Seanstar's Game Reviews


This is my game reviews page. Now and again, when the muse takes me, I will set down in writing my impressions of a game or series, detailing its pros and cons, and comparing it to similar games. If your opinions contradict my own, please refrain from flaming my rear end off. If you have an honest complaint, along with facts to back it up, e-mail me and I'll see if I really have overlooked something.


-Final Fantasy series
-Final Fantasy Tactics
-Grandia series:
- Grandia
- Grandia II
-MegaMan series
- Part 1: NES
-Sonic the Hedgehog series
- Part 1: Genesis
- Part 2: Handheld
- Part 1: 32X and beyond
-Suikoden series
- Suikoden 1
- Suikoden 2
-The Great Ranking

Final Fantasy Series

RPGs have long been my favorite style of game. I have played (or at least attempted to play) any RPG that has come to my attention. The Final Fantasy series is undoubtably the largest, most successful RPG series in existence. The only thing that has surprised me is that each game in the series isn't neccesarily better than its predecessor. If I were to rank all the Final Fantasy games in order of play value, the list would be as follows:
- FFVI (III in U.S.)
- FFIX (III in U.S.)
- FFIV (II in U.S.)
- FFV (U.S. non-release prior to PSX)
- FFIII (U.S. non-release prior to PSX)
- FFII (U.S. non-release prior to PSX)
- FFI (sorry I had to drop it this low...)

I have not played:
- FFVIII (really should get around to this one, but from what I hear it's not great)
- FFX-2 (heard poor things about this one, but the end of FFX has me intrigued no matter how much I disapprove of a direct sequel in the FF multiverse)
- FFXI (While I have no doubt I'd love this game as a game, having to buy a PS2 HDD, a network adaptor, AND the game itself, then spend hours installing the game and more hours patching it, all for the priviledge of paying a monthly fee to play a game on servers which have to be retired at some point thereby rendering the game worthless somehow doesn't tickle my fancy)
- FFXII (Reviews are intriguing, I disagree with some aspects but agree with others. I'll probably pick it up some time after it's been out a while.)

- New as of 10/21/06: I just finished Final Fantasy X. It's been so long since I've fundamentally changed any site content that some of my older comments seem a bit juvenile. I've added some commentary on FFX and tried to clean up anything too atrocious in the otehr games' reviews.
- New as of 7/4/01: I just recently acquired Final Fantasy IX, willing to play it due to Square's big effort to market it as a return to the classic style, and it seems to be living up to the hype. See below. For completeness, I've stuck FFVIII on the ranking list, but I'm not reviewing it, for reasons stated. Final Fantasy Tactics, due to its not quite standard style, has not been listed here, but another reviewer has a big write-up on it below.

- Note: I here thank Matt ( for bringing me back to reality on my description of FFIII.--- Okay, you can call me insane, but I do believe FFVI is the best FF game of all time. It was made at the peak of 16 bit quality, with around a dozen playable characters (more than in any other FF game), all but perhaps 2 critical to the plot, many key NPCs and temporary characters, hundreds of monsters, 256 (it seems like more, but Matt says it's 256 and he knows his RPGs, and besides, it's a nice round power of 2) items, and two separate worlds, each with dozens of areas to visit. The Magecite learning system was a step towards the stats/abilities-from-equipment scheme used in later games without being detrimental to the flow of the game as a whole, and being able to explore all areas of the airship at any time, and change party members, heal, and even buy supplies while in flight was a great touch. Items ranged from powerful weapons like the Ragnarock to cute armors like the Moogle Suit which actually change the look of a character in battle, to relics which did nothing to your stats but helped you anyway, like the Sprint Shoes. Character abilities in FFVI were also quite varied. Things ranging from the now standard "steal" and "throw" to the truly unique, like "sketch" and "blitz", even things that could only be used outside of battle, like Locke's ability to open doors in ruin Narshe. The plot is quite memorable, and flows nicely with minimal suspension of disbelief. The music is also grand, spanning many genres and making good use of all the SNES sound channels. In retrospect, the biggest downside to the game is perhaps that there are too many characters. By the time you reach the final area, you have enough characters to form three parties, and in fact you need three parties to make it through, but you only have one party's worth of characters actually strong enough to handle the final area. This, in my experience, invokes a veritable nightmare of character switching and enemy locating to ensure you tackle the strongest enemies possible, with a party strong enough to win, but with enough low-level characters that the experience isn't wasted.
Still, Final Fantasy VI is most definitely the greatest, most complex, and most generally entertaining RPG of the group.
It has 3 save files per cartridge.

- FFX took me for a bit of a ride when it came to trying to pin it against the rest of the series. So much of the gameplay was changed that for the first couple hours of play it was hard to work out what I was doing or differentiate between segments which were auto-executing cutscenes and segments in which I had to be moving around and doing stuff. My mental tally originally gave FFX a considerable hit for not explaining characters' special 'Overdrive' attacks and for the highly unorthodox character and equipment development system.
As it turns out, the directions for each Overdrive are in fact in the game, but since each nonintuitive Overdrive involves doing some form of complex control input within a very brief time interval based on cues in the center of the screen, and the description of exactly what to do is way up at the top of the screen during this interval, you only ever notice the directions after you've learned what to do and gotten pretty darn good at it. The equipment issue is basically that all traces of standard Final Fantasy equipment progression are utterly absent. Each character has one weapon slot and one optional armor slot. Weapons and armor are not differentiated by strength but by the number of ability slots they provide (1-4) and the abilities equipped in those slots (increases to HP, MP, attack, and defense, infliction of various elemental damage or status, resistance/immunity to conditions, and the occasional spell auto-cast). In the early game this is confusing and seemingly pointless since you see so little 'good' equipment. In the late game... you get used to it, and learn to appreciate it and the extra level of flexibility it provides. I wouldn't say I like the FFX system more than the classic system, but on the whole it more or less breaks even.
Character advancement in the early game is very bizarre and pointless indeed. Characters earn AP (read: experience) in battle, and ultimately build up points which they can use to move around a special advancement network called the 'Sphere Grid'. To actually advance, a character must have enough movement points to get to a destination node of your choice (pointless early on since, with one exception, characters' accessible tracks around the Grid are nearly linear) and have a special Spere consumable item corresponding to the node s/he wishes to activate (obnoxious due tot he initial scarcity of such Spheres). Unlike the new equipment system, however, the Sphere Grid truely shines in the late game- once a character has completed his/her own 'default' track to a certain point, he/she can switch to another character's track by unlocking certain barrier nodes or using special teleportation or remote-activation Spheres. While each character seems to have certain base proficiencies (e.g. taking your thief all the way around your wizard's track won't necessarily make her equal to your wizard at spellcasting), you can give any character any ability you want with a little patience, and go a long way towards making up for stat deficiencies. By the end of the game, for instance, my main character (light fighter) had Auto-Life and what were initially my Black and White wizards were both almost fully trained in eachothers' arts and could dish out quintuple-digit damage at least twice a turn if pressed.
Also, some once-common items- notably Ethers- are not available in shops. Ever. To make up for this, however, save points restore your health and magic much as in the Grandia series, and no status effects last beyond the end of battle.
Once you're past the initial wave of steep turn-offs, however, FFX starts becoming irrevocably awesome. You get a total of 7 characters, many of recognizable class but some excitingly fresh, of which you can form a fighting party of 3. For the first time ever, you can switch characters in and out of your party IN THE MIDDLE OF BATTLE! This on-line switching system plays to another new element- each character has a particular fighting style which makes him/her indispensible against certain types of enemies until fairly late in the game. Your light fighter is the only one who can reliably hit fast ground targets. Your token giant sword carrier is the only one who can break heavy armor. Your spellcasters are your only realistic options against jelly-monsters and elementals. Only one character never really has a point, and sadly this is a blatant failure on Squares part more than any fault of my playing. Your blue mage can only learn a dozen or so enemy skills, he can only use one skill for every time he attains Overdrive, most of the skills are either useless or only useful under very controlled conditions, and the character himself has no shining strengths and no default advancement track on the Sphere Grid (just a small loop with branches into the middle of other characters' tracks).
All characters are well written, well-developed and plot-integral. For the first time in a long time I can't pick out one that I would on the whole rather not have to deal with. The plot is engaging, and to an extent thought-provoking, at least once you get past the first ~3 hours of figuring out what the heck is going on (which is not much of a sacrifice in what can easily be a 90+ hour game). Graphics are universally excellent. So much so that most cutscenes are done using the game's default graphics engine. Only a select few scenes feature pre-rendered video clips, and in those, ALL characters look distinctly Japanese, which I must admit was a bit of a turn-off. Audio quality is excellent, characters, areas, and events all have particular themes to some extent, but as with FFIX (below), only a few themes were distinctly memorable. Gone are the days of FFVI and Chrono Trigger in which character and event themes are driven irresistably into your head and the entire game's score interrelates and plays out like a musical. For the first time in the series, all characters are voiced, and the voiceacting is actually quite good. I especially liked the random one-off comments the characters make occasionally in battle which relate to particular enemies ('who BUILT that?!'), plot events ('think LATER, Rikku!'), abilities ('Pray. NOW.') and simply the characters themselves ('I'm back! D'ja miss me?'). Even the minigames are generally engaging, or at least tolerable, and I must say the primary minigame- Blitzball- is worthy of release in its own right and consumed no small number of hours of my play time.
What truly speaks to the quality of FFX is that after spending 95 hours beating it, I'd still be willing to start a new game and play it again immediately if I didn't have other games to get around to. FFX is placed below FFVI in my ranking, but really, that's mainly because FFVI has so much sentimental value. With all the changes in X, comparing it directly to VI is like comparing sweet juicy Florida orange sorbet with mom's homemade Granny Smith apple pie. It will come down to personal taste, and I'd take both given the option.
FFX consumes 64K per save on a PS2 8MB memory card.

