Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei's Identity Crisis (Part 1 of 3): Iconoclasm Incarnate

by Eirikr J.S. [tumblr] [twitter]

Shin Megami Tensei has thrived on being different than the RPG standard. Mixing the modern megalopolis with abstract concepts, mythological themes, and at times theologically challenging material, SMT created for itself an identity distinct from its fantasy contemporaries. According to series artist Kazuma Kaneko, “Back then we were in this sort of competition with Dragon Quest and felt the need to do something different from the others. If they were Babyface,[i.e., a well-liked hero] then we felt we could only be Asian mist. [i.e., an illegal move thrown by the hero's rival]” [1] In another interview, he expounds, "I like to think of Shin Megami Tensei games as rock stars or singers in punk bands whereas blockbuster games like Final Fantasy are more like the Academy Award winners." [2] SMT stood toe-to-toe with a crowded genre’s juggernauts due to unique features and a subversive attitude inherent in its presentation and gameplay—for better or worse. SMT fully embraced that it was neither the prettiest nor the best-selling, earning itself a comfortable niche where its creativity could shine.

However, the gaming landscape has changed significantly since the days of the Super NES or even PlayStation 2, inside of Japan and out. While Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are still big, they've also become diluted through their own ubiquity with spinoffs galore and main series releases that seem fewer and farther between. Countless mainstay publishers of yore have either been absorbed, shuttered, or changed focus from games to health clubs. With mobile markets contracting the traditional games business, the way in which the majority of consumers perceive and play games has been substantially impacted. Needless to say, Atlus needs more than Shin Megami Tensei’s niche to survive. But in this uncertain environment, or perhaps because of it, an unexpected RPG star has risen to prominence: Persona. Beyond merely revitalizing a genre, Persona’s expanding popularity has commanded great influence, as evidenced by abundant copycats imitating its style and mechanics. At last, the Megami Tensei franchise, even if only a spinoff, was the one dictating the trends.

But being overshadowed by Persona in every respect has left the Shin Megami Tensei main series in an awkward position. How can it embody a rebellious spirit when its own child is the definition of what’s en vogue, with much of its own DNA in tow? Ostensibly, the answer to that question is Shin Megami Tensei IV, a paradoxical game eager to follow the trail blazed by Persona’s success, but containing a number of reactionary decisions in its design work and thematics that are contrary to the series’ identity. With the series at a crossroads where some measure of adaptation to survive is inevitable, significant questions emerge: What is Shin Megami Tensei’s identity—and can it survive beyond the niche?

"Shin Megami Tensei"...?


Truly delineating a series’ identity is a complex task. Like Dragon Quest’s slimes and 8-bit sound effects or Final Fantasy’s chocobos and Cids, Shin Megami Tensei has its own host of iconic characters and motifs, but the aspects that actually distinguish the series are an effect of the “punk” attitude mentioned by Kaneko. Alternatively, he explains, "the main point is that [SMT] is 'dark.' More than being actually 'gloomy,' it’s actually being able to say its story in a straightforward manner…show it with no dishonesty." [3] Being “punk” means that SMT possesses a raw attitude unafraid to tear down established conventions.
Japan's occult zeitgeist: 1980s titles like Teito Monogatari (left) and Wicked City (center) feature supernatural or demonic plots and were contemporaneous with the seminal Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei novel (right). DDS: Megami Tensei's more varied use of mythic and folkloric figures and cyberpunk occultism separated itself from its peers.

In practical terms, this meant either inverting the trends of early 1990s Japanese RPGs or completely eschewing them in favor of its own creativity. For example, while DQ and FF have fantasy worlds, SMT’s setting is a real city; whereas DQ and FF feature predestined heroes of legendary bloodlines, SMT’s casts are normal people thrust into extraordinary situations; it’s an RPG cliché to kill “god,” but only in SMT does the actual Judeo-Christian God appear. And that’s just to name a few. Shin Megami Tensei is a true multifaceted diamond in the rough, and the following traits best exemplify its character and essence.

