Shin Megami Tensei
Super Nintendo – 1992
‘Der Wille zur Macht’ as a lifestyle choice
WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. Big ones. Continue at your own risk.
In case its escaped anyone’s attention (there may be a few of you not really listening at the back there) I am a huge fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series (‘Megaten’ to those in the know) and all its various spinoffs, from Persona, to Digital Devil Saga and all the little forgotten ones along the way. Yes, even Maken X, a hideously flawed attempt at doing something different, both in the series and in the realm of the FPS. There are a few games I’ll admit didn’t grab me as much as others – Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army just rubs me the wrong way for some reason, and the original Persona has some very questionable gameplay mechanics that were bizarrely kept for the PSP remake/update – but it’s hard to say the franchise has ever had an outright bad game, something that I’d be hard-pressed to say about any of my other favourites.
The game opens with a dream. In it, our hero rescues two relative strangers, one from crucifixion, one from a demon, then meets a girl bathing in a pond, who says she’s been waiting for you. Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of a dream, and before sexytime can begin, you’re awoken by your mother, telling you you’ve overslept.
It’s the far-off, but indeterminate year of 199X, and the world is in a bad place. A general by the name of Goto has launched a coup d’etat and effectively taken over Japan, putting the country in a state of martial law. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, and in particular, America, is attempting to put an end to his game by any means necessary – even if it requires extreme measures. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there are increasing reports of demonic creatures running rampant and attacking anyone and everyone. The hero receives a program via email sent by someone called ‘STEVEN’ (yes, all in caps). He explains that he’s afraid of the threat posed by these demons, and in response, has developed a program to control and summon them. He’s sent this program to as many people as he can, in the hope that someone, anyone, can do something to stop the outright anarchy that’s about to break loose on mankind. Of course, no one can possibly guess what’s about to happen next…
Okay, let’s get the bad stuff out the way first. Graphically, this game sucks. Everything is played from a first-person view, which, in theory, is great. However, the SNES doesn’t really have the grunt to pull it off, the screen lazily flicking from one map tile to the next. The endless hallways that make up the game have little to distinguish them from each other, so getting lost is stupidly easy, even in the simplest of areas. There is an automap, but it’s buried deep in several layers of menu, and the only way to get it onscreen while moving is to cast a spell only found on certain demons. And since this is one of the first incarnations of the demon fusion system, there’s none of that fancy ‘offspring gets the skills of the two parents’ skill mixing seen in the later games. So, your choice is to either keep one demon on hand solely for that one skill (it runs out fairly swiftly as well, requiring constant recasting for extra giggles), or to just wing it, checking the map every so often to make sure you haven’t taken that fatal left turn at Albuquerque.
Of course, that’s not where the only problems lie. As mentioned, the controls are hideously clunky. If you want to do anything, you have to navigate through several menus. You’re never told what difference armour will have on your character before you equip it. In demon negotiation, there’s no clear indication that you’re saying the right thing, and what works right one time may not work at all the next. And the only way to find out what a particular spell does is to use it, all of them carrying names like ‘Bufula’ or ‘Dia’ with no indication of what does what. Much, if not almost all of this was fixed in later updates (most recently the GBA port) but wouldn’t you know it, it’s only the SNES version that’s available in English, thanks to those wonderful people over at Aeon Genesis. In short, this is a game created long before most of the RPG conventions we all now take for granted, and for the vast majority of you, that alone is likely to put you off. And that’s before we get to the legendary difficulty.
Okay then, graphics are very early SNES standard, controls suck, and the game’s harder than a punch with a granite boxing glove. Why bother playing it? Well, the short answer is that it’s awesome. But you probably guessed as much by the fact that I’m discussing it under the ‘Best Game Ever’ tag. The more direct answer… now, that’s a tricky one.