- I here freely admit that I was causing myself to miss out on something pretty nice when I first decided not to buy FFIX. While not enshrined among the greatest of greats, it holds its own quite impressively. Eight playable characters, each plot-critical (even Quina, as random as s/he seems), and each both easily recognizable as a classic FF character class and still quirky enough to be memorable. If I'm not mistaken, the characters even have distinct themes again! Plot flows nicely, forced ahead rarely if at all, and a host of mini-games of varying difficulty and accessibility are, for the most part, strictly games (unlike FFVII's selection, where almost everything was an arcade-style challenge that you had to do well in at some point or other in order to advance the plot). Moogles, as the primary save system, are everywhere, each with his/her own name and personality, along with chocobos, classic-style airships, and at least cameos by many other recognizable characters (even Garland coming out of retirement!!). The learning system is well-balanced, similar in style to the Magecite system in FFVI, but with each character only able to learn certain skills based on his/her class, so no one character is superior to the others and uniqueness of abilities allows for interesting party balancing. The ability range is also nice, giving each character a unique focus. Even the two white mage/summoners have different Trance (sorta like FFVII limit break, but I think slightly better engineered) enhancements. Graphics are overall quite fitting, with the hyped 'superdeformity' not really that noticeable (that was one of the things that initially turned me off to the game- superdeformed 16-bit sprites are pretty much inevitable if you want a more realistic top-down view, but I saw no reason for them in a full 3D environment) and just the right amount of FMV (clips enhance the game, but are clearly meant only to enhance not to support, and the jump between game graphics and FMV graphics isn't as huge as I've seen it in other games). Music is perhaps the one point where FFIX is lacking. It's good, certainly, better than FFVII's, but not quite as catchy as that of the 8- and 16-bit games (except for the few tunes directly remixed from 8- and 16-bit, such as the immortal chocobo theme and the Gulug Volcano background). The two best new tunes I've encountered so far, frog-catching mini-game and Black Mage Village, both seem to have some element of what can best be described, even jokingly, by the Brunching Shuttlecocks as tuneblock. The music fits, the music is cool, you remember the music is cool, but without putting in a lot of effort, you can't bring a single tune to mind easily outside of the game.
Overall, a superior play that I really need to get back to and finish up.
FFIX files take up one PSX memory card block.

- FFIV lacks the polish of many later FF games, but taken in its original context, it is still quite passable. FFIV included around 12 playable characters, with up to five in your party at once (more than any other FF game). Although you couldn't change party members whenever you wanted, the game kept you busy enough without it. Four distinct vehicles kept you traveling in style in FFIV. Things ranging from an airship-totable hovercraft to a huge starship emerging from the sea. Three separate worlds were out there to be explored, each with its own race(s) of friends and enemies. No two characters were interchangeable in the game. Each had his/her own talent that played a key role in the adventure. Although not quite as extensive as FFVI, players of the original FFI could find familiar characters, like the black and white mages, popping up all over. Then there were the chocobos. You can't forget the chocobos. There were a number of chocobo villages in the game where you could pick up standard, or even rare black birds, as well as check your unused items with the giant chocobo. If you just weren't as good at the game as you might like to have been, there's always the cheap item replication trick (involving equipping and dequipping items during battle, see SNES codes section for details) that you can use to get more cash or give your entire party the best equipment. The biggest hit FFIV takes at a modern review is in its script. The script in many places feels rushed or compressed, and few characters live up to the standards of eloquence set in later games. Still, you have to consider this was Square's first forray into SNES Final Fantasy, and they may not have been accustomed to dealing with such a high volume of potential plot text.
Overall, FFIV is a strong play, easier to get into and requiring less thought than the later games, while leaving earlier ones in the dust technologically.
Each cartridge saves 3 files.

- FFV is nearly tied with FFIV. What brings FFV out from the rest of the crowd is the character customization ability. You only get five (effectively four) characters during the entire game, but as you progress, each character can be given many interesting "jobs" to gain new techniques and abilities for battle- a system first appearing in FFIII (original Famicom III, U.S. non-release) and later blended into FFT. In grand Square style there are a total of three worlds to be explored, (*SPOILER->*) the first two fitting together to form the third. FFV is the only FF game I know of in which you can ride a dragon as an airship-type vehicle. The real airship is standard Square fare, the regular serpent-powered (eventually steam-driven) water ship was interesting, to say the least, and all ships can be boarded and walked around on at some point in the game. There's even a sub which you can pilot. Music and graphics are solid, about on level with FFIV. I have to admit, this game may be better than I ranked it. I never did quite beat it, and FFIV's script issues have been grating on me lately, so it may be time for a re-visit to both. If you can track down a copy or translation in your native language, you probably won't be disappointed.
Each cartridge saves 3 files.

- Okay. As of now I officially take back all the bad things I've said about FFIII. FFIII is a game WAY ahead of it's time. There is a job system quite similar to FFV, pianos to be played (also like FFV), girls to watch dance (FFIV), airships (owned by Cid, of course), all manner of weapons, and excellent translation (all hail Neo Demiforce and A.W. Jackson, whoever he is). Poor translation was the cause of all the grief I was giving this game before. Things make much more sense and become much easier when A) you can understand people and B) you don't stay as OnionKids for your entire life. Party balance, at least early on, is similar to what you want in FFI (i.e. a strong fighter, an all around red mage, a black mage, and whatever you want for the fourth slot (I'd suggest monk, the FFIII equivalent of black belt)). The transition between enemy levels is a bit severe, but much better than FFII, and it's fun to be able to use an airship at the very beginning of the game. The graphics are excellent (NO MORE WHITE MOUNTAINS! NO MORE BLACK MENUS! YES!), for an NES title, and the sound has also been touched up (completely revamped map music, and catchy themes in many areas). Overall a strong game that I can't wait to play the remake of. Famicom FFIII has 3 save files per cartridge.

