Shin Megami Tensei: SNES Trilogy

Time to spice up this Christmas with some good old-fashioned blasphemy! A while back I reviewed and mostly enjoyed the Devil Survivor games, which are a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series (or Resurrection of the Goddess if you’re not a weeb who thinks leaving things untranslated makes them cooler). The main series is also highly praised, so I decided to check it out, especially since as a Pokemon fan I’m interested in monster-catching games, and this one actually predates Pokemon by a significant margin! I chose to skip the NES Megami Tensei games and start with the SNES Shin Megami Tensei trilogy.

Sidenote: Every game starts with a standard “Any similarity between our characters and real people or organizations is purely coincidental” disclaimer, which, LOL. LOLOLOLOL.

A general note before I get into specific games: I found the mons mechanics of this series highly intriguing, and an excellent model for making mons recruitment both ethical and mechanically engaging. How do you recruit mons in these games? You talk to them. Every single demon you encounter can talk and be negotiated with. Every regular encounter can, in theory, be resolved nonviolently, though you may have to bribe the demons to leave you alone. The specific mechanics are rather rough and opaque, especially in the earlier games, but even though there’s a lot of randomness, certain classes of demons do display fairly consistent behavior, and figuring out how best to converse with them is its own strategy. Undertale‘s ACT system was apparently inspired by this, and I can definitely see the resemblance.

However, in a lot of ways it also reads like a version of Undertale with zero self-awareness. Despite every demon being sapient and capable of communication, you are encouraged to slaughter them in droves. Demons of the same race will even get mad at you if you kill a lot of them… which usually just makes them refuse nonviolent negotiation, thus encouraging you to kill even more. There is even a mechanic where demons of the same species will automatically truce with you because they don’t want to fight their friend (or get mad if you get their friend injured, even!), but you can make demons under your control kill their friends with no consequences.

Despite that, the game is still worlds ahead of Pokemon in its handling of this mechanic, despite the first game predating Pokemon by a full decade. I especially liked how it resolved the “what are they getting out of this” question in a very direct way: You pay them money. The only problem, really, is that it doesn’t go far enough: I would have liked to see allied demons express more personality and agency such as being able to initiate negotiations on their own or balk at bad orders. (Later games do in fact take steps in this direction, which I’ll discuss later.)

Overall, most of the problems with this system come down to the general video game problem of your principal method of engaging with the world being violence. You can’t gain EXP without killing demons and you can’t survive without leveling up, which necessitates your “heroes” being mass murderers. They do at least make an attempt to show that some demons really are objectively evil — and by this I mean they are vastly more likely to betray you in negotiations while cackling about how much they enjoy torturing people to death rather than the game just telling you they’re evil so it’s okay — but it’s not like the player characters make any attempt to restrict themselves to killing just those demons, and it would still be uncomfortable even if they did. (Even these “evil” demons still refuse to fight their kin, for instance.) I think the whole thing would be much more palatable if battles didn’t involve actually killing people, but the game explicitly marks HP 0 characters as “dead”, so.

The games also encourage you to treat demons as disposable, but in a way that’s actually not as unethical as it sounds. Demons cannot gain EXP or level up, so you need to replace your old demons with better ones as you progress; however, the primary way of doing this isn’t simply to dump them for a hotter model, but to fuse two demons together to make a stronger one. You would be justified in asking “Isn’t that still horribly unethical?” but the game resolves this very neatly: All demons are aware of fusion and actively want to be fused because it will make them stronger, so it is fully consensual and there presumably exists full continuity of consciousness for both demons. It’s really that simple, Pokemon. You’ve already established pokemon can talk, just have them explicitly consent. Other games do not have trouble grasping this concept.

Overall, the whole thing has a similar feel to Yo-Kai Watch‘s mechanics (which I discussed in my review of that game), just not absolutely terrible from a gameplay perspective. Turns out you can in fact have the best of both worlds!

Onto game-specific thoughts:

Shin Megami Tensei
SNES, 1992

This one I didn’t play past the opening, because I found the gameplay boring and confusing. The very first thing the game asks you to do is to allocate stats to all of your future party members with zero information on who they are or what their abilities are, potentially leading to such hilarious misplays as putting all your points into Magic on a character who cannot use magic. This made me scramble for a guide as soon as I started up the game, which is never a good thing. The poor communication continues throughout most mechanics — there’s almost nothing in the way of a tutorial and no explanation for how the demon recruitment mechanics work despite that being a core feature of the game.

