Retrospective: The Five Secrets of Suikoden’s Success «

In December 1996, Konami did something unprecedented, at least for them: They released a role-playing game in the U.S. The company was no stranger to the RPG genre, with both traditional variants (Super Famicom’s Madara) and action-based iterations (King Kong for Famicom) under its belt, but those games had never escaped the irresistible gravity of the Japanese market. This new effort, Suikoden, was the company’s bid to develop an international RPG presence. Launched in the early days of the PlayStation, Suikoden arrived in the fallow period between the Super NES’s RPG pinnacle and Final Fantasy VII’s explosive debut.

While Suikoden wasn’t a runaway hit, it did well enough that Konami turned it into a steady franchise, releasing four direct sequels and almost half a dozen spin-offs over the following decade. Its sweeping sense of history and enormous cast of characters earned the series a modest but passionate fanbase. Though the series has become something of a footnote these days — a PSP spin-off is due in Japan in 2012, though its prospects for Western localization are grim due to the platform’s effective demise here — the games still command a loyal fan base who look back at Suikoden’s heyday and remember all it did right. On the occasion of the original game’s 15th anniversary, let’s look back at what made Suikoden both great and unique among its peers.

No-Nonsense Design

 

Suikoden was criticized even in its day for its short length; a determined player can easily see everything the game has to offer within the span of 15 hours. This criticism was a sign of things to come for the industry. The increased data capacity of CD-ROMs encouraged developers to explore artificial padding to satisfy gamers who demanded more content for their dollar. The issue of bloat continues to plague games (especially RPGs), which often stretch the same amount of story featured in Suikoden across two, three, even five times as much duration. Suikoden was bloat-free, and it’s a better game for it: Proof that sometimes less is more.

The creators of Suikoden recognized that brevity is the soul of wit. The game had roots in cartridge-based 16-bit systems — rumor tells that it was initially designed for Super NES — and it reflected the same lean, compact aesthetic as 16-bit classics like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. Suikoden could be completed quickly in large part because it was quick, with speedy battles and few needless fetch quests. But it wasn’t short on secrets, either. Its breezy design and hidden depths reflect a game that was intended to be played then replayed by avid fans eager to seek the best possible ending. Compared to modern RPGs, which tend to be painfully drawn out in the hopes of keeping players invested for as long as possible, Suikoden embodies an ethos that’s largely been forgotten by today’s developers: A keen respect for players’ time.

A Perfect Balance of Scale and Efficiency

 

Suikoden felt like a big game despite its brevity. Players found themselves taking control of a small rebel faction, building it into an army, fortifying a castle, launching full-scale invasions, and rallying their troops into combat for large-scale tactical battles. It stretched across a vast kingdom, and at the core of the hero’s army was a team of 108 recruitable characters. Of those 108, several dozen were capable of joining the active party and going into battle.

And yet, Suikoden never felt overwhelming. Despite the immense size of the playable cast, the game was all about efficiency. Thanks to the efficient experience and leveling system, a green recruit could easily be brought to par with the leader’s favorite team in just a handful of battles. Each warrior favored a single weapon that could be leveled up but never replaced, minimizing the need to juggle equipment across such a large cast. Though turn-based, battles ran at breakneck speed, with combatant actions frequently overlapping one another to reduce the time each fight took to play out. An auto-battle option made encounters with low-level rabble almost completely painless. Each character specialized in a specific role and their capabilities were similiarly focused, with a limited (and semi-permanent) rune system offering the bulk of true customization. With up to six combatants available for any battle, you could build your team for power, for speed, or for fun because you simply liked the characters in question. It was flexible but never fussy.

Admittedly, Suikoden’s party and resource management mechanics weren’t perfect. Considering just how many options the game presented players with, though, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

 

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