- FFVII was amazingly not my favorite FF game. Sure, it was fun while it lasted, but it just didn't last quite as long. With only one world, and 9 playable characters, it wasn't as broad as the others in the series. Of those 9 characters, one was optional, one died pointlessly, two were very poorly developed indeed, and at least one of the remainder was almost completely 1-dimensional as far as personality. The plot its self was fairly linear, without much of an "exploration section", where you could really go around and tour the world searching for secrets. The entire second half of FFVI was optional. If you wanted to go attack Kefka with only Celes, Setzer and Sabin, it was a viable option. If not, you could go and search the new world for old friends and new additions to your party. FFVIIs main strength was in the mini-games. The Gold Saucer was always fun to visit, and breeding the elusive golden chocobo (to ride or race provided an interesting challenge in times of peace. FFVII used its 3D setup fairly well in areas, but there really wasn't much that couldn't have been done in 2D (in response to Matt's complaint, yes I do fully appreciate 3D, but I still hold to my belief that the majority of the game could have been made in 2D, thus freeing up a great deal of space for extending gameplay).
My chief complaint with FFVII, however, is with regard to the minigames. I have tried to replay it more recently and give it a fairer critique, but there are simply too many pointless, poorly executed mandatory activities to slog through. On the first disc (at least, my memory of the later game is increasingly foggy), virtually every single location on the map (which you can only get to after a few hours of play) has some stupid little minigame; from jumping off a dolphin's nose to catching one of numerous highly-paranoid chocobos to doing squats in exchange for cosmetics so you can cross-dress successfully (no joke). In fact, one entire location- Fort Condor- is a giant, difficult, slow, mostly pointless minigame which they could have safely removed from the game completely.
Overall, it seems that SquareSoft was focusing more on graphics and less on gameplay, a horrible mistake. Graphics will reliably be outdated in a couple years, but a game with good plot and good gameplay will still seem almost just as good a decade after it is made. There are those who will hype FFVII up to no end, and some like it far more than I for legitimate reasons, but I'd definitely reccommend playing VI, IX and X first to calibrate yourself as to what the FF series truly holds.
FFVII saves take 1 Playstation memory card block.

- I finally managed to get FFII working. It turns out it wasn't my ROM but my emulator that was incompatible. I also picked up the most recent translation for this review (another three cheers for Neo Demiforce). FFII is, in a word, unique. You start with 4 characters Guy, Maria, Lionheart, and I forget the last one's name (you can still rename them at the beginning of the game). Three of the characters end up at the same place after the initial battle which you are intended to lose. The fourth is half dead in a town I haven't reached yet. What makes the game unique is the leveling style. Instead of gaining experience, you must abuse your characters to gain status. Taking heavy damage in a battle (attack yourself) raises HP and vitality, using spells for no clear reason many times in a battle will increase MP, magic power, and spirit, I think intentionally missing (attack with enough force to kill, and all other attacks targeted to the enemy are "innefective") will lower intelligence and raise power. You can influence people by speaking phrases that you 'learn' (a menu comes up in conversations with certain characters) from others. These can give you access to crucial information. The only flaw I've found with the game is the sudden transition from enemies that deal 2 damage per hit to enemies that deal 200 damage and 'venom' you ('poison' wears off in or after battle, 'venom' lasts until cured). FFII is also the only NES title to have generic (non level-based) magic points. The graphics and sound just about tie FFI, but at least you are allowed 4 save files.

- FFI is the original. It defined the non-action RPG. Being able to name your characters, even with only four letters, and choose what job they would have in the game allowed for a different game to be played each try. FFI invented the menu-driven battle system, although there was as of yet no auto-retarget function to keep a player from accidentally attacking a dead monster. If anything, the lack of an auto-retargeter made battle strategies more complex. You had to know your characters, and send just the right amount of force to an enemy. If you used too much overkill on a weak enemy, that would be all the less damage for other, possibly stronger, enemies in the battle to take. These days you can "dog pile" on an enemy, knowing that any extra damage would automatically go to the next guy. As usual, FFI had ships, airships, and even a canoe (try to find that in any other U.S. FF game!). Weapons and spells were as varied as the limited memory in the 8-bit cartridge would permit, and throughout the game, you knew you would be challenged, but not immediately overwhelmed, and if you did die, the "revolutionary" battery backup would allow you to continue where you left off. While the number of items in the game seems miniscule by today's standards, and many elements of the interface feel horrendously kludgy, for its time FFI was utterly revolutionary. FFI is still a good game, even with today's systems being upwards of eight times as powerful as the NES. If you have an NES, and you don't have FFI, I'd recommend getting multiple copies while you still can (each cartridge has only one save file).

Final Fantasy Tactics

Submitted by Matt (, so don't blame me.

- This is, bar none, the greatest RPG ever... with a few conditions. First of all, you must have a brain that is very, very sharp, because that is the learning curve of the game: very, very sharp. Some people will give up on the third battle because they just can't use their brains. Now, the others interested in this game would be diehard RPG players, such as myself. I don't mean, diehard "Oh, I've played a bunch." No, RPGs must be the only game you play. You must have beaten at least 10 RPG's to be a diehard fan, in my book. I've beaten quite a few in my day, and this game is a blast! Believe me, if you can learn to love this game, you will swear off all others for a month.
- The plot is incredibly detailed, for one thing. You are lead through four chapters in the life of Ramza. This kid's part of a family of military mojos. Currently, he's off at a military academy with his childhood friend, a stablehand who works for Ramza's family. The young cadets are sent off on their first mission: infiltrate a group of bandits. It only goes downhill from there. It really feels like a very good book.
- The graphics aren't fancy polygons; they're gorgeous sprites that have that painted look. Each character has been modeled in every regard, and rendered uniquely for every job... except they don't has noses. You don't even notice it until someone else says it. Weird, eh? Anyhow... the music is varied, beautiful, and appropriate... the sound effects make you feel those hits.
- The gameplay is the best part of it all. You have as much or as little control as you want... it's just mastering the amount of control you want that's tricky. With an excellent job system, lots of secret items, and tons of skills to learn, you'll be playing for 100 hours if you get hooked. Beating it isn't enough; you have to MASTER it! So, lock the doors, feed the pets, stock the fridge, and say goodbye to your loved ones (not necessarily in that order); if you're up to the challenge, you'll be in for the long haul.
-- Rating: 100%

