A game is a game is a game until you play one that brings both limitless joy and a sense of discovery that does not wane despite a multitude of playthroughs.
For me, that game was Suikoden II, a Japanese RPG brimming with adventure. It is, quite possibly, the only JRPG that ever truly reached out to me as a western gamer.
Suikoden II revealed itself to me as a gift on my birthday or Christmas, whichever. I had just finished replaying Final Fantasy VII multiple times, using a GameShark to cheat my way through beating Ruby Weapon and his ilk.
I wasn’t expecting too much. I only really wanted another RPG to play, seeing as I had my first taste with the genre in the aforementioned Final Fantasy title. Immediately I was drawn in by the game’s art and sprite design. The characters never looked goofy onscreen. Rather, they were built closer to proportion than the funny LEGO people that populated Midgar. The game’s opening gambit surprised me with an ambush. Immediately it was made known who the enemy was (though it was never that simple once the story got going) and who my friends were.
From there, it was a quest to learn more about the world, not because I was forced to by way of an overt or hidden tutorial, but because I really wanted to. The game had the potential to be a stale mess. See, I don’t really like the whole medieval RPG swords, magic and warfare theme. It feels like a cop-out, an automatic homage in order to cover the fact that a game designer can’t come up with a relatively original concept. Suikoden II blew me away though. It mixed in a lot of East Asian aesthetic as well as some vampires in the later chapters. The finished work was beautiful.
Beyond the quality of the game’s design was its story. Suikoden II managed to make special moments actually special. It did this by allowing dramatic sequences to pervade into the regular gameplay stream. There was monotony to a degree, but only enough to make interesting moments wholly engrossing. It is an RPG after all, you had to level up by beating random enemies in random encounters as you explored random areas of the map.
The game had a powerful effect on the player not just because of what was shown, but because of what wasn’t shown.
You see, the game follows two close friends who are thrust into the world stage because of circumstantial events. They are split apart just as you get to know them and you are left playing one side of the story, while the other hidden side is played across country borders. As you work out your goals and find a cause to rally behind, your friend across the way lives another life that you only get glimpses of as certain encounters present themselves. Over time, the two friends are displaced by more than geography; they are utterly distanced in their ideals. Love, friendship, family, trust, betrayal, justice, truth, and ultimate acceptance all play a part in the game’s main story, which also draws upon the lore established by the first Suikoden game.
Suikoden II was a huge game. I was really fresh into RPGs at that time and was floored when I found out that the game had maybe 100 recruitable characters with around 70 or so of those playable in a party. Then you had quite large parties of up to six unique characters. Some of these characters had a special affinity for each other and could unleash devastating combo attacks because of that. Then you had the castle system, which was a huge part of the game’s middle and final acts. Recruit warriors, cooks, dancers, fishermen, vampire hunters, dogs, etc to your castle and watch as the once lonely halls fill with a multitude of interesting characters. As you travel around the game map, you could chance upon special objectives that aren’t always so noticeable.
Sometimes you’ll run into a significant character but can’t get a single word out of them until you bring along one of the many playable characters in your stable. All of a sudden you unlock a sidequest (sometimes short, sometimes long) that leads to another recruit and another piece of the greater story. This was at a time when there were no icons on the map to hint at anything in particular.
The philosophy driving Suikoden II was that each character had a place in the world. Otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. Each one of those 100 or so characters is important in some way. This means that a full clear is very tricky to achieve. That’s also compounded by the fact that you’d need save data from the first Suikoden game in order to unlock some of these characters. Dedicated fans had to work hard if they wanted to see all that the game had to offer.
It’s hard to imagine how a game with so many characters could have depth to each one. I’d be as skeptical as some of you if I didn’t experience it myself. Granted, there is a definite hierarchy in the cast. Some people are more important while others are just bonus characters with bonus storylines.
If you are the type of person who gets excited over minigames then Suikoden II fills that hole nicely. There are turn-based strategy battles, fishing competitions, dice games, duels, etc. The one I wasted most of my time on was the cook-off. When I unlocked that part of my castle, I spent extra time in the kitchen whipping up tamago, eel, and various noodle-based dishes for the randomized judges who came straight from my pool of recruits. I had to really know the characters if I wanted to win each round.
Of all the hours I put into this game, three memorable events stand out above the rest. Two of them are heavily story-based and wouldn’t make much sense in a short paragraph so I’ll just go over my second favorite boss battle in Suikoden II. At a certain point you have to take down a very nasty tyrant who is as powerful as he is cruel. Since he’s so powerful, you have to use multiple parties in order to defeat him. It’s been a while but I think the fight takes four or five complete parties of six member each. The parties would consecutively fight the boss who gradually weakened with each bout. Not to be outdone, he also seemed stronger as his health diminished. The whole thing went back and forth until that final bit of Runic magic took him down.
I’d say that the game is worth that fight alone but there are many moments that rival and a few that even outshine this one.
Friendship is a central theme in Suikoden II. It’s one that is strained to the limit before ripping in two. Then you get a glimmer of hope where it seems that maybe all things can be mended. That falls by the wayside as the differences in ideals and in experiences bubble up to the surface.
It’s something that wasn’t apparent to me yet when I played it. I was still a kid who only ever thought of change as something that happens when I move up into the next grade level.
And what were friends to me?
Friends were the people who liked the things I liked, who enjoyed my company because it was convenient. I thought friendship was easy and drama avoidable.
I didn’t fully understand it then but Suikoden II showed me a few things about life that I didn’t get a chance to find out otherwise. That and it taught me a few things like what a sluice gate is and how tonfas are very cool and underrepresented weapons.
Suikoden II is a beautiful game that brought on feelings I’ve been trying to recapture in other games. It’s been maybe twelve years, and so far, I have been unsuccessful.