Starting at the beginning (again)

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Old bundles of even older games are usually something to be approached with extreme caution; bare-minimum collections of once-popular hits carelessly rolled out for one last shake of the customer money tree seem to be everywhere, almost always aimed at the sort of person who will more than likely have already paid for the superior originals many moons ago and be acutely aware of any new failings that may have been introduced in a half-hearted cash grab. Suikoden I&II for the PSP is nothing like those cynical creations. This Japan-only release, found only on a system that often goes underappreciated, arguably contains the definitive versions of a pair of fondly-remembered games whose influence is still being felt over two decades on.

Not that you’d know it by checking Konami’s sparse online information (past or present) about this release, or even if you held the game’s box in your hands: Some incredibly small screenshots are the only clue anything might be different as the back of the packaging makes no mention of any enhancements or changes whatsoever – anyone who picked it up off a shop shelf back in 2006 would be entirely forgiven for thinking all they’d done was plonk two PlayStation CDs on a single UMD and left it at that – handy, but nothing worth taking to the tills. Even those who did buy it and took the time to read the manual from cover to cover would learn very little about the additions to this PSP port, dedicating as it does barely half a page to the new features, and even then it only mentions the gallery mode – a rather lovely little movie/event/credits viewer (it checks your save files before opening, so there are few spoilers here) with a beautifully presented sound test on top. The rest of the instruction book is split between the two games in such an odd way it looks as though two wholly unrelated releases had accidentally been bundled together – for a title that handles its content as delicately as this one does it almost feels disrespectful.

So all that’s left is to get stuck in and experience whatever the heck’s been changed for ourselves, and the collection quickly proves that sometimes basic is best: The UMD boots to a simple screen giving you the option to choose between either game as well as the aforementioned gallery – unlike say, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, which was an otherwise fine remake that did its best to make you resent its presence for having you work pretty hard if you wanted to play either the original PC Engine Dracula X or its sequel, Symphony of the Night. As was always the case even with the original PlayStation games you lose out on some (minor) benefits if you lack a cleared Suikoden save to transfer over to the second game, but for anyone only looking to enjoy Nanami’s extreme… Nanami-ness (or possibly the spectacular conflict between the bearers of the sword and shield runes) one more time then those little extras won’t matter anyway.

Once you’ve settled on a particular game the other won’t make its existence known again unless you perform a full reboot – in spite of the shared storage there’s been no attempt made to unify these related tales or create any sense of a “whole”. On the one hand this means the first Suikoden is still missing some of the conveniences and graphical niceties found in its 1998 sequel, however on the other both games remain very much as you might remember them, with all your favourite areas, menu sounds (I can guarantee most people reading this will hear the sound if I say “UI quack”) and beautifully pixelled details carefully preserved – this has got to be something of a positive for a compilation of retro games. On balance this lightness of touch and lack of any deep meddling, even in areas that could have benefited from it, feels careful rather than lazy.

The most drastic changes, if we are feeling generous enough to use such a term, are restricted to the games FMV intros: Suikoden ditches the PlayStation’s entirely in favour of the Saturn’s previously exclusive movie sequence, a far superior opening that actually presents itself as something that’s trying to drum up excitement for the adventure heading your way, all characters staring off into the distance and cameras whooshing over the landscape, as opposed to the original (which was only slightly altered between the English and Japanese releases to accommodate English-language battle scene recordings), which always looks to me like a cheap advert for a game you’ve already bought. Conveniently enough the Saturn’s movie had enormous black borders at the top and bottom throughout so those are the only thing lost in the transition to PSP. Suikoden II’s is a straight repeat of its PlayStation counterpart – haunting music and all – just slightly cropped and stretched to fit the new screen dimensions. Such thoughtless maiming of flawless content is not something to be tolera- honestly, I couldn’t tell exactly what the development team had done to make it work until I grabbed screenshots from both versions and compared identical frames side-by-side. I think it’s fair to say the overall effect, especially for such short and infrequent scenes, works well and was the most practical compromise that could be reasonably made between the old game and the new hardware.

Once these are out of the way both titles switch to using true widescreen at all times, actually filling the PSP’s display to the edge and showing more of your surroundings in one go rather than stretching the image, leaving the edges blank, or increasing the size of the whole image before cropping the vertical height to fit. This holds true even for static event graphics, and bar a few have-to-be-looking-for-them instances (when the battle view zooms out you can sometimes see where the polygonal floor ends, which was less obvious but not unnoticeable in the original 4:3 view) the expanded field of view looks uniformly impressive and natural. It’s worth stressing here that even in the “3D” battles there are no filters, “smoothing”, or other questionable enhancements at work even when the camera’s shifting around or zooming in; every sprite and texture remains as crisp as it ever was, and both games extraordinarily expressive sprites look absolutely fabulous on the PSP’s vibrant screen.