Grandia Series

I have come to hold a high opinion of both Grandia games, Grandia for PlayStation and Grandia II for Dreamcast, PS2 and PC. Both have intriguing storylines bordering on the philosophical, both have highly memorable characters and at least moderate character development, both have grand soundtracks and graphics to rival the best of their respective eras, and I must say, the Grandia battle system is a more sensible simulation of party-on-party combat than any I've seen that doesn't rely on AI control of your party. Nonetheless, these are two immensely different games, and each is suited to a different taste.
- Grandia starts with and generally maintains an aura of cheery take-on-the-world optimism. Justin, the boy hero, is an adventurer at heart, and spends the first half of the game searching out one adventure or challenge after another. He is accompanied at first by an adopted sister, Sue, who can be obnoxiously precocious at times. Later on, he is joined by the professional adventuress, Feena, who fills the role of main support character for the part of the game that's actually worth playing. Alright, maybe I'm being a little harsh, but there is quite a drastic difference between the quests and plot progression on each of the two game discs. The first disc deals primarily with Justin and his friends running around, getting into trouble, and taking on a new full-fledged adventure every other week. This is the part of the game that really turned me off at first. Sure, it was a fun play, but in all its jumping around, it failed to attain any significant depth of plot or character development. The second disc didn't start much better, stranding Justin and Feena in an unexplored jungle with the only goal being to explore for the sake of exploration and adventure for the sake of adventuring. Eventually, however, a greater mission does begin creeping up, and pieces start falling together as you learn about the real-world presence and implications of the Angelou, Icarians, and Gaia. At this point the plot picks up and snowballs on to attain a level of creativity and intricacy that marks the height of the series. I've heard many people say they favor Grandia over Grandia II, and based on the last third of the game, I can see why, but the first two thirds of the game, with their recurring slapstick comedy and juvenile humor really weren't to my taste.
Grandia's graphics are bright and colorful polygonal constructions overlayed with character sprites. This works out well in general, getting the salient points of each environment across without straining the Playstation hardware, but there were a few areas in which I though more detail could have been added. The audio spanns numerous styles, and the game's composers obviously had fun with themes that include such elements as offbeat percussion, exotic reeds, local fauna, and even disconcertingly murmering wordless voices. From a statistical perspective, the game's one main theme is a bit overused, but it generally fits the atmosphere it's used in each time, without being redundant. Only over-repetitive monster noises and the tendency of certain audio tracks to cut out at random keep Grandia's audio from supporting the game as well as it could.
- Grandia II is, on the whole, a much more subdued and mature game than Grandia, which works generally to its benefit, but perhaps doesn't give it the fantastical oomph that pushes Grandia to its highest points. You play the role of Ryudo, an angsty teen mercenary hired to escort Elena, the righteously religious and pure-hearted choior girl in the sevice of Lord Granas, to the religious capitol of the world to be cleansed of an incarnation of the dark Lord Valmar that she's been posessed by. Throughout the journey, Ryudo predictably advances from doing his job to make a buck to doing his job for the good of humanity. By contrast, Elena, through quite literally confronting and getting to know her inner demon, begins shifting the other way, questioning the definitions of good and evil, right and wrong, and the very tenets that uphold the religious structure dominating 90% of the world. I will freely admit that the plot isn't spectacularly novel, falling back on standard concepts of heroism, mythical questing, self-actualization and the power of perserverence and the human spirit. In fact, over the course of my first play I accurately predicted a good dozen events, largely from simply reading the manual. However, the game is quite large, and while its themes are recognizable, the details of each subsection include less predictable surprises and twists that hint at the skill with which the game's script was arranged. For the full story, be sure to talk to everyone two, three or even four times in succession and take every spend-the-night dinner opportunity inns give you. Relations between characters drive half the plot of Grandia II, and are thus enacted through laudable storytelling and voice-acting more than Grandia's slapstick and in-jokes (not to say character humor and recurrent jest are entirely absent from II, merely executed in a more mature manner). On a whole, where Grandia II succeeds is not so much in taking you places you haven't been and telling you stories you haven't heard in some form as in meshing timeless core elements in a highly intricate, thorough, and pleasantly philosophical plot arc.
All world graphics in Grandia II are impressively smooth and contiguous 3D model. The world map and menu screens utilize icons and some amount of the original Grandia's hand-drawn art style. Grandia II really does take full advantage of the Dreamcast's visual capacity, intermingling perfectly cartoony 3D with actual video clippage, even in the heat of battle. Grandia II's audio is at least up to Grandia's standards, with much more natural and professional voice-overs (although I think I hear some of the same voice actors as in Grandia...). Some of the major musical themes from Grandia make appearances in Grandia II as tasteful remixes and suggestive phrases, but most of Grandia II's soundtrack is new, and of enough quality to merit selling the game with its own accompanying audio CD. A large part of the new music is bright peppy synthesizer, but numerous styles make an appearance, from choral to tribal to syncopated cowbell... erm... squeek-baa bell...
- On a whole, if you've played Grandia and loved every minute of it, Grandia II will perhaps be a let-down in its muted stereotypicality, in spite of its graphical and gameplay improvements. If you've played Grandia II and enjoyed the storytelling and mature twists, transitioning back to Grandia will be a slap in the face, but once you get beyond the cosmetic gap, and once you acclimate to the reduced maturity level, and once you get past the first third of the plot or so, you'll find the game does actually pay for itself. If you haven't played either, play both and you won't be disappointed, and play them in sequence to get the full effect of how the second borrows from the first. Having played both back to back, I must say each game easily ranks with the best RPGs I've played, each showing off the peak performance of its original system.
-Now, I can't leave the topic of Grandia without taking a little time to explain the combat and advancement system both games use to some degree. As already mentioned, I believe it more accurately reflects the intricacies of small melee combat than any other battle system that still gives you full control of all characters. For starters, your party wanders around an area, with multiple characters strung out behind a leader, and enemy parties wander around the same way. When one of your characters touches an enemy character on the main game screen, battle ensues. How the battle begins depends on how the enemy was encountered. You can get the jump on the enemy by tagging them from behind or when they aren't observing you, but you in turn will be at a disadvantage if the enemy tags one of your rear characters or approaches the party unexpectedly. This initial advantage takes the form of placement of characters on an action meter. All characters, friend and foe alike, are spread out physically across an isometric playfield, but also marked off on a conceptual action meter.
Characters move from left to right along most of the meter at a speed influenced by particular stats. Once they reach a point near the end of the bar, they may be given commands including a standard attack of one or two hits with a weapon, a critical attack designed more to disrupt opposing attacks than deal damage, your token RPG magical and superphysical ability set, bracing for inevitable damage, or moving out of harm's way. A character's action marker progresses across the tail end of the meter at a speed influenced by the action they're taking. Regular attacks generally take only the time it takes the character to move physically within attacking range of the specified target, most magic takes a bit longer, but ranged abilities that the character has high proficiency in can happen almost instantaneously, taking effect priority over the actions of characters far closer to the right end of the action meter. Disrupting a character's action between the 'command point' and right end of the action meter can cause extra damage and sometimes knock them back to the left of the command point. Executing a critical attack, which normally knocks the target's action marker back a pace, when the target is close to the right end of the action meter can knock them well over half way back up the meter. Additionally, different weapons and abilities have different shapes and sizes of targetable regions, laying a placement strategy similar to that of Chrono Trigger on top of the already novel Grandian timing strategy.
Characters' overall power levels advance on a generic experience point system, but individual abilities and stats advance by usage and focus. In Grandia, using an ability granted you higher proficiency in that ability, allowing you to execute it more quickly in the future, and gave you more general experience points in the particular weapon style (sword, club, dagger, whip, etc.) and magic area (fire, water, wind, earth), which would accumulate to unlock new abilities and spells. Additionally, levelling up a character's proficiency with a weapon or magic added bonuses to particular base stats for the character. This meant you would get better at what you used most often, but also meant that one could easily abuse the liberally scattered save/recovery points, recovering before each battle and then letting loose the most powerful abilities you had on the most targets possible to get the greatest experience. Grandia II fixed this so some degree, allowing characters to accumulate fixed numbers of special magic and ability 'coins' in battle and spend them to raise the levels of abilities and stats. Either way, the character advancement in the Grandia series is only a realistic complement to the teriffically executed battle system.

Mega Man Series

Mega Man is the game that did to platform shooters what Final Fantasy did to RPGs. Starting with a new concept in gaming and a cast of characters never designed to become famous, Capcom started a series that has come in some form or other to virtually every home gaming console and handheld developed since its debut. I have played all but a select few Mega Man titles, and even own such rareties as Rockman- Mega World for SEGA MegaDrive and both ancient PC releases. Thus, I finally embark on a review of everything Mega Man.

