Every so often, a media release comes along that doesn’t necessarily redefine its genre, but does stand out from the crowd. Some examples are Star Trek: The Next Generation, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While none of these were groundbreaking, they were diamonds in the rough. The Megami Tensei franchise is another such example.
The Megami Tensei (commonly shortened to MegaTen) franchise of role-playing games (RPGs) has a deep and rich history. The first game was released in 1987 for Famicom (what we call the Nintendo Entertainment System, in North America), and the franchise has since come to be hailed as the third most popular RPG series in Japan, after Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.
The MegaTen franchise has many entries in its main series and spin-offs, most of which never saw domestic releases outside of Japan. The number reaches the mid-40s, which rivals the number of Final Fantasy titles, many of which, again, never saw domestic releases outside of Japan, although Europe has seen more of those than North America.
Megami Tensei can be translated as “Reincarnation of the Goddess,” although I’m partial to the alternative term “Goddess Metempsychosis,” myself. Wikipedia states that “the heroine of the first game was actually a reincarnation of the Shinto goddess Izanami. Despite their retaining of this part of the title, this story feature does not occur in most of the other games, although there are always characters who could be considered to be said goddess.”
The first two games in the main series, 1987’s Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei (“Monogatari” roughly translating to “Story”) and 1990’s Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei II, although developed by Atlus, were published by Namco. In 1992, Atlus developed and published Shin Megami Tensei (“Shin” meaning “True” in this case. It can either mean “True” or “New”), and Shin Megami Tensei II in 1994, both for the Super Famicom.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was released 9 years later, for the PlayStation 2. A director’s cut of this game was released 11 months later, under the name Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Maniax. Later that year, Maniax was brought over by Atlus USA, and was released as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Nocturne was the first main MegaTen game to get a domestic release.
It’s worth noting that while Nocturne was the first main game to be domestically released, we did get 4 spin-off titles prior to it: 1996’s Revelations: Persona, released in Japan as Megami Ibunroku Persona (“Alternate Tale of the Goddess: Persona”), later re-released as an enhanced port for the PlayStation Portable in 2009; 2000’s Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, both for the PlayStation; and 2003’s DemiKids: Light and Dark, for the Game Boy Advance.
Another thing worth noting is that after the release of Nocturne, Atlus USA began giving all following MegaTen releases the Shin Megami Tensei prefix, regardless of whether or not it’s a spin-off. That said, the only other true Shin Megami Tensei game we’ve gotten, besides the MMO Imagine, is Strange Journey, released for the Nintendo DS, in 2009 in Japan, and 2010 in North America.
Okay, but what makes MegaTen games stand out from all the other RPGs out there?
One such factor is its games’ settings. Unlike the genre’s usual pseudo-Medieval settings and sword and sorcery elements, MegaTen games, more often than not, are set in modern or near-future Japan and are centered around the occult, at times combined with cyberpunk elements. The only 3 games that I know of that are not set in modern or near future Japan are Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army which is set in the 1920s, Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, set in the 1930s, and Strange Journey, which takes place at the South Pole.
While at their core, MegaTen stories are your usual fare of “Shit happened, fix it,” the games approach it in such a way that they’re unique, dark and/or mature — something not often seen in other RPGs.
Another thing that sets MegaTen apart is the mechanics typical of the franchise. Each and every game in the series features some type of communication between humans and demons. In most games, players can persuade demons to join the battle party, although this is not the case in the Digital Devil Saga (Japanese title was Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner) games. In addition, the player is often asked to make moral or philosophical choices that affect the game’s storyline and ending.
The enemies in MegaTen tend to be called “devil” or “demon” (“demons” in this article), as opposed to the term “monster” which is used in so many other RPGs. In most MegaTen games, demons can be recruited by the player, allowing them to fight alongside one another and/or fused with other demons to create a more powerful one. MegaTen is also heavy in mythological references, as it features deities and creatures from Graeco-Roman, Norse, Celtic, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu and Japanese mythologies.
The battle system (in most games) is the biggest difference, in my opinion. At first glance, it’s your average turn-based battle system as in other RPGs. However once you look closer, you realize that it’s more cerebral.
Almost every demon has a weakness and a strength. Exploiting a weakness (let’s say you’re fighting a fire-based demon. Its weakness would be ice. So you’d use an ice-based attack) will, in most games, give you an extra attack. So keep exploiting weaknesses. However, if you use an attack an enemy is strong against (ie: you use a fire-based attack against that same demon), you get one of 3 adverse effects: 1) the demon will absorb the attack and regain health, 2) it will repel it back at you, or 3) it will nullify it altogether, Also, in Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and Digital Devil Saga 2, attacking with an enemy’s strength would also make your turn end. However, enemies can also exploit your weaknesses. So, be careful, pay attention and exploit.
The art and music are the final things that I’ll talk about. For the most part, character designs are done by the rather mysterious Kaneko Kazuma, about whom very little is known. More often than not, the music of MegaTen games is composed by Meguro Shoji. While they do have a signature rock style, each soundtrack runs the gambit of styles, including orchestral, electronica, jazz, rap, R&B and hip hop. My friends and I continue to be impressed with every MegaTen (and Meguro Shoji for that matter) soundtrack.
MegaTen is by far not your average RPG franchise. So much so, that trying to describe the appeal, other than just saying “It’s different,” is very hard. I suggest you pick a MegaTen game up and try it. Then you’ll get the appeal, and thank Atlus.