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.)

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 12 (Pixie)

We started this series with one of the most common demons of Megami Tensei, and we’re ending the series with another. Even if she isn’t the unofficial company mascot like Jack Frost is, Pixie is in some ways even more iconic. In Nocturne and Strange Journey, Pixie is the very first demon ally you receive to get you started off before you get the hang of negotiation, and I can’t think of a single Megaten game that she’s not in.

Pixie is a British demon from the southwestern regions of Devon and Cornwall, derived from the legendary pixies, small fairies that live in the forests and glens and play tricks on humans. Like their fairy colleagues such as Jack Frost, while the pixies are capable of causing harm, they’re not malicious by nature and have even been said to occasionally help humans who get lost in the woods. While you probably wouldn’t want to get lost and wander into the pixies’ residence, therefore, you’d at least have some chance of getting out safely.

I also like this cyberpunk-style Pixie from Soul Hackers

The Megaten version of Pixie is similar to the traditional pixie in character and type. While she’s always a very low-level demon, she’s also typically important to the player as an initial team healer. Pixie also usually evolves into the more powerful High Pixie, and sometimes from High Pixie into the much more powerful high-level Queen Mab, an alternate version of Titania.

No look at Pixie is complete without exploring her role in Nocturne. While she’s not strictly part of the game’s plot, she can play a major part in the final team composition against the True Demon Ending boss. If the player keeps the Pixie that joins up with Demifiend near the very beginning of the game all the way until reaching the fifth kalpa of the optional Amala Labyrinth dungeon, she’ll evolve into a mega-Pixie, bulking up to level 80 with five excellent skills and three empty slots to fill with whatever other useful skills the player desires (protip: one of these should be Pierce.) The resulting mega-Pixie will look exactly the same as she did the day you met her, but she can now give just about any enemy you meet a black eye.

It’s vital to remember that this transformation will only occur with that original Pixie — I believe she can used in a fusion and the product of said fusion can be kept in the party instead, but if she’s let go or sacrificed and the player recruits a new Pixie to replace her, that Pixie won’t transform. Which implies that your original Pixie was only able to transform because she traveled with Demifiend all this way. Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that just like with Raidou and Moh Shuvuu, there’s a lot of fanart putting Demifiend and Pixie together in a sort of implied relationship. Not sure how that would work physically. I’m sure if you use the right tags on pixiv you can find out.

And here’s Pixie in the forgotten, not highly regarded Devil Survivor 2 anime adaptation. See, I connected this series to anime in the end, so it fits right in with the rest of the “12 days of anime” series running this month.

On that extremely perverted note, thanks for reading this whole damn series and happy Christmas. I’m taking a break for the rest of the year. See you in 2020, assuming a demon apocalypse doesn’t occur before then.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 11 (Trumpeter)

2020 is coming.   I’ve never seen an upcoming year that people seemed so nervous and uncertain about.  To be fair, I grew up in the 90s, which was an incredibly optimistic time by comparison, at least where I lived.  But now?  No, no matter who you talk to, no matter their political affiliation — the world is ending, our culture and values are being destroyed, and future AI will destroy human society (but that last one only if you ask Andrew Yang supporters.)

So who better to ring in the upcoming, terrifying new year and decade both but Trumpeter, an infamous Megaten demon and one of the angels of the apocalypse mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament?  According to Revelation, at the end of the world, seven angels will blow seven trumpets, each causing a different plague or disaster.  So Trumpeter isn’t an individual angelic character like Abaddon or Gabriel but is rather a type or class of angel.  Or maybe the Trumpeters are just regular angels who get assigned trumpeting duty at the end of the world, like how you might be given extra tasks at work.  I wonder if they get special overtime pay for that, perhaps from the heavenly version of Melchom.

Trumpeter is also in this Christmas series representing Megami Tensei’s Fiend race of demons.  The Fiends typically have skulls for faces and include other apocalyptic Biblical figures like the Four Horsemen as well as original characters like Matador and Hell Rider.  They usually act as optional bosses in the SMT games, though a few of their fights are mandatory, such as Trumpeter’s in Nocturne.  Trumpeter is usually a high-level demon with excellent resistances and skills, making him a pain in the ass to fight but a real asset to have on your team if you can defeat him.  The Nocturne battle is so fucked, in fact, that I’ll just do something I haven’t all this series and post a link to a longplay clip of it.  I know it’s only in 480p, but this is from ten years ago when streaming HD videos didn’t exist yet.  And I feel the need to pay respect to MasterLL, the guy who recorded this and a lot of other Youtube SMT content early on.