Purely as games Suikoden I and II are as sharp and snappy as they ever were, the addition of diagonal movement on both the d-pad and analogue stick makes navigating the sweeping plains and winding caves feel far more natural than it ever did on PlayStation and the convenience of having the confirm/interact command repeated on the left shoulder button means many essential actions – including running around a dungeons to level up – can easily be done one-handed, just the thing for a format that was designed to be used in potentially unpredictable or casual scenarios. What surprised me though was realising how well-suited to portable play everything else about these two games was: Areas are short and sweet, and as treasure chests are never too far off the beaten path going after them always feels like an informed decision on my part rather than an apology-reward for trekking down a road filled with nothing but random encounters. Battles tend to be quick, exciting, and are always easy to read – seeing a party member physically leap in front of another to protect them from attack is not only charming but it immediately makes visual sense in terms of who’s being damaged by what, even as axe-wielding bunnies leap towards your team or caped squirrels drop buckets on people’s heads. There’s an immediacy and a level of visual feedback to the combat that’s rarely seen in the turn-based part of the genre but always very welcome. The music of course is still nothing short of phenomenal – I’ve listened to these soundtracks for so long I’d almost forgotten they were part of a game, but when paired with the rest as they should be and even when coming through the PSP’s tiny stereo speakers these tracks bring as much richness to the games as the games bring to the music.

Suikoden’s defining unique features – the collectable Stars of Destiny and the expandable headquarters they inhabit – are as compelling as they’ve always been, and seeing an abandoned castle cleared out before slowing coming to life as your varied gaggle of optional allies move in and unlock a range of useful features, enjoyable minigames, and that sweet little bath still feels like a treat that’s too good to simply be described as “Suikoden’s gimmick”. It’s really more of a feature used to demonstrate that even, perhaps especially, in war there’s always real value in allies – in people – beyond how hard they can hit things, even when they’re part of a pair of RPGs that frequently requires you to hit a lot of things very hard.

For all the time that’s passed since these games came into the world they still feel a little different and apart from the regular RPG crowd, their habit of taking regular genre tropes and then forcing these wars, friendships, deaths, and betrayals to have permanent game-long consequences still hits with a force that you wouldn’t expect to find in games with talking dog-people and dashes of overt comedy, and even on the PSP – a format practically groaning under the weight of quality ports from two generations of RPG-rich PlayStations and even more besides – the pair still shine like the stars in the sky.

3 thoughts on “Starting at the beginning (again)

  1. Ah this brings me back. Suikoden II was, together with Breath if Fire III, one of my most replayed games on the PS1. Back when there was not a backlog of god knows how many games looming over my shoulder to weight on my conscience should I ever pick up an already finished one again xD

    Having the Hero of I and II group up and destroy everything between their two overpowered runes. The cooking and performance mini games in the castle. Giving Nanami an invisible choice for you know what. Collecting even more than 108 characters, because there’s that additional squirrel tribe and squid family… ah the good times :3 I think Futch was even one of my first video game crushes back then xD

    It’s nice to hear that they expanded the view instead of giving the usual stretched image, and sometimes bordered 4:3 option, but then you are already lucky, of these quick PSP re-releases. Which would also be fine I guess, at least those mean more people get to play the game. Especially for Suikoden I and II. Shame it never made it over, since the originals were already really pricy by then and more word by mouth had made quite some people want to try them. Yet going the extra mile to not stretch out these games is appreciated, it tends to took especially bad for 2D pixel grafic games like these.

    That reminded me of the PSP-port of Tokimekie Memorial I played earlier this year btw. I also thought it would just be a quick n dirty port. Was I surprised when the game asked me for what kind of screen layout it want: Either stretched to widescreen, 4:3 but still stretched to fill the full vertical screen size, or with a border around the whole screen to make it pretty much pixel perfect. Seems like Konami was putting more effort into these PSP releases than other companies in general!

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    1. Oh hey good point on TokiMemo! I don’t know who it was at Konami who pushed so hard for good quality ports of their old games, but I’m very glad they did :D

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  2. Looking back I don’t even know why I didn’t play Suikoden during the days of the PSX. I bought or rented just about every RPG I could find at the time and I had definitely heard of Suikoden, but somehow I never played either game until they got re-released as PSOne Classics on the PS3/PSP. I don’t even have the usual excuse of “we poor Europeans didn’t get the game” here.
    Anyway, what stood out to me with these two games, and especially with Suikoden II, are the excellent sprite animations. It’s nice to see well-made 2D games on a system that was mainly known for its 3D games. Of course, the series went 3D a generation later, but on the upside this means Suikoden II still stands as one of the bests in that regard. lol

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