Franchise Festival #20: Suikoden

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be assembling all of the information available on the Suikoden series. With regard to sources, there are comparatively few available on this semi-forgotten franchise. Happily, a few dedicated fans came through in a pinch: Hardcore Gaming 101 has an entire series of articles documenting each Suikoden title while YouTube channel The Gaming Pilgrimage created a loving series retrospective without which this article might not exist.

Background

In 1995, the Sony PlayStation made its debut on Western shores following an initial Japanese launch a few months earlier. The popularity of the console rapidly skyrocketed, as it was capable of three-dimensional visuals only hinted at in Super Nintendo Entertainment System games featuring the advanced SuperFX chip. Of course, software needed to follow this new piece of hardware, and Konami quickly filled the gap with a new Japanese Role-Playing Game called Suikoden.

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A world map of the core Suikoden series, credited to Wikia user Milkandchocolate. The text is small, but it does show the Northern Continent (Suikoden through Suikoden III), the Southern Continent (Suikoden V), and the Island Nations between them (Suikoden IV).

The franchise occurs within a single universe across several continents and a 170 year time frame. The first three titles are set over a span of twenty years on the planet’s Northern Continent, albeit in several distinct countries. The fourth game is set 150 years earlier in the Island Nations south of the Northern Continent, and the fifth game is set on the planet’s Southern Continent. Characters and concepts are shared between the games, but each has a standalone plot focused on regional political intrigue.

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Suikoden (1996)

Konami’s Yoshitaka Murayama took the lead on developing a new IP based on the classical Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan. Its visual design was clearly informed by games of the preceding hardware generation, as it featured characters drawn as sprites rather than the polygonal figures which would come to dominate the landscape in the years following the 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. Backgrounds outside of battle sequences are also rendered as top-down sprites, similar to the previous year’s SNES masterpiece Chrono Trigger.

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Teatime in Suikoden.

Even still, the visuals did innovate on what had been possible on weaker hardware. Character sprites were larger and more richly detailed when moving around the field. Battle sequences are heavily improved from what had been possible on the SNES or Sega Genesis as well: character animation is extensive, six characters are controlled by the player at once, and the background is actually composed of textured polygonal landscapes.

With regard to those battle sequences, they remain very standard genre fare aside from the larger-than-average number of characters on the player’s team. Characters take turns to complete actions selected from menus, including the typical attack, defend, and item options. Special abilities are handled using a rune system very similar to how magic works in Dungeons and Dragons, as skills are part of a tiered system in which a character can use skills from one tier a specified number of times before needing to recover at an inn. Runes are assigned to characters using a menu screen outside of battle, and are each associated with unique skills. No MP is involved, which is a fairly radical departure from JRPG conventions in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, the battle sequences are considered rather easy and the player even has the opportunity to automate these, reducing the difficulty still further.

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A battle sequence in Suikoden. Note the polygonal landscape.

Where the game’s focus and primary challenge lie, however, is in assembling the largest cast of allies yet encountered in a JRPG. The story hinges on the player character’s role in leading a rebellion against his former employers, the Scarlet Moon Empire. To that end, the player character must travel the world gathering the 108 Stars of Destiny – allies destined to aid him in his war. Most of these characters function as team members in battle, so assembling a well-rounded group is critical to success. Many of the Stars of Destiny have rather obscure recruitment mechanisms, however; some join automatically through plot developments, but others require the player to encounter them during a small window of time in the narrative and fulfill some specific condition. They can even be missed entirely! This has an impact not only on the player’s battle capacity, but also on which ending he or she receives at the game’s conclusion and on some bonuses available in the sequel.

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The player character exploring his base.

While most of the 108 Stars of Destiny offer support in combat, some are instead related to the player’s acquisition and development of a base of operations. The player character gains access to a stronghold early in the narrative and then populates it with allies as he recruits them from around the game’s many towns. This would become a core series feature, and it consistently draws fans into the world, giving them numerous opportunities to bond with their in-game friends.

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Army sequence. It’s a remarkable innovation for the genre, but pales in comparison to later series entries.