Storywise, I think the game has a lot of interesting concepts executed poorly. The story begins in the present day when demons suddenly appear; you have a bunch of prophetic dreams and meet up with the people you saw in them, discovering a conflict between a Japanese nationalist and an American ambassador who’s threatening to nuke Japan to contain the demon threat. You have to choose which one to support (or just kill them both), but no matter what you do Japan gets nuked anyway and the rest of the game is post-apocalyptic. In the new world, your party members split over ideological differences, ultimately leading to you making a similar decision with the two of them, culminating in you defeating either the legions of Hell, the legions of Heaven, or both.

This idea of player choice influencing the story is really interesting, especially for such an early game, but in practice the actual result is very flat. The first major choice between Thor and Gotou sets the tone for the entire story: No matter what you actually choose, you’re always railroaded into a specific outcome. Similarly, your friends breaking up and forcing you to choose between them has the potential for really poignant emotional torque, but falls flat because your friends have the personalities of cardboard and break up for absolutely nonsensical reasons — the Chaos Hero just abruptly decides you’re cramping his style after he only accomplished his goal thanks to you, and the Law Hero dies outside of your control and then gets resurrected as a brainwashed God fanboy with little clear continuity to the version you knew. They also both die even if you side with one, making your choices even more pointless.

I criticized Devil Survivor 2 for pushing friendship-above-all-reason as the correct option, but this game has the opposite: Indiscriminate murder is the correct option, because both sides are terrible and the only way to express yourself in this game is through murder, so the “neutral” route just involves killing everyone. This is the good ending, somehow. Despite all that, you don’t even get to throw down with God and Lucifer directly, just some anticlimactic fight against a bunch of archangels and archdemons, respectively. This means the fundamental conflict is obviously not solved, leading to…

Shin Megami Tensei II
SNES, 1994

I found this game better on gameplay but worse on story, which is saying something. I did manage to play it all the way through, but relied heavily on guides and fast-forwarding. (So many random encounters, ugh.) The premise is that the railroading continues even after SMT ended: Despite being ungodly powerful enough to slaughter the legions of both Heaven and Hell, the hero was powerless to stop the ordinary human Christians from taking over and killing him when he got uppity. Also, he died alone despite the first game making a huge point of the Heroine having undying loyalty.

So, you play as a completely new character in a post-post-apocalyptic world run by the Christians, who are obviously as comically evil as they were in the previous game. I’m honestly not sure if their hilariously over-the-top evil conspiracy is supposed to come as a surprise or not; it’s framed as if it is, but anyone coming from the first SMT will see it coming from the word go. Like I said in my Devil Survivor review, while I’m no fan of Christianity, even I thought this portrayal was ridiculous and felt like a cartoon parody rather than saying anything about real Christianity.

So, the Christians got tired of waiting for the Second Coming, so they made an artificial test-tube Christ, somehow, which is you. God hates this but no one can tell because the archangels who came up with the plan believed in it so strongly their belief created a fake God. (It’s unclear if they know the fake God is fake or not.) You kill the fake God two-thirds of the way through the game, at which point the Law representative insists that everything is fine now because all the problems with Christianity were the fake God’s fault, only for the real God to show up and be just as evil as the fake, so what was the point of that twist, Atlus.

Continuing our adventures in railroading, the real God is in fact so evil you fight him even on the route where you side with him, because even his Christo-fascist followers can’t stomach him. When I read the summary for this I thought it would be an emotional twist, but it plays out as incoherently as possible: After you kill Lucifer the Law representative abruptly tells you that actually God’s plan was to use an orbital nuke to kill ALL LIFE ON EARTH, he DOES IT, and then while God is complimenting him he goes “Actually you’re guilty of genocide so I’m gonna judge you too now.” Dude, YOU PULLED THE TRIGGER. WHY ARE YOU ONLY OBJECTING NOW.

Lucifer, meanwhile, has no such ulterior motive and siding with him gets you an unambiguously happy ending, so good for him.

Shin Megami Tensei: if…
SNES, 1994

A spinoff game released shortly after SMT2 that serves as the prototype for the Persona series. It’s an AU set in a high school rather than a grand global apocalypse.

This game is way, way better than its predecessors, to the point that I would actually recommend it. The developers finally figured out that game mechanics require tutorials. Human weapons no longer immediately outpace fighter demons and magic. You can actually see demons’ elemental affinities instead of guessing for the first time in the series. You can continue after dying instead of having to reset. Dungeons are greatly compressed and there’s way less aimless wandering. (Except for the Domain of Sloth, which everyone involved should be shamed for.) It only took them three tries, but they finally made a good game!

The story is also much more engaging. Your choices matter less, but then the previous games did that terribly, so not a huge loss. You get to choose from a selection of four party members at the start, each of which has a notably different personality and changes the ending. The characters and NPCs both had fun, interesting dialogue, and I actually enjoyed trekking back to the school after every world to see everyone’s dialogue update.