1. Mythological and Religious Thematics. Shin Megami Tensei’s use of mythological and religious themes may very well be its nucleus, and only because the series treats the subjects with a great deal of respect. In the careful hands of staff members like former Atlus producer/director Cozy Okada, an acute understanding of these themes is incorporated into the games’ storylines, character arcs, and, of particular importance, the many demons themselves. While stories about religion or myth are not for everyone, remove them from SMT and you are left with Fallout by way of Dragon Quest—potentially great games, but in dire need of a new hook to stand out from the crowd.

Many properties, video games or otherwise, use mythological figures or names, but none come even close to SMT’s usage or its truly worldly perspective, inclusive of beings from nearly every region on Earth. For instance, Final Fantasy summons like Shiva or Odin obviously crib their names from gods, but are otherwise meant to be original characters, whereas in SMT, the demons that bear those same names are meant to be the gods of human myths. Ironically, because of how central the demons and their portrayals are to the series, much of the content of a Shin Megami Tensei game can be defined as "unoriginal," i.e., composed of a plurality of images, material, and defining concepts from existing sources.

Modern SMT games' demon profiles emphasize their origins.
However, this adherence to demons' origins means that it's valid for SMT to incorporate outside sources into its interpretations. What this means is that you could read a Biblical text or scholarly book and glean relevant information about an SMT game’s themes or demons. In contrast, the narrative scope of most RPG series, or games in general, is limited to what is presented in their stories and dialogue, but SMT's "outside the box" thinking allows it to weave demons' original mythological stories, functions, and symbology throughout its structure. Obvious examples include the likes of Lucifer or Lilith, who appear as bargainers or tempters in human guises. But SMT also excels at obscure references, whether or not they will be noticed. For example, in Shin Megami Tensei II appears Hecate, the triple-headed Greek goddess of crossroads for whom offerings would often be left at a new moon. In SMTII, she guards the Expanse’s Jewish Kabbalah-influenced crossroads of Yesod and can only be fought on a New Moon phase. This is pointed out in a 1994 staff interview:
[Interviewer]: What was up with Hecate [at Yesod]*?
Kaneko: That’s because she is the three-faced god.  
[Interviewer]: I was really impressed by this kind of proper symbolic explanation.
Ryutarou Itou (scenario writer): But the number of people who discover and understand that is really small.
[*In the Kabbalah's Tree of Life, Yesod is a sephirot that connects to three others: Malkuth, Hod, Netzach, and Tiferet] [5] 

The triple-headed goddess Hecate, SMTII's Hecate, and Yesod's position on the Tree of Life. "It is said that [Hecate's] three heads were so disposed that she could keep her attention on all four roads at the same time" [14]
When utilized correctly, demons are more than just monsters; proper understanding of their personal symbolism and mythological roles can reflect on the plot itself, telling a story within a story. "Gods, demons, and various events that are present in the series can be thought of as metaphors for real-life social structures. The main characters in these games employ demons to fight against powerful enemies. They mature as they overcome the anxieties and anger that they feel towards society. Resistance to society’s norms and growing out of adolescence… A hard rock interpretation of Pinocchio… That’s the basic style of Megami Tensei." [6] Demons are visual metaphors for the many, often interpretive, things they individually represent, and it's these kernels of meaning which provide vital, defining substance to the whole series.