Part 1- NES titles

As similar as the NES releases seem initially, I believe they do have varying levels of quality. I would personally rank the games as follows:
- Mega Man 3
- Mega Man 6
- Mega Man 1
- Mega Man 2
- Mega Man 5
- Mega Man 4
- Although it may not have the greatest graphics, weapons, or items, Mega Man 3 is placed solidly at the top of my list. I have it there because it has many 'first's and many 'only's, while maintaining a level of quality to at least rival the rest of the NES series. It is the first game to have Rush, the transforming robot dog found in all subsequent classic Mega Man games. It is the first to feature the slide, the second to last move the Blue Bomber gains in his career. It is the first game to include Mega Man's (Rock's) brother Protoman (Blues, or Break Man). It is the only game to have a full set of bosses from an earlier game, and one of three console releases to have any previous master foes (MM8 for SEGA Saturn had CutMan and WoodMan, and a few bosses from MM8 showed up in Rockman & Forte). It is the only game to have the Doc robot, the medium through which the previous bosses are emulated. It is the only game to have second-controller debug-esque commands, and the only to have helpful glitches in the weapons menu. Of course it also has 8 unique and creative bosses with their own unique weapons and great, exceptionally fitting stage music, the qualities one comes to expect from any game in the series. Thus, I believe Mega Man 3 is the best and most deserving of the NES releases.

- Second, in my opinion, would have to be MegaMan 6. As the last in a series on a particular system, it is a game that one would expect quality from. Capcom comes through with more great graphics and sound, and bosses continue to be innovative, even after 5 other games. What makes MM6 stand out most, however, is the new Rush forms. Breaking up the monotony of the simple coil-jet-marine combo, Rush can now form two cool new suits of armor, one with a punch that can shatter any armor, even met helmets, the other with shoulder rockets allowing for a few seconds of propelled flight from a normal jump. MM6 is one of only two MM games with these adaptors, the other being MM7 on SNES where the two are combined into one, somewhat harder to use unit. MM6's continued quality and new innovation give it a solid second place in my ranking.

- The original MegaMan places third in my ranking, possibly a less fitting tribute than it deserves. as with Final Fantasy, the original MegaMan defined a series. I can't imagine that anyone at Capcom at the time was even entirely sure the game would fly. Needless to say, it did, and still does with the occasional classic series release, and possibly more focus on the spinoff X series. The game's primary innovation was the ability to take weapons from bosses you destroyed to use against other forces of evil. The first set of bosses themselves were distinctive. A nice mix of the standard elements, Fire, Ice and Electricity, plus a single physical shot, the Rolling Cutter, and two weapons the likes of which have not been seen since: the powerful Hyper Bomb and Guts Man's (who, incidentally, has become one of the better known MM mascots) lifting arm. In addition, there was a special 'Magnet Beam' the player could discover, used to create temporary platforms for crossing pits or climbing past walls. Even back then, the music was still exciting, appropriate, and more memorable than the music in many other games, even outside the MM series. It is also worth noting that MM1 is the only MM game to keep score, the only one with no way to store your progress, and the only game that allowed the player to re-enter boss levels and beat the bosses multiple times over for a higher score (the next two games in the series didn't even allow level re-entry!).

- MegaMan 2 ranks, logically or not, 4th in my list. It had the same feel as MM1, with a few innovations. 8 new, highly memorable bosses replaced the original 6 (one, Wood Man, becoming another series mascot), setting the standard for MM games to this day. The 'Items' were no doubt the inspiration for Rush, found in MM3 and beyond, and Wily was set in the records as the permanent antagonist. Graphics were slightly improved, and the sound retained the quality and qualities it had in the first game. None the less, the level of innovation and creativity was down from that required to bring the series into being, and the addition of an easy mode (labeled 'normal') in the North American release could be taken as somewhat insulting. Even if the original 'hard' levels and bosses were somewhat challenging, dumbing the game down made precious few areas (notably Quick Man's level's beam dodging, Heat Man's level's platform jumping, and the Dragon's three blocks of footing) have any remaining difficulty at all.

- MegaMan 5 hangs on in 5th place, showing little improvement over past releases. The game's bosses were original, yes, but in a 'what the hell else can we come up with after 4 games' kind of way. Sound was reasonable, but not as simple and memorable as the tunes of previous games, and even the graphics were only on par with the rest of the existing series. A few key areas such as Gravity Man's upside-down areas and Star Man's low-G space fortress showed that creativity wasn't entirely dead at Capcom, and the idea of Protoman turning evil no doubt turned a few heads, but in all other ways, the game was only average.

- MegaMan 4, the first MM game I actually purchased (mainly because it was the only one I could find easily), sits dead last in my ranking. It was more average than MM5, and a huge drop from MM3, with only the 'secret' Balloon and Wire adaptors showing any real innovation. The bosses themselves were at an all-time low in this release, with such favorites as Dust Man, Ring Man, and Skull Man. Even the stage music was somewhat lacking, not at all as well fitted to the levels as in other releases, and not inherently rememberable either (as opposed to the music off MM1-3 which was hard to not pick up snatches of). The most memorable element of this game is probably the met level after Protoman's only (!) brief appearance (if you don't already know what I'm talking about, play the game).

Thus, MegaMan stands with Final Fantasy in proving that newer isn't always better, and that old classics still have a place among the 32, 64, and even 128+ bit systems of today.

Sonic the Hedgehog Series

The very first console game I ever owned was Sonic 2, packaged with my brand-spankin'-new Xmas Genesis 2 oh-so-many years ago. I was big on the series for quite a few years, it being bigger, faster and shinier than just about anything on the SNES or NES. Before the Genesis I owned a GameGear and had a few Sonics for it, and while I'm no longer quite so obsessed, I've since played in some form nearly every Sonic game ever released. I won't bother giving a listed ranking as with only a couple exceptions every game has been an improvement over its predecessors, but I will, as usual, provide insight on exactly what goes on in my head concerning the games.

Part 1- Genesis titles

- Sonic 1 was... well... Sonic 1. It started the series, it gave the developers an engine to improve on, but moves were blah, and the levels didn't impress me much. Then again, I was exposed almost simultaneously to all the Gen/MD Sonic games, so 1 may have looked more impressive when it came out. The music is simpler than in most other Sonic games, and the graphics, while on the same scale as the other games, give the impression of being larger. Not having any moves apart from run and jump makes it something of a pain to play if you're used to the other games, but by and large you can get by pretty well with what they give you. (interesting note- if the S1&K project had worked out, would Knuckles have had spindash? What would Sonic 1 have been like with spindash?)

- Sonic 2, I admit, was pretty cool. I still have a grudge against the developers, tho. There was so much more they were planning to do with it, and as far as I've determined they just stopped and even backtracked just to meet release deadlines and never really quite made up for it (I hear a number of things, such as time travel, that were going to be part of Sonic 2 were stuck into Sonic CD, but so few people have SegaCDs that it really wasn't much of a payback). They took out Hidden Palace for cryin' out loud! And what's more, unlike the other zones they killed, they didn't even completely remove it from the final! The music's still there, and the blasted remnants of the zone will still load given the right hacks! Plot-wise, Sonic 2 was destined to be just as much of a story as S3&K, then they abandoned everything and it became a bunch of randomly connected levels. At least the levels in 2 were memorable, even in their randomness, and weren't all run-thru-loops / jump-thru-hoops. Tails was a nice addition, but he still didn't come quite up to par until Sonic 3. In terms of gameplay, the addition of the spindash was a quantum leap in Sonic mechanics. Removing the necessity for long hills or straightaways before loops and such made level design much more interesting. Also, the various traps, switches and vehicles opened the way for many more paths through each level.

