When you think of a JRPG, what immediately comes to mind? Final Fantasy? Dragon Quest? Maybe even the Tales of series? All are great franchises, but there’s one I’ve noticed that rarely gets talked about…sort of. Now, a lot of people are excited for the upcoming Persona 5. I know I am. I’ve been a fan the Persona franchise ever since Persona 3 FES on the PlayStation 2 and Sony PSP. After that, I had to play every Persona game I could get my hands on. But I’m not here to gush over Persona. No, I’m here to tell you that if it wasn’t for its parent series, Shin Megami Tensei, Persona would not exist. Yes, Persona is actually a spin-off of another franchise. A franchise that, while not completely unknown in North America, doesn’t get the same level of recognition it really deserves. There are many reasons for this but I think that a big problem is that the Shin Megami Tensei brand has a total of ten franchises and that has led to no end of confusion as to what the main series actually is. At the time of writing, a new Shin Megami Tensei game was announced yesterday for the upcoming Nintendo Switch, and I figured now was as good time as any to give an overview of the main series. Not so much individual games because then we’d be here all day, but rather we are going to look at the series foundations so that you can get a picture of what the main series is like.
if it wasn’t for its parent series, Shin Megami Tensei, Persona would not exist.
Actually, one of the most interesting things about this series is that Shin Megami Tensei itself is a spin-off. What do I mean? Well, here’s a bit of backstory. Back in the 1980’s Japanese Fantasy and Horror author Aya Nishitani published the first in a trilogy of novels known collectively as Digital Devil Story. Which are about a genius high school student who creates a computer program that can summon demons and other mythological creatures into the real world. The books in turn were the inspiration for the video game Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. The game was developed by the company Altus and published by Namco for the Nintendo Famicom in 1987. A sequel on the Famicom would follow in 1990. But it was in 1992 that things got a lot more interesting. At the time, Altus wanted to remake the game from 1990, but as development progressed, this idea morphed into something else. The end product was…well, the first Shin Megami Tensei, which was released on the Super Famicom on October 30, 1992. This was followed by Shin Megami Tensei II on the Super Famicom in 1994. The third game, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, was released on the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2003. And finally the most recent entry, Shin Megami Tensei IV and its expansion/sequel, Apocalypse, arrived on the Nintendo 3Ds in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The west wouldn’t get any of the main games until Nocturne was released in North America and Europe in October of 2004. While the first game wouldn’t get a western release until it was ported to mobile devices in 2014.
Plots within Plots.
Now, as for the plot of this series is, well this is where things get a little tricky. Although Altus has said that each main game is set in the same universe (with the possible exception of Nocturne), they are presented in such a way that you don't need to play any of the previous games to understand what’s going on. This is further enforced by the fact that each main game has a different cast of characters and that they all have multiple endings. Like Final Fantasy, what definitively links the games together are common elements such as recurring monsters characters, certain themes and plot elements, and a variation of the Demon Summoning computer program from the original Novels. By now some of you might be thinking “Oh this is like Final Fantasy? Then this is just going to be another vomit inducing, dime a dozen, turn based JRPG where a couple of stupid teenagers save the world with “the power of friendship”, right?”
This is further enforced by the fact that each main game has a different cast of characters and that they all have multiple endings.
Well, my cynical padawan, you would be wrong. In fact, Shin Megami Tensei seems to go out of its way to light most JRPG tropes on fire while simultaneously pelting them with balloons filled with Kerosene. Yes, the combat is turned based, yes the central characters are young adults, and yes you're still saving the world (even though WRPGs make you do that too *ahem*). Everything else was burned away with the Kerosene. And this wasn’t an accident either. The team designed this series to be the exact opposite of what JRPG’s were doing at the time. It accomplished this in many ways, but the most notable was it use of a modern setting (the city of Tokyo in this case), mature themes such as genocide, deicide, war and religion, and its inclusion of branching story paths and factions. As you progress through the games, you are forced to make a series of choices that will either align you on the side of Law (God and his angels…literally), Chaos (Lucifer and his demons…again literally) or you could remain neutral and not join either side, and the story would play out accordingly.
Today, this is a common feature in most RPG’s. But back in the early nineties this was almost unheard of. Especially for a console RPG. What’s more, both Law and Chaos factions are presented as morally ambiguous. With both sides believing they are right and the other side is wrong, while in actuality neither side is wholly good, nor wholly evil. It largely depends on your point of view. For example, In Shin Megami Tensei II if you join the Chaos faction, Lucifer will join your party against God, but not for the reasons you might think. In the story, the character of God is portrayed as despot who wants to “cleanse” existence so that he can bring about a Utopia for his chosen people. Lucifer rejects this Dogma, feeling that both man and demon kind should have the ability to make their own choices and mistakes, and not be subjugated to the whims of someone he perceives as a tyrant. This is just one example as to how the story in Shin Megami Tensei II can play out. In this way, Shin Megami Tensei is doing something that even Western developed RPGs fail to do at times. Actually Role Play.
The series also differs from other JRPGs of its time in one other respect. Namely, you don’t have to kill the normal enemies. You can talk to almost any enemy in the game and convinced them to join your party. In fact, you need to do this to fill out your ranks. However, every enemy you recruit can only level up so much. And eventually, you’ll need to fuse two (or sometimes more) of them together to get even stronger demons.
Doesn’t this mechanic of recruiting monsters to fight for you and changing them into more powerful forms sound a bit familiar? Well it should. Dear reader, it’s no secret that there is an unfathomable amount of games out there that have a similar mechanic. I mean, where do you think Pokémon got the idea from? But Pokemon isn’t the only game that was inspired by it. Another game that was heavily influenced by Shin Megami Tensei’s mechanics was Toby Fox’s excellent Undertale. Which borrowed the series’ choice structure of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Fox has also admitted that the conversation system of Shin Megami Tensei heavily influenced Undertale’s own. And then there are all of the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off franchises that I don’t want to talk about right now. The point is that the series impact on the industry cannot be overstated. It’s considered the third most important Japanese RPG franchise for reason.
where do you think Pokémon got the idea from?
Shin Megami Tensei is amazing on almost every level. And it baffles the hell out of me that not many people have actually heard of it. Sure it’s different, and sure sometimes it doesn’t look that visually impressive. But I think that that’s part of its charm. It doesn’t need hyper realistic graphics to get its point across *glares at Square Enix*, it lets the gameplay and story do that for it. If you get the chance to play any of the main games from this series then I highly recommend you do so. You'll thank me later.