2. Source-Based Demon Design Rules. Supplementing SMT's mythological themes is the art of Kazuma Kaneko; indeed, both topics are so intimately tied together it’s extremely difficult to discuss one without the other. But if Shin Megami Tensei’s hundreds upon hundreds of demons are actually meant to be those from human myth and folklore, then their visual portrayals need to reflect that understanding. Such is why, according to Kaneko, "there are numerous rules I have to follow when drawing [demons]... The most important thing to keep in mind when designing [them], which I’ve been doing since the first installment, is to faithfully follow those rules." [7] These rules include an emphasis on source material, which Kaneko explains in his own words:
"I start by researching their profiles in legends and folklore. Gods and demons that appear in myths greatly reflect the environment, culture and customs of the area they originate from. For example, both Zeus from Greek mythology and Thor from Norse mythology are thunder gods, but their attire and equipment are quite different. I get all that information in my head first, then give the demons new form, sometimes in accordance with their traditional image, and in other times giving them a modern interpretation." [8]  "Moreover, I aim to comprehensibly emphasize the places which should be emphasized...and present [them] in an original way." [7] "However, if there were too many particular features in one design or character, it wouldn’t leave that much of an impression on the player. That’s why we decided to have one characteristic per design as much as possible." [9]
Beyond a distinctive visual design, the aim of the Shin Megami Tensei main series is to portray the demons neutrally, without outside cultural bias or misinterpretation. This philosophy can be defined as a “collective interpretation,” which intends to reproduce how the original group of believers would have envisioned their local gods or demons, instead of the design being entirely at the artist’s whims or tainted by the biases of an outside group. A perfect example is the Canaanite deity Baal; originally believed to be a heroic sky god in the mold of many others like Zeus, Thor, or Indra, in modern times he is better known for being demonized in the Old Testament. While just about anywhere in modern fiction the name “Baal” is attached to negative portrayals, SMT’s Baal fits the former, neutral description of a mighty benefactor. Truthfully, SMT doesn’t bat 1.000 even under Kaneko’s hand, but even some of the outliers have proven to be just an obscure passage or source image away from justification.

The Baalim: Kazuma Kaneko's Baal (left); Canaanite depiction of Baal (center); Diablo's Baal
If nothing else, Kaneko’s demon design philosophy is made of very deliberate choices, intentionally disregarding "cool-looking" superfluities that would detract from the essential meaning behind a demon. But because of the intimate relationship between SMT's themes and its visual design, this source-based, "collective" philosophy is more important than Kaneko's personal style; with proper understanding, anyone can design Shin Megami Tensei demons. It just so happens that, thus far, nobody does demons better than Kaneko.

3. Demon Mechanics (Races, Party Structure, Negotiation, and Fusion): Of course, Shin Megami Tensei is a video game series, not a book or art gallery. So if its demons are defined and illustrated as more than mere “monsters,” then this distinction must also be made within the series’ gameplay. Representing this need are gameplay mechanics that have been with the series since its Famicom debut: demon race classifications, an allied demon party structure, demon negotiation, and demon fusion.
Clockwise, from top left: Races in Strange Journey's compendium; an early game party in Shin Megami Tensei IV; triple fusion in Shin Megami Tensei; negotiations in Strange Journey
In essence, these mechanics are a translation of the mythological themes into gameplay: demons are sorted into races that act approximately as comparative orders of mythological archetypes; pacts like those seen in historical magical grimoires are formed as demons are negotiated with and summoned as allies; and fusion often creates logical results (ex. the Lady race [named "Earth Mother" in Japanese] is elementally upgraded in rank by Erthys or Gnome because of the earth associations of its demons). Though all have received tweaks and upgrades over the years, these fundamentals of demon rearing have remained constants.
  • Races: With hundreds of demons in any given SMT game, it’s crucial to keep them organized in an intuitive way. As such, the primary purpose of races is to group demons by their approximations to actual mythological archetypes (groupings like “sky father,” the aforementioned “earth mother,” “trickster,” etc.). This affects other aspects of the gameplay as well, such as fusion results being determined by the races of the parent demons. Races can also signify alignments as, except for a few key exceptions, each corresponds to one of the Law/Neutral/Chaos triad and along the Light/Neutral/Dark affinity scale; this will impact negotiations in certain games, making races an at-a-glance tool. The value of races is such that they are pervasive across all Megami Tensei games and spinoffs, including Persona’s functionally identical Arcana classifications. In certain cases they may even have increased utility, such as the Raidou Kuzunoha series’ race-specific investigative abilities or Devil Survivor’s racial support skills. With just a few letters, demon races express multiple dimensions of information. 
  • Party structure: The vast majority of RPGs have battle parties comprised of their core casts of characters, so the concept of Shin Megami Tensei’s demon allies is different by default (though not entirely exclusive to SMT). SMT games do include human allies occasionally, but the majority always consists of the demons you recruit or fuse. Elevating demons to party members also justifies their thematic and narrative focus, in addition to being the mechanic the other gameplay elements revolve around, particularly negotiation and fusion. 
  • Negotiation: The primary function of demon negotiation is to recruit new allies, but it also has a number of secondary uses as well, such as ending battles in a truce or bartering for money or items. “Whenever you encounter a demon you’re unable to compete with, you can get them in good spirits through a conversation to avoid a battle. Of course, you can also befriend your opponent through demon conversation...Such high degree of freedom in a game is also something Megami Tensei-like, I think.” [7] This “freedom” of alternative outcomes adds another layer to Shin Megami Tensei’s battle system compared to other RPG series, where enemies tend to be mere fodder for heroes. SMT spinoff series have experimented with different takes on the same concept, like Devil Survivor’s auction system which trades the multiple outcomes for guaranteed demon recruitment, but as far as the main series is concerned, the choices created by negotiation add the extra depth SMT needs to stand out.
  • Fusion: Negotiation may be the method by which you increase your party ranks, but it’s only through demon fusion that you can customize them to your heart’s content or gain access to the strongest demons. Because either demons cannot level up in older games or don’t scale in effectiveness (compared to higher-level demons) even when newer games allow it, success in Shin Megami Tensei hinges on your willingness to part with your proselytized demons through fusion’s gradual incrementation. Even if you accrue useless demons or need to make room in your limited roster, by fusing, this fodder can potentially transform into something useful. It may be an unorthodox process of character progression, but fusion is nothing if not a trademark of the SMT series.
Without these mechanics, Shin Megami Tensei’s gameplay would be simple and, honestly, pretty boring. They have not always represented technical ideals, but have also not been fearful of meaningful evolution that doesn’t leave their distinguishing qualities behind. But while successful interactive engagement is one thing, that the mechanics also reflect myths, archetypes, or rituals displays SMT’s deliberate thematic integration between its narrative and gameplay halves.

