It's incredible how music has the capacity to envelop memories and transport us through time. You know the feeling. Thoughts of people, places and times lie dormant in the depths of our minds, then a tune comes on and, suddenly, we're back, emotions washing over us.
It's the best way that I can preface an examination of Suikoden's music. The themes in the first game are forever etched in my mind, invoking a time of great happiness and wonder, but they never really resurface. The game is rarely discussed in spite of its excellence and with so many games constantly landing in my lap I tend to forget about the little gem myself.
But having recently had my love for Suikoden rekindled — you can buy it on the PlayStation Store — I had to pay tribute. I could write countless articles about this game, its characters, its exceptional plot, daring political themes and innovative mechanics, but I'd like to focus on its music; for the sounds of Suikoden are some of the most unusual and beautiful in the history of the medium.
An Ode To The Strange Sounds Of Suikoden
For those unfamiliar with the Suikoden series, check out the opening to the first game below to get a feel for what we're talking about here:
#Videogames have, for better or worse, often employed strange sounds to highlight the "unique" nature of their pixelated worlds. While not always successful, experimentation in video game music has lead to some of the most memorable jingles in popular culture — who doesn't know the theme to Super Mario? However the combination of strange sounds and the worlds created by game developers can often seem incongruous, with the music ultimately feeling at odds with the world we're presented — like how the NES version of The Terminator makes you feel like you've entered a version of hell inspired by Groundhog Day.
But the experimentation presented throughout Suikoden's soundtrack serves the mystical world it supports. It's grandiose and intimate; ancient and modern; moving and heroic. #Suikoden is a game about rebellion. You play as a young man who becomes hunted by the Empire he and his father served for decades. His own devoted father, warped by his servitude, must eventually hunt him down as the Emperor brands his son a criminal. As you witness the horror unleashed upon the people the Empire was supposed to protect, you launch a rebellion and gradually recruit people of all kinds to your cause.
It's a complex story and one of remarkable strength. And every theme — composed by a combination of Miki Higashino, Tappy Iwase, Hiroshi Tamawari, Hirofumi Taniguchi, Mayuko Kageshita — highlights the complexities of the game. And it all starts with this boisterous number.
Let The Adventure Begin - Opening Theme
Are you ready for this adventure or what?! The beginning is almost reminiscent of a John Williams score. The strings play a dreamy arpeggio while the flute softly wails in the background. It'd be perfect for the beginning of a dream sequence — everything feels uncertain. But once this transition is over, the journey begins. Everything builds to a crescendo and the brass section whisks us off into the big open world.
Suikoden starts off slow and establishes its setting with grace and before you know it, you're off on one of the most memorable and exciting adventures in gaming. And along the way you're going to encounter some strange people in even more peculiar lands. So naturally we're going to need a tune that encapsulates these places.
Welcome To The Golden City
You can almost imagine The Golden City yourself just by listening to this theme. It's wonderfully celebratory — a theme that denotes foreign wonders and a jovial population. The Golden City theme feels like a dance and it wraps the player in its splendor. It denotes importance and proudly conveys the airs of the Emperor.
But not every moment in Suikoden needs to be so strongly supported. Sometimes we need to kick back, relax and chat with some mates.
Reflecting On A Great Adventure
It's been a long day. You've been recruiting people for your cause and you need to rest up inside and gather your strength. These moments of respite and contemplation are underscored by this beautiful rendition of the main theme. It's almost like a lullaby. The guitar is dreamy, echoey and the supporting electric piano reinforces its themes. It was always a pleasure getting to know those you met on your journey, and it was just as pleasing to hear this song again — especially when it played during the more emotional moments of the game.
But of course, this an adventure. An what would an adventure be without a dash of peril?
The Clash Of Swords
Every great JRPG has its perilous fighting music. Suikoden is no different. This theme would often underscore the reveal of a villain, a particularly tense fight with a force of evil or a moment of shock and danger for our beloved protagonists. It does a wonderful job of escalating tension, though it's perhaps the most standard of the themes in the game. It serves its purpose well but doesn't exactly stand out.
Not in comparison with the theme for your castle, anyway.
A Castle Of Heroes
In Suikoden, as you recruit many individuals to support your revolutionary uprising, they all gather in a castle by the ocean. Here our heroes hide and harness their strength. Upon returning to this place of great fortitude, Suikoden throws this theme at you. I don't know if any theme has made me feel as proud of my achievements in a game as this does. You can recruit over 100 people to your cause in this game, and seeing the numbers rise as this tune plays is one of the greatest thrills.
But the castle isn't only populated with friends, romance can blossom even in the most tumultuous of times.
Lovers In A Dangerous Time
Some of the more romantic or truly upsetting moments in Suikoden are supported by this beautiful theme. Its melancholic grace contributed to some genuinely touching moments — the rekindling of friendships, the kind words of friends or the deepening love of heroes. It never failed to move me the first time I played the game and its impact hasn't lost any of its potency all these years later. It still employs some unusual sounds and instruments — it wouldn't be Suikoden without them — but it still works wonderfully, ever highlighting the unique nature of this world.
Speaking of unique, let's take a look at one of the strangest sounds in the entire game.
Let's Get A Little Weird
This is by far the most experimental theme in Suikoden. The strange drum beat, the thumping bass and... that really strange voice. At least I think it's a voice, a very distorted one at that. It whines incomprehensible nonsense and I absolutely love it. There aren't many games that could get away with such a jarring sound, but somehow it works in this context. It's what I love about this game; every aspect of it can be praised. In a time when everyone was moving to 3D graphics, Suikoden stayed behind. But it refined the formula and gave this kind of game development the most wonderful of sendoffs.
Suikoden demands to be played, my friends. And you know what the best thing about it is? Suikoden 2 is even better and your save is transferred over if you complete the original. If you're a gamer who loves nostalgia and old classics, treat yourself to one of the finest games Japan has ever made. You won't regret it.