Suikoden IV was focused on too much by the fanbase, maybe it was because it was a game that was an afterthought for the company who commissioned it.

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