- Sonic 3 was indeed half a game, suffering from the same development problems as Sonic 2. Not enough space, not enough time, so they ditch levels they can't fit. Ever wonder why all the S&K music and dead links to a number of S&K levels are still in the debug menu? At least Sonic 3 they managed to pull back out of their collective asses, transitioning levels nicely and providing some semblance of story. Tails was revised, Knuckles was brought in almost fully developed, and even with the crunch they were still able to make things flow smoothly when they finally released the other half of the game. Levels were memorable, but music finally started to get too unthematic in some stages for easy memorization. I'm not sure whether having different variations for each act was a good or bad change. Graphics, however continued to advance. The three shield varieties were a pleasant addition, and helped balance Sonic out when Tails learned to fly and swim on player control.

- Sonic & Knuckles is why I don't give Sonic 3 as bad rap as I might. SEGA actually tried to make up for their past two misses, and did quite a nice job. Alone S&K is about on the level of Sonic 3, only without a save feature and without the development bugs (I think those two cancel eachother out- good game, but harder to play). The lock-on feature was designed to work with Sonic 1-3, but 1 was scrapped when fatal glitches occurred with Scrap Brain objects. While it doesn't 'fix' Sonic 2, it at least spices the game up (going the extra mile to re-activate HPZ in S2&K would have given the combo much higher marks in my book, but alas it was not to be).

- Sonic 3 & Knuckles, any player can tell, is what SEGA always wanted a Sonic game to be. It's big, it makes up for the past development failures of at least one game, it has essentially 3 different plotlines, all of which can be made to work simultaneously with little imagination. Levels are varied, each with its own look, feel, sound, mechanics and strategy. Characters are varied, each with his own personality, moves, and even whole levels (and usually routes through shared levels). Multiple endings for each character based on whether <7, 7-13 or 14 emeralds were obtained give the game great replay value, and giving each character different Super/Hyper enhancements (and letting each character super/hyper to start off with) show extra thought went into making the emerald system work. Being that it is the first game since Sonic 1 to be completely as the developers intended, S3&K is the standard to which I compare most of the other games. I'm just sorry to see that Sega doesn't seem to have any more games of the same caliber to release in the 2-D line any time soon.

Part 2- Handheld titles

- Sonic Advance is decent, but I don't love what they did with the graphics, and the almost total basis on the Adventure series, which differed drastically from the classic style, still annoys me... Not to mention the fact that, at least according to the manual, the game contains 'chao emeralds.' What sort of translation whiz decided 'chao' was the singular of 'chaos' and furthermore that 'chao' was then plural when referring to a group of the emeralds? Probably the same one who decided not to translate all the japanese script still in the US release... I don't see another lock-on miracle digging Sega out of stuff like that... Bonus rounds are difficult, but cool, and some levels and bosses get rather crazy at times.

The same theme problem as in Advance also came up in the Game Gear releases. You almost always run into problems when you try to port a good game from one system to an equally good game on a weaker system.
- Sonic 1 was okay, reasonably similar to Genesis/MegaDrive Sonic 1. No bonus stages, but I don't hold that against them.
- Sonic 2 was... Sonic 1 with new levels and a cameo of Tails at the end. Woo-hoo. It was also more difficult than Sonic 1, which I cannot say is an incredibly good thing.
- Sonic Chaos finally started to show thought for what to do in a game with the system provided. The emerald system was finally looking up, difficulty curve was right, and there were 2 distinct playable characters. As in Triple Trouble / S&T2, however, I think Tails was a little too strong relative to Sonic, especially with no Super Sonic.
- Slightly lower than Chaos, in my opinion, was Triple Trouble. Two characters, still, each with a new move since the last game (including moves never appearing in the 16-bit series). Knuckles was there, making the game feel like a rip of Sonic 3, and most of the graphics seemed a tad too vibrant. Maneuver improvements only just made up for control quirks in other areas, and some of the levels I found to be a bit tiresome and/or pointless. At least the bonus rounds showed some creativity, even if some were a tad on the hard side.
- 3D Blast was... ouchie. Trying too hard to do too much with too little. The graphics were smooth and shiny, meaning on such a weak system with such a small screen, they were large and slow. You didn't get at all as much of the trademark 'sonic speed,' enemies were bland, bosses were tricky, levels, as I recall, were small. TT's vibrancy was further bolstered for 3DB, which did not improve matters. The game's only real saving grace was Knuckles, but by that time, if I wanted him I had S&K if not S3&K, where he could actually accelerate on level ground faster than a near-dead VW bus...

Part 3- 32X and beyond

- gah! I almost forgot about Chaotix! I actually think Chaotix was a reasonably good game. The music was good, the graphics were vibrant, taking advantage (even if not fully) of the 32X processor. All the characters worked well, with the intentional exceptions of Heavy and Bomb (actually, Heavy can still be taken to throw at enemies for heavy damage if you don't have to do much maneuvering in a level). Most reviewers pan the elastic-ring system, but as far as I'm concerned, the number of good things it allows at least outweighs the initial awkwardness of it. You can get more speed off a good snap than any spin-dash, 'hold' is a great way to catch yourself if you accidentally fall off an edge, helper characters no longer get completely lost (even when you throw them, throwing its self being a nice feature), and if nothing else you get one more hit between losing your rings and dying. Growth/shrinkage provides an interesting challenge when dealing with the ring bungee, and partner swap/switch monitors also give interesting opportunities. All characters either climb or fly, so levels are no longer limited to mainly horizontal movement. My biggest complaint about the game, and the one that keeps it below S3&K, is the bonus round system. Big ring at the end of the level is fine, the bonus stages are creative, and get progressively crazier, but the last few are incredibly annoying, and if you don't beat every last one, you get a seriously crap ending with no chance to go back and make up lost stages (the save file, as far as I can tell, remains at the end of the game so all you can do with it is go in and beat the final boss with however many chaos rings you built up previously to get the exact same ending). This was probably the biggest oversight on the developers' part, seriously crimping replay value (going through the ~30 stages all over again while doing meticulous chaos ring monitoring with auto-save off is a bit of a let-down, not to mention a major annoyance). And there are chaos rings. No emeralds. Only rings. This is Knuckles we're talking about! The emerald guardian! The guy who has more claim than anyone to the gems! Music is cool, tho. Worth hearing at least once. The endgame is really the thing that bumps Chaotix down below S3&K in my opinion, but other than that it would have been a great candidate for a sequel had the 32X not flopped so royally.

- Sonic Adventure is one of the few games I know of to have transferred flawlessly from 2D to 3D control. The graphics are great, movement is smooth, and each character is suited to a unique gameplay style. The two new characters to the Sonic universe, Big and Gamma, fit in decently with the others despite having absolutely no similarities in level approach. Each stage is unique and memorable, but alas, as with the later Genesis games, most music beyond certain character themes is a little too complex to get caught in your head. What's worse, the themes that do stick are the ones you really don't want to think about (Amy, Knuckles, ...). The chao are cute, and provide a decent distraction and one of the few VMU games I know of. Capping it all off, the Super Sonic stage at the end of the game is pretty spectacular. Like all the other characters, SS was remade perfectly, skimming over the flooded city in a battle suddenly shifted from health concerns to time and accuracy pressure. The only big complaint I have with the game is that while it is long, replay value is not so hot. Once you beat all the stages on the highest level you're capable of, all that's left to do is go back and fail the rest repeatedly.

