Just listened to the confessional episode, great stuff. Always fun to see what other people have missed that others consider essential.
Re: Suikoden II
Not absolutely necessary that you play the first one, it helps but despite loving the series I always felt Suiko I felt like an archaic game. The major Suiko fan in me says play it, but the pragmatist in me says skip it, unless you are a completionist. The stories are mostly focused on the region of the world they take place in (think Trails in the Sky/Trails of Cold Steel) and are self contained aside from character back story or major events - of which there is a lot cross over in 1-3.
I played the games out of order back in the day 2/3/1 and never really felt I missed too much.
There are 3 different combat systems, your everyday RPG turnbased combat, one vs one fights between characters which use a rock/paper/scissors type system, and the field tactical battles which is sort of like Fire Emblem as you guys mentioned.
A lot of people hate Suikoden 4 (I mean a lot) due to it's plodding nature and sparse environments but I felt the story was compelling enough. 5 is an attempt to re-capture the glory of 2.