If you don’t want to sit through that whole fight, basically Trumpeter has special attacks he uses at regular intervals, one healing the character with the lowest HP (including Trumpeter himself) and the other killing the character with the lowest HP (not including Trumpeter, because he’s not an idiot.)  This fight provides another example of how Nocturne and SMT games generally don’t let you get away with brute-forcing your way through — you actually have to strategize.  Powerleveling won’t help you here, not unless you really go nuts, and then you’ll just be wasting your time.

A summary of the Nocturne Trumpter fight

Despite all that bullshit, it’s usually worth taking on Trumpeter even if he’s an optional boss as he is in Strange Journey and Shin Megami Tensei IV.  The same is true of several of the other Fiends in SMT.  Daisoujou, for example, can utterly break the MP system in Nocturne if you manage to beat him and get the right skills on him.  See, these games aren’t nearly as cheap as some people claim: they give you ways to screw the system; you just have to figure them out.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 9 (Mothman)

The great majority of the demons in Megami Tensei are European or Asian in origin, but today we’re covering Mothman, one of the few demons from the Americas.  The myth of the Mothman originated in my own country, in fact.  He’s a classic American mythical beast right alongside Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and those strange animals that dig through all our trash bags at night.

Back in 1966, the police department of Point Pleasant, West Virginia started receiving reports of sightings of a large gray creature with giant wings and red eyes.  The local newspaper reported the sightings, presumably because nothing else was going on in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and somehow the story got national press.  The whole thing culminated in the collapse of a bridge in the area a year later that many believed was connected to the mysterious creature.  Local authorities and wildlife experts maintained that the “Mothman” was a large crane of a species not native to the region that had gotten lost.  But that explanation was too reasonable, so many people to this day believe that the Mothman existed and that he perhaps exists to this day.

A sculpture of Mothman in Point Pleasant. I like Kaneko’s design better. (source: Jason W., CC BY 2.0)

You might be getting from my tone here that I’m not one of those people.  I’m not a fan of any of our cryptids over here, in fact.  They’re just boring to me.  If you’re going to believe in something that almost certainly doesn’t exist, why not magical catgirls or bird girls who suck men’s brains out of their skulls?  Why just sort of strange-looking animals like Mothman or Bigfoot?  Boring, just god damn boring.  We can do better than this, can’t we?

However, my insults don’t extend to the Megaten version of Mothman, a low to mid-level demon who shows up as a common enemy in many games.  Some use it as fusion fodder, but if you really want to have one in your party it can make for a good ally given the right setup.  The most interesting aspect of Mothman, though, is its design: the descriptions of the “real” Mothman are of a terrifying bird-like man thing, but the Mothman of SMT just looks like an animal with a somewhat cute appearance.  This design might be the reason for Mothman’s popularity among Megami Tensei fans, who have put Mothman in a bunch of memes.  No, I don’t really get it.  But at least this means that Mothman gets to live on as a character in a successful video game series, instead of being stuck with one lousy Richard Gere movie.  So good for him.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 8 (Moh Shuvuu)

There are plenty of bird demons in Megami Tensei, and a fair subset of bird girls, but the best bird girl without a doubt is Moh Shuvuu.  According to the in-game encyclopedias, Moh Shuvuu is the spirit of a dead maiden from Buryat lore out in Siberia who lures men out into the wilderness, kills them, and eats their brains.  Which is quite a bit scarier in my opinion than 99% of the horror I’ve seen or read in my life.  Not sure why she’s so upset or bloodthirsty, but my impression is that Moh Shuvuu is more a general type of demon than one specific entity, so maybe they have varying reasons for doing what they do.

Moh Shuvuu is a common recruitable enemy in many Megaten games, usually appearing around the early-mid game.  However, she does figure more prominently in a couple of Megaten works, and fanart very often pairs her up in a weird kind of humanXdemon semi-relationship with Raidou Kuzunoha, the 1930s-era demon summoner with his own Megaten spinoff series.  All because of one scene in which a Moh Shuvuu begs Raidou to recruit her.  The fans can really take something and run with it, can’t they?

Raidou and Moh Shuvuu (source: tukemen, pixiv)

Her best role, however, is in Strange Journey as a key character in my favorite series of sidequests in that game.  Anthony, one of your crewmates, is a fucking idiot who keeps falling hopelessly in love with attractive female demons in the incredibly dangerous demon-filled Schwarzwelt that’s enveloped Antarctica and threatens to swallow the world.  Since the protagonist is canonically really good at talking to and recruiting the demons in that game, he asks you to play go-between with the objects of his desire, but when you talk to them they all mercilessly insult him and say they’re not interested (in fact, a couple of them try to come on to the protagonist, which I can’t help but read as a little confidence-boosting treat for the player.)

