On Shin Megami Tensei

Athena over at AmbiGaming had posed the question recently. What’s a game you love but never talk about? I recently started replaying it again, so it was a pretty easy answer for me. Shin Megami Tensei. I’ve talked about other games in the series, some of them at length, but I don’t really talk about the Super Famicom original all that much. That got me thinking. Well, everything gets me thinking because my brain is just so big from knowing so much stuff, but that got me thinking specifically about this game. Maybe it’s time to correct that whole not talking about this game thing. Let’s talk about Shin Megami Tensei.

You might know the Megami Tensei series. The majority of the releases for the past decade and a half have seen western soils. Outside of the Persona series, they’re not really hitting mainstream attention, but they still draw plenty of their own groups to them. They series as a whole is known for a lot of things. Mixing a lot of recognizable figures from religion, mythology, and folklore, and letting you fight/ally yourself with them. Being really hard. Having God as the big bad guy. Or, back in the old days, being a classic JRPG series that never had a hope of being marketed to America through NOA’s content policies.

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That last one is how I first came across the game. The Megami Tensei series is one of my favorite ones. It was Persona 4 that introduced me to a lot of it, showed me magic and convinced me to dive in deeper, but my introduction to the series actually came years earlier with this game. Back when I was a cub, I had a friend. I know, I know, stem your surprise. Anyways, friend’s older brother was big into import games. Had himself a modded SNES, which seemed super cool and elite until I grew up and learned that all that entailed was knocking out the little tabs in the cartridge holder so that the SFC cartridges fit in the American SNES. As I recall, he had himself a rather sizable collection of Japanese games as well. Friend and I had some good times alternatively watching him play and playing through a bunch of games, including this one, although outside of when he explained things to us, we really had no idea what was going on in game.

Fast forward a couple of years. My family had moved away. Our parents kept in touch, but he and I didn’t. After graduating college, I committed to spending a year as an Americorps volunteer in an economically blighted area in middle of nowhere America. Early on, my mother had sent me a care package. Well, apparently she’d been talking to her friends about it, because my old friend had sent her a couple things to include in there, including the old copy of Shin Megami Tensei. I ended up spending long, long hours with that game, trial and erroring my way through the Japanese text until I finally found a translation guide online and could play it fully. I spent a lot of time with that game. That proved to be a very transitional time in my life, wherein I lost a lot of the old and found a lot of the new, and a lot of my memories about all that have gotten tied up in my thoughts about Shin Megami Tensei.

Artistic works, whether visual arts, movies, books, games, whatever, often end up meaning something to us, moreso than the work itself. Shin Megami Tensei is one of those games to me.  It’s been a constant companion for me, a game I come back to every once in a while just to relive.  It was even the subject of the first LP I ever attempted, although a similar transitional time in my life interrupted that.  Maybe that’ll be one that finds new life here eventually.

As said before, Shin Megami Tensei is a JRPG released in 1992 on the Super Famicom. It’s the third game in its series, with two earlier having been released for the original Famicom, and proved to be a strong reboot of the series as a whole, to the point that all games afterwards that have born the series’ branding are titled Shin Megami Tensei, rather than being named after the original Megami Tensei games. There were a lot of JRPGs for the SNES, but even among them, the Megaten series stands out. For one thing, this series invented Pokemon. Well, not exactly, but it did originate that main gameplay hook. There are demons in this game. All sorts of obscure and recognizable figures from real world stories. They are your enemies. But also your friends. Many of the same beasties that harry your every step will join you and fight by your side if you can convince them to do so. You will have to use this to it’s fullest extent in SMT.

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The series also stands out for being very different in setting from your typical JRPG. Back then, they were almost entirely fantasy affairs. Megami Tensei games took place in a slightly postmodern era and/or the post-apocalypse. Guns are common, even in Japan, and computers and technology play important parts in the setting. No sword and board fantasy here. Ok, maybe a little, but it’s all wrapped up in the not to far off but hopefully distant future.

