Shin Megami Tensei Throwbacks

Shin Megami Tensei as a JRPG series didn’t really get much traction outside of Japan until comparatively recently, with my own first exposure to the series being Persona 3. I’ve played a bunch of the games since then, but have primarily concentrated on the PS2-era-and-later material which has gained traction with English-speaking audiences. For this article, I’m going to cover a couple of games from earlier on in the series to see if they still hold up, or whether you’re really better off going with the series’ later iterations.

Shin Megami Tensei (SNES)

The original Megami Tensei CRPG on the NES from 1987 was an adaptation of the novel series Digital Devil Story by Aya Nishitani, and was enough of a success for Atlus to prompt them to produce a sequel in 1990. This had an unrelated plot, and indeed subsequent Megami Tensei games have taken only the general idea of the demon-summoning computer program from the novel series and, alongside their shared pantheon of demons, don’t necessarily have that much in the way of plot connections to each other.

In 1992 Atlus put out Shin Megami Tensei for the SNES, which was largely an enhanced remake of the second NES RPG. It was successful enough that Shin Megami Tensei is now regarded as the mainline series in the franchise, but unlike many other SNES RPGs of the era it didn’t get an official Western localisation save for a decidedly janky iOS release in 2014.

The first Megami Tensei-related game to get an English-language release was Jack Bros., a platformer for the Virtual Boy using the titular cutesy-poo demons, and the first of the RPGs was actually the original Persona, which inaugurated that particular side-series; Western audiences wouldn’t get to enjoy an official localisation of a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game until Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (AKA Lucifer’s Call), which would also be the first one to be released in the European market. A concerted fan endeavour, however, has produced an English patch for the original Shin Megami Tensei, so obviously you can use that with your (entirely legitimately sourced) ROM (derived from your entirely legitimately sourced cartridge) to run on your SNES Mini or your SNES emulator of choice.

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Innocent Sin, Excessive Duration

In the Japanese city of Sumaru, a mute JRPG protagonist attends the Seven Sisters High School. Purportedly, Seven Sisters has some kind of curse – students have taken to ripping the school’s insignia off their uniforms to evade it – and the protagonist, his best friend Lisa Silverman (an American immigrant to Japan), and his rival Michel from Kasugayama, a less prestigious school, find themselves drawn into investigating the matter.

As they progress, they are awakened to the power of their Personas, and also become aware of the Joker Game – a little ritual which, if performed causes a figure known as Joker to appear and grant wishes. Attempting it, the trio are astonished when it works – only for Joker to berate them for some terrible crime they committed against him in the past, which none of them can remember.

Discovering that Joker is harvesting the Ideal Energy of people across town with the aid of a cult under his control, the trio team up to defeat him – joined by Maya, a reporter for a local teen magazine, and Yukki, an experienced Persona-user who after her experiences in St. Hermelin moved to Sumaru and became a magazine photographer. But things are even stranger than they think: it soon becomes apparent that something very strange has happened to Sumaru, turning it into a town where rumours become true. Is Joker the prime mover here, or merely a symptom of a much deeper and stranger matter? Could the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep, be behind it all, and if so what does Nyarlathotep mean within the cosmology of Persona?

And then Hitler shows up…

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That’s Q-uite Enough, Atlus

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Persona Q is an old-school dungeon-exploring RPG for the Nintendo 3DS which mashes up the style of the Etrian Odyssey series of dungeon crawlers with the world of the Persona series.

The game involves a team-up between the characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4, who find themselves plucked out of their respective timelines midway through those stories and caught in a strange otherworldly realm that superficially resembles the Persona 4 gang’s school during their cultural festival – albeit one where the different stands conceal entrances to vast labyrinths occupied by Shadows, and where there is a tall, ancient clock tower at the centre of the courtyard that isn’t there in real life. At first they are separate – you get to choose whether to go with the main character of 4 or 3 as your main character, and start out with the relevant game’s party members – but by the end of the first dungeon, the two teams meet up, after which you get to use any of them in your party provided that your selected main character is part of it.

But they aren’t the only ones you meet – you also encounter the mysterious Zen and Rei, a duo of inseparable insomniacs. At the end of each labyrinth, some strange little cast-off artifact may be found – each of which brings the summoned Persona-users closer to freedom, and Zen and Rei closer to recovering their memories. But what is Rei so utterly terrified of remembering?

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Teddie’s Got a TV Eye On Me

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, after kicking off the Persona series with the first game and thoroughly reinventing it with the third game and its mix of classic dungeon-crawling action and slice-of-life social simulation, the Shin Megami Tensei team were riding high. For their Playstation 2 swansong, Persona 4, they opted for a refinement of the formula which worked so well for Persona 3. This time, our nameless protagonist (Jerry Cornelius, in my playthrough) has parents who are not dead, but are going abroad for work for a year. So, they ship their mysterious, silent, grey-haired son off to the sleepy rural town of Inaba to spend the year in the care of his uncle Dojima, a detective in the local police force who has been bringing up his six-year-old daughter Nanako by himself ever since her mother died in a hit-and-run accident.