4. The Ordinary Meeting the Extraordinary (Apocalypse and tone): The common thread that ties Shin Megami Tensei and its spinoffs together is a simple idea: their relatable modern settings being encroached upon by supernatural forces. But what separates SMT from Devil Summoner or Persona is severity and scope: “ All the titles in the series depict the extraordinary invading our ordinary lives, but the Persona series depicts the end of the world around the protagonist, whereas the main Shin Megami Tensei series depicts the end of the world itself. Also, whereas the Persona series revolves around everyday relationships with people such as friends and lovers, in the main Shin Megami Tensei series you deal with worlds that have fallen apart and godlike entities. The story of a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game tends to be more grand and apocalyptic.” [10]

As past or prologue, the hallmark of Shin Megami Tensei is to begin with some kind of world-upending demon apocalypse. Such desolation easily justifies demons’ presence and the series’ standard focus on the relatively small casts of characters who become embroiled in the pandemonium. But their trials are no mere "Call to Adventure," since for Kaneko the concept of everyday people facing such existential threats is another of the series’ “punk” characteristics: "Another thing that bothered me [about other RPGs]  was the trend of the main character always being portrayed as someone special — a legendary warrior, for example. It was the equivalent of saying you can’t succeed unless you’re from a wealthy family, and I just couldn’t stand that. I wasn’t born with special genes, and I’m sure most other players weren’t either. No matter who you are, if you’re given a chance and have the guts to try your best, you can become a hero.  That became the concept of Megami Tensei." [6]

The moments before the ICBMs annihilate Tokyo in Shin Megami Tensei (left); Nocturne's Conception initiates the Vortex World (right)
An equally important function for SMT-style apocalypses is to set the “rules” of their settings, particularly in regards to demons and supernatural elements. Given the centrality of these metaphysical aspects, limiting factors are essential to maintaining suspension of disbelief, which the series tends to define in one of two ways: the "concrete" apocalypse and the "abstract" apocalypse. The concrete apocalypse is one that occurs in a clearly terrestrial setting where humans may still exist to some extent, beset by physical destructive causes like nuclear cataclysms or science gone awry; the obvious example of this type is the Tokyo of the first Shin Megami Tensei. In an abstract apocalypse, the setting is clearly extraterrestrial, whose native population is demons, not the humans who are mere “intruders”; examples of this include Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s hallucinatory Vortex World or Strange Journey’s physically fluid and ethereal Schwarzwelt.

