SUIKODEN / Konami / Playstation
Suikoden is loosely based on Water Margin, one of the "four great novels" of Chinese literature, but the literary pretensions only extend so far as copying the theme of 108 rebels fighting against a corrupt empire. Beyond that, it's a completely different story set in a fictionalized world that blends elements of feudal Europe, Japan and China together along with fantasy staples such as magic, elves, dwarves and dragons.
The story certainly won't be mistaken for great literature - it's pretty much the stock 1990s console RPG formula of Ragtag Rebel Band taking on Evil Empire and taking them down piece by piece. It also labors under the weight of a really bad English localization, which makes for some lulzy moments, but also makes the story and item usages a bit more confusing than they need to be. Moments in the story that are supposed to be emotional also tend to fall flat, partially because of the translation, partially because of a mute hero, and partially out of simple mishandling by the writers. The bumbling Empire also never comes across as very menacing; there are no epic villains here, and they are inexplicably passive in dealing with the rebel threat.
The story isn't the only aspect of Suikoden that is less than outstanding, but on the whole, the balance sheet comes out ahead on the positive side for the game as a whole. It is a mixed bag of genuinely great aspects and ideas, and things that are just inexplicably bad, but it does a lot more things right than wrong.
The first few hours or so play out as a standard console RPG with random battles, albeit with two very nice features - a fast, smooth battle system with a good amount of flexibility, and a really awesome Redbook Audio soundtrack. After that, your Rebellion begins in earnest, you get a castle (which makes additions such as new shops and a sauna over time) and begin recruiting the 108 Stars of Destiny as you advance the plot. A good 75 or 80 of the 108 stars are completely optional and have to be hunted down and recruited of your own initiative, so these little side-quests for extra characters end up making up the bulk of the game (if you bulldoze through the plot, there's no more than 20 hours of gameplay here at most). Then you get to fiddle with them - characters can be outfitted with a Rune that either confers a special ability or magic spells on them, and you can also temper "rune shards" into their weapons for bonus battle effects. Characters who have some sort of relationship also may have "combination attacks" when they are in the party together. So just playing around and figuring out how to make an optimal party is kind of fun and eats up a lot of time.
I say "kind of fun" because one of the major weaknesses of the game is the inventory and character system. It is not horrible, but it involves way more running about and time-wasting than there should be. Another problem is that the number of 108 characters seems to simply have been chosen because of Water Margin, and not due to gameplay considerations - about 1/4 of those characters completely outclass the other 3/4, and there's thus really no reason to ever use them except on the odd occasion where the plot forces them into your party. You do get a better ending and unlock some stuff if you import a save file with all 108 stars into Suikoden 2, however, so there's at least some reason to strive for them.
There are also two battle modes beyond the normal random battles, but they play a relatively small role in the game. Every now and then your army charges an enemy castle or fortification, and you control this by choosing one of three types of attacks, which then succeeds or fails depending on the tactic your opponent chose. This "rock-paper-scissors" system also carries over into the occasional one-on-one duel.
The game is good enough to keep you interested on the whole, and the superb soundtrack is worth the experience on it's own. There are a number of other minor little gripes - more could have been done with the large-scale army battles than a simplistic rock-paper-scissors game that ceases to be challenging at all after the first one, for example - but the adequate story, simple but appealing graphics (with some nice spell and background effects), likable characters, zippy combat, and wealth of stuff to track down keeps the game compelling and fun to the finish. Solid old-school RPGness here; you'll likely not play it more than once, but the one trip is worthwhile.
* Suikoden soundtrack - download (MP3)
* Suikoden .ISO
* Gensopedia - Suikoden universe encyclopedia
* Suikosource - Large fansite
* Water Margin - novel synopsis and chapter-by-chapter outline
* Gameplay Video