What is Shin Megami Tensei? The Ultimate Lore Guide to the SMT Franchise
For a lot of us “newer audiences”, when we see Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT, we immediately think of Persona. Not even Persona 1 and 2, but the later entries of 3, 4, and 5.
Newer audiences will quickly notice a lot of “Persona” representation in the latest Nintendo Direct Shin Megami Tensei trailers. Pixie, Ragdna, Grihemkala, Archangel, Lucifer, Mara, and countless more “Demons-slash-Personas”, make an appearance.
It begs the question: What exactly IS the Shin Megami Tensei series? And why are there a lot of elements shared between SMT and Persona?
What is Shin Megami Tensei ?
Well, it goes back all the way to September 11, 1987.
Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, launched as the first ever game in the Megami Tensei (or, MegaTen) franchise. It was based on a trilogy of science fantasy novels written by Aya Nishitani.
The story follows Akemi Nakajima, a smart, but troubled youth. He develops a computer program that summons demons to get even with his bullies. His attempt is successful, but the program spirals out of control and Nakajima himself is attacked by the demons.
Surviving with the aid of a transfer student, Yumiko Shirasagi, they hunt down the horde of demons before they can destroy the world. Megami Tensei, which translates to “Goddess Reincarnation”, refers to Yumiko’s true identity as the reincarnation of the goddess Izanami.
The game would go on to reap critical success and praise. Key gameplay elements such as Dungeon Crawling, observing Moon Phases, Demon Fusions and demon negotiations would heavily influence the gameplay of its sequels and spin-offs.
Shin Megami Tensei: The Sequels
In 1992, the Megaten franchise released a new game with a more original story that didn’t take from the novels, titled “Shin Megami Tensei”. Atlus has gone on record and said that the series title translates to “True Goddess Metempsychosis”.
The game’s original story alongside its polished mechanics set it up for great critical success in Japan, putting it up with the big boys; Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The closely followed sequel continuing the events of the first game is also held in high regard.
Success continued with the release of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Despite having an independent story, it is still popular for its heavy plot and engaging mechanics.
Key Battle Mechanics That Became the Staple of the Franchise
The newly introduced “press-turn” feature was a well-received combat mechanic for the series. This feature granted players extra turns when they exploited an enemy weakness. This encouraged players to either recruit or fuse demons to have a variety of abilities to gain the upper hand in battle.
Enemies also have a “press-turn” mechanic, where if they exploited the player’s team’s weaknesses, THEY would gain an extra turn. This called for focus on team composition and careful planning, making combat engaging and unique for its time.
Sound familiar? Persona games use this feature as well, under the guise “One More!”, with a few tweaks here and there.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Upgraded
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne got updated version in Japan, titled Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (Maniax). It featured additional content, including the ever-meme-worthy “Featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry Series”.
This would be the version that international audiences would get, titled Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for the US or Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call in EU. Though it didn’t do well financially, selling just over a quarter million units and not meeting its target sales, Nocturne amassed a cult following and became a gold standard for SMT games.
The Countless Spin-offs That Outsold the Main Franchise
With this, Shin Megami Tensei would be the new name of the Megaten franchise. Atlus slapped the “Shin Megami Tensei” prefix on most of Megaten’s spin-offs. This includes, but is not limited to Devil Survivor, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, Soul Hackers and even: the Persona series.
The “Shin Megami Tensei” prefix was used by Atlus West to ride off of the success of Nocturne and help “market” Persona. However, the Persona series eventually outsold the core SMT games by a landslide. This led to Atlus dropping the use of the prefix entirely with the release of Persona 4: Golden.
Which is a great game, by the way. It’s available on PlayStation Vita and Steam. (Totally not plugging anything here but you should definitely check out this article on 8 Reasons to own a PS Vita in 2020 just saying ok bye-)
Leaving A Heavy Influence Too Good To Ignore
Despite this, the Persona series continues to borrow a lot of elements from its parent series, such as the name of the skills, the demons used, and other gameplay elements.
Where the two differ is mainly on the narrative focus and themes.
Persona games tend to primarily take part in a more realistic setting. It revolves around managing a social life, such as scoring good grades, partaking in school club activities and hitting on teachers. There’s also facing otherworldly threats, but that’s usually in an alternate dimension like Tartarus or the TV World.
Shin Megami Tensei games differ drastically by taking place in hyper fantasy settings with cyberpunk and occult themes.
It’s more realistically grounded (all things aside), and is more relatable to how one manages time in their everyday life. Shin Megami Tensei games, however, take part in worlds that have been greatly affected by fictional events.
The main drive of these games are to explore the meticulously crafted fictional worlds as the player progresses the usually depressing plots of the game.
Not As Black and White
Players are often given choices that set their alignment to either Law, Chaos or Neutral. These alignments heavily affect the ending of the game.
In Persona, there are usually one or two “social links” you need to complete to unlock a “good” ending. There is also the obvious “yes or no” question that pops up in the late game that decides whether you would let the world end, or continue fighting.
It doesn’t bear much consequence as the game is tailored to encourage the player to make the obvious choice. If you head down a wrong path, you just know that this wasn’t the way the game was supposed to end.
The choices you make in SMT however, are not as punishing. The questions the player is presented with are much more aimed towards you, the player, rather than the character you play as.
As a result, whether you end up aiding Lucifer’s Army or standing with God’s Forces, neither truly feels like a “bad” ending. There are endings that are “canon”, but ultimately, players will feel the psychological toll of whatever ending they get regardless. It just doesn’t feel wrong.