Each type requires a different approach to its rulesets. A concrete apocalypse, since it is bound by human perspective and some semblance of tangibility, is a balancing act that needs just enough rationalization for demons to be plausible, but without excessive explanation that may cause internal contradictions or susceptibility to plotholes; in older SMT games, for example, this is accomplished sufficiently by having demons originate from an alternate dimension and manifest in the concrete space through an occult substance, magnetite.  On the other hand, an abstract apocalypse is already playing by the “demonic” rules, requiring next to no justification (or magnetite) other than the initiating circumstances. Demons may be abstract by nature, but proper consideration can easily validate their existence.

Lastly, the other important role of an apocalypse is to set the narrative tone. Given that the key word is "apocalypse," there is a certain expectation for how seriously SMT takes itself, so a consistent tone is crucial for its drama and choices to be effective. Maintaining a consistent seriousness is invariably tasked to SMT's central alignment characters, which is of utmost importance because, in such a high stakes situation, their experiences and opinions of the setting are what will inform the player's own choices, in addition to being the only ones with the opportunities to effect change in their worlds. They need to be able to “sell” the legitimacy of the situation to the player, in other words.

The demons' irreverent, unpredictable demeanors keep the series from "grimdark" levels of seriousness
But SMT isn't absolute grimness. It's common to find minor characters that provide comic relief or levity, but this usually comes at a personal cost: these characters are often "punished" with cruel fates or are made examples of to raise the stakes (ex. the protagonist's mother in SMT1, Daleth in Shin Megami Tensei II, Navarre in Shin Megami Tensei IV). In addition, demons provide a more natural, safer outlet for goofiness or humor. The series takes advantage of this particularly with the demon negotiations that are divorced from the main narrative. Since, by definition, demons are separate from reality, they have free rein to talk or joke about almost anything, from pop culture to the nature of existence itself. Considering some SMT games are light on story dialogue, these unpredictable, cheeky conversations might actually comprise the majority of a player's character interactions. While there's no need to be deadly serious at all times, defining appropriate limits to the usage of humor serves to keep the overall tone of the series consistent.

5. Choice: An especially iconic aspect of Shin Megami Tensei is its Law/Neutral/Chaos alignment system, and its child Light/Neutral/Dark affinities (for a total of nine true alignments). But behind that system is something more fundamental: choice. “What separates the Shin Megami Tensei series from most other Japanese RPG franchises is how often the player is called upon to make choices and offer opinions, which usually have significant effects on certain aspects of the storyline.” [11] These choices have profound effects on character and plot development, determining who allies with your party, who becomes your enemy, and branching ending paths, to name a few.