Back in the day all RPGs were exactly the same: there were castles and knights and you ran around with a sword and beat up evil wizards. Actually, when you boil it down, that still applies to a lot of RPGs even now – for all the innovation in gameplay and combat we still run through the same familiar stories. But back then, there was even less variation than we have now. Everything was, without exception, exactly the same. The exceptions were the two Megami Tensei games on the NES. Set in the modern day, it revolved around a high school student tinkering around with a computer program that accidentally opens a breach to the demonic realm, letting all manner of nastiness in. The sequel went a step further and was set in a world devastated by nuclear war. Utterly unheard of at the time, and while it didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it did set the scene for its SNES-based older brother, and the series as a whole.
The game starts off in a recognisable modern-day metropolis – the Kichijoji area of Tokyo to be exact. Wandering around, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that something is very wrong here. People are disappearing, some turning up dead, torn to pieces, some not turning up at all. The Yakuza are operating openly, attacking anyone they feel like. And more and more people are talking about the oncoming threat of nuclear war. No, not a good place to be at all. It’s while out doing errands for his mother that the player character eventually encounters a demon, as it rips the throat out of a poor bastard at the local shopping mall. Things only get weirder as he has another dream, saving a girl from a strange occult ritual, before meeting with one of the people from dream in real life. He soon discovers the bigger picture: Goto, the general, is in a secret war of sorts with the US ambassador, Thorman. Thorman represents a group trying to build the Thousand Year Kingdom in the name of God. They believe that mankind has gone astray, and that the slate needs to be wiped clean, Old Testament-style. Of course, if you talk to Thorman, he’ll let you know that the demon attacks have actually been started by Goto himself, a side effect of him making bargains with dark forces in exchange for power. That, and he’s also been kidnapping anyone who might be involved with the resistance and authorising inhumane experiments on innocent civilians. And it’s here that you realise that the story is a lot darker than you ever suspected.
SMT has three possible paths to play through the game as: Law, Chaos and Neutrality. Law is under the purview of the Mesians, generally characterised as a church militant. They believe in order, following rules. At its extreme end, it’s ‘do what we say and follow our laws or we’ll break you’. Directly opposite them is Chaos. Chaos is represented by the Gaians. Chaos believes in free will, taking whatever path you feel is the right one in the name of self-improvement. Its extreme is the survival of the fittest mantra, that the strong should be able to take and do whatever they want because no one can or has the right to stop them. And in the middle, there’s the Neutral path. They’re not directly represented by anyone ingame, unless the player actively chooses to do so. Being neutral, obviously, requires you to maintain a balance between the two, as going too far down one path or the other results in suffering. Of course, you’re being pitted against both extremes on a regular basis, so that requires bloodshed on an even more regular basis.
One of the most fascinating things about the options, as you can see above, is that, when you boil it down, there are no straight-out “good guys” or “bad guys” in the game. Everyone is equally wrong or equally right in one way or another. Goto’s responsible for locking down Japan and unleashing demons on the unsuspecting populace, but he’s doing it in the name of freeing the world from the tyranny of the Mesians. Thorman’s holding the threat of nuclear war over everyone’s head, but it’s to stop a dangerous general from dragging the world into disaster, as well as to bring everyone together under the same banner. And if you walk the path of Neutrality, trying to keep everything on the same even keel, well, that involves slaughtering anyone who even dares rock the boat one way or another.
Perhaps one of the biggest shocks in the game (and this is your last chance to back away: skip this next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want it spoiled, and believe me, it’s more effective if you’ve never played it) comes at the end of the first act. This is about 10 or so hours in on an average playthrough. You’ve finally listened to both Goto and Thorman, and, one way or the other, you’ve decided to make your choice: your mission now is to kill one or both of them. At this point, you might be expecting that after this, you’re going to be sent out on missions to destabilize the various factions present. You could not be more wrong. Lets say you choose to side with Thorman. You go to Goto’s headquarters and assassinate him. Upon your return, he thanks you for your loyal devotion to his cause… unfortunately, this world is too sinful to be kept as is. A new age must be ushered in on the ashes of the old. He reveals himself to be the Norse god Thor, and brings down his hammer in judgement of mankind – he launches his nuclear ICBMs on Tokyo. You’re then presented with a hige red 30-second countdown on-screen as you desperately attempt to escape somewhere, anywhere, as you try and outrun nuclear destruction. You fail, but somehow find yourself transported to a realm outside of time and space.
