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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10 Comments

  1. Suikoden 2 purism doesn’t sit well with me. Each Suikoden game shares their share of importance in my world.

    Suikoden 1 is important because it establishes everything about Suikoden. It has early references to things to come, like Harmonia, Howling Voice Guild and the Gate Rune (and the very concept of true runes). It also has references of things yet to come, like Barbarossa’s War of Succession and the foundation of Scarlet Moon itself.

    Suikoden 2 is important because it has the most emotional and least flawed storyline. It has an important rune in terms of what it represents (creation) (even though the bright shield rune stinks). Storywise, it explains the battle between Jowston and Highland, with references to Harmonia, Toran and even the Grasslands. It also has the first references (at least that I know of) to the Sindar and the conflict between Mazus and Crowley.

    Suikoden 3 is important because it’s as close to Harmonia a Suikoden game has been to date. We get to explore Luc’s motivation, multiple true elemental runes and it ties in with the conflict between Zexen and the Grassland Tribes. III wasn’t an attempt to recapture II. Stylistically, III is a very different game from II. The storyline is bigger, told differently through the trinity sight system and emphasis is put on the true runes, whereas II had a more personal story about friendship, betrayal and loyalty.

    Suikoden 4 is difficult to directly call important, but it has important elements to it. It establishes the island nations, it showcases the earliest history of a Suikoden game in terms of gameplay (minus the flashback scene with Ted in S1) and it has one of the most devastating true runes seen in a Suikoden game to date; the Rune of Punishment completely blows away the Bright Shield and Black Sword Rune.

    Suikoden 5 is important because it establishes the southern continent, it delves a little more into the character of Jeane and much more into Georg (even though I find Georg overrated), as well as the Sindar. It has a huge storyline and is the most successful Suikoden game to date in terms of developing the characters, especially the SoD’s. In earlier games, many of the SoD’s where simply shelf fillers, whereas almost every SoD in V has a story related importance. Suikoden V has a finely tuned balance between having a human and emotional storyline, but keeping it about the runes. In terms of style, i feel that V has at least as many similarities with S1 as S2.

    Suikoden2 is an excellent game and I understand why many keep it dear to their hearts. But the way many people view this game like it’s the only one in the series or the only one worthwhile in the series, that annoys me and it certainly doesn’t help the cause of one day achieving a new main world Suikoden game, which is the most important goal of all.

    • I’d agree with most all of this. That’s what makes Suikoden II problematic sometimes. It’s on so high a pedestal, it can be difficult to look forward.

    • I wont deny that i am a suiko 2 purist but for a reason.
      It’s not that i didn’t like the rest of the series its just that the games themselves felt a little unpolished in comparison with suikoden 2 as a whole game.
      I still liked how they still continued the story, the characters, the mythos and the worlds that surrounds it despite all the backlashes it gets until its last dying breath..
      lets just hope Konami can get their shit together for suikoden 6 and by that i meant getting the whole suikoden team back together again before they even try and attempt to create a REBOOT suikoden series!

  2. Not EVERY cameo or callback was to Suikoden II. Sharon and Sanae, and Ronnie Bell Junior Miss were all references to the first game. Gordius was a callback to III. I’m sure I could think of more, sans alcohol and plus time, but the point is clearly made.

    • That’s why I used the word “centered”!

    • Well I found people saniyg the load times in Suikoden 5 being really long to be silly. However I remember now that I have my PS2 modded and was playing it from the Hard Disk so that might have made the game a lot more enjoyable.I really didn’t like Suikoden 4, the story and characters were really lacking. The encounter rate wasn’t too bad on foot but on the boat it was god awful.I did like Suikoden 3 an awful lot but felt it started great then petered out a bit and never really fully realised the excellent trinity sight system. Still a great game and I felt the reward you get for collecting all 108 stars of destiny was fantastic.I hope that book is still on ebay next week, I’m getting a NEO GEO MVS supergun set up tomorrow so will be broke!

  3. Suikoden II is held too highly, and Suikoden III too lowly, in my opinion. I can completely sympathize with criticisms of IV, however.

    Overall, though, I can’t see Konami showcasing any more care for the series.

    If there’s one thing I would like, however…it’s a completely new translation for every single game in the series, because there are loads of mistranslations and continuity errors. I’d love to get that before any Suikoden VI.

    • Not really necessary, at this point. Anyone who cares, knows roughly what things are supposed to have been.

      Now, I agree with you on that first point. III is my favorite game in the series, with II and V very close on it’s heels.

      • It’s not an impossible scarineo at all – the first two had teeny-tiny print runs (and, at least here, didn’t review all that well) and the others weren’t much better in that regard either!There is a definite timelime to the series… but in all honesty the only one I would avoid playing first is Tactics, as it’s a direct sequel to Suikoden 4. The others are all self contained stories with their own beginning and end – they do tie into each other, but at no point is knowledge of one required to enjoy another. My personal favourite is Suikoden 3 by a long shot, but that’s generally considered the “oddball” entry in the series. My least favourite is Suikoden 5 – it’s not a poor game in and of itself, but it wasn’t as good as the game it wanted to be (Suikoden 2) and it didn’t really try anything new. In short – I’d recommend 3, as it’s my favourite. If money’s no object go for 2. Leave Tactics until you’ve finished 4.Err… I hope that was of some use to you… :S

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