The Suikoden franchise has a loyal following. It has earned this with scenes of epic scope, as well as touching, personal moments. Suikoden 1 and 2 are my favorite JRPGs on the Playstation 1, outpacing the Final Fantasy games. That’s my opinion, but I daresay I’m not the only one. Today on Arcadology, I’m covering a game that I’ve held dear to my heart for over 20 years. Welcome to Arcadology: Suikoden.
I recall finding Suikoden. I was with my grandma at the mall and we had stopped into an Electronics Boutique. An obsession with RPGs marked my early gaming life. Unfortunately, I had a Genesis, a console not known for its RPG selection. Of course, there was Phantasy Star and Shining Force, but they were not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I love both franchises, but I could only replay the games I had so many times.
The early years of the PlayStation were rather slim as well. The first RPG released for the PlayStation was From Software’s “King’s Field”, but it never made it over to the states. King’s Field II would have that honor but unfortunately, I never got a chance to play it. I had rented Beyond the Beyond, another early RPG for Sony’s system, and found it lacking. Then in that Electronics Boutique, I saw the box for Suikoden. A new RPG for the PlayStation? I had to have it.
My grandmother bought it for me and when I got home and started the game, I was immediately enthralled. The story was epic, yet so personal, and took me on a ride that I had never quite felt before. Before I spoil anything let’s start back at the beginning of how this game got made.
Development of the game took place at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Direction of the game was under the guidance of Yoshitaka Murayama. Murayama graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in programming in 1992. Konami was Muryama’s first and only job interview, where he got hired as a bug tester. Yet, he didn’t spend too much time in that position. Six months into his career his manager told him he was being pulled onto a top secret project. The 16-bit generation of consoles was coming to a close. Despite the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo, there seemed to be no clear front runner heading into the next generation. Konami decided to throw their hat into the 1st party ring, and release a console of their own.
Muryama was one of the few employees selected to develop games for this new console. It was on this project that he met artist and Suikoden collaborator Junko Kawno. The two worked on developing an RPG for the mysterious Konami console. According to Muryama, Konami inteded the console to be handheld. It would also run off of ROM carts, and support 3D graphics. Sounds to me a little like the Nintedo Switch, long before the Switch was possible. After about a year, Konami cancelled the console and disbanded the development teams. Yet only a week later management pulled Muryama into another project. This time he they selected him, along with Kawano and others to develop a game for the Sony PlayStation.
Konami assigned only 10 employees to the development of PlayStation games. They kept the rest of the staff focused on the 16-bit consoles. There were five options presented to the 10 designers. A racing game, a baseball game, or one of three RPGs. Muryama paired up with Kawano to work on an RPG, as they had spent the previous year toying with the genre. If Konami had listed action as an option though, Muryama would have preferred that. In an interview with Swedish gaming magazine LEVEL Murayama mentioned a desire to work on a game like Taito’s Metal Black. For Suikoden fans everywhere I’m glad that was not an option.
A wide variety of games fed Murayama’s imagination during development. Dragon Quest V was a genre touchstone. A programming quirk gave Murayama an idea for an intersection between gameplay and storytelling . Each time the priest ressurrected your character in Dragon Quest V, his speech slowed. This was reflected in Suikoden during the gameplay before a particular character’s demise. Murayama said in his LEVEL interview, he made the character more frustrating to play, to enhance their sacrifice when the moment came.
Other influential games include Sid Meier’s Civilization and Taito’s Metal Black. Though, their influences are less obvious. A negative game influence for Murayama was The Black Onyx. The Black Onyx was an 80s crpg developed by Bulletproof Software. Muryama felt the game was too complex and had complicated puzzles. He wanted Suikoden to be a streamlined experience for the player. A fun side-note: Henk Rogers owned Bulletproof Software. The same Henk Rogers who would go on to secure the rights to Tetris for Nintendo.
For plot influences, Murayama took great inspiration from the mangas Captain Tsubasa and Fist of the North Star. Captain Tsubasa is a manga about an soccer team captian named Tsubasa Oozora. Fist of the North Star is a manga about warrior named Kenshiro suriving in a post-apocalyptic world. Yet when he was getting ready to pitch to his manager, the idea that his manager would not resonate with the Manga concerned Murayama. So he decided to lean on a different influence – an ages old Chinese novel called The Water Margin. The Water Margin is about a group of 108 Outlaws that band together to form an army. The government grants them amnesty and co-opts them as a military force.
