Opinion – Learning from Suikoden

Apologies for no message.  The snow was real.

I recently beat Suikoden 1 (see: SNOW) and it struck me how much the games industry has to learn from that 20 year old game.  Though it is clearly a low budget affair, the game succeeds in a large number of areas that modern RPGs, and games in general, fail completely at.  This article will explore what Suikoden can teach the modern audience.

Adapt your systems to your ambitions

Rarely have I ever seen a game create such well-fitting game mechanics.  The central conceit, there are 108 playable characters and you gotta catch them all, is supported by all of the other ideas.  For example, the game has very little grinding.  Characters receive additional experience if they’re lower level than the enemies.  This allows the player to swap in any of the other characters and make them effective with only a little grinding.  All 108 characters are instantly accessible with this mechanic whereas a more traditional RPG would penalize the player for swapping out party members.  The game also includes a castle supported by characters with non-fighting skills that serves as a base and ensures that the large cast offers something more than a long list of cannon fodder.  Finally, Suikoden includes teleportation to allow the player to quickly backtrack to acquire new characters.  Missing any one of these mechanics would deeply harm the game, but by thinking through their central mechanic and supporting it, the developers created a unified system.

A limited, grounded story

Too many stories go from personal tragedy to universal destruction without asking why.  It seems like the standard story for most games must end with the fabric of reality at stake or the developers have to hand in their profound auteur badges.  This forces the characters and narrative into awkward positions that make little sense.  Villains often suffer the worst of it (“And now I will create my DARK UTOPIA by KILLING EVERYONE and filling the world with BAD LIGHTING and SQUIRRELS!!”), but everything from the settling to the cohesiveness of the plot bends to the extremely unlikely motivation of world destruction.  Suikoden scales it back a bit.  The story scopes to the internal politics of a single empire.  The stakes are the happiness of the citizens and the personal life of the main character.  It may not seem like much, but it’s enough to drive a compelling story without including asinine motivations and junk mysticism.  The characters are understandable, the plot is clear, and the world is consistent.  I’m saddened to say this puts Suikoden 1 above a lot of modern games.

Characters who could be people

In conjunction with the above point, Suikoden is filled with relatable characters.  Yes, they’re denizens of a fantasy world with talking kobolds and magic, but many of their daily motivations are what you’d see out of the people in your life.  They have jobs, ambitions, and loyalties that are far more relatable than generic hero number 5 whose dark past and husky voice lets us know just how super cool they are.  They also don’t have mysterious powers or hokey backstories.  They’re just people.  As a result, the story also benefits by not having to accommodate 50 special snowflakes with special powers.  Give me a Gremio over a Lightening any day.

I don’t want to oversell Suikoden.  It’s got real flaws.  108 party members thins out the character development, the item system is silly, and dash buttons were always a terrible idea.  Still, it’s a more complete and compelling experience than many games today.  The SNES-Playstation 1 era is rightly remembered as a golden age for JRPGs because of games like Suikoden 1.  Developers should replay some of these greats and apply the lessons that still matter today.

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Filed under Opinion, video games

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