Suikoden Series (U.S. release)

The Suikoden series, encompassing the Japanese Genso Suikoden, U.S. Suikoden translations, and Suikogaiden of which I admittedly know very little, are fairly unique among RPGs in that the games all take place in the same universe, and one can construct a solid and generally consistent timeline of the world's events and related geographic locations from the various games. It is also unique in that the plots are military campaign based while the majority of gameplay is party-based. On a whole, the games offer a quite pleasing amount of variety, not only traversing all manner of regions and terrains, but also utilizing 3 scales of battle- party-based, one-on-one, and large-scale strategic- and of course, the trademark 108 stars of destiny, each of which being embodied in a character unique and often functional to your base of operations or military strategy. As if that wasn't enough, it is possible to load data from the end of one game at the start of its immediate sequel to unlock bonus features, and 3 even differentiates between files from 2 played with and without data from 1. I have played Suikoden 1 and 2 for Playstation, and done some research on 3. Eventually I will likely play 3 and 4, and if I find them sufficiently interesting, I may break from my 'classics' motif and review them later.
- Suikoden 1 is quite an impressive RPG, as far as Final Fantasies go. That is to say, for its time it showed a great deal of innovation and ingenuity relative to the dominant RPG style. It took the party-based RPG definition and, as mentioned previously, placed it in the scope of a greater military campaign. While you still controlled only a small group headed by a token hero, what you did as that small group was not so much a "you're the choice rabble destined to save the world singlehandedly" mission as a collection of "we need to send something smaller than a full army to pave the way for the full army" outings, which require rather less suspension of disbelief. The hero himself is the unwitting inheritor of the most vile of 27 'true runes,' magical insignia which give their users unbelievable power. It's a great tool for getting rid of one's enemies, boasting multiple 'doom' type kill spells which actually work on any non-boss, but serves as an interesting plot point since, as its name implies, it only grows stronger by taking the lives and capturing the eternal souls of those closest to its bearer.
The 108 stars of destiny pioneered by Suikoden were, no doubt, some element of inspiration for the comparable character base Square tried to incorporate into Chrono Cross years later. One thing that still surprises me about the character base in all the Suikoden games is that Konami makes it work. All 108 characters have some unique personality, and a few even show notable development. Unlike in Chrono Cross and other attempts at the concept, any character you recruit is useful in some way, many aren't simple combatants, some aren't even combatants at all, and a good dozen add bonus features to your base of operations, such as shops, inns, libraries, sound test, and interface customization. Another reason Konami's 108 stars work better than even Final Fantasy VI's dozen-ish PCs is the level advancement system. I'm not sure exactly what experience function Konami uses, but characters at the "right" level for a particular area get maybe a tenth of a level per battle, one or two levels higher and they get only a few experience points, but much lower and I've known characters to gain upwards of five levels per battle. Thus, it is quite easy to use any character in your party at any time without having to spend hours keeping all characters at competitive levels.
Difficulty in Suikoden 1 is definitely reasonable. A few early battles are made considerably more difficult by the lack of mass-healing to counteract group damage effects, but the game is generally quite playable. The lack of magic and special attacks as a whole is a little disappointing, but the game and plot make appropriate accommodation. At least right from the start you're exposed to the possibility of 'Unite' attacks where two characters will combine to deal more damage than they would have each attacking separately. Some characters even have solo rune attacks which deal extra damage while, almost brokenly, failing to consume magic or give the user any negative status. Speaking of status, Suikoden 1 has a nice selection of ailments both realistic and humorous. Of course poison is there, denoted by a small floating demon. Instead of the generic 'blind,' Suikoden boasts a 'bucket' status in which the character's head is, quite literally, stuck in a bucket. What I find most interesting is the 'unbalance' effect which prevents a character from doing anything strenuous for one round- quite appropriate if they've had the wind knocked out of them or have just executed a particularly draining combo.
Cosmetically, Suikoden 1 came off as regrettably SNES. The graphics were strictly 16-bit, and with the exception of a couple theme renditions during cinematic periods, sound was well-orchestrated but of only average sample quality. Special effects were generally limited to perhaps 2 types of geometric distortion and semi-creative use of transparent polygon overlays- not thoroughly SNES, but not much better. As far as sprite effects, late SNES titles may even be superior. The interfaces worked, on a whole, as far as they needed to, but upgrading equipment was tedious when it wasn't simply cost-prohibitive, and there were entirely too many long loading delays (and for those of you who know my view of load times, that's saying a lot). Even so, the game runs only a brief 25 hours for a thorough, generally unhurried play. Still, Suikoden 1 laid the important groundwork for the series, leaving enough room for extension and improvement to merit a sequel.
- As short and sweet as possible, Suikoden 2 is Konami learning from their mistakes in Suikoden 1. All the issues I pointed out as problems in 1 are more than fixed in 2, but alas, Konami may have slipped in a couple areas in which they succeeded in 1. Once again, you control the unlikely inheritor of a true rune (but at least this one isn't sociopathic). Once again, the plot is based around a military campaign, and this time around the military aspect has been significantly revamped. There's a tangible reason the hero is selected as a leader, more than just being entrusted with a key item and everyone else being too lazy to take over. The strategic battles themselves are... strategic! Rather than the glorified rock-paper-scissors of Suikoden 1, you have units with various abilities which can be commanded around a playfield and engage eachother at various ranges with various attacks. Victory comes down to much more than what weapon you use and how many ninjas you have. Unlike in 1, however, the military aspect is there before you arrive on the scene, and only the strategic addition of the two halves of a true rune cause things to start to get personal. In a way, the hero's getting caught up in the ambient conflict is more believable than all the times 1's hero must decide to actively instigate rebellion against the system he grew up in and really has no reason to hate on the whole.
The 108 stars of destiny return in 2, and no few in the literal sense as characters from 1 appearing for the second time. The characters in 2, however, are on the whole more functional than those in 1, since each character contributes not simply numbers but unit leadership and abilities for strategic combat. Once again, all characters have unique personalities, a good half contribute directly to plot, and a dozen or so show notable development, especially if you were around to see them in the first game. In addition, there are roughly half a dozen useful recruitable characters beyond the 108 stars, including an unlikely squirrel collection, giant octopi, and under the right conditions, the hero and a close secondary character from 1.
The look and feel of Suikoden 2 are superior to 1 across the board. While still 2D, the graphics of 2 have much more detail and much less painful color contrast. Small things, like texture variability, minor animations and the sheer quantity and variety of miscellaneous barrels, planters, crates, carts, and other artifacts of human settlement which litter town and dungeon alike indicate a much greater level of interest in area design. Not only that, but a good 70% of the aforementioned detritus is investigable- if seeing a bonsai isn't enough for you, just walk over to it and you can tell its size, state of health, level of care, or whether someone has left a stray rune crystal among its roots. All this, however, pales in comparison to the special graphical effects. The game leads in with a solid minute of orchestrated cinematic, and another minute or 5 follows shortly after you begin. As you progress, you encounter another half-dozen or so CG and anime snippets, all of which add to the game. What you'll probably be most impressed with, however, is the advancement of magic effects. It's as if Konami outright learned to do graphical effects between 1 and 2. Suikoden 2 draws equally upon palette, particle, polygon and impressively fluid sprite effects to create spells which easily rival the contemporary titles of such juggernauts as the then-separate Square and Enix. Even generic enemy attack and death animations are more varied and rewarding. Sound is effectively Suikoden 1 stock, but with better samples and more tasteful mixing. Game balance is generally on the easier side than Suikoden 1, but made up for by the increased level of strategy both in the major battles and in simply working with 4 rune slots yet only a fixed number of magic points at each level for any given character. That's still not to say there aren't hard battles. Luca Blight is, all told, a smegging ridiculous one-hour S.O.B., and that's if you beat him on your first attempt.
Shop interface and item management are drastically improved. Each character has 6 fixed equipment slots- hat, armor, shield, and 3 miscellaneous consumable/protective slots, and the party as a whole has both a general stash of some 30 items accessible outside of battle and a smaller collection of plot-specific items. When buying and selling equipment, equipping and the sale of old equipment can be done without leaving the shop, and shops in your castle even give you access to buy stuff for anyone in your reserve, not simply your party. Speaking of which, simply viewing all your recruits no longer means 10 seconds of loading and processing data. All aspects of party change occur on the same interface, one which takes no time to call up. The only data downside would have to be the vault, which has shrunk somewhat since 1. Personally, however, I find this to be quite acceptable, considering there are well over 75 new item types (most of them foods), each of which can have anywhere from 1 to 9(!) uses, and each of some 80 combatant characters still has 10 fillable slots, counting rune points. Start multiplying up possible combinations and I believe you'll see why certain things had to give.
The biggest sore point of Suikoden 2 which reviewers can't seem to shut up about is translation. The pity is, most reviewers use the game's script as a self-evident reason to pan the game as a whole. Personally, while I did notice the occasional slip-up, only on my fourth play of the game am I noticing anything routine, and then only because I'm specifically looking for things that could potentially be called issues. Even so, I think that there aren't nearly as many real problems as people keep saying. The conversations flow like, heaven forbid, real conversation! Not everyone is always attentive to everything being said, or to everything that was ever said. Some jump in to answer for others, occasionally one character will confuse the names of a couple others who are either similar, recent acquaintances, or merely both conceivably in the speaker's thoughts at the time. Many NPCs will speak to themselves or make comments directed at surrounding NPCs, and no few blocks of script need to be read strictly in context and in character. Case in point- after the Sindar Ruins fiasco (prior to which a character Alex, on the spur of the moment, offered up identification papers to the hero's party in exchange for assistance gathering treasure), Nanami (of the hero's party) makes some comment along the lines of "I won't forget my promise, you helped me explore, so I'll give you the papers." Standing alone or taken casually, I agree this looks like a major translation goof- obviously those Konami morons gave the line to the wrong character! However, consider this- after this statement, Alex makes a pointed silence, which could not work for any character if Alex had said the line in question. Alex is obsessed with finding treasure and probably made the promise without really taking it to heart. When leaving the ruins, Alex is annoyed and likely seriously distracted by having found nothing of any worth in the ruins. Nanami is spirited and rarely passes up an opportunity to give reminders and corrections to those who she deems need them. In light of this, I would conclude that, far from a serious translation blunder, the script simply has a laudable intricacy- Nanami staying humorously in character and reprimanding Alex with a prompt for what he should be saying, to which he has no reply but nervous silence- which the translators made a valiant effort to include but didn't quite get perfect due, no doubt, to a drastic difference in how such everyday exchanges and character flaws are handled in Japan and the U.S. Overall, if whenever you encounter a possible 'translation error' in 2, you don't simply pass it off as bad translation, but rather take serious thought to the context, characters, and how you yourself speak and at times flub, in other words try to find a way in which the script could be correct as written, I think you'll find the number of real translation errors is drastically reduced. Then factor in the fact that the game has as many if not more active generic NPCs to write for than most games, many of whom change what they say as plot progresses, has 108+ characters with distinct personalities to be upheld in a game's worth of script, some of whom are present and make in-character comments at points in the plot when they're strictly optional to your party, and hundreds of detail tags for all the various investigables in the game, plus all the spell, item and weapon names, and I at least will forgive them the occasional goof in a script far larger than Suikoden 1's which makes sense enough if you either scan it casually or think about it in depth and only starts to become questionable if you actively put only a small amount of thought into it.
So. Suikoden 2 is quite a good game, and I, for one, would call it a generally superior and more entertaining play than its predecessor. Don't pass it up just because some pro reviewers have bad things to say. They're paid to like the new shiny games, which Suikoden 2, good as it is, never really was.

