The Punishing Case of Shin Megami Tensei
That’s right, in case you decided to avoid Nintendo news for the past twenty-four hours, you might not know that the Nintendo Switch will be receiving not one, but two Shin Megami Tensei titles in 2021. Announced at the end of the Nintendo Direct Mini Partner Showcase (what a mouthful) were an HD remaster of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, a previously Playstation-exclusive title, as well as a more concrete release window for Shin Megami Tensei V, which was first announced at the Nintendo Switch reveal event three years ago. Yes, Atlus hasn’t been all that active on the Switch up until this point, something I have bemoaned previously, but the release of Tokyo Mirage Sessions on the Swtich was the catalyst for this niche developer’s signature brand of RPG shenanigans.
But before you gleefully jump on the Shin Megami Tensei hype train and prep your schedule for Nocturne’s release, ask yourself this: what exactly defines Shin Megami Tensei as a series? Since its Super Famicon origins as a first-person dungeon crawler, in itself a remake of an earlier Famicom release, this series has changed quite a bit. Though some might be more familiar with its spinoffs than the core series of titles, many of the games that share blood with Shin Megami Tensei have inherited some of its fundamental elements. While this list of core features might seem rudimentary at first glance, each plays an important part in what makes this series so beloved by fans, and potentially inaccessible to newcomers.
Whether due to the late-Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s philosophy that early game developers were good at their own games and thus enhanced their difficulty, or Atlus’ own dedication to establish themselves in a unique and somewhat unapproachable position, the Shin Megami Tensei games have always been known for being a bit punishing. Now, I wouldn’t really go as far as to say these games are difficult, as they often feature a variety of systems that encourage careful play, but they will severely bash around an inexperienced player due to how harshly they respond to poor gameplay choices. This is a series that prides itself on boss battles and even basic enemy encounters that can wipe a party due to unfortunate type matchups.
In so many ways, Shin Megami Tensei feels like Pokemon if the latter was merciless, as elemental weaknesses will cripple teams and the attitude of demons in negotiations can end up costing the player. Putting this characteristic first is just as much a warning to newcomers as it is an honest positive- just as these games allow the player to be punished, so too can an attentive and invested player dole out just as much punishment. Sometimes, watching your team get wiped to some weird chain reaction of events can feel inspiring, in a way. It’s a Shin Megami Tensei mindset, I suppose.
Fusion has always been a staple of the Shin Megami Tensei series, and although some games have more strict regulations than others regarding the concept, the idea of combining two demons to create a more powerful result has remained constant. Whether maintaining the parent demon species, rolling for a random set of their skills, or simply attempting to buff a weaker pair into something more substantial and dangerous, fusion is not without benefits and can often instill some addictive behavior in a player. Some special fusions will allow three demons to form an even rarer abomination, which can be a worthy investment.
More recent installments have taken this idea of inheritance to new heights, with Demon Whisper forming a core pillar of the gameplay present in Shin Megami Tensei IV and its semi-sequel- and also appeared as a core mechanic in Tokyo Mirage Sessions. This allows demons to share spells and abilities with the protagonist, sometimes enhancing a skill to new levels if it is already present. You’ll be utilizing a long line of skills and abilities throughout your playthrough of any Shin Megami Tensei title, which helps deepen the bond you have with your sometimes-jerk partner demons.
Hey, stick with me here, I’m aiming for one-word headings.
First-person dungeon crawlers are complex and oppressive, turning most of their playtime into trying excursions into labyrinthine structures. Even as the series transitioned into a third person perspective, its penchant for grueling dungeons (going hand-in-hand with the first trait on this list) has continued, though it’s their design influence and polish that stand out. Atlus is equal parts attentive to detail, with a variety of locales based upon actual locations from Japan and Tokyo in particular, and skilled enough to create a number of artistically fantastical, twisted realms to explore. As you descend into the more maddening, demon-infested parts of Shin Megami Tensei’s various worlds, you’ll need to keep your wits about you and stay prepared for just about anything, as the hostility of these dungeons- and even the paths leading to them- ensure that they’re never a walk in the park.
Though some of these traits are a bit nebulous, it’s also important for newcomers to understand that across each individual Shin Megami Tensei title’s seventy-something hour campagin, their narratives can often be obscure, evoking a feeling of helplessness in the face of powerful gods and demons. Additionally, while there are some universal concepts, factions, and mechanics, each Shin Megami Tensei title is a stand-alone experience in terms of narrative, allowing for each installment to serve as its own springboard into the rest of the series.
Access to previous titles can be something of a toss-up, so you’re likely to start with one of the later entries in the series even if you have some older hardware. Though Nocturne is getting its HD remake soon, there are a few other versions floating around for the PlayStation 2, including one that touts the infamous “Featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry Series” emblem. There are a number of spinoff titles available on various platforms, but if you’re looking for a taste of classic first-person Shin Megami Tensei, look no further than Strange Journey either on the DS or its Nintendo 3DS enhanced edition. If you’re a 3DS owner, you should definitely take advantage of the frequent sales for either Shin Megami Tensei IV or its semi-sequel, Apocalypse. The latter is more accessible and is also a bit more quirky in terms of character designs and narrative structure, but the former is classic in design and brutality.
We’ll definitely be following this article up with more extensive coverage of the series as a whole, but for now, we’re all looking forward to the triumphant arrival of this classic and beloved RPG series on the Switch. In the meantime, feel free to share out your personal Shin Megami Tensei favorites, discuss how these traits apply to various other spin-offs, and avoid Googling Mara if you want to remain sane! Seriously, don’t do it. Don’t Google Mara.