Then we come to Moh Shuvuu.  Anthony describes her to you and admits that she’s kind of young-looking, but that demons are like hundreds of years old, so it’s no big deal, right?  When you find a Moh Shuvuu to deliver Anthony’s message, however, she laughs at him, calls him a “failure of a human” for being into a kid like her, and says she wouldn’t even eat his brains for fear of turning stupid.  Now that’s rough.  And Anthony really doesn’t take it well when you deliver her response back, making you swear to never speak of it.  Poor guy.

Moh Shuvuu is never not laughing at you.

But anyway, why would you want to date a girl who’s known for cracking open men’s skulls and consuming their brains?  Raidou could probably handle her, being a powerful demon summoner, but that stuff isn’t even canon, and even if it were you’re no Raidou.  So I don’t care how cute you think she is, Anthony.  It’s just not worth it.  Maybe try getting a human girlfriend after you’ve helped save the world, okay?

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 7 (Gabriel)

We’re getting closer to Christmas, so let’s go traditional for once and talk about an angel. None of this destroying angel of the pit stuff, either: a proper angel this time, the kind most people would think of when the word “angel” comes up. Gabriel is one of the most important angels, in fact — in the angelic hierarchy of Megaten he/she is one of the four Archangels enforcing the will of YHVH, working alongside Uriel and Raphael and under their captain Michael.

Notice I said “she” up there? Yes, Kaneko usually depicts Gabriel as female. In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at least as far as I know, Gabriel is depicted as either male or just kind of androgynous in the sense that angels don’t have genders as we understand them, so this is a bit unusual. This isn’t just some minor side character, either.  The traditional depiction of Gabriel is as the messenger of God, appearing to the prophet Daniel to explain his visions, to Mary to announce the coming birth of her son Jesus, and to Muhammad to reveal the verses of the Quran.* Gabriel is a big deal in the Abrahamic traditions, especially in the latter two.  Good thing Megaten barely had any presence in the US back in the bad old Satanic Panic days of the late 80s/90s.  Come to think of it, there are a lot more reasons why this series would have been burned at the stake back then than a gender-flipped Gabriel.

Setting aside that gender-flip, Megaten’s Gabriel usually acts in concert with her colleagues Uriel and Raphael. While Uriel and Raphael carry swords and tend to be pretty haughty and belligerent (especially Raphael, the jerk) Gabriel carries both a sword and a flower and acts as the healer of the group. She also speaks in a softer and more understanding way towards humans, though she’ll still faithfully follow the commands of YHVH, even if they involve destroying the human race again.

Gabriel as depicted in SMT4.

As you’d expect in accordance with her status as an archangel, Gabriel is usually a high-level demon with excellent skills and resistances and is sometimes required to use in a special triple fusion to create Michael, who’s always worth fusing. Gabriel also plays an important role in the plot of Shin Megami Tensei IV.  It’s worth noting her design in that game came from artist Masayuki Doi, who obviously has a very different style from Kazuma Kaneko’s, one that put a lot of people off when SMT4 was released.  I thought some of his designs were really interesting, though I hated how he made Medusa and Lucifer look.  The Archangels don’t look so bad by contrast; they just look bizarre.  Which lines up pretty well with how the Megaten series treats the angels of God — almost as superpowerful aliens who are hostile to humanity.  Not exactly an orthodox stance, but the Atlus guys over in Japan probably have a different view of these matters than a lot of westerners would.  Anyway, if you were looking for orthodoxy, you wouldn’t be here reading about Megami Tensei demons, would you?

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* As we went over a few days ago, Muhammad is the guy who smashed up Alilat in real life, so there may be a beef between her and Gabriel still to be explored in the Megami Tensei series.  I’d like to see how that would play out.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 6 (Nekomata)

Yeah, it’s Nekomata.  Of course.  You probably could have guessed that I reserved a spot on my list for Megaten’s main catgirl.  Though both her new design (pictured left, from Nocturne) and her old design are a little too much on the “cat” side of catgirl for my taste.  I don’t know, maybe if you’re into monster girls.  They’re still pretty popular, aren’t they?

