Suikoden is a video game series about destiny. About fate. About people who fight against near-insurmountable odds to accomplish things that shouldn't be possible.
So in a twist of morbid irony worthy of The Twilight Zone, this wonderful RPG series has spent the past 15 years embroiled in its own battle against fate, its own struggle against the odds. Destiny is working against Suikoden. A major force of nature — by which I mean Konami — seems to be conspiring to kill the series forever. Yet it's somehow still alive. It's hooked up to a respiratory machine, but it's still alive.
And it needs our help.
You might not be familiar with Konami's great RPG series. Perhaps your eyes glaze over the word Suikoden, pronounced SWEE-KOH-DEN, because your brain reads it as meaningless gibberish. It kind of is. It also comprises some of my favourite games of all time, experiences that have moved and affected me more than just about anything else out there.
There are five main Suikoden games, three spinoffs (one of which was released on the PSP earlier this year) and two Japan-only "gaiden" side stories. Every Suikoden game puts you in charge of an army and lets you go out and recruit a whole bunch of characters (usually ~108) by talking to them, solving their problems, and following them along various sidequests as you try to convince them to join your team. Every Suikoden game is all about big, sweeping plots filled with political intrigue, betrayal, magic, fate, and many, many crazy and interesting characters. Some are better than others, but they're all pretty special.
First released outside Japan in late 1996, the unfortunately-titled Suikoden was one of the PlayStation's first RPGs. It was short, sweet, and excellent — a harrowing tale about a son forced to rebel against the empire he once served. 1999's Suikoden II was straight-up perfection. It's my favourite game of all time, a masterpiece that fixed the first game's flaws, subverted all of my expectations, and told a story so interesting, so poignant, so utterly compelling that I don't think I'll ever forget it. And the music! The music!
Konami continued to release games in the series, none of which earned a ton of attention, no matter how much they deserved it. Most were released here, up until 2012's Genso Suikoden Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki, which has yet to make it to America. (I have asked Konami about this multiple times. They won't comment.)
Over the past decade, fans have watched in silent misery as Konami's non-Japanese branches ignored their favourite series in favour of sure-fire hits like Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania and soccer. The Suikoden series — a series that could have been a blockbuster sensation if handled properly — was swept under the rug, poorly marketed and ignored.
It's always difficult to watch a great piece of art die before its time. Veronica Mars, for example. Firefly. Way too many television shows and game franchises were unceremoniously beheaded before they even got a chance to peak.
But worse than watching a clean death is having to witness a great piece of art flail around like a chicken with no head, aimlessly bouncing around the room as its owner apathetically looks elsewhere.
Konami has mistreated Suikoden. They've mistreated Suikoden fans — particularly American Suikoden fans. And they don't seem to care one bit.
But hey. Let's not focus on the negative. Rumours have suggested that Konami disbanded their Suikoden team, but let's say they want to bring it back. Let's say they want to fix their mistakes. Here are some suggestions.
Give It A New Name
Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest. Persona. Japan's most successful RPGs overseas all have one big thing in common: their names are interesting, punchy and pronounceable.
And sure, correlation doesn't equate to causation. But say you're a casual RPG fan. Maybe you don't play that many video games or read websites like Kotaku (in which case: welcome!), but you occasionally head to EB to see what new RPGs are out. Assuming you're not very familiar with any of these games, what are you more likely to pick up on impulse? The game called "Dragon Quest" or the game called "Suikoden"?
In an industry where millions are vying for our money and attention every day, packaging is more important than ever. Why intentionally limit Suikoden's potential by keeping such an esoteric name? I'm not going to offer any suggestions, other than don't use "Stars of Destiny". That sounds like a hip hop reality show.
Okay, OK, here are some suggestions. Shattered Fate. Destiny's Soldiers. Pokémon.
Speaking of which...
Draw Up A Great Marketing Plan
A Kotaku reader pointed out a few months ago that there's an easy way to market Suikoden: Game of Thrones meets Pokémon.
It's friggin' brilliant. Who wouldn't be instantly hooked by a pitch like that? It's accurate, too: Suikoden blends the twisty, political, high-fantasy plots and schemes of George RR Martin's popular series with the addictive catch-em-all mechanic that has kept millions addicted to the Pokémon games no matter how little they change from year to year.
All you need is a simple slogan, a few emails to internet press and some buzz on Reddit. Bam.
Make The Older Games More Accessible
Suikoden is available on the PlayStation Network. Suikoden II is not, much to fans' dismay. Lots of fans' dismay.
A few thousand fans have even formed a Facebook group to unite and petition Konami: "Let us give you our money!"
Will Konami ever listen? The number of Suikoden fans in America might not reach seven digits. Maybe there are only a few thousand. But they're passionate, loyal and ready to advocate for this series to anyone who will listen. And they want to help get some of the old Suikoden games into more peoples' hands.
Enough With The Goddamned Spinoffs
If you think Suikoden is an awful name, how about Suikoden Tierkreis?
Released for DS back in 2009, Tierkreis wasn't a bad game, but it sure as hell wasn't Suikoden. It eschewed the heavy plotlines in favour of a more anime-inspired "go defeat the evil king" story, and it took us out of the big, detailed world in which all five major Suikoden games take place.
This was crushing. For fans, one of the most exciting parts of the Suikoden series is seeing tiny references that carry over from game to game, whether it's recurring characters (or maybe a recurring character's relative), references to historical events you experienced in other games, or even just old books filled with little hints that longtime fans can pick up on. Nothing inspires loyalty and commitment like the feeling that sticking with a series for the long haul was worth our time. You can maintain consistency without sacrificing accessibility: Suikoden V did that just fine. Why not keep it up?
Experimentation Isn't A Bad Thing
Look, I'm not saying Konami should make a Suikoden game for iPhone. In fact, I should erase that line before they get any ideas. Pretend I didn't just say that.
But instead of investing millions into a risky big-budget console game that needs to sell hundreds of thousands of copies just to break even, why not make a smaller, digital release? Why not do something episodic? Hell, why not launch a Kickstarter?
Maybe it's tough to convince a Japanese company to care about its international audience when it feels like so many Western gamers are constantly trashing and unfairly criticising their RPGs. That's fair. But there are still RPG fans here, RPG fans who will happily pass around links and tell their friends to go buy Suikoden II on PSN right now because holy crap you don't even know how good it is.
Throw us a bone here, Konami. Suikoden deserves better. Suikoden fans deserve better.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.