In the prologue of the Water Margin, translator Edwin Lowe provides a history of the story. Written in the 1300s during the Ming Dynasty, the story follows a group of 108 outlaws who form an army. Scholars consider it one of the, four great novels of vernacular Chinese literature.
Muryama’s manager misunderstood the gist of the pitch. Muryama was looking to set the game in a world like that of The Water Margin. but what his manager took hold of, was the 108 Outlaws aspect. The game would ultimately be named after the Japanese name for the Water Margin because of this. Suikoden. As Murayama fleshed out the world he took inspiration from other literature. such as The Eternal Champion books written by Michael Moorcock.
After six months of tireless work, Muryama and Kawano finally got some help. Management folded the other two RPG teams into the Suikoden staff. It was at a much needed time too. Murayama and Kawano were at their wits end with the amount of work that the project was shaping up to be. They had tested the 3D capabilities of the PlayStation and walked away unimpressed. They decided that sticking with traditional sprite graphics would be best.
Creating 108 Characters was a difficult task for the team. Murayama would have team members pitch new characters every day. There were many that would not make the cut. Murayama mentioned a funny anecdote in his interview with LEVEL magazine. A staffer kept pitching a character that was a that was a dead ringer for the mascot of the Yokohama Marinos, a professional soccer team in Japan. Eventually, they were able to work through all 108 characters, or “stars of destiny.”
Suikoden’s development had many obstacles thrown in its way. The project was lead by a rookie game designer and young artist. Yet with their sheer force of will, talent, and luck they perservered. They guided a project through the collapse of an in-house console project. They pushed through a limited budget, and an over ambitious project plan. And when they finally crossed the finish line their victory was short lived. QA had discovered a game breaking bug in the gold copy of the game. The team returned to their offices, and worked out the bug, before finally taking a break.
So what is it about Suikoden that is so special? The plot and the characters combine to make a fantastic story. I’ll be spoiling the inciting incident of the game, but I will attempt to avoid any of the big twists and turns. The namable player character, who many refer to as Tir, is the son of an Imperial Army General named Teo McDohl. While Teo is off on the border with his army, Tir, his friend Ted, and Teo’s three servants Pahn, Cleo, and Gremio, join the Imperial Army. While off on a mission of their own, a ferocious monster attacks them. Ted reveals himself to be the carrier of a True Rune, a symbol embedded in his hand that gives him tremendous power.
When they return to their home in Gregminster, Ted is summoned to the castle. Windy, the court magician, reveals herself as a villain. She has been after Ted’s rune for centuries. In a fight, Windy deals Ted a fatal would, but he manages to escape. Back at the McDohl estate, Ted bequeaths the rune to Tir. Unfortunately, Pahn betrays the group and tells the Imperial Guards that Ted found his way back. Ted passes away but not before creating enough of a distraction for Tir to get away. While on the run, Tir, Gremio, and Cleo are assisted by a man named Viktor, who takes them to the base of a secret rebellion. From there the game broadens in scope. Through fate and happenstance, Tir becomes the leader of a rebel army based in a Castle in the middle of a lake. He is leading the fight against the emperor who his father has sworn allegiance to. Dramatic stuff!
The castle, by the way, is how they avoided the need for too many combat characters. It opened up the options for characters that could be recruited. Many characters could do more passive things. Some opened shops in the castle. Another managed a storeroom the storeroom or act as blacksmiths. One even lets you install elevators, allowing you to get between levels faster.
Let’s talk about the gameplay. Aside from the 108 characters in the game, the most interesting aspect is the rune system. Murayama said in an interview with the Suikoden Revival Movment, the idea of the rune system came from a card game in Japan. Unfortunately, Collectible Card Games are not my area of expertise. If anyone has any information on which game that might be, please post it in the comments down below.
The rune system allows magic use in the world of Suikoden. For a contemporary comparison, think of the materia system used in Final Fantasy 7. Some runes are generic, like fire, and allow characters to cast fire spells. But the True Runes are one of a kind. They allow the characters to perform unique magic spells.
Magic points were not used in Suikoden. Instead, characters could cast a limited number of spells between rest. According to Murayama, Wizardry, a CRPG series from the 80s, served as the inspiration for this. Sir-Tech software based Wizardry on the Dungeons and Dragons magic system. The developer was also known for the Jagged Alliance games.