Either way, Nekomata is an interesting demon.  She’s derived from old folk legends that claim cats who live long enough can take human form and learn human speech and customs.  Nekomata are also said to have forked tails, something the current version of SMT Nekomata doesn’t have for whatever reason. If these legends sound familiar, there are some about foxes growing more than one tail and taking human form as well.  It’s said that the sadistic queen of the wicked King Zhou, last ruler of the Shang dynasty in China, was an evil fox in human disguise.  Though some of these beings are quite nice as well, as anyone who watched the recently aired, extremely depressing anime series The Helpful Fox Senko-san will know.

Retro-style 90s Nekomata returned in the Devil Survivor series.

The Megaten version of Nekomata isn’t really good or evil, however; she just seems to be out for herself.  In fact, she never really plays a big plot role in the series as far as I know aside from that infamous “Do something naughty with Nekomata?” mini-boss fight in Nocturne.  She’s usually a low-to-mid-level demon, but one who’s worth recruiting for her high agility (she’s a cat, after all) and the strong wind skills she typically has.  Just a good team member for the early-mid game.  And if you keep her around long enough in Nocturne to level five or six times or so, Nekomata has the opportunity to evolve into a higher-level cat lady demon named Senri, whose design I don’t like nearly as much.  A big downgrade in the looks department, but Senri is a better demon in terms of her stats and skills, so you’ll just have to decide for yourself if it’s worth taking the time out to level Nekomata.  On the plus side, in Shin Megami Tensei IV, Senri evolves into Nekomata instead.

I also have to give a lot of credit to Kaneko for solving the “two sets of ears” problem that designers have to deal with when it comes to animal-eared girls.  Just move those cat ears down to where the human ears would normally be.  It looks a little weird, but it’s a better solution than always covering that area with her hair so you never see the place where those ears should be, which is the normal bullshit workaround.  Nekopara had fantastic character designs otherwise but it was guilty of doing just this.  As is almost every other game or show featuring those kemonomimi girls I’m into.  Don’t think we don’t notice what you’re doing.  Come on.

Okay, sure, why not.  I could leave the cat puns though.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 4 (Abaddon)

I mentioned in my introductory post that the demons of the Megami Tensei series include a lot of angels. Most of these are the traditional angels of the Abrahamic faiths, complete with the wings and all that — the Archangels Michael, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel, and the lot of unnamed lower-level angels (including the infamous Angel, who often shows up in SMT and Persona games in skimpy bondage gear; you can thank Kazuma Kaneko again for that design, God bless him.) But Abaddon is very different from the rest.

In the Old Testament, the term Abaddon seems to refer more to a place than a person, a place of either suffering or utter destruction where some dead people’s souls went. By the New Testament, however, Abaddon becomes an entity called the destroyer and angel of the abyss. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether Abaddon is a servant of God, performing his work in punishing sinners who fall into his pit, or whether he’s a demon or even synonymous with the Devil himself. Either way, you would never want to meet him, so maybe it doesn’t matter too much, at least as far as we mortals are concerned.

Is this more or less scary than the guy above?

The Abaddon of Megaten is depicted in two equally monstrous forms: first as a giant buried mostly underground, with only the top of his head sticking out except when he lunges to attack the player, and second as a massive blob with a gaping mouth. Abaddon is always a mid-high to high-level demon and often has great physical resistance, making him a formidable enemy and a valuable ally, though it’s worth noting that Abaddon is usually a member of the Tyrant race and is therefore usually impossible to recruit using normal methods.

I’m still not sure how he gets around in his “underground giant” form when the top of his head is sticking out of the floor. I guess as an angel he’s immaterial and can move through objects? Must make life easier when you’re that big.  Also, be sure to note the tiny angel wings on top of his head. I assume these are there to remind us that Abaddon is in fact an angel, but they also look pretty damn funny on him.

A shorter one today, but I’m back to work.  No long Christmas breaks for the working man, especially the one who doesn’t get vacation days because he’s a damn contractor.  Tomorrow we’ll hopefully take on a less grim demon.

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 3 (Alilat)

Now this is an interesting demon.  At least it is for me.  You might be looking at the design and thinking “it’s just an obelisk, what makes it so damn interesting?”  Alilat, also known as Al-Lat, was one of the divinities worshiped in the Kaaba, the great temple of Mecca, until the 7th century AD.  Al-Lat was a fertility goddess with ancient origins; historians believe she is essentially the same goddess as other Mediterranean and near Eastern divinities such as Asherah, Astarte, and Ishtar.