In one of its major innovations on genre tropes, Suikoden also gave players the opportunity to engage in large-scale military encounters. These play out using a rock-paper-scissors system in which each military unit (composed of several ally characters leading faceless soldiers) has an assigned type: infantry, archer and mage. Infantry units beat archer units, archer units beat mage units, and mage units beat infantry units. The power of any given unit is determined by the number of Stars of Destiny the player has assembled, as each unit is made up of pre-defined characters and can be larger or smaller depending upon whether the player has recruited all of that unit’s constituent characters. The scale of these skirmishes lends a sense of grandeur that is necessarily lacking in standard turn-based battles, and would go on to inform the series’ identity in the years ahead.

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Suikoden II (1999)

The first Suikoden game was published at the start of the PlayStation’s life and Suikoden II would be published at the end of it. In spite of the years separating these games, Konami did not significantly evolve the series’ visual design – characters are still sprites, albeit more animated ones, and special effects and battle backgrounds remain the only visual elements designed using the PlayStation’s ability to render textured polygons. Some plot sequences feature unique perspectives, but much of the game is played from the bird’s eye view common to earlier games in the genre. This brought the game under criticism at first, but actually resulted in a visual design which has stood the test of time. It would be one of the last sprite-based JRPGs until the 2010s.

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The main character is in a pretty tough spot at the start of Suikoden II.

Its plot is significantly improved from the narrative of its predecessor. The player once again takes on the role of a soldier betrayed by his own country’s military, but the scale of the ensuing political conflict is far more extensive than the conflict in Suikoden. At the same time, the interpersonal relationships between the silent protagonist and his friends and family are more developed than in most contemporary games. The antagonist, a traitorous general named Luca Blight, remains one of the medium’s most hated foes.

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Luca Blight is seen here slaughtering the residents of a rural town. No wonder folks don’t like him.

As with its predecessor, Suikoden II is distinct among 1990s RPGs for its emphasis on geopolitical intrigue rather than the supernatural. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest had set the template for JRPGs since the 8-bit era, but Suikoden and Suikoden II were instrumental in the genre’s evolution away from these conventions. The only noteworthy supernatural elements in either game are the inclusion of fantastical monsters roaming the wilderness and runes that give characters magical abilities during battle sequences.

The runes, in fact, do play a more important role in Suikoden II than they had in the first game. The army battle sequences are expanded, resembling tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem rather than the fairly straightforward rock-paper-scissors combat of Suikoden. During these sequences, players move their army units around a tile-based map and engage with enemy units through either standard attacks or the use of rune abilities.

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An unrelated Fire Emblem image. No wait, that’s Suikoden II!

Collecting Stars of Destiny through the completion of sidequests or narrative developments is still the game’s core hook, along with building a base of operations. Suikoden II’s setting is a nearby region shortly after the events its predecessor, so many characters from Suikoden pop up in either significant roles or cameo appearances. If the player imports save data from the first game after meeting certain conditions, he or she can even encounter the original title’s silent protagonist in Suikoden II! This element of continuity would create a long-running sense of cohesion in the franchise, even though each game’s plot stands alone.

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The polygonal background in this battle sequence may have gotten more excitement out of contemporary fans, but modern players are more likely to appreciate the sprite animation.

Interestingly, the second Suikoden game was actually the first one to be scripted. Yoshitaka Murayama and Junko Kawano had written out the entire game and begun development for an unreleased console by early 1994, but the project was canceled. When the idea was revived on the PlayStation, the studio actually wrote Suikoden (1996) to get its staff more familiar with game development prior to embarking on the epic that had been written by Murayamo and Kawano; this had the added benefit of fleshing in backstory for characters who would have major roles in Suikoden II’s narrative.

Unfortunately, Suikoden II sold poorly. Few copies were produced due to its release so late in the PlayStation’s life, and prices quickly became inflated on the second-hand market. The game was eventually ported to the PlayStation Portable console in an enhanced version bundled alongside Suikoden, but this never made it out of Japan. Until the game’s re-release on the PlayStation Network marketplace in 2014, many Western players were sadly unable to experience this JRPG masterpiece.

