The Shin Megami Tensei series got its start back in 1987 with a Japanese RPG called Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, which could be translated as “Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation.” Based on a series of novels by Aya Nishitani, the game was first published by NAMCO for the MSX computer and later that year on Nintendo’s Famicom. A sequel followed and then Atlus took over publishing the series.
Subsequent games added the word Shin to the title, which is read in Japanese as “true/genuine” but is also homonymous with “new.” In the years since, Atlus has made Shin Megami Tensei a cornerstone of their business, releasing a bewildering assortment of remakes, sequels, side stories, and spin-offs. However, prior to Persona 3 only a handful of these games received English language releases.
America got its first taste of the Shin Megami Tensei series in 1996 when Atlus brought Persona over. It was one of the PlayStation’s early RPGs and the game was unusual for its contemporary, urban setting that was far removed from the fantasy worlds that most other RPGs inhabited. Its “dungeons” were shopping malls and schools that were explored from a first person perspective and Persona’s “world map” was a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood, complete with crosswalks and subways.
In other respects, Persona stuck close to well-established RPG conventions. It had a party of intrepid adventurers, magic, swords, monsters, and a lot of turn-based combat. Fighting was enlivened by the ability to parley with enemies in order to wheedle items from them or avoid combat altogether and characters had the ability to transform into powerful “Persona” entities. Despite its unique presentation, Persona was a slow and somewhat tedious game that involved a great deal of stat management. Persona was also marginalized by a sloppy translation and awkward changes to its content made by Atlus in an effort to make the game more appealing to a Western audience.
Four years later Atlus gave America a much more successful (at least artistically) sequel to Persona called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. Although the translation remained dodgy and its graphics were well behind the curve for a game arriving at the end of the PlayStation’s life span, Person 2: Eternal Punishment was a complex and mysterious RPG, filled with interesting characters and a distinctly grown-up story.
Eternal Punishment was actually the second part of a two game series, the first being Persona 2: Innocent Sin, a game that was never released outside of Japan. However, it stood well on its own and was packed with enough content to keep players busy for many, many hours. Once again set in a modern, slightly sci-fi, urban environment, Person 2 took a darker path, with serial killers, demons, and a satanic mega-corporation lurking behind an urban veneer of steel and glass, air-conditioned normality. Persona 2 was also noteworthy for featuring as its main characters adults with jobs and responsibilities. Perhaps the long-running success of the Shin Megami Tensei series can be attributed to a willingness to grow along with its audience.
Longtime Shin Megami Tensei producer Cozy Okada left Atlus in 2003 to form a new studio called GAIA (which went on to create two PSP games before closing up shop in 2010). However, before leaving he oversaw the development of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the PlayStation 2.
At first glance Nocturne was a little underwhelming. The cell-shaded 3D graphics were well crafted but subtle. The story seemed vague with few characters to interact with. The combat was frequent and punishing. After spending a couple of hours wandering through Nocturne’s lonely hallways many asked themselves “Is this all there is?”
Well, yes and no. Nocturne was an esoteric game that discouraged casual players but could be very rewarding for the initiate who was willing to invest the time to understand all of its intricacies. Despite its modern polygon presentation, the game was throwback to an earlier age when RPGs were exacting dungeon crawls rather than elaborate interactive novels. Progress through Nocturne was dependent on one’s ability to navigate convoluted mazes as well as fully understand the game’s combat system and exploit enemy weaknesses. Conversing with demons assumed a new importance as they could be recruited into the party and combined with one another to create exotic, new creatures.
Atlus followed Nocturne in 2005 with an ambitious two-part game called Digital Devil Saga. Digital Devil Saga found the Shin Megami Tensei series moving back to firmer narrative ground with a somber sci-fi tale. Set in a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape laced with imagery from the Vedic Hymns, Digital Devil Saga had a look that was unlike any other RPG. The combat system from Nocturne was recycled although demon recruitment was no longer an aspect of play. Instead, characters could transform into demons themselves and devour enemies.
The world of Shin Megami Tensei is surprisingly flexible and can be stretched to accommodate a variety of play styles and widely disparate settings. For Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army (released in 2006) and its sequel Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon (2009) the setting is Taisho era Tokyo and Atlus put a lot of effort into depicting that uncertain period in Japan’s history when traditional culture was being swept aside in favor of rapidly advancing modernism.
Despite their realistic backdrop, the Devil Summoner games are fairly breezy games with a much more forgiving difficulty level. Combat is played out in real time as a fast paced hack and slash with most engagements over in a manner of seconds. Demons can be captured for use in battle or combined together in a system very similar to the one in Nocturne.
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is very broad and encompasses many spin-offs that have only a tenuous connection to the main series. Over the years Atlus made a few of these available in America. Beginning in 1995, even before the release of Persona, Atlus brought over Jack Bros., a little known action game for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and in 1999 they published Revelations: The Demon Slayer for the Game Boy Color. Revelations was part of a fantasy themed Shin Megami Tensei series called Last Bible in Japan. Also, in 2003 Atlus released two games for the Game Boy Advance called Demi Kids: Light version and Demi Kids: Dark version. These were monster-collecting RPGs intended for younger players.
Although Maken X for the Dreamcast was not specifically part of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, it had much of the same look and feel. Published by Sega in 1999, Maken X was an interesting first person melee game that was hampered by a truly dreadful localization and frustrating game play. However, it is worth a look for Shin Megami Tensei illustrator Kazuma Kaneko’s decadent and bizarre character designs that seem to reference the fashions of both haute couture and S&M dungeons.
- Jeffrey Fleming