There are three phases of combat in Suikoden. The most common are the standard party-based encounters. These happen as random encounters on the world map, or in dungeons. You control up to six characters aligned in two rows of three. Placement of your characters matters. Short-Range must be in the front row, and can only attack the enemy’s front row. Medium-Range can be in either row and can can only attack the enemy’s front row. Long-Rage can be anywhere, and attack anywhere, but should stay in the back row. Characters with lower defense and hit-points are often have long range.
One of the coolest parts of combat were the unite attacks. Certain characters could work together to perform one massive strike. The smallest unite attacks need only two people, and some need three with one allowing up to four characters to unite. It’s a fun mechanic to experiment with during your first time playing the game.
The other two types of combat are Duel’s and Army Battles. Duel’s feature one on one, simplified combat. You have three options during a duel, Attack, Defend, and Desperate Attack. In essence, duel’s are rock-paper-scissors. Attack defeats Defend, Defend beats Desperate Attack, and Desperate Attack beats Attack. It’s not all guesswork though. The combatants will often trash-talk and this will give away their next move.
Army battle’s pit your entire army against another army. As the game progresses these battles become larger in scale. Army battles also had an element of rock-paper-scissors. Infantry beat Archers, Archers beat Mages, and Mages beat Infantry. Reviving certain characters killed during army battles is impossible. Characters that cannot be revived were ones that were inconsequential to the plot. Yet, it still hurt when you lost one that you had made a connection with. This gives these battles a whole different level of treachery.
The music in the Suikoden series has always been a high point. Konami legend Miki Higashino composed most of the music. Higashino joined Konami in 1984 after spending time studying music composition in college. Konami was looking for a part-time composer for their games. Higashino didn’t know much about game music, but took on the job regardless. In 1995, Suikoden provided her the first opportunity to score a game that used recorded music. Higashino said that it was after reading the scenario for the game that she realized the need for a wide variety of world music.
One of the more interesting bits of commentary on the game comes from Warren Spector. Warren Spector’s ludography includes Ultima, Wing Commander, System Shock, and Deus Ex. He says that Suikoden is one of his favorite games, as well as one that has influenced him. He praises the games big moments. He also enjoyed the way the game handled choice. Many choices being illusions, with a few having drastic consequences on the story. The base building was also a favorite.
Upon release Suikoden was a PlayStation exclusive in the United States. In other markets, it was available on more platforms. According to Suikosource, Suikoden was also released on PC and the Sega Saturn in Japan. In recent years, the game has seen several re-releases. In 2006, Suikoden was re-released in Japan on the Sony PSP Handheld. Suikoden 1 saw a re-relese on PSN a few years after that, followed by Suikoden a few more years later. Unfortunately, they are only compatible on the PlayStation 3. Recently there has been a push to get Suikoden released on Steam. The Suikoden Revival Movement has been using #suikodenonsteam to get Konami’s attention. As of right now though, despite Konami acknowledging the movement, there has been no updates from the former video game company.
Suikoden would spawn four sequels, several spin-offs, and other media. The immediate follow up, Suikoden II, is often cited as one of the greatest RPGs of that generation. Story, characters, combat, all became much more interesting in the second installment. Despite this, I still hold a very special place in my heart for the first one, which my grandma bought me.
Thank you so much for watching this episode. Special thanks to Kasper Nowakowski for providing me the copy of an interview he had with Yoshitaka Murayama. All the sources I used are down in the description of the video.
I love this game and I wanted to dig into how it came about. I feel like I accomplished that. But as always, if you have any sources that you find to the contrary please mention it in the pinned fact check comment down below. Additionally, I am now in the podcasting space! I will be releasing podcast episodes every two weeks. Currently, I am re-releasing some of my early videos as podcasts, but will be adding original material and interviews shortly.
Interview with Yoshitaka Murayama (2014) – Suikoden Revival Movement: https://www.facebook.com/notes/suikod…
Yoshitaka Murayama Community Interview (2016) – Suikoden Revival Movement: https://www.facebook.com/notes/suikod…
Nowakowski, Kasper; Kudo, Takashi (August 2009). “I goda vänners lag”. LEVEL #41.
Konami’s games console – GamaSutra – https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JohnS…
Suikoden – xRavenXP – longplays.org
Kings Field – Deskawa – longplays.org
Dragon Quest V – Valis77 – longplays.org
Metal Black – Schlauchi – longplays.org
Civilization – Eino – longplays.org
Script Editor – Matt Mckeown