"Circle, circle, circle, circle." It's hardly the catchiest of chants, is it? And yet it was a pivotal part of summer, 1997 - a summer spent playing Suikoden with my friend, Tom. You may well have not heard of Suikoden before. It's generally the game I mention to people in passing and they're left thinking how it rings a vague bell but that's about it. If I'm lucky. From what I can gather, it's better known in the USA (and Japan, of course!), but it's a title and franchise that few in the UK will know as well as many other JRPGs.
I stumbled across it in a secondhand shop in a fairly scruffy part of town. For some reason, the games were piled up on shelves behind the counter so you were entirely reliant on liking the sound of a name, before asking the grumpy man who worked there to pass it over. It was a system hardly designed for encouraging 12-year-olds to be brave and request a game. Perhaps that was the point. You had to be really keen to say anything.
Its cover art was and remains quite beguiling. A circle filled with terrifically drawn characters on a white background. Almost simple in its implementation, yet so intricate too. I'm no artist but I can appreciate the wonder of these colourful characters, expressing so much heroism in their faces. That was it for me. Let's see what this is all about. It was the summer before I would discover Final Fantasy 7, an important time for shaping what I loved about games, and I had no idea Suikoden would be so crucial.
Suikoden, you see, isn't awe-inspiring. It looks a lot like an RPG from the SNES era, which is fine, of course, but this was 1997. I'd already played Tomb Raider, Wipeout 2097, and Tekken. Suikoden was of a very different time. Weirdly, that was to its advantage. It's left it with an ageless quality because an already-dated game can't exactly look much more dated as the years pile up.
That feeling is enhanced by the fact that Suikoden feels like few other JRPGs out there. In the twenty years following that unlikely purchase, I've played a lot of RPGs. I can easily identify familiar game mechanics that I've played elsewhere, quickly appreciating when something is a tad on the generic side. There are still parts of the original Suikoden that I've only seen in other games in the series.
There's the usual battle of good vs evil. Of course there is! How can you not have an JRPG with a story like that? But there's so much more. My favourite part is having your own castle. It's a little like having a doll's house except far cooler, because you get to add things like an armoury and a library. The only way your castle grows is through recruiting one of the many Stars of Destiny in the game - i.e. other characters that are keen to help your cause. There's 108 in all, which is a phenomenal number for any RPG. Not all are playable or usable in regular play, but all offer some kind of benefit to your castle. That instantly makes it really exciting to track them down. It's not just a matter of acquiring collectibles for the sake of completing the game 'fully'. It makes a difference.
That's further reflected in some of the (for the time) epic battles that unfold. Besides the usual JRPG style turn-based combat between your party and some enemies, you also have to partake in huge battles between hundreds of enemies and your followers. Again, it's turn-based and plays out a lot like Rock, Paper, Scissors, as you take it in turns to work out when is best to strike with magic or to go all in with your infantry. You wouldn't expect your humble merchant to leave the castle and join in, but he does, along with other traders, creating a small but potent task force. All your previous recruitment leads you to so many opportunities to strike better and harder than before. It's a compelling system, ensuring that little about Suikoden feels like busywork.
Instead, for an RPG that can take about thirty hours to complete (if you haven't played it before), it's remarkably efficient. Nothing goes to waste here. In hindsight, that's probably what captivated young Tom and I. We were hardly the most patient of 12-year-olds, yet we both loved the idea of RPGs and the fantasy worlds that frequently went hand in hand together.
So, where did "circle, circle, circle, circle," come from? Ohh, it was nerdy of us. One of us (me usually - it was my game, after all) would control the main character while we'd take it in turns to read aloud some of the dialogue as it appeared on screen. That sounds cringeworthy, doesn't it? That's because it was. When I'd back out of a menu, I had to tap circle one or more times. Cue Tom muttering "circle, circle, circle, circle" in a sing-song voice as we returned to our starting position. Look - when you're kids and you're playing a single-player JRPG together, you make your own entertainment, okay?
I still return to Suikoden most summers. I don't have an original PS1 copy any more. Its second hand value shot up at a time when I was desperately broke and £50 went a very long way, so I sold it. Years later, it's now worth about £200 on eBay and that's just too much for any game. Certainly one that I can replay on my Vita via the PS1 classics route. It's not quite the same, but the memories are still there. There's something wholly appropriate about me playing it each summer. Maybe it's the summertime heat, the light late nights, or just the good old sense of nostalgia, but it feels right and proper. I still remember every fine little nuance, even after all these years, but it's far from wasted brain cells. It's a reminder of those endless summer holidays.
Me and Tom? We still, every once in a while, mutter "circle, circle, circle, circle," to each other. Predictably, all around us look utterly baffled. That's fair.