Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (女神転生, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character 真 has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: NocturneSMT IVSMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcoming SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG Devil Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4Devil Survivor 1 and 2, and the Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a , but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that 真, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I and II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work for MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles, the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game: Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention, Persona 1 and the 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. 𒀭

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

Best and worst Megami Tensei covers

It is no secret that I like the Megaten series.  I’ve reviewed several titles in the series in these pages, and I have played more still.  One aspect of the series I haven’t said much about, though, is the visual design.  Kazuma Kaneko is responsible for most of the look of the mainline SMT games and many of its spinoffs.  Most of the demon designs he came up with 25 years ago are still used in the series to this day, and they all look great.  A lot of the covers look great too.  But some of them aren’t so great!  Some of them are kind of shitty.  Usually the western covers.  Yeah yeah, I’m a weeb, I know.  Fuck off.

Shin Megami Tensei III is one of my favorite games.  The Japanese cover is nice too: silent player character Demi-fiend’s face superimposed in blue.  Very cool and stylish.

The North American cover moves the title to the top, blows up the Nocturne subtitle, and removes the III (we didn’t get SMT I or II, so this choice makes sense.)  It also changes the primary color from blue to red and stamps a pentgram on the front.  Because this game is hardcore and about demons, and it has to be red and have devil symbols.

The European cover beats all the others though.  Totally different, with a picture of Demi-fiend about to fire a Freikugel out of his forehead.  But forget him – check out Dante in the background!!!  Yes, Dante from the Devil May Cry series is here, with his cool dual wielded pistols and cool dialogue.  Dante is in the game for about 0.06 percent of the story and really has nothing to do with the story even, having been shoehorned into the Maniacs edition of the game that was released as Nocturne/Lucifer’s Call in the West.  In case you were wondering, this European SMT III cover is the source of that “featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series” meme.

Let’s not mention the fact that the subtitle Lucifer’s Call is a massive honking spoiler in itself.

If you live in the US, chances are good your first SMT was a Persona game.  However, it was probably not Persona, released on the PSX in Japan and later NA (and EU?)  SMT was almost unknown in the West at the time.  So the nice subtle JP cover above, featuring the faces of the silent protagonist and his shadow self, would not work for Western audiences, right?

In a wonderful example of the angry Kirby effect, the NA cover of Persona features a huge scary evil-looking demon.  With a cross on the front for seemingly no reason.  We have to make this weird anime high school demon-summoning game appeal to the kids after all.  And the kids like Marilyn Manson and that kind of shit.  Too bad it didn’t quite work, because Megaten didn’t really start to break out in the West until Persona 3 in 2006.

The NA cover of Persona is a good hint to how the localizers treated the game as a whole: they mangled the fuck out of it.  They did their best to westernize the game down to badly recoloring the characters and changing their names.  They even removed an entire sidequest out of fear that it would be too hard for American babby gamers.  Thankfully, the unmangled original was later ported to the West on the PSP.

My favorite Megaten covers are the PSX ports of the old Super Famicom games that we never got in America.  Shin Megami Tensei I throws several demons (incubuses?  Incubi?) on its cover surrounding the old SMT logo, a magic circle with Loki in the middle (a reference to the original 1980s Megami Tensei novels the series is based on.)  The demons look like the kinds of statues of angels and saints you might see if you visit an old cathedral.  Only it would have to be a satanic cathedral in this case.  Do those exist outside of SMT games?

Of course, I’m a much bigger fan of the Shin Megami Tensei II cover.  Kaneko’s Angel design scandalized some folks when the Persona series broke out in the West with 3 and 4 and even more with 5.  Yes, the angel in SMT is meant to look like that.  That is bondage gear and she is blindfolded and handcuffed through a padlock attached to her tiny leather shorts.  Why?  The games’ compendium descriptions for Angel try to explain that they were punished by Heaven for some reason and that they are bound because of it or something.  I don’t buy this explanation.  I think Kaneko just wanted to draw a sexy bondage angel.  I suppose I can’t blame him.  Anyway, Angel is nothing compared to the controversy ginned up by Mermaid’s design in SMT IV Apocalypse.

This is my favorite SMT cover. And I don’t even know what it means. Shin Megami Tensei if… was a spinoff made for the Super Famicom and remade for the Playstation. It never saw a release outside of Japan, and unlike SMT I and II, it doesn’t even have an English fan translation.  I do know that it’s the first SMT game to take place in a high school setting, and thus it’s the direct inspiration for the Persona series.  Its title is also a reference to the weird 60s British film if…. starring Malcolm McDowell as a rebellious boarding school student (for you Clockwork Orange fans, it’s worth checking out.)  In any case, the cover is cool – a massive demon (looks like Principality, with his spiky crown) looking down on a prostrated student, as though sitting in judgment of him.  The spotlight shining on the student adds to the effect.  Really interesting cover.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse to be released 9/20

smt-iv-apocalypse-1-2

Just a quick one today, to alert my multitudes of readers to the fact that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is being released in three days.  This spinoff of SMT4 is getting excellent reviews all over the place.  I’m reading as little as I can about the story of Apocalypse in order to go in fresh, but the general consensus about the game’s quality seems to be that it’s not merely a spinoff, but a full game in itself, and that it corrects some of the shortcomings that the good but somewhat flawed SMT4 suffered from (see here for more on my opinions regarding the original.)  So needless to say, I’m excited as fuck about this development and have preordered a copy.  I encourage any and all fans of the Megaten series or of stupidly difficult JRPGs in general to do so if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, I’ll be playing Hyper Light Drifter, a 3D isometric action game released earlier this year that looks and sounds amazing so far.  Between these two games, I should be able to distract myself from my crushing depression when I’m not busy with work to think about it.  That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?