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Suikoden III (2002)

When it made the leap from the 32-bit PlayStation to the 128-bit PlayStation 2, the Suikoden series dramatically expanded its visual palette. Environments and characters were fully polygonal, abandoning the series’ sprite roots. At the same time, the game is viewed from fixed camera angles of varying distance and perspective similar to those featured in the PlayStation Final Fantasy games rather than the standard bird’s eye view that had characterized earlier entries; the camera tends to be reasonably close to the action, emphasizing the pleasant character designs but sometimes making navigation difficult.

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Character selection screen at the start of the first chapter. Three options are normally available, but a handful of other interstitial chapters from incidental characters fill in the remaining slots.

With regard to the character designs, they reflect the game’s overall approach to its larger scope. Earlier Suikoden games’ silent protagonists are replaced by three speaking protagonists aligned with separate factions. These include the son of a tribal chieftain, a knight in the region’s feudal government, and a cynical mercenary. The events of the game are set sixteen years after Suikoden II on the same continent, and the ability to witness the events from three distinct perspectives enhances its storytelling capacity. After an initial set of chapters focused on the three characters experiencing an identical set of events from unique points of view, the final two chapters see them joining together to assemble the Stars of Destiny and prevent a regional calamity.

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The knight, Chris, exploring a lovely cathedral in full 3D.

The battle mechanics receive another revision, as they had between the first and second games. Standard battles remain fairly similar, though the party of six is now divided up into three groups of two characters. On top of these are layered army battles, which now take place on what appears to be a board game field. Units move from one space to the next and challenge enemies, but these inter-unit battles play out similarly to standard turn-based encounters. This permits players to avoid learning new combat mechanics, but undermines the series’ uniquely grand sense of scale. Happily, the board game layout still allows players to gain certain battle advantages by fortifying specific spaces (like castles).

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An army battle sequence featuring the self-consciously artificial interface unique to Suikoden III.

In spite of its dramatic cosmetic and structural overhaul, Suikoden III was developed by an almost identical team to its predecessors. They focused on improving elements that players had disliked, including punitive time limits on recruiting Stars of Destiny, while expanding the series’ visual ambitions. This had the effect of creating the bestselling entry in the series so far, even as it failed to live up to the high critical standard set by Suikoden II. Unfortunately, the relationship between Konami and the series’ primary creative voice, Yoshitaka Murayama, eroded during the early 2000s. In a troubling development, Murayama and a number of other staffers departed the studio shortly before Suikoden III’s release. This signaled tough times ahead for the already- beleaguered franchise.

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Suikoden IV (2005)

With the departure of series creator Yoshitaka Murayama, Konami seemed uncertain about how to treat its flagship RPG property. The previous three entries had intertwined plots, and appeared to be building towards a narrative conclusion, but this was abandoned once Murayama’s guiding hand was absent. Instead of continuing the series’ overall progression, new director Masayuki Saruta opted to set the game in a distant island region of the series’ world 150 years prior to the events of Suikoden.

Along with this narrative discontinuity, lead artist Fumi Ishikawa was replaced with writer Junko Kawano. Ishikawa had been rendering the character designs since 1999’s Suikoden II, and had crafted the series’ distinct anime-influenced character aesthetic. Kawano had previously done character art for the first game in the series, and had a very different vision for characters’ appearances. While his harsher, more rigid approach to design worked in the context of a sprite-based mid-1990s JRPG, the avatars in the fully polygonal Suikoden IV ended up looking very stiff and lacking personality when contrasted with the softer, brighter designs of Fumi Ishikawa.

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Concept art for the main character of Suikoden IV.

The return to the series origins, though, was not merely a cosmetic detail. Konami felt that Suikoden’s identity had been somehow compromised as it evolved during the 2000s despite the critical acclaim for Suikoden II and the relative commercial success of Suikoden III. Consequently, it sought a simpler narrative for the franchise’s fourth title. The protagonist is again silent, as had been the lead characters in the first two games. Much of the character development is therefore relegated to the Stars of Destiny, but these characters can once again be easily missed due to opaque time restrictions on recruiting them. It seems that Konami had moved away from the handful of ways that Suikoden III had improved on its predecessors.

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Characters on the deck of a boat. You’ll be seeing a lot of this if you play Suikoden IV.