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And you wouldn’t know it to look at the modern games, but the series comes from a very different legacy than your typical JRPG as well. Most JRPGs can draw a lot of their lineage back to Dragon Quest. That game was foundational in the roleplaying output of that country. It didn’t touch Megami Tensei nearly as much as others. Rather, the Megaten series draws a lot more from classic western dungeon crawling RPGs such as Wizardry and Ultima. Which, yeah, those games inspired Dragon Quest too, and of course creators will pull inspiration from all sorts of seminal works so you’ll still see plenty crossing over, but the point is, if you were into classic computer games from before I was born, you’re going to find a lot familiar in old Megami Tensei games. The navigation system, the presentation, plenty of the combat structure, the gameplay often feels more like a JRPG inspired take on the western dungeon crawler than a pure Japanese Roleplaying Game.

But that’s the series as a whole. Let’s talk about Shin Megami Tensei in particular. The game opens shortly after Steven Hawking accidentally opens a portal into demonworld. Realizing this kind of screws the world, he builds and passes on a computer program that allows people to communicate with, contract, and summon demons to everyone he can so that the average person would be able to defend themselves. Surprisingly, giving great and deadly power to a whole bunch of average joes who probably couldn’t be trusted to do anything wholesome with it only makes the situation worse. So Thor nukes Tokyo, trying to contain it.

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It’s all much more dramatic than the deliberately comedic outline I had there, but that’s basically the opening act of the game. Luckily, you and your friends survive by hiding out in a Buddhist metaphysical realm for decades, and return to find a hellscape a world in which demons roam freely and two cults built around ideological extremes are struggling for control of both the remains Tokyo itself and the future development of human society as a whole.

The plot of the game is probably one of its most notable features. And one that I really missed out on before I started playing a translated version of the game. It’s not exactly War and Peace, because c’mon, early 90s video game, they just weren’t capable of bringing it to the level they are back then. But it’s still got not only a surprisingly deep plot for it’s time, but there’s a lot of moments in it that do stand up even now. It’s not a story dense game by any means. You get a few moments of plot here and there, but it’s one of the things that really builds up as you’re talking to people, resolving conflicts, and progressing your characters along. It has some really strong themes. Hard choices, slippery slopes, losing friends in the face of ideological extremism, the futility of seeing things in metrics of good vs. evil, some concepts that it really works in there in subtle ways. It’s not a very complex plot, when you boil things down. But it is a reasonably deep one.

A lot of the details about the story are pretty opaque, as well, given out in small moments, brief statements, coming through characters you have to make decisions about whether or not to trust. It’s not nearly so expansive or detailed, but its delivered in a similar method to that of Dark Souls, where it requires taking little story breadcrumbs and running with it. It leaves a lot up for interpretation as well. If you’re one that loves overthinking things as I do, there’s plenty here for you.

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This is one of the earliest examples of video games that I’m aware of that twist on their alignment system. Probably drawing some inspiration once again from Ultima on that, and more than a bit from Dungeons and Dragons, they’ve got a really interesting implementation of it here. It uses a variation of the classic D&D 2-axis morality system, but one of the central conceits of the game is that there’s no universal ‘good’ or ‘evil’, particularly when you’re working with a lot of divine, profane and otherworldly beings that all come from different and oftentimes alien moral backgrounds. So rather than the usual D&D alignments, you’re working with one axis of Law and Chaos, and another of Light and Dark. Light and Dark aren’t really well explained and are open to a lot of interpretation, but seem to relate to the very core nature of a being and seem to be set from the beginning of ones existence. Law and Chaos are really where things swing, and what a lot of the plot relies on.

There’s two levels of this morality. Law is, at it’s best, all about working towards the betterment of the collective society, valuing critical thought rather than immediate reactions, and just in general helping others. Chaos is, again at it’s best, about individual development, fulfillment of emotions, and finding one’s own way. Your Law/Chaos axis is going to shift depending on your actions. As with many RPGs, they give you a blank slate character, whom you get to name, never visibly talks, and you don’t even really get to see. You are absolutely intended to self insert yourself into here. They are going to be placing a bunch of binary choices in front of you, and are expecting you to be making personal choices based on how you would be handling things. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of nuance to the morality system that doesn’t translate well across cultures, this being very much a Japanese game for Japanese people, but the room is there to ponder things.