Of course, even if you choose not to side with him, mankind is screwed, and he launches the missiles as a kind of last-minute ‘fuck you’ upon his defeat anyway. But, far from being an annoying ‘But Thou Must’ lack-of-choice, this is where the game really shows its teeth. One brief detour in limbo later, you arrive back on Earth. But it’s a different world to the one you just left. Thirty years have passed since Thorman launched his missiles, and the destruction of the world has been near total. Mankind is only just starting to crawl out the wreckage, and now, somehow, you have to help it. Yup, not content with bringing the world to near-obliteration, the game now has you attempting to bring it back from the brink. You failed to save it in the past, but maybe you can do something here. To my mind, there’s only one other game that has ever had the successful destruction of the world midway through, and that’s Final Fantasy VI. Two games that actually have the balls to pull the rug out from under you and drop the hammer – literally, in this case – on the very thing you’re striving to protect. It’s a hell of a way of punching the player, and a sadly underused tactic in games. Of course, things can always get worse: remember that two of your party members – who are more than willing to give up their humanity for more power in one form or another – are known as the Law Hero and the Chaos Hero and that, one way or another, you’re destined to fight at least one of them. All of this gives the game an unparalelled atmosphere. Suddenly, the graphics only add to the bleakness of the setting. The music too, gives you the feeling that you’re walking through a dead world, just trying to survive long enough to avoid the next demon attack. Not an easy prospect considering the crushing difficulty here.
(it’s okay, by the way, you can come back now)
Ever wonder why the Megaten series has a reputation for being the hardest RPG series around? Wonder no more! Yes, this is a game from the early days of RPGs, when concepts like ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ were just seen as silly friviolities, so the challenge is to be expected. Somehow, the game actually manages to go beyond that, however, and winds up being outright sadistic. There’s no instant game over if the main character dies, so that’s one saving grace, but beyond that, everything is an uphill struggle. If you’re even slightly underlevelled, you will be punished at great length, and opportunities to heal, or even save for that matter, are limited. Depending on your perspective, that’s either a plus or a minus: you can’t scrimp on the level grinding, but on the other hand, lots of people enjoy that. Same with the difficulty – it’s generally agreed that games are getting easier all the time, so going back in time and playing something that bends you over, slaps you in the face and demands you call it ‘Daddy’ makes for a welcome change.
Believe me when I say that this really is a fantastic game. If you’re new to the series, having gotten in through the anime-stylings of Persona 3&4, this is a huge step backwards. Tremendously so, since we’re talking going back three or four console generations and 18 years here. This is not an easy game to get into, even for someone determined to crack its shell. I’ve made numerous attempts and replays across different PCs and machines. I’m now currently replaying it – again – on my PSP. I don’t even want to think about what number attempt this is. But that alone should tell you something about the game: It’s tough and it’ll kick your ass hard, but you will come back to it. You need to play this, not just because this is where it all began – many of the basic ideas, such as contacting, summoning and fusing demons, the Law/Chaos alignment system and even most of the demon designs are still in use in some form today – but because even now, it’s unique. The third game in the series, Nocturne (or Lucifer’s Call if you prefer) shares some of the same feel, but the tone is arguably more hopeful,as you’re looking to rebuild a shattered land. Here, there’s no real hope. At best, there’s survival, at worst… Shin Megami Tensei is a game with problems, and a couple of outright bugs that can stop you from finishing the game if you’re extremely unlucky. But look past that and you’ll find one of the darkest RPGs ever, as well as one of the best on the SNES. It’s a tremendous work, overshadowed by its descendants, and one that needs to be appreciated as more than a piece of history.