SMT’s elements of choice provide the backbone of its dramatic tension, as the opposing philosophies of the Law/Neutral/Chaos dynamic erupt into conflicts of dominion over the fate of existence. In other words, pretty heavy stuff. “Even though humans are part of the universe, nobody knows why the universe exists, or how humans came into being. A philosophical approach is the only way we can reach some kind of conclusion. That’s exactly what myths are--philosophical explanations of the universe and man--and why I love myths so much. The demons in the Megami Tensei series all appear with these questions." [8] Thus is the foundation of each alignment and its discrete features. Law’s inherent order offers safety within the primacy of a central group, at the cost of free will; its demon representatives are almost exclusively the pious angels of Abrahamic faiths. Conversely, Chaos stresses the importance of individual freedom, but under the shadow of a “might makes right” mantra wrought with extreme risk; Lucifer is the de facto leader of the Chaos demons, which may also include Buddhist obstructors. Between them stands Neutrality, which rejects the extremes of Law and Chaos in favor of a more reasonable balance of the virtues of each. As you might expect, the Law and Chaos camps don’t get along with one another, so whether the player aligns with one, the other, or neither is the most important decision in any SMT game. 
Choices affect things both major and minor
It’s also important to clarify that, unlike games with morality systems, SMT’s Law and Chaos alignments do not necessarily represent dualist absolutes like “good” and “evil.” "It’s not wrong to put everything into simple “good” and “evil”, like in other games, but what’s right and wrong can be completely different, depending on your position and perspective; it’s very ambiguous. So I say, why not let each player tackle that question of what’s right and wrong?" [8] For example, SMT will not judge you as "bad" for siding with Lucifer. The closest the series gets to qualifying good or evil is its Light/Neutral/Dark affinities, but those are generally only used to classify demons and, even then, may not be universal. These definitional ambiguities have been considered since the start of the franchise, as evidenced in a Shin Megami Tensei II interview:
Okada: Simply calling it good and evil makes it easy to understand, but our games are not like that. Our concepts are on what we may call the same axis, not up or down, but on parallel lines.
[Interviewer]: It’s simply more of an opposition rather than which is good and which is bad. [12]
Choices and alignment conflicts are also at the heart of how the series handles characterization. The principal character in an SMT game is always its protagonist, whom is invariably of a silent disposition. One would think this would make characterization nonexistent, but this is actually a deliberate choice to give the player a vicarious experience and lend extra significance to his or her personal judgments. [SMT] games are designed so that the player’s decisions as the protagonist determine the course of the story.” [8]As you proceed through the story, the player is forced to make decisions, just as people do in real life when they come to crossroads. As a result, the biggest difference [between SMT and other RPGs] is that every player will create their own story.[6] In Shin Megami Tensei, the player is both director and lead actor. 

SMT’s major supporting characters, its so-called “alignment heroes,” also develop out of this non-linearity. Whether as a Law Hero, Chaos Hero, Neutral Heroine, or anything in-between, they have a straightforward purpose: to model the different alignments to the player. This happens as an effect of their character arcs, where, as mere humans in a supernatural environment, they are mostly powerless until circumstances instigate their (often literal) transformations, becoming representative of alignments and possible outcomes. These representations and the potential disagreements that can result from them are what Kaneko calls "metaphors for the real world.” [8]
Shin Megami Tensei's archetypal alignment heroes and the gulf between their extremes
Given the restrictions of SMT’s settings, character development for alignment heroes is basic but follows an effective formula, including comprehensible personal motivations (SMT1 examples: Law Hero’s search for his girlfriend; Chaos Hero’s wish for revenge against a bully) and arcs that are thematically apt (SMT1: Law Hero, killed in an attempt to save his girlfriend, reincarnates as a “chosen” messiah; Chaos Hero, seizing an opportunity for revenge, volunteers to fuse with a demon to gain power). Any backstory information given about a character will always support why they ultimately come to the conclusions they do, and will not reflect on the person they were before the apocalypse (unless that too has bearing on their choices). Topics that would lend personality to characters in other RPGs like favorite ice cream flavors, preferred comic books, or similar traits are simply irrelevant in SMT’s harsh environment.

And those who do not ally, antagonize. The inevitability of Shin Megami Tensei is that the alignment heroes whose philosophies you reject will become "villains"; this concept of former friends turning heel and ultimately serving as fodder for the player's demons has become iconic of the series. The open-endedness inherent even in its antagonists is another key difference between SMT and other RPGs, whose central villains are fixed.
Nocturne's Reasons are as topsy-turvy as its Vortex World; Chiaki's Reason of Yosuga is presumably Chaotic, yet her Baal Avatar is Neutral and her greatest allies are Lawful angels
Because it affects so much, player choice is inseparable from the series. It even trumps the Law/Neutral/Chaos ternary that usually gives it definition. How? Witness Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which eschewed these trademark alignments for its proprietary "Reasons." Though Reasons function identically to alignments, the lack of typical labels allowed Nocturne to explore completely new philosophies. It was a bold message, but one the series would never repeat. Nevertheless, Nocturne's example illustrates that the basic concept of choice is one of Shin Megami Tensei's greatest traditions.