What happened to Al-Lat, then?  The same thing that happened to all the old pagan gods of the Middle East and Europe: one of the children of Abraham came along to destroy it.  When Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, won his war against his home city-state of Mecca following his expulsion to Medina, he ordered that the idols and shrines of Al-Lat be broken along with those of the other gods and reconsecrated the Kaaba to the one true God.  This is a story I heard more than a few times as a kid growing up in the faith.  Naturally, this destruction and consecration is portrayed as a good thing, since it meant that God’s truth was able to be spread across the region and take root alongside/partly displace its sister Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Judaism.

At the time, though, I have to wonder how most people felt about it.  The day Muhammad came back home with his army, I guess plenty of Meccans just did their best to go about their business and readjust to the new order.  That’s certainly what I would have done, no matter how I might have felt before.  I guess I’m not very principled.

She’s an old-timey goddess so she has to use old pronouns like “thy”, that’s the rule.

Alilat in the canon of Megami Tensei is a powerful demon of the Entity race, consisting of ancient gods who long ago lost their followings among humans. She only seems to play much of a story role in Strange Journey, in which she opposes the reformation of the Demiurge (the creative force of God, though not the all-powerful God himself.)  Makes sense considering the fate of her worship back in the 7th century that she would stand against any aspect of the monotheistic God. One interesting design fact to note is that Alilat’s obelisk seems to be carved from part of the black meteorite that comprises the core of the real-life Kaaba and that pilgrims touch as a part of the Hajj.

Al-Lat in her most recent form. Considering how popular Ishtar-Rin is, she probably qualifies as a church for tax purposes at this point.

I also like how Alilat takes the form of the idol itself rather than the goddess it represents — it makes a lot of sense in the historical context, in which her worship ended with her being quite literally smashed to pieces. Well, it sucks to be a fallen deity, doesn’t it?  At least Alilat/Al-Lat can take solace in the fact that she lives on in popular culture in her Ishtar/Rin Tohsaka form from Fate/Grand Order, which is definitely the closest she’s been to having worshipers since the old polytheistic days.  Though this raises a theological question: is it better for a goddess to just die out or to live on as a waifu to a bunch of weird nerds?*  There’s a thesis someone needs to write.

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* Don’t take any offense — I’m one of those weird nerds too after all.  If I tried to deny it no one would believe me anyway.

 

Twelve days of Megaten Christmas: Day 2 (Ame-no-Uzume)

Since Megami Tensei is a Japanese game series, it doesn’t seem right not to cover any Japanese entities.  So of course I’m going with Ame-no-Uzume, a goddess of “mirth and revelry” best known for her stripper act. Ame-no-Uzume is the wife of the god Sarutahiko (also a demon in the Megaten series) in the Shinto tradition, responsible for bringing light back into the world after the sun goddess Amaterasu (also featured in Megaten, as are most of these deities) got pissy and decided to hide in a cave.  Amaterasu had a pretty good reason — her brother Susano-o, the storm god, was drenching and destroying crop fields and throwing shit around in the way you’d expect a storm god to do.

Even so, the world needed the sun to keep going.  Nobody could get Amaterasu to leave her cave, so without warning Uzume decided to start a strip show for all the other assembled gods.  They all found this so funny that they roared with laughter, and Amaterasu poked her head out of the cave to see what the hell was so hilarious the way anyone would. After seeing her bright reflection in a bronze mirror Uzume had purposely hung up in front of the cave’s mouth, Amaterasu wandered out, and another god quickly rolled a rock up behind her blocking the cave’s entrance.  In this way, the rest of the gods managed to convince Amaterasu to calm down and go back to her duties of being the sun, all thanks to the ingenuity of Ame-no-Uzume.

A traditional depiction of Uzume at Amanoiwato Shrine, where the whole thing happened

This was such an important achievement that the place where this is supposed to have happened in Japan is marked with a shrine dedicated to Uzume way down in a town called Takachiho in Kyushu.  Quite a long trip from Tokyo if you’re ever there visiting,  but if you want to pay your respects to the heavenly party goddess in the most serious way possible, you know where to do it.

In the Megaten universe, Uzume is usually a pretty low-level demon despite her status as a divinity; she’s typically one of the first in the Megami or goddess race of demons.  She tends to be very useful, though — Uzume is practically a must-have in Nocturne to beat Matador due to her resistance to wind skills, and she’s generally a good ally to have in the early game if she’s available.  I do like how her design reflects her position as the divine stripper — leave it to Kazuma Kaneko to put the emphasis on that, though to be fair to him, that seems to be by far the most famous story about Uzume.

Okay, so maybe this entry wasn’t as family-friendly as the last one.  Maybe tomorrow will be more G-rated.