Gameplay: Pretty snazzy at the time, good controls and simple to learn as well as fun. Unite Attacks added something that was found previously only in Chrono Trigger, but expanded on in a different way (Not so much technique based but character personality based) but it also had magic unite attacks, which could excel far beyond Chrono Trigger's Tripple Techs and combine I believe up to six spells. (you'd need six different characters with six compatible runes of course). The only crushing blow to this is needed a rune to run. That was a little asinine, as even Super Nintendo games like Chrono Trigger didn't need that. Glad it was changed. Also, you had 108 CHARACTERS to choose from, and SIX character slots for the main party. This gave the player the ability to finally use only characters they liked, and not really get stuck too often with people they didn't wanna use (It did still happen a bit but most characters in Suikoden I were pretty likable).
Another note, the introduction to a war system in which the characters you recruit aid you in battle and give you more members for your army was very intriguing, never been done before as far as I know outside of strategy rpgs, and even then not ever anything like this. While it was only glorified rock, paper, scizors, it was still incredibly fun and unique and could still offer a challenge if you ran out of spies or had none (or didn't know to use them
Another note (yes yes I know blech) was the introduction to runes. Magic had never been anything like this before, and until FFVII came out a year later, we'd never seen a game quite like this except maybe Final Fantasy VI, but even felt more limited than the magic in Suikoden. Runes worked very differently, and besides FFVI most games did not allow you to customize who used what magic/skills and such. While yes, FFVI offered that a bit, you couldn't go buy magicite throughout the game (and magic summons giving you powers was kinda over done by then) or even sell them if you wanted. Runes were also unique compared to the whole magic summon creature gives you powers.
The last thing I'd like to mention in the addition of one on one duels. These duels are unique, epic, and very fun! Though once you understand how they work, its glorified rock paper scizors and presents little challenge but still entertaining.
Graphics: For 1996, those graphics were INSANE! Totally blew away the SNES and Saturn and I think they were simply amazing for the time, some of the best 2d I'd ever seen.
Artwork: Most people would hang me for this, but I like the artwork for Suikoden I. It was unique, and not the typical anime look thats been in every other jrpg and Suikoden game. Though the cover art SUCKED. That was horrible, and probably scared people away!
Music: Critically acclaimed and touching in every moment. I could listen to the entire soundtrack over and over again and never get tired. One of the few game soundtracks I actually bought, I'll always treasure it. The music fit every scene, every town, every character...it did what it was supposed to do and still was worth listening to after the game was over. I've found after the composer for the first two games left, the music in Suikoden just isn't as good (and don't get me wrong, the new composer Michiru Yamane did Symphony of the Night, another great Konami title).
Story: The story was a fresh, unique feel to the rpg world. It was much different, and the world of Suikoden was much more fleshed out than the typical Final Fantasy where you can fly around the entire planet in five minutes. This world has different cultures, traditions...and this one story in the first game was just epic. It was something never done before, and taken from a Chinese legend that is heralded as a great story in itself. The one flaw I found was they really didn't let you get too attached to Odessa. I think Odessa died way too soon, or they should have made the Odessa quest (where you go to Sarady) longer so that you could really get attached to her before she dies. Gremio, Teo, and Ted were all great though. Each one was sadder than the last, and I couldn't help but shed a tear.
Character development: The character development was incredible, and even small minor characters like Clive or Gon had their own small amount of development and charm. The only one like I previously mentioned where this was lacking on, was Odessa. There should have been a bit more on her.
Difficulty: This is where Suikoden begins to fall. As far as rpgs go, Suikoden is an easy easy rpg, and is good for warming up to Final Fantasy (which is just a warm up for Dragon Quest
) but the difficulty in Suikoden doesn't offer much. Its relatively easy to defeat all the bosses, the random encounters are pretty easy without the Soul Eater so with it you're just mutilating the enemies, and the war battles while fun, offer no real challenge...send in the ninjas/thieves, use your enemy's weakness. Thats it really. One on one duels are just as easy once you understand the way it works, and all enemy attacks can pretty much be figured out. For the time, this wasn't a bad thing but the difficulty should have been harder. Random encounters should have been given less exp and potch and been tougher, bosses should have been less easy to totally destroy, war battles should have been less easy to predict and probably not rock paper scizors (glad this changed in II), and the one on one duels should have been much harder to predict. There should have at least been an option to make the difficulty harder before you start playing/after finishing the game.
Bottom Line: Suikoden I was a great game, I give it a 8 out of 10. Why not a ten? Because of the problem with Odessa and the whole running thing, plus the horrible cover art and the easy difficulty. It might have been nice if the game was a bit longer too. But that doesn't take away the fact that the game is epic, a must have for people who love PSX rpgs and/or Suikoden series.