6. Tokyo. "The one virtue of [SMT] has to be the setting of battling in the streets of contemporary Tokyo, I think." [9] There is no doubt of Tokyo’s centrality in Shin Megami Tensei. But is it genuine significance or mere solipsism? After all, main series games like Strange Journey proved that you can have an SMT game set outside of Tokyo without sacrificing the series’ spirit. The answer lies with what Tokyo represents: an archetypal metropolis. 

Tokyo Tower will remain standing no matter what an apocalypse throws at it
While Tokyo’s many landmarks would be easily swappable with those of any other large city’s, like New York’s or London’s, regardless, depicting the high-rises or highways of modern times is crucial in making SMT’s depiction of otherworldly encroachment relatable. “Because [Megami Tensei] is all about the ordinary lives becoming inconceivably unordinary, it has to be connected to modern society somehow.” [8] Only a megalopolis can provide to the largest audience possible the impact of seeing famous sights beset by chaos. Then, it’s completely natural that Atlus’ Tokyo-based staff would select the city they’re most familiar with to be the series’ central setting (not to mention it being the most populated city in the world, a technological powerhouse, and a world economic center), but there were intentions as early as the first game to have multiple locations:
Kaneko: In the beginning, the conflict [in SMT1] was going to envelop the whole world.
Okada: Right, right. We figured Tokyo would have been the starting point and it would have spread not only all over Japan but all over the world.
Kaneko: We also talked how Israel should be the ending point.
A setting like Tokyo is also another way that set SMT apart from its Super Famicom competition. Compared to the original fantasy worlds of its RPG contemporaries, a real-world locale was a complete 180 degree turn. But even if Shin Megami Tensei may at times seem to over-rely on Tokyo, every game in the main series has its own unique spin on the city, whether it’s SMTII’s Tokyo Millennium or SMTIV’s subterranean Tokyo, so SMT can’t be entirely accused of resting on its laurels. 

7. Miscellany: Naturally, there’s a more to Shin Megami Tensei’s appeal than just the six topics above. In fact, there is a whole legion of hitherto unmentioned recurring elements that nonetheless contribute greatly to the series’ personality. But are they as essential as those above?

The King of Cool; Nocturne's Game Over screen; first-person dungeon in Shin Megami Tensei
  • Jack Frost. The mascot of Atlus itself, of course Jack Frost and his brothers need mentioning. A Megami Tensei game without his trademark grin would be like a Final Fantasy game without a Chocobo, right? 

    Similar to how Chocobos didn't appear until Final Fantasy II, there have been Megami Tensei games without Jack or his brothers, in particular Majin Tensei and Majin Tensei II, which are still considered part of the franchise. Jack is a star, but the show could (technically) go on without him.
  • Difficulty. Shin Megami Tensei games have an imposing reputation gained from a perceived high difficulty level. After all, this is the home of punishing instant-kill attacks and insurmountable threshold guardians like the Matador. Shouldn't the bleak setting offer matching gameplay resistance to the player?In truth, SMT's general difficulty is highly subjective, though it would be more accurate to say that the series has a high learning curve. At first play, this curve comes from the prerequisite of absorbing systems and skill terminology completely alien compared to other games. But once knowledge of the series' tricks is retained, the tables turn and the difficulty is not significantly higher than other RPGs. Even the older games are not so much difficult as they are obtuse.
  • First-person dungeons. Three-dimensional dungeons are a graphical and gameplay style that defined almost every game in the greater Megami Tensei franchise through the 32-bit era. Even Kaneko mentions it among things the series brings to mind when he says, "When talking about the Shin Megami Tensei series, you readily think about conversing with demons, the element of training befriended demons, 3D dungeons, et cetera." [7]

    But there is the obvious detail that, besides Strange Journey, every Megami Tensei game released on the PlayStation 2 and beyond has adopted a third-person view. Nevertheless, despite this different perspective, dungeon designs have largely remained twisted affairs with predilections for teleporter mazes, true to the sadistic spirit of the series' gridded map past.
  • True Goddess Reincarnation." The literal meaning of “Shin Megami Tensei.” Because it’s in the title, the idea of a reincarnating goddess is probably something you would expect to see in just about every game in the series. SMT games always feature central heroines and full rosters of goddesses, after all.