However. The plot is that a bullied student (who’s secretly an ~unappreciated genius~) decides appropriate retribution is to drag the entire school into Hell and horrifically torture all the students and faculty to death. One of the things in particular that pushed him over the edge is that a girl he had a crush on turned him down, which results in him singling out her and her boyfriend for the worst torture during the main plot. The true ending reveals this is supposed to be sympathetic.

The game was made before school shootings/killings became commonplace, but wow has that aged poorly. I think it should concern people a lot more than it does that we are so eager to create and justify narratives about disproportionate retribution. It cuts especially deeply on this blog where we’ve received utterly depraved harassment from people who think the slightest perceived wrong gives them a blank check to hurt people as much as they want.

14 Comments

  1. Y says:

    Oh hey, MegaTen! Ive played the first one, Soul Hackers, 4 and 4A. Do you think you’ll continue with the series? Personally, I don’t think you’d like 4 very much – it has this one weird mechanic which makes small changes in RNG have a very large outcome on the fights, and the mechanic that decides what ending you get is really transparent and unintuitive. Personally I’m keen to give 3 and especially Strange Journey a go, plus Persona whenever I feel like I can handle the level of weebiness I feel like those games operate on.

    I actually feel very warmly about SMT1, even though it definitely is quite dated. I feel like of the ones I’ve played, it does the most with the law v chaos dichotomy just by using it as a metaphor for an actual, concrete, real life political divide. I comparison, 4 just felt like shallow philosophical waxing. (I’ve heard that SJ uses it for a debate about environmentalism, which is v. intriguing and another reason I need to find time to give that one a whirl.) That said, I agree about the endings being messy as, which really compromises that execution of those themes, but I still find it to be an effective and intriguing use of the series’ themes, which is really impressive for a SNES game to me! I also think it makes better use of the horror elements, which is nice.

    Personally, I’m a little less bothered by the relative unimportance of the different paths than you are, probably because I’ve been super JRPG-brained lately. I kind of view the choices you makes as less about actually exerted control over the story and more a kind of self expression in regards to the themes of a preset story. Sure, that’s a little less exciting than the amount of narrative control you get in most Western Rpgs, but looking at it in relation to JRPG conventions, it makes a lot of sense to me. My opinions probably a bit by having played 4 before the first one though, where branches before the final one are few, brief, and explicitly temporary.

    That said, the more I think about it the more I think its a genre thing. If it was a WRPG, I think I’d agree that the branches are too shallow and unimportant in the long run to be satisfying. I’m a bit of two minds atm and this is rambly enough, so I’ll move on from this topic for now :)

    Gameplay wise, I find the older games (and the Soul Hackers remake) very janky and yeah, hard to get into. They really only clicked for me while I was making significant progress, and if I ever ran into trouble I had to take a break for like, a couple of months before the desire to continue came back. 4 and especially 4A were really fun, though. The more recent ones do interesting things with standard JRPG commbat, even if I think some of the experiments were maybe a bit ill advised and I actuallly kind of wish they were a bit crunchier in the dungeon-crawling. Honestly I’m really keen to see what else the series offers gameplay wise, because when it works, it really works.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Oh, I’m definitely planning to continue. I’m playing Soul Hackers and Nocturne now and have reviews for them in the works.

      I definitely agree that SMT1 was very impressive for an SNES game; at the time, any story branching at all, especially in a jRPG, was very ambitious. However, I don’t think you can write off its flaws entirely as a product of the genre, because Devil Survivor did give an amount of player control close to the level of most wRPGs, and I felt like my choices really mattered there. And even though DeSu2 has many sins, lack of player agency is not one of them. Unfortunately, as I continue with the series it’s looking increasingly like DeSu was the exception, not the rule, but oh well.

  2. Seed of Bismuth says:

    I’d explain why your wrong about the Domain of Sloth but ~Yawn~ I’m tired and will come back later
    :P

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      The Domain of Sloth pissed me off so much it actually convinced me to learn Assembly just so I could make a patch that fixes it, no joke.

  3. Nerem says:

    As a note, depending on the translation you’re using, the whole plot point with YHVH is garbled. In the Japanese, he’s been the king god for so long and thus unkilled that he’s slowly being corrupted by natural soul rot that sets in for people who have been alive for too long. Dying is normal and he’d just reincarnate as YHVH since he’s a Demon, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. But that’s why YHVH’s followers ask you to kill him, because he needs it to become his normal good self.

    Also, SMT If… isn’t just a prototype of Persona, it’s actually the first game in the Persona series. The Persona games all follow from the If… games, which is predicated on the nuking of Japan being stopped successfully. The official protagonist of SMT If… is one of the characters in Persona 1 and 2 and she talks about SMTIf…’s events in it. Also the Soul Hacker games are set in the same If… timeline.