The plot is also rather limited. It follows the basic template of a character assembling an army to take on a major military power, but lacks much of the political complexity that had made these conflicts compelling in earlier games. The region itself lacks identity, as it is composed of numerous disconnected islands. This lack of identity is compounded by the poor visual design, as the PlayStation 2 hardware permitted only short draw distances and identifying islands while sailing around the game’s overworld is very tedious. An uncommonly high encounter rate contributes to frustration endured by players exploring this region. The environments are also drawn in dull earth tones and lack defining characteristics that would set them apart from one another, unlike contemporary island-hopping adventure The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

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An uninspiring naval battle.

Finally, the battle systems went through growing pains as well. In standard battles, the player can control only four characters rather than six. Army battles have been replaced by naval combat, which functions similarly but lacks the visual flair of earlier games – most ships look the same, and the field of battle is always open sea. Duels, which had appeared in each game so far and follow a rock-paper-scissors design philosophy (attack – defense – special), are the game’s only improvement on its predecessors: the mechanics changed little, but the integration of voice acting and flashier action sequences make these some of Suikoden IV’s most exciting moments.

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A duel. It’s still the deck of a ship, but at least it has a more exciting camera angle.

In retrospect, it’s challenging to see Suikoden IV as anything other than a significant misstep in a series that had, up to this point, been consistently beloved by fans. Director Yoshitaka Murayama and artist Fumi Ishikawa seem to have been more instrumental in crafting the franchise’s identity than Konami had anticipated. Without them, the series had been set adrift.

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Suikoden V (2006)

After the catastrophic Suikoden IV, Konami made an attempt at one last entry on the PlayStation 2. A new director took over and the game was developed collaboratively with the venerable Hudson Soft studio, which had been successful developing franchises outside of the JRPG genre like Mario Party and Bomberman. Turning to an outside studio may have been the result of this game’s original design, as it was in development as a spinoff title prior to the release of Suikoden IV. Unfortunately for fans and Konami staff that had hung on through almost a decade of troubled development cycles, Suikoden V would become the final game in the core series.

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The character design is immediately more appealing.

This is not due to a lack of quality. In spite of the new director and development studio’s lack of experience working on JRPGs, Suikoden V is one of the most successful genre offerings on the PlayStation 2. The mechanics reflect those of Suikoden II rather than the retooled battle systems present in the third and fourth entries, and the visual design is significantly enhanced from the stiff, dull art of Suikoden IV.

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An army battle sequence.

The game actually retained naval combat, but integrated that with land army battles. Both occur on large-scale battlefields and no longer include the grids that had characterized army sequences throughout the series. This is a marriage of the best elements from earlier games while abandoning the aspects that had been criticized over the preceding decade. Surprisingly, duels are a categorical improvement on Suikoden IV, which was distinguished by having the best one-on-one combat in the series up to that point. They still feature the more exciting cinematic camera angles, but also introduce time limits to the player’s action after hearing a vocal cue from the opponent; this ups the tension and rewards players who are paying attention.

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An exciting colosseum duel.

Narratively, the game has more in common with Suikoden and Suikoden II than the intervening titles. The protagonist is silent, but has the role of Prince in the Queendom of Falena on the Southern Continent; at the outset, the prince is deposed in a coup and must assemble an army composed primarily of this game’s 108 Stars of Destiny to retake his throne. This naturally involves navigating a variety of competing political factions. Suikoden V is set eight years prior to the events of Suikoden, so a handful of fan-favorite characters also crossover between the two.

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An oddly distant isometric camera.

One of the stranger updates to the franchise is the shifting of the field navigation camera to a distant overhead perspective. This is intended to emulate the overhead perspective of the first two games after the camera in Suikoden III and Suikoden IV came under criticism, but it introduces a host of unique problems. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, conventions for polygonal JRPG cameras aping 16-bit designs would become standardized through major portable games like the Final Fantasy IV remake and Dragon Quest IX; at the time of Suikoden V’s release in 2006, however, those conventions remained some years away. Rather than paying homage to the series’ roots, the camera angle in Suikoden V is slightly isometric and puts an unnatural level of distance between the player and his or her avatar. This has the unintended effect of obscuring obstacles and paths, making traversal a chore. When the camera switches to closer angles during battles or plot sequences, the player gets a better look at the strong character design, so it seems a real shame that the view is often so unengaging.

