Arrested Development – Suikoden II’s Long Shadow

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Now the story of a wealthy series who lost everything, and the one game who had no choice but to keep them all together.

The announcement of Suikoden II’s imminent PlayStation Network release for PS3 and Vita has excited fans old and newi. As the series comes into focus once again, it’s perhaps appropriate that the attention centers on Suikoden II, seeing as it has never really not been the center of attention as far as the Suikoden fandom goes.

Suikoden II, within the Suikoden fan base, is Suikoden. Everything revolves around the title, everything else is “before” Suikoden II or “after” Suikoden II. It is the template for what Suikoden is with future games being judged to a large extent based on how “Suikoden II-y” a new title is. But what has caused this situation and where does it leave the game itself?

Part of Suikoden II’s original popularity and acclaim stems, no doubt, from it being practically an updated re-release of the first game. The setting and characters are different, of course, but graphics-wise, gameplay-wise, everything is an update on the first Suikoden title’s formula. Suikoden II is, effectively, Suikoden 1: Bigger and Better.

This is no coincidence. It is said that Suikoden II was originally the title Murayama Yoshitaka wanted to craft but, doubting the experience of himself and his team, chose to put off. The original Suikoden title would be made instead, giving the Suikoden team a chance to get to grips with the new PlayStation hardware as well as the rigours of creating an RPG of unprecedented proportions in terms of cast.

Suikoden II begins with cameos but re-establishes them strongly.

Suikoden II begins with cameos but re-establishes them strongly.

Even before Suikoden II began development, it was the focus of the entire seriesii.

With the conservative nature of the average video game fanbase, Suikoden II was highly regarded for giving the fans more of what they had already played, but done better, with more finesse, more extras, more plot, more… just more. While Suikoden III is the critic’s darling, when it comes to the dedicated fanbase itself, Suikoden II reigns supreme.

As the game had a shockingly limited release outside of Japan, the game has been difficult to find for over a decade now. Its exorbitant prices on eBay and the like would become legendary, gaining the notice of mainstream video game sites. This, in turn, would be used as a platform to champion the title and the series as a whole. As such, Suikoden II occupies a spot of high esteem even among people who have never played it.

And, to be fair, maybe it deserves that position. Suikoden II’s story of friendship and loss is well-crafted and you can see the improvements and changes from the original title. Using the hero’s sister and friend as proxy voices for the silent hero, the game is able to form an emotional connection between the player and the game world much easier and cleanly that the original title’s haphazard collection of bodyguards.

Suikoden II is also a genuinely long gameiii. At around 30 hours or so of main plot, this allows for a more refined experience with a more dynamic plot than the first game. In that respect, it is only rivaled by Suikoden III. Much like that title, Suikoden II is able to make up for any lack of nuance by sheer volume.

Luca Blight may lack moral ambiguity but he serves as a singular target for the player.

Luca Blight may lack moral ambiguity but he serves as a singular target for the player.

On a replay, Suikoden II can be muddled, however. It likes to bait-and-switch, right from the very beginning when an exciting cliff-top chase ends with a dramatic dive off of a waterfall, only for the plot to then segue to your character scrubbing floors and picking up flour. Character motivations and actions can seem slightly bizarre if you analyse them too hard and gameplay-wise, well, actual battles were never Suikoden’s forte and that remains true here.

But still, Suikoden II is an experience above all else. Its plot, whose quality can and will be debated for some time, is genuinely compelling. The 2D sprite graphics are amongst the best seen on the original PlayStation and has allowed the game to age well visually in comparison to early 3D RPGs on the console. It is also backed up by a genuinely wonderful soundtrack by Higashino Miki and characters are brought to life with the sedate and earthy, yet eye-catching, artwork of Ishikawa Fumi. These two talented women in turn are seen by many as central to the idea of Suikoden as a whole, despite both of them only working on two games eachiv.

Suikoden II is a genuine labour of love by all accounts and because of this, the game holds an energy that allows it to overcome its few flaws. It is easy to see how a game with this much passion would earn the love and respect of some many people, despite its unpolished naturev.

It turns what were basic game mechanics into traditions by virtue of its popularity. Blacksmiths, magic levels, duels, war battles, unite attacks, the whole sprite look. All of these are Suikoden traditions not because the first game introduced them but because the second game retained them. A well-received original title had its form refined and popularised by its high selling sequel and that’s how all the common Suikoden tropes were codified.

The saga of Yuber and Pesmerga is another tradition the series has tried to evade.

The saga of Yuber and Pesmerga is another tradition the series has tried to evade.

And therein lies the long shadow Suikoden II casts over the rest of the series. In their own way, Suikoden III, IV and V are each attempts to recapture this perfect storm of exciting novelty and comforting familiarity that Suikoden II gave to fans of the seriesvi. In the end, a balance couldn’t be found, Suikoden III was not “Suikoden enough”, Suikoden IV was “too first Suikoden”. Suikoden V probably came the closest to achieving this goal and it did so by clinging tightly to Suikoden II’s formulavii.

While what Suikoden, as a series, is and isn’t is up to each individual, there is nevertheless a shared fandom experience as well. By that measure, it is hard to argue that Suikoden II isn’t the most Suikoden title of all. So play it again, or for the first time, and experience a title that has captivated hundreds of thousands of people across the globe for over 15 years.

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