Sunday, March 11, 2012

What is “Shin Megami Tensei”, and Why Should You Be Playing It!

I have always been a fan of GOOD video games. Unfortunately right now, anyone who knows how to write a computer program seems to be producing video games for any kind of media you can imagine. Right now we are stuck with a few gems worth trying out while the market is flooded with boring sequels, horrible adaptations, and overall crap that seems like the producers and directors didn’t put one ounce of thought into. I personally feel that part of this is due to the “Americanization” of video games. More and more games are coming from United States publishers who throw together pretty visuals with a couple of explosions, a fart joke and girls with huge boobs and they think they have a best seller. Unfortunately a lot of gamers in today’s market fall for it. These games make millions, and they keep producing them like an assembly line; it’s all about the money. That’s not to say all American games are bad, but the ratio of good ones to bad ones isn’t impressive. Gaming to me is about the overall experience. I personally put most of my attention to the story of the game (granted visuals and playability do factor in as well). Luckily about three years ago I was introduced to a game titled, “Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4”. I already had high standards for video games, but this one raised the bar, and started me on a love affair with an entire series of quirky characters, powerful demons, and a library of titles that has surpassed most games and franchises in my eyes.

The “Shin Megami Tensei” (SMT) franchise has quite a history. “Shin Megami Tensei” roughly translates into “Reincarnation of the True Goddess”, which really has nothing to do with the spinoffs. SMT originally started as a novel series titled Digital Devil Story by Aya Nishitani (which has never been adapted into English). Shortly after, a game adaptation for the Famicom in Japan appeared under the name “Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei” in 1987. From there many sequels and spinoffs have been produced for various consoles and media. The series has been a huge success in Japan. Being an RPG (Role Playing game) it has rivaled Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest since it first appeared. More recently it has caught on in the U.S. through Manga, Anime, and English adaptations of the most recent games. Recent spinoffs in SMT’s history include; Persona, Devil Summoner, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Survivor. Most of the games center on a protagonist and their group of friends (usually high school students) who are faced with some kind of mystery; serial murders, mass suicides, suspicious natural disasters, or distorted reality. Most of the games in the series focus on the protagonist (usually unnamed and silent) making choices as the story progresses that help them make friends (which strengthens his/her power as well as that of the party members), and choose the path of Justice or Chaos. Also in most of the games the main characters of the story are able to summon or recruit demons to help them solve these mysteries that they are facing. So let’s summarize; an RPG, about teenagers who solve mysteries, make friends, and summon demons. Confused? That’s not even half of it.

Each of these games are driven by their stories and the characters that push the action along. The situations that each of the characters face are surprisingly real. As the majority of these games take place in modern day Japan, the characters deal with situations that can be crushingly true and close to what the player may have experienced in their own past. While playing these games I have come across characters who were questioning their sexuality, crushed by family obligations, dealing with the betrayal of a close friend, coping with the illness and eventual death of a loved one, and desperately fighting to accept who and what they truly are. At first each of these games starts with bubbly J-Pop music that could sicken the cutest of puppies, but it quickly turns into an examination of the dark side of human existence. They explore the angst that people experience in their everyday lives – then they throw in demons, evil beings, monsters and the possible destruction of the world just to make things more interesting. All of these games have characters that I can personally relate to. I have been touched by how characters reacted to deaths of other primary characters (which isn’t uncommon), moved by how they dealt with family discord, and I’ve even been choked up when someone’s mother died of an illness and you were given choices how to react to her. This kind of open ended story telling that can have consequences on so many levels makes the depth and complexity of the story and its characters exciting and fulfilling when played through. The choices also allow for play throughs again and again.