Of course, as time goes own, the Law and Chaos morality start getting taken over by extremists, where the cults and gods dedicated to both sides take over the presentation of their moralities towards their own ends. The Law side takes brutal steps in an attempt to skip straight to the end of Revelations and build a utopia that’s going to last for a thousand years, while Chaos is attempting to build a world where survival of the fittest is the day to day life and only those who can dominate others would thrive. Law and Chaos, at their base, individual levels, are not bad things, but the way the battle lines are drawn, they end up ruled by their extremes. And you will watch people fall to this. You will have friends, with whom you see the personality traits that lend themselves well to the good of each of these sides, become twisted. You will have comrades go from being willing to die for you to fighting you to the death in the name of extremism.

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Of course, there is a middle ground there, where you’re avoiding extremism and fighting for the benefit of all. That route may be the hardest one of all, however, and you would find few allies there.

Again, there are some problem in the moral system’s implementation, but I find a lot of food for thought there.

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Probably the strongest feature about the game comes from its atmosphere. It can be pretty dark, not just in content, but in overall feel. It’s hard to describe, but it’s one of those things, when they get the pieces together, they work very well, building more atmosphere than the some of its parts. The story events, the visuals (at least when they go all out with them), the reactions of the people around you, the music, it all contributes to a thoughtfully dark overall feel.

Gameplaywise, eh, the game hasn’t exactly aged perfectly. It’s a dungeon crawler, so by nature, navigation is difficult. It’s especially bad, because dungeon design. which has never been a strong point for the Megaten series, is incredibly convoluted here. You’re basically traversing mazes, through a difficult first person perspective. You’ve got some features to help with that, so it’s a lot easier to work with than many other classic games with similar designs, but the clumsy interface makes those a bit more a pain to access than they really should be.

The Megaten series as a whole is known for being challenging, and that holds up here. There’s both a good and a bad aspect to that difficulty. The good comes from the combat itself. It is demanding. Any given encounter can go south on you in a hurry, and even the random goons you face off against can be very threatening. However, it’s a system in which you’re always given the tools to meet those challenges, albeit in the old-school style wherein you’ve got to figure out what those options are through trial and error before the challenge comes up and strategies are general built on managing attrition over the long-term rather than the more standardized rpg styles where your characters have lots of options and you can work with things on the fly and the focus is on getting through individual battles rather than enduring a whole mess of them. Even then, if you halfway know what you’re doing, it’s ridiculously easy to completely cheese out even the hardest bosses in the game, locking them down to the point that they’re absolutely helpless while you wail on them relentlessly.

Unfortunately, the bad part of that difficulty comes from the games biggest detriments. Shin Megami Tensei has the most brutal random encounter rate of any game I’ve ever played. What do you think the worst possible random encounter rate would be? Go ahead, hold that picture in your mind. I bet Shin Megami Tensei is worse than that. Random encounters are not a good way of managing battles in RPGs. Probably the worst way of introducing them, I would say. And Shin Megami Tensei can, at its worst, string up to five random encounters in a row with every single step you take. While you’re navigating complex mazes. It gets overwhelming, and there is very rarely an area safe from random encounters. Dungeons, of course. Overworld, sure. But population centers, shopping areas, places where you’re hunting down healing, the only times it lets up are signs that there’s something even worse than demons wrong with that area. It makes it feel very, very weird when you’re fighting pitched battles right next to a whole group of people relaxing and having a good time and apparently not even noticing that there are deadly killer demons right in their proximity. Again, battles can go south very quickly, and are often decided on their very first turn. Usually, this serves to promote a certain style of play, but sometimes, it goes to far, and either the random encounters just won’t end up and will overwhelm you, or bad luck or a poor dialogue choice will lead to enemies getting a ruinous surprise round on you, and you can end up staring at the rather well-designed game over sequence just by virtue of the random number generator.

So yeah, it has a gameplay system that plays to a specific type of enjoyment, and requires a high degree of patience and experimentation and perseverance to get through fully.

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Further barriers to entry for this game come from the fact that it’s not oficially released in English. There’s an official release in English in the iPhone app store, but Atlus never updated that version for modern iOS, so it was only really available for a couple of years. Moreover, it’s a very Japanese game made very much for Japanese people in the unconnected time of the early 90s. As such, it can be a little xenophobic. The more drastic actions comes from groups styled after western cultures, western gods, demons, and philosophies are presented far less sympathetically than Asian ones, and God, although presented as a more complicated creature than the mustache-twirling tie-the-damsel-to-the-train-tracks villain the internet would have you believe, still seems to be based off of the worst possible out-of-historical-context interpretation of a few moments and sayings, and is pretty clearly intended for use as a character in the structure of their work rather than aiming for theological accuracy, as would be important for people of faith. That is a giant run on sentence. I’m not even going to change it. Altogether, I’m not even normally sensitive to things like this, but I still find myself bothered by aspects of it.