Even before the protagonist arrives in Inaba, however, there’s signs something is up; on the train down, he dreams of the Velvet Room, where Igor is once again waiting with a contract binding him to take on the consequences of his decisions for the coming year, along with his new assistant Margaret, sister of Elizabeth from Persona 3 who’s mysteriously vanished. (This time around, incidentally, the Velvet Room is a plush limousine travelling through fog-enshrouded darkness, which is much less obviously Lynchian than most of its previous appearances in the ga- oh wait.) Once he arrives, things only get stranger. Rumours proliferate of the Midnight Channel, a mysterious TV station which only appears when it’s raining and which is supposed to show the face of your true love. A television presenter who had been caught having an affair with a politician and had come to the town’s historic inn to get away from it all is found dead, dangling from, of all places, a TV aerial; some time later, Saki, a girl from the school the protagonist is attending in Inaba and who was featured on television after she discovered the presenter’s body, is found dead under similar circumstances.

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Grind Them To Dust With Your Bare Hands

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The current kings of the handheld gaming arena, the Nintendo DS and the PSP, both enjoy a potent and powerful advantage over their predecessors, and that is that they were designed by people who understand that it’s often necessary to stop playing games and go and do other things. Thus, both can be placed in a state of dormancy at a moment’s notice. Close the lid on the DS, or briefly nudge the power switch on the PSP, and they’ll enter a state of peaceful dormancy; wake them up again, and you can pick up your game precisely from where you left off. This overdue liberation from the tyranny of save points is more than welcome – it means that the systems are perfect for playing on the train or bus, or whilst waiting for an appointment, or in other spare moments of the day. It means that there’s no excuse for paying more attention to your handheld console than to other people; “hang on, just let me save the game” doesn’t cut it. And it means that certain games, which might otherwise risk becoming repetitive and tedious to modern audiences, can enjoy a new leash of life.

Take the classic Japanese CRPG. Both the Nintendo DS and PSP have been host to a slew of remakes of classic games in the JRPG genre, and I suspect part of the reason is that, thanks to the way people approach the DS and PSP, the large amount of grinding many such games require doesn’t seem like so much of a burden as it might previously have. Sitting down in front of the TV, turning the PS2 or XBox 360 on, and spending the next few hours solidly murdering goblins to get my party up to a sufficient level to fight the next boss is something that, now that I’m no longer a full-time student, I’m increasingly less inclined to do; with gaming time more rationed than it used to be, if I’ve managed to set aside more than about half an hour to devote to a game then I want something to bloody happen in the game aside from a series of meaningless random encounters.

On the other hand, if I’m just fiddling with the DS for half an hour before going to sleep at night, then that’s a whole different story. In that case, the fact that I’ve spent the last three hours of game time doing exactly the same thing is less significant, because I don’t experience those three hours all at once. By breaking up the grinding into tiny, manageable chunks the portable format makes it digestible. The downside of this is that the plot can unfold at a comparatively glacial pace – on the other hand, I personally find that if the plot is decent, then if I have to wait longer to unlock the next part that makes the reward all the sweeter, whereas if the plot is rubbish it isn’t a great loss if the gameplay is good enough to make up for that. And if the gameplay is not good enough to make up for a lacklustre story, then I’m not likely to stick with the game very long anyway.

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Persona Walk With Me

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Once upon a time, in a magical land called Japan, there was a series of horror-SF novels by Aya Nishitani called Digital Devil Story, the central conceit of which revolved around the use of computer software to summon demons.

A little later, someone made a console RPG adaptation of the first Digital Devil Story novel, Megami Tensei (or Reincarnation of the Goddess), combining dungeon crawling with a strong plot. This RPG would, like its peers Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior, inspire a whole slew of sequels and spin-offs, many of which take place in entirely different universes (although there are suggestions that at least some of the games take place in a common multiverse).

And so Megami Tensei begat Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES, and lo, Shin Megami Tensei did begat Persona on the PlayStation, an alternate version of the series with its own take on the whole “demon” angle. In the Persona series, the demons are not summoned from some exterior source, but from within the protagonists themselves, and are expressions of their own inner selves (although the same cast of demons from the main Megami Tensei series fill in as the various Personas, the common demonic pantheon being a feature of the wider Megami Tensei series). Personas and Persona-users are mankind’s bulwark against the Shadows, occult enemies whose nature is intimately tied in with the Personas themselves.

Then Persona 3 – or to give it its full title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 – came out on PS2, and things began to get really weird.

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