there are several reasons why i’ve been trying to get into the shin megami tensei series for awhile. apparently in its native japan it’s a highly regarded series, ranking in popularity right behind the huge dragon quest and the also very popular final fantasy series (well, according to the source from c. 2000 that wikipedia cites anyway), and it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, the same year as the final fantasy series. i suppose the SMT series (aka megaten) had first come to my attention via the persona series, one of its many spin-off series and one of the first of the series to be brought to the US. one of the main features of the persona games (starting with #3) is building relationships between your team members in order to gain advantages in battle, and as that’s one of the things i love about the fire emblem series i was interested in finding out more. on top of that, last january nintendo announced a crossover game between the SMT and fire emblem series, which renewed my interest, although in this case the crossover seems to be with the mainline SMT series as opposed to its spin-off series persona. and on top of that, nintendo had a promotion to encourage fans of fire emblem to try out SMT and vice versa by giving a sizable eshop credit to motivate people who bought one to buy the other.
all well and good, but for a completist like me it took a bit of work to sift through the series’ long history, replete with spin-offs with extremely similar-sounding names, and to decide where to start. the series actually began on the famicom (i.e. japanese NES) with a pair of titles, released in 1987 and 1990, the first of which was called digital devil story: megami tensei (“megami tensei” apparently means “rebirth of the goddess”). those games include all the trademarks of the general series, namely 1st-person dungeon exploration, typical RPG battles, a cyberpunk setting, assuming the role of a male protagonist who is accompanied by a female magic wielder, and its most noteworthy feature, negotiating with demons to either recruit them, receive items, and/or avoid having to fight them. the demons are drawn from all of the world’s mythologies and range from angels to devils to egyptian, greek, and roman gods to pixies and fairies and elves. the other main characteristic of the series is fusing demons together to create stronger ones. those two games have never been released in the US, and even amongst the online community they apparently weren’t interesting enough for fans to want to translate them into english.
on nintendo’s next console (called the super famicom in japan and the super nintendo everywhere else) the series really picked up with three releases: shin megami tensei, shin megami tensei II, and shin megami tensei if…. the added “shin” apparently translates to “true”, so the full translation of shin megami tensei is something like “true goddess reincarnation”. the first two of these games have been translated into english by fans and patches can be found online, and very recently an official english-language version of the first of these games was published for iOS for $8. the games have a completely different storyline than the famicom titles, but they basically include, refine, and expand all the elements of their parent series. the games seem to generally stick to post-apocalyptic settings, and SMT is also notable for introducing the concepts of player choice: throughout the game you’ll choose to align to the law or chaos sides or remain neutral, and your alignment apparently affects the ending. the game makes a notable distinction by making the conflict be between law (i.e. order) vs. chaos rather than the usual light vs. dark in order to point up that neither order nor chaos is “better”, but that each leads to very different consequences.
i started playing the first SMT game, but eventually decided to go with shin megami tensei: devil summoner: soul hackers as my first entry instead. that game is a 3DS remake of the second of a pair of japan-only sega saturn titles and is technically a spin-off series, but by all accounts the core mechanics are the same as the mainline series. in terms of the series as a whole, it seems it wasn’t until around 2003 with the release of SMTIII that atlus got itself more organized and really started to differentiate the various spin-offs from the mainline series. up to then the three SNES titles in the mainline series, the first two devil summoner, and the first two persona games were all very similar, all featuring first-person dungeon crawling with demon negotiation and fusion as the core mechanics. here’s how the overall series evolved:
- unsurprisingly, the mainline series stayed the closest to its roots, although SMTIII, released in 2003, established a 3rd-person perspective that would be reused in SMTIV.
- the digital devil saga series, begun in 2004, was a brand-new series that had you and your party transforming into demons rather than summoning them.
- the persona series reinvented itself in 2006 in the form of persona 3 which, as i mentioned, put building relationships with your teammates front and center, and completely got rid of demon negotiation altogether (although fusion is still an element of the game).
- that same year the devil summoner series also reinvented itself in the form of devil summoner: raidou kuzunoha vs. the soulless army, a real-time action RPG which had you recruiting demons by battling them rather than by negotiation (although, again, summoning demons and fusing them is still a major part of the game).
- lastly, the devil survivor series, begun in 2009, is the latest spin-off, and features typical grid-based tactical RPG gameplay but with demons as part of your party.
one interesting thing to note is that although SMT has an array of spin-off “series”, the number of entries in each series is pretty much limited to just two in every case, so it remains to be seen how each of those series will continue within the niche they’ve already established, or if they’ll change directions as they have in the past. there have also been an assortment of games outside of these “main” spin-off series, including japan-only mobile games, an MMORPG, a fighting game, and an upcoming rhythm game, as well as some games specifically targeted to kids and given a more pokemon-like spin (a pair of which, demikids: light version/dark version, were released in the US for GBA).
phew! once i had wrapped my head around all of this, it became apparent that the easiest SMT game for me to get into was soul hackers, even though it’s technically not in the main series. the english-language version, available on iOS, might be a good place to start nowadays, but i found it just a bit too primitive to get into. apparently the DS entry, subtitled strange journey and released between SMTIII and SMTIV, took a step back from mechanics introduced in SMTIII and is thus also very close to the original series, so it seems like that would make for a good alternative as well.
hopefully this write-up is useful to other people looking to get into the series. my next post will finally get to the punchline and will include my thoughts on soul hackers, so stay tuned.
links with overviews of the megaten series:
– really in-depth look at the series (as of 2010) at hardcoregaming101.net
– brief summary of all the major games in the series at neogaf
– megaten wiki