This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
As we continue to spend the month of May looking back at some of the most popular role-playing games of past generations, we look back this week at arguably the rarest of the lot. Suikoden II is an expensive game even in 2012, with even disc-only copies going for about $150 on eBay. Konami stubbornly refuses to do even one small thing for their fans by releasing the game for the PlayStation Network, instead preferring to concentrate on awful HD collections of other, less hearalded PS1/PS2 era titles. It’s almost as if Japanese companies are intentionally poking their fanbase with a large stick like a bee’s nest.
It’s too bad, because for those of us fortunate to own the actual game—I got mine for less than $20 in a used rack at an obscure music store in 2001—it’s a brilliant classic. It expands on the story of Suikoden I while being accessible enough to let newbies in and correcting a lot of the things that were wrong with the first game. Of course, this is what we think looking back with rose coloured glasses, which are often made rosier by rarity. Does Suikoden II stand up to modern scrutiny?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Suikoden I was a good game with great ideas and somewhat flawed execution that happened to get left behind the historical curve by the ascension of Final Fantasy VII. Essentially a remake of the Chinese classic Water Margin, Suikoden featured multi-faceted gameplay, a gripping story with a twist, and the option to recruit 108 characters for various reasons and uses.
I spend all this time talking up Suikoden I because Suikoden II took all of that, improved every aspect, added more amazing aspects, and gave gamers one of the best stories, and easily some of the best characters, in RPG history.
Suikoden II had great characters that stuck with people through decades of gameplay. It had a complicated relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist that never went into the silly zone (see: Final Fantasy X). And the gameplay issues that came up with the first game were ironed out in the second, which was at once easier to play, better balanced, and more challenging. The only qualm I had about Suikoden II at the time was that there wasn’t enough of certain parts of it: there could’ve been more actual, non-storyline driving battles (which took place on a tiled grid; think Fire Emblem). Literally, the only gripe one could have had in 1999 about Suikoden II was the 2D sprite palette in an era when it was almost compulsory to follow FFVII into the third dimension.
The only thing that held Suikoden II back was the fact that, like any other Suikoden title, players really needed a strategy guide to get the most out of it as not getting all 108 characters not only prevented the true ending, but also killed off a key character in a death that affected me more than even Nei’s death in Phantasy Star II and far more than Aerith’s in FFVII. Once that obstacle was removed, either through a guide or through attrition, Suikoden II stood out as a paramount title during the golden era of JRPGs.
To start, I’ll point out the game’s flaws, and then point out why they don’t matter.
* Somewhat cumbersome item management: While it’s not as streamlined as what we see in some modern games, it’s still very good for a Suikoden game, which has always had a weird system for using items (namely, they must be “equipped” in an item slot). It’s balanced well into Suikoden II, and players learn to adjust before the first big event happens.
* Generally needing help to get 108 characters recruited: This is a problem mitigated by technology, or more specifically, GameFAQs and Suikosource. This is a Godsend for someone who doesn’t have and can’t afford the very rare and very expensive strategy guide.
* The 2D graphics, which have come full circle and come back into style. Suikoden‘s always looked good, and the cutscenes in Suikoden V were great. But in all honesty, the 2D graphics—especially in big moments—actually are better. There’s an emotive nature to the sprites that gets lost a bit with later games’ 3D models, which are good but have a bit of an Uncanny Valley vibe to them. As technology improves, those models won’t look as good, and it’s already happened to Suikoden III. Meanwhile, Suikoden II is timeless.
* Lots of side-quests. But really, for a game that will likely fetch triple digit costs, don’t you want the most out of it?
All of that combines with a story that has stood up; gameplay that looks even better; the same amazingly written characters; ties to later games (Georg Prime, a bit player in Suikoden II, is a key part of Suikoden V); the sublime battle system which includes united attacks, some of which are amazing and others which are hilarious; and some events that are among the most powerful in history. Every aspect of Suikoden II stands up to modern scrutiny, and a lot of it is even better.
This is the rare game where people who spend the money to buy a physical copy at over $100 a pop just for the CD and nothing else will get their money’s worth. It might not really be worth that much; the game’s status as a collector’s item speaks for itself at this point, and I believe that keeps prices higher than they should be. Someone who just collects the game to say they own it is a terrible person, but failing that, Suikoden II simply must be experienced by anyone with an interest in interactive storytelling. If Konami got their heads out of their butts long enough to put this game on the PSN, even for $9.99, it would sell an insanely high number of units. If they released the PSP version of the first two games, even in a digital-only release, it would see strong sales. Konami’s preference to keep crapping out their PS2 library in lazy and bug-filled “HD collections” is baffling until one realizes that virtually every Japanese publisher has lost their mind recently.
Without an ounce of hyperbole, I can say that Suikoden II is one of the three greatest Japanese role-playing games of all time whether judged by 1999 or 2012 standards.