Finally we have the use of the Demons. The term “Demon” in the series refers to any of the supernatural creatures you can summon (This includes actual demons, gods, monsters, and angels). Think of them as Pokémon with attitudes that wouldn’t mind killing you. The most interesting thing about these demons is that they are demons and gods that are actually found in the myths and folklore of many cultures around the world. Upon playing through one of the games, I went and researched several of the demons that were used in the game and found every one of them were actual demons from other cultures. While playing these games I have come across Cait Sith, Thor, Beelzebub, Amaterasu, Cerberus, Satan, and more. Literary characters and creatures are also available; Alice from Alice in Wonderland (who was surprisingly the best demon I have used in any of the games), H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, and Shakespeare’s Othello are some I used. Depending on the game, they can be bosses that are incredibly difficult, starter demons that are like Squirtle or Charmander, or badass demons that won’t join you until you can prove you are worthy of their power. Unlike Pokémon you can usually take those demons and “fuse” them into other demons. There are rules that dictate how the fusing goes (so intricate I would need another twenty pages to describe), but most times they create demons that share the traits and strengths that the original ones had with several upgrades. This type of system adds a kind of depth to the games that can become obsessive if you want to fuse every demon possible. The idea of summoning creatures to help you complete your mission isn’t something new to gaming, but SMT started back in the 80’s and has evolved it into something unique and fun that varies from game to game. For Digital Devil Saga the characters change into the demons during battle; in Devil Summoner you contract them to help you through persuasion, force, or bribery; Persona’s demons are actually other “personas” of the character that reflect the kind of person they are; Devil Survivor has you fight demons after summoning them through a computer program and making a pact with them once you defeat them. Along the way you find favorites (just like Pokémon) that you want to keep in your party all the time, and are reluctant to fuse, only to find the fusion creates a demon that you like even more.

On the downside, the reason these games have struggled to gain success in the U.S. is they are deeply rooted in Japanese culture, which for many people makes it difficult to understand or relate to. All of the games in the series, except one, take place primarily in Japan. There are references to the geography, culture, and lifestyle that the Japanese are accustomed to that many people in the U.S. just won’t get. That is why this awesome series has struggled to find its niche in a western market that idolizes muscle bound heroes and crude humor. Even though I love the SMT series as a whole, I do have to say that there are definitely some things that get lost in translation. If you are willing to put in the extra work and do a little research, most of the confusing elements can be explained and you can have a bit of insight into some of the more intricate parts of the stories that may not make all that much sense. However, without the Japanese culture that is so prevalent in the series, most of the depth of the game would be lost. It’s the superstition and respect for the folklore and mythos of Japanese and other cultures that allows for a varied and unique experience (I’m sorry, I don’t see a lot of U.S. made games indulge in varied cultural folklore for inspiration). The cultural traps are there, but they hardly mar the overall experience. Some of the stories even revolve around Christian and Hindu religion (one story is directly related to the biblical tale of Cain and Abel). It is wonderful that this series that revolves around Japan plays with other cultures, making it appealing on many levels.

The SMT series is definitely one of my favorite game franchises. After completing my first adventure with Persona 4, I actively sought to find every SMT game that has been released in the United States. Although I have my favorites in the series, I love each of the games for their intricate and deep stories. I’m thrilled that the SMT series is finally starting to catch on in the states, and Atlus (the current publisher) is looking back and re-releasing older games in the series on the DS or the PSP that U.S. gamers have expressed interest in.  I highly recommend these titles in the series:

Persona 4 (Available on the PS2 and soon on the PS VITA): Serial murders have broken out in a country town in Japan, and a small group of students have to use their remarkable powers to solve the mystery and fight the evil behind it.

Persona 2 (Available on the PSP): Rumors are starting to come true in Japan, everything from ghosts lurking in school hallways to the Third Reich and its diabolical leader resurrecting and attacking. Only Persona users have it in them to defeat the power manipulating Japan.

Devil Survivor (Available on the Nintendo DS and 3DS): Demons have started to erupt from a strange computer program and wreak havoc in Tokyo. Swiftly the military cordons off the affected areas, but little do the people know that a power of biblical proportions is waiting to consume everything if a band of young “Demon Tamers” can’t stop it. (My personal favorite)

If you don’t like these three titles, then SMT isn’t for you. I feel that these three embody what the SMT series is all about. They are all radically different (even though two are sequels of one spinoff) and show what kind of power this series really has. I just started the most recent addition to the SMT family, “Devil Survivor 2”. I already know this is another game that will keep me hooked until I complete everything! If you love RPGs and games with depth and a challenge, defiantly check out the SMT series. I wish they were easier to find, but now the games available in the U.S. have become collector’s items. They aren’t easy to find, and when you do they tend to be pretty expensive. Despite this, I think these games are at least worth trying. You never know, you might find a new obsession like I did.

By Justin Hopper

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