And, I’d be remiss in mentioning that the community that surrounds this series is a troubled one. This is a series that, as I said, leaves plenty up for interpretation. It will throw interest ideas out there, explore at most a couple of facets on them, and leave the rest up to your mind. The type of things that would be great to get a bunch of perspectives on and start exploring them. Yet every time I’ve attempted to do that, I’ve found myself driven off by the types of jerks that not only take everything at its surface level but aggressively insist that that’s the only possible interpretation of the material, and react strongly to any suggestion that maybe the series that is designed to not be so black and white isn’t so black and white. There are plenty of people out there who will talk about things, explore things a bit more, yet everytime I’ve come across them, they wind up intertwined with the sort of loud person who just doesn’t think about things. This is the same community that ended up bugging the fantranslator for most early games in the series to the point that he shelved a nearly complete project on a major early release and seems to have never come back to it again. So yeah. There is a lot of info on the series out there, you just have to be careful to stay away from the places where discussion is going on if you want to keep your good graces about you.

But anyways, that’s Shin Megami Tensei. It’s a very important game in my life. Playing it is like dipping into liquid nostalgia. It speaks to me, of friends and lives lost, of transformation, of finding the new. And in part of all that I’ve got wrapped up in this game, as well as the great games it gives rise to, it’s a game I greatly enjoy. Yet I’ve never really talked about it. Until now. That’s corrected. And now you know a little more about me, and about Shin Megami Tensei.

8 responses to “On Shin Megami Tensei

  1. Rest in peace Stephen Hawking. Your scientific work was impressive so I will forgive you for opening a portal to the demon world.

    • Later games make it even weirder. In the SMT verse, the character based off of him gets some odd type of immortality and keeps hopping across universes. So who’s to say the real world Hawking isn’t doing the same thing?

  2. I absolutely love this write-up and you make a lot of awesome points. SMT is definitely an interesting plot that needs a lot of patience and hardship to experience. If it weren’t for the original Persona, I don’t know that I would have ever really discovered Shim Megami Tensei but the elements you described- the postmodern setting and mythological roots and leanings- are now such huge draws to me, it’s hard to believe it took so long for me to really dig into the series.

    It’s a shame to hear about the community, and I wish I were surprised. The translators definitely put a lot of work into the original SMT. I agree that a lot of the earlier games need some open interpretations to be enjoyed thoroughly. Out of curiosity, was the project that they ‘put on hold’ Shin Megami Tensei if…? I remember hearing a lot about that being translated and then it fell off of the radar.

    Glad you decided to write about this and share!

    • Hey thanks, I really appreciate it!

      Yeah, that was SMT If… I don’t know the whole story behind it, but the same guy that did the fan translations for the first two Shin Megami Tenseis was working on that one as well, and apparently got basically complete alpha build together, but was bugged so much about it that in response he’s had the project on hiatus for about as long as I’ve known about it. Given how much vitriol I see online for the guy, who has been working on the projects for free out of his own time on games most can’t get above board, I don’t see a cause for that much entitlement and it’s no wonder to me if he can’t stand to look at the project anymore.

      There is a translation guide online, which is probably the best one will get for a while. I played my hard copy of SMT in a very similar manner, and although it’s a pain in the butt, given how much the conversations with demons are a part of the game, it’s at least possible to get through that way. So there’s that, at least.

      • I’ve been dying to try SMTi so I may just hunt that down. It really is strange how sharp people get when folks are taking their free time to bring these projects to the masses and the first two projects were solid.

        Thanks for the tip!

  3. Pingback: April 2018 in Summary | Extra Life

  4. I’ve recently started playing these games with Persona 3 and 4 being my intro to the mechanics and Strange Journey being a proper intro . Are you looking forward to the Switch port ?

    • Shin Megami Tensei V? I’m a little cautious about it. It seems they’ve been letting a new creative team take over the series, and I didn’t really like the direction they took with SMT IV: Apocalypse. Still, though, I’m definitely going to pick up the game at some point, give it an honest shot. I still quite enjoy the series.

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