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      That is incredibly bizarre and not at all explained in the translation I saw, no. I guess it makes more sense in a culture like Japan’s that’s bigger on reincarnation, but that’s such a strange lens to apply to Yahweh. Like, the original Old Testament God was significantly worse than the current one, I don’t think a factory reset is gonna improve him.

      But that’s why YHVH’s followers ask you to kill him, because he needs it to become his normal good self.

      I don’t recall where this happened, either. Do you mean the fake YHVH killed at the two-thirds mark, or Satan asking you to kill YHVH in the Law ending?

      I knew about If getting referenced in Persona, but not that it’s the timeline for Soul Hackers as well!

      1. Nerem says:

        Latter. The one you kill at the 2/3rds mark is indeed a fake made because the real one has gone off the deep end.

        And yeah most of the spinoffs take place in the If… timeline, though the mainline games branch off too, but they all basically assume 1 and 2 happened at some point. Strange Journey is set in the mainline setting too, and 4 is a direct sequel to it (and was originally called SMT4). It goes 1-2, SJ-4, and 3-5.

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  4. Nerem says:

    Oh as a note: Shin Megami Tensei is True Goddess Reincarnation/Metempsychosis. Though the goddess metempsychosis hasn’t been a thing since the very original games, and the title came from the books that the original Megami Tensei series is based off of. The plot for the original games follow the books fairly well, but SMT was a reboot that was all original stuff.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I’ve heard that “Shin” used in this context is basically slang for “Super”, and is used in many other SNES games to similar effect.

      Tangential, but if you’re good with Japanese, how would you translate the demon races that are untranslated in official localizations (Chirei, Jaki, Touki, Youma, and Genma)? The official English localizations for the races are, well, extremely bad, and I’m doing a game modding project to change them.

  5. Nerem says:

    Oh I was reminded. The reason why the ‘kill everyone’ Neutral ending is the ‘good’ ending is because they are the ones where humanity escapes from being put under the thumb of any supernatural entity. This is the case in all the SMT games. The alignment system isn’t ‘Good, Neutral, Evil’, but ‘Law, Humanity, Chaos’, so humanity defeating both other sides results in their continued existence.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I mean, yes, but it’s still awkward that the only way to ensure humanity’s continued existence is by murdering everyone else. It’s a very violent story.

      1. Nerem says:

        Not EVERYONE else is wiped out, as Neutral encompasses a lot of humanity-friendly Demons like Fairies and stuff. But the big issue is that the ‘big bosses’ of Law and Chaos always have desire to subjugate humanity.

        ‘Shin’ itself is often used as a sort of sequel indicator or just to set a further project apart. This is because there’s another meaning of the word that is ‘New’, though it is spelled differently in Japanese, which is probably why you see it used as akin to ‘Super’, as that is the general use of it. SMT specifically uses ‘True’ which is probably a reference to it being a remake of the original series.

        Chirei/Jirae means ‘Earth Spirit’, which is why that race is filled with Dwarf, Gnome, and Giants and the like. “Earth Spirit” is the obvious choice.

        Jaki is ‘Evil Spirit’ but the connotation is ‘Evil Ogre’ which is why it’s Dark demons along the lines of Orc/Ogre, etc. “Dark Ogres” could work.

        Touki is ‘Fighting Spirits’ and tend to just be spirits made for battle in and of itself, but aren’t malicious. So “War Spirit” would be good there.

        Youma just means ‘Spirit’, and is a grab-bag of monsters and godly messengers of the non-holy sort, the counterpart to Jaki. ‘Daemon’ in the Greek sense (that ‘Demon’ already is used for really in SMT) is a good fit.

        Genma is literally Illusion Demon, which the official translation calls Demigods, because that’s largely what the race consists of and isn’t the worst translation. They have a lot in common with Youma to the point that it’s a tossup whether certain demons will be Youma or Genma depending on the game. ‘Phantom Demons’ could work, though there’s a reason why every Final Fantasy game translates ‘Phantom Spirit’ to something else.

        I could ask my friend who is actually fluent his thoughts on them, too.

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        1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

          Unfortunately, the main problem with those is that English has much stricter character limits. I believe most games cap out at either 9 or 11 characters, with the SNES games going even lower. So the two-word translations, while accurate, don’t fit.

          1. Nerem says:

            It is why a lot of those old games often abbreviated longer names, so you’d get Dk Ogre, and War Sp. and stuff liek that in old FFs. The big issue with a lot of older SNES games is that very few were made with translation in mind for the coding. Japanese is a more compact language due to symbols representing groups of letters (usually two) instead of of 1. And since cartridge space was at a premium with games of that era, they’d just code them to expect a smallnumber of characters.

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