The Ranking

Having more games than usual relatively fesh in my head, and having said so much comparing multiple RPGs and series, I figure now is as good a time as any to lay down for the record my highest reccommendations. I've played to some extent too many RPGs to numerically rank them all, or even simply to remember them all, and even if I could, simple issues of system capacity would tend to skew the outcome. Thus, rather than try to put a fixed order down, I will attempt to categorize games into one of 4 tiers as follows:
First Tier: These games are each an exemplary play on their own, but each also holds the distinction of representing the best of their respective styles and systems of first release. Highly reccommended and set apart for posterity.
Second Tier: These games are generally as good as First Tier games on their own, and may well define a style mimiced less successfully by other games, but nonetheless do not nearly represent the best examples of the genre. Highly reccommended.
Third Tier: These games are worthwhile plays. However, due to interface limitations, graphical flaws, plot conformity, or simply the progression of time and technology, they are not among the definitive greats. Reccommended, especially if you like similar/related games in higher tiers.
Fourth Tier: Everything else. This is by far the least complete list, and listed games are only for reference purposes, to help distinguish where I draw my lines. These are the games that are neather terribly innovative or interesting or particularly pleasing audially/visually. They're all playable, and good for handling a style-craving, but not ones to buy in lieu of other listed games, even at lower prices. Mediocre.
Fifth Tier: The unmentionables. Not really a class tier at all, just my word of warning. Do not invest in these games, even at steep discounts, except to complete a collection if truly necessary. More headache than play value.

And of course, as a disclaimer, these are all my views, different people have different tastes. Some games were tough to place, so if you drop me a note reminding me of the logical plusses and minuses (yes, both, no offense but I do want to weed out one-sided fanatics) and consequently which tier a game should be moved to, I'd be glad to reconsider.

Tier 1 Games

Alundra (PS1 - isometric, action/puzzle)
Beyond Oasis (Gen/MD - isometric, action)
Chrono Trigger (SNES - isometric, traditional, variable party, timed turn)
Final Fantasy Legend III* (GB - 2D top-down, traditional, basic turn)
Final Fantasy X (PS2 - full 3D, traditional, variable-party, ranked turn)
Grandia II (DC/PS2 - full 3D, traditional, fixed party, active-time)
Lunar: Silver Star Story** (SCD/PS1 - isometric/2D-on-prerendered, traditional, fixed-party, basic turn)
Star Ocean 2 (PS1 - 2D-on-3D/2D-on-prerendered, traditional, active-time)
Suikoden II (PS1 - isometric, traditional/strategic, variable-party, basic turn)
Tales of Phantasia (SNES/PS1/GBA - isometric, traditional, variable-party, real-time action)

* (best of style/platform, but generally far below others in tier)
**(on faith- I've played the PS version, and can see the concept being laudable for its orignal system

Tier 2 Games

Final Fantasy VI/III
Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy Tactics*
Legend of Dragoon**
Sieken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) 3
Zelda 3 (Awakening), 4 (Past), 6 (OoT)

* I honestly haven't played this sub-genre enough to declare a First Tier choice
** Tier 1 battle engine, Tier 3 plot execution

Tier 3 Games

Chrono Cross
Final Fantasy I, IV, V, VII, IX
Illusion of Gaia
Kingdom Hearts
Secret of Evermore
Secret of Mana
MegaMan X: Command Mission
Monster World IV
Ys 1-3 (TGCD/PCE and NES)
Zelda 1, 2 (Link), GB Oracles

Tier 4 Games

Alundra 2
Dragon Slayer: Legend of Heroes
Final Fantasy Adventure
Final Fantasy Legend I&II
Star Tropics
Wonder Boy

Tier 5 Games

Ephemoral Fantasia
The Hobbit (SNES)