Suikoden V would prove to be the closing chapter in the core Suikoden series. It was one of the last major games released on the PlayStation 2, and it’s likely that the middling sales didn’t justify the higher development costs associated with the following generation’s high-definition visuals. The only remaining games to be released under the series name would be spinoffs designed for portable hardware.

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Spinoffs

The earliest spinoffs in the Suikoden series were released exclusively in Japan on the PlayStation hardware. Gensō Suikogaiden Volume 1: Swordsman of Harmonia (2000) and Gensō Suikogaiden Volume 2: Duel at the Crystal Valley (2001) were visual novels developed by a Konami team distinct from the one that had been working on Suikoden II (1999), the game with which their narratives are intertwined. After the release of Suikoden III, staff members who had worked on these spinoffs were assigned to development of Suikoden IV and Suikoden V.

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Card battle!

Bizarrely, a Japan-exclusive collectible card game called Gensō Suikoden Card Stories was published on the Game Boy Advance in 2001. A physical version with real cards was simultaneously published, though neither the digital or physical card game made it to the West. Cards in the game feature characters from Suikoden II and Suikoden III, and the plot is a slightly altered retelling of the narrative in Suikoden II.

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Even the cover art for promotional games related to Suikoden IV looks stiff.

The next spinoff emphasized the series’ battle mechanics rather than its focus on complex narratives. Suikoden Tactics was released in Japan and North America in 2005, and is a direct spinoff of the much-maligned Suikoden IV. The plot bookends the fourth entry in the core series, and features numerous characters who had first appeared in that game. The gameplay itself is extraordinarily reminiscent of Fire Emblem, as characters navigate around a gridded battlefield and battle enemy units in a turn-based combat system; characters standing adjacent to one another can even have conversations and form bonds, as in Nintendo’s popular strategy RPG. Elemental affinities are a major factor, as a character’s association with an element like fire or water impacts their performance on pieces of terrain that oppose or enhance the character’s element. While the art design is as bland as that of Suikoden IV, the plot and interpersonal relationships are regarded as an improvement on the game from which it is derived.

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The actual in-game visuals of Suikoden Tactics are more engaging and closer to classic strategy RPGs than the game’s cover suggests.

Finally, two JRPGs bearing the franchise’s name were published on the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable platforms in 2008/2009 (Japan/North America) and 2012 (Japan only), respectively. The Nintendo DS game, Suikoden Tierkreis, is actually more in line with standard JRPGs than the core series had been. Character models are similar to the chibi type encountered in Final Fantasy III or Dragon Quest IX and the use of skills is dependent upon MP rather than the Dungeons and Dragons-esque rune system that had characterized earlier Suikoden titles. The narrative is more limited in scope than core franchise games, and features an entirely new world, but the focus remains on assembling the 108 Stars of Destiny. Staff was drawn from the teams that had developed Suikoden Tactics, Suikoden IV, and Suikoden V. Genso Suikoden: Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki was published four years later, but is actually rather similar to Suikoden Tierkreis. Its main innovation was an entirely new magic/skill system, but that was not enough to get it localized for the West.

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Battle sequence in Suikoden Tierkreis. The bottom screen is features cute chibi characters and a landscape that wouldn’t be out of place in a PlayStation title. The top screen features a hand-drawn depiction of the surrounding landscape and character portraits.

In 2015, Konami announced that the staff dedicated to Suikoden titles had been entirely disbanded and the series had been fully put to rest. This is quite unfortunate, not only to dedicated fans but also to the wider community of games enthusiasts. Suikoden had filled a very specific niche of grand political role-playing games that still found time to emphasize the unique identities of its wide cast of characters. As much of the JRPG world moved towards anime conventions, Suikoden was closer to a piece of historical fiction in its sweeping yet grounded tone. Happily, the digital PlayStation Network marketplace has made the series more accessible to newcomers than ever, so perhaps we should give thanks for its preservation rather than mourning its end.


What has been your experience with the Suikoden series? Have you played every entry and lamented its disappearance, or have you never encountered it? Who is your favorite Star of Destiny? Let’s discuss below.