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Shin Megami Tensei (SNES) artwork

Shin Megami Tensei (SNES) review


"For Kazuya, a perfectly ordinary Japanese youth, it had been a perfectly ordinary beginning to a perfectly ordinary day: having roused himself from slightly sticky dreams of men that are hung (from crucifixes) and sapphire-haired devil ladies proclaiming their eternal love, our hero spends his morning downloading the hottest apps off the local BBS (look it up) before heading out on an adventuresome quest for fresh milk. Then his mom gets eviscerated by a demon from the rather similarly torn bowels of the underworld, he accidentally transmogrifies the faithful family hound into Cerberus, and the world ends. It's at around that point that the day really starts to go downhill."




For Kazuya, a perfectly ordinary Japanese youth, it had been a perfectly ordinary beginning to a perfectly ordinary day: having roused himself from slightly sticky dreams of men that are hung (from crucifixes) and sapphire-haired devil ladies proclaiming their eternal love, our hero spends his morning downloading the hottest apps off the local BBS (look it up) before heading out on an adventuresome quest for fresh milk. Then his mom gets eviscerated by a demon from the rather similarly torn bowels of the underworld, he accidentally transmogrifies the faithful family hound into Cerberus, and the world ends. It's at around that point that the day really starts to go downhill.

Shin Megami Tensei isn't actually the first installment in the prolific franchise that has come to bear its name; it is, however, the earliest to be available in English, albeit in an entirely unofficial capacity. More importantly, this dungeon crawler that's quite literally from Hell will delight fans of old-school CRPGs and masochists alike with its massive first-person mazes and complex game design as your hardy band of diabolist drifters make their way across the charred remnants of Tokyo currently playing host to the undying enmity between the armies of Law and Chaos.

They're a veritable pantheon of paranormal creatures from every culture across the globe, everything from lupine devourer Fenrir to the walking dead to mischievous mascot Jack Frost – and they all want your help to conquer this brave new world for their respective side. Marshaled by YHVH and the archangels, the forces of Law mercilessly enforce His divine plan to the point of stifling tyranny, but not without considerable opposition from Lucifer, whose creed espouses total freedom for the strong, while the weak are left to perish either in the streets or his followers' gullets. But should neither of those philosophies sound particularly enticing you can tell both groups to bugger off and take the canonical Neutral road, which requires you to demonstrate the true strength of humanity and build a better world by brutally slaughtering anyone (read: everyone) who dares stand in the way.


But don't get the wrong idea; one of the enduring hallmarks of the MegaTen setting is that you don't have to engage in savage violence every time you encounter an immortal horror, but can instead elect to sit down with it for a nice, civilized chat, perhaps sharing a particularly fine cigar whilst pondering the vagaries of the multiverse. Each type of demon sports a different personality; some respect courage or brute strength, while those of the more feminine persuasion prefer an obedient monkeyboy to carry out their latest whims. Even when employing the correct tactics you may have to further grease your newfound friends with money or items, but successfully cozy up to these so-called "monsters" and they'll often return the favor, either with helpful tokens of their affection or even by joining the party outright.

The series' equally iconic fusion system is present as well but not yet fully developed, relegating it to a much lesser prominence than subsequent appearances. Demons can't inherit any skills from their progenitors and it's not really worth hanging on to older ones; by the time you're at the minimum level required to create a particular entity you'll usually be bumping into them as random encounters. Fusion is the only way to obtain demons that are evil or so strongly opposed to your own alignment that they refuse your overtures of friendship, but otherwise it's very much possible to get by without it.

Ironically the four human characters are ridiculously better than any supernatural allies thanks to the superior power of their magic and practically broken firearms; by equipping the right ammo it's possible to afflict entire groups of enemies with devastating status effects via a single burst of gunplay. They're also the only party members who gain experience, as demons' physical stats and selection of special abilities are permanently fixed; unfortunately your goals (and paths) diverge over the course of the story.


But no matter how you choose to play it, it's impossible to deny that this game presents a serious challenge. The random encounter rate is absurdly high, and despite only one class of demon being present at a single time, they're often found in large numbers; a single battle also typically consists of multiple waves, making it possible to finish off one horde only to immediately contend with another. Since a successful negotiation doesn't award any experience and demons will never fight you if you have one of their number in your active group it's also important not to become under-leveled – even then you can be annihilated in the blink of an eye due to an imbalanced party combination or plain bad luck. And that's not even considering the intricate mazes all these battles take place in; thankfully there's an automapping feature, but you'd better be prepared for teleporters, tiles that force your party in another direction, and dark zones that have to be navigated by the sounds of your heads repeatedly smacking into the invisible walls.

Shin Megami Tensei may itself leave you feeling slightly concussed, but the highly original mechanics, eclectic occultism, and surprisingly fierce soundtrack offer much in exchange, particularly for the sort who still fondly remember the Gold Box or Wizardry lines. Veterans of the series will note that later entries refine the formula, but just about anything MegaTen will considerably liven an otherwise ordinary day.

Rating: 7/10

sho's avatar
Staff review by Sho (October 29, 2010)

Sho enjoys classic video games, black comedy, and poking people until they explode -- figuratively or otherwise. He also writes a bit.

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overdrive posted October 29, 2010:

The random encounter rate is absurdly high, and despite only one class of demon being present at a single time, they're often found in large numbers; a single battle also typically consists of multiple waves, making it possible to finish off one horde only to immediately contend with another.

TRUTH. I've played this game. I think I finally crumbled around Ginza (big city area after that place with the creepy girl and two devil barons). It was just like...every two steps I have to fight a battle that turns into three battles...NO MORE!!! I mean, it was a fun game, but the fighting burned me out big-time.
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CoarseDragon posted October 29, 2010:

I could be wrong but I don't remember SMT being on the SNEs or being released in english. Am I wrong?
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overdrive posted October 29, 2010:

CD

Japanese SNES (aka: Super Famicom). Translation patch for the ROM was done by Aeon Genesis.

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