    However, other than in the original Megami Tensei novel/game this really isn’t the case. As Kaneko explains: “I still wonder: why the name "Shin Megami Tensei"? Don't you feel a gap between the name and the content of the series? (laughs) If you just look at the name, you'd think the series is...Well, I don't know what people would think, but I bet it's very different from what it really is.” [13]
Without needing to go into excruciating detail about each and every one, it can be assumed that these aspects and others like recurring soundtrack motifs, the Cathedral of Shadows, etc. provide a lot of character to Shin Megami Tensei. Still, even though they add character, they don't add depth, and that's why these aspects should be considered minor in comparison to the previous six. You can't build the foundation of a game series on mascot characters and camera perspective alone. Minor elements grow around the major ones, not vice versa—like the icing on a multi-layered cake. Of course, some people may very well prefer the icing to the layers underneath.

"Punk" to a Fault

The identity of Shin Megami Tensei is a multifaceted, complex beast. Its creators have taken great care to ensure it remains consistent and that the games exist as compelling alternate choices in a historically over-saturated genre. But just because SMT does things differently doesn't mean it's automatically worthy of universal acclaim. Indeed, the core aspects of the series can be considered as double-edged swords, where each defining trait has an inherent drawback in its potential appeal to new players. Consider them from the perspective of a Shin Megami Tensei neophyte:

  • Mythological themes: The focus on myths and demons can sometimes be so dense as to be impenetrable to those without outside knowledge of the subject. A game like Nocturne, whose thematics and subtext may overpower narrative transparency, could be perceived (inaccurately) as having no story at all. And, for overseas fans exclusively, the series' acute, Old Testament-based portrayals of Judeo-Christian mythological characters like Satan or YHVH may prove challenging and different than their modern preconceptions.
  • Kaneko's art: As much as fans love Kaneko, his modern style is so distinctive that it can be confounding to those accustomed to industry standard anime aesthetics.  
  • Demon mechanics: Demon negotiation can be entirely random and frustrating, and the rules of fusion maddeningly opaque. As both are central gameplay mechanics, this could be considered a critical flaw.
  • Post-apocalypses: A post-apocalypse, by nature, is bleak and depressing. It's far from an intrinsically alluring atmosphere or tone for what is ostensibly escapist entertainment.
  • Choice (character development): SMT's particular method of ideological character development may make it seem that its characters have little personality at all.
  • Tokyo: From an in-game navigational perspective, the locations of Tokyo's many wards may already be absorbed through cultural osmosis for Japanese players, but for non-Japanese, the matter-of-fact namedropping of places like Ikebukuro or Roppongi creates a confusing nightmare where they might as well be fantasy names instead. And even if there's a fresh spin on the city every game, Tokyo's constant reuse may seem stale and creatively restrictive.
Fair criticisms like these may be why the series has remained niche. While Shin Megami Tensei's fans are incredibly loyal both inside and outside of Japan, such a narrow audience is no guarantee of survival. When asked about relatively low sales numbers in the US for Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, Kaneko could only bluntly say, "Of course I want our games to sell more." [2] So what was a franchise to do?

Make friends instead of killing them.


[1] Shin Megami Tensei Character Profile: STEVEN REPORT. Kazuma Kaneko and Cozy Okada Interview.
[2] 1UP.com. (archived on Megatengaku) Devil Summoner: 1UP Interviews Artist Kazuma Kaneko.
[6] 1UP.com. (archived on Megatengaku) Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne.
[7] Touch DS Creator's Voice. (archived on Megatengaku) Kazuma Kaneko.
[8] Escapistmagazine.com. (archived on Megatengaku) Behind-the-Scenes of Shin Megami Tensei.
[9] Kazuma Kaneko Works III. Interview. 
[10] Nintendo Power, vol. 251. The Demon Whisperer.
[13] Persona 2: Eternal Punishment Bonus Disc. Kazuma Kaneko and Cozy Okada Interview.
[14] Fred Gettings. Dictionary of Demons. Guild Publishing, 1988.  

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