The meta-franchise of Japanese role-playing games known as Shin Megami Tensei (or “MegaTen” for short) encompasses many different sub-series of games. Like pitch black coal from the bedrock of Hades, these games are edgy, dark, and hard as hell. However, patiently chip away at them and they reveal their diamonds: vivid, demonic creatures that serve as friend or foe, an insidiously addictive balance between fairness and challenge, imaginative settings that blend elements of science and mythology, and compelling notions of player choice. The latest title in the mainline MegaTen series, Strange Journey for the Nintendo DS, expands the unique elements that have made MegaTen a success story for the JRPG genre in modern times.
The primary factor that distinguishes the MegaTen franchise from other JRPGs is its trademark assortment of demons. In this context, the term “demons” doesn’t just refer to the “horns and pitchfork” variety from Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, the term encompasses an imaginatively conceptualized menagerie of supernatural beings and deities from numerous mythologies, religions, folklore, and cultures from across the globe. Much more than mere combat-fodder, MegaTen demons have distinct personalities and adhere to nuanced belief systems. They question players’ personal philosophies and moral outlooks, barter for favors in exchange for items, or may even pledge their fealty as active party members. The developers have implemented multiple layers of interlocking mechanics to emphasize the central importance of these creatures, and the key to success is learning how to properly exploit these systems. Players steadily expand their arsenal of demons (recorded in a “Demonic Compendium”) either through demon negotiation or by merging two or more creatures together through “demon fusion.”
“Strange Journey consists of many different systems, but the game is designed so these systems form a lattice toward one goal: to defeat strong enemies and conquer tough parts of the dungeon so the player can move on,” explains Eiji Ishida, Director of Strange Journey for Atlus Japan. “We decided to implement a simple paper-rock-scissors style battle system where the outcome relied heavily on the preparation made prior to the battle, not the tactics. We designed the system so the players would think, ‘I lost because I didn’t plan out my party right … I’ll work on demon fusion and make a demon that helps me win the battle.’ It’s not the battle that the players need to put their thoughts into, it’s the demon fusion!”
As the famed “Demon Designer” for Atlus Japan, Kazuma Kaneko (credited as Producer & Original Concept for Strange Journey) has been the primary creative force behind the MegaTen franchise for more than 20 years. He’s responsible not only for researching and crafting the visual appearance of the story protagonists and demons (in an iconic and often provocative style) but also envisions the plot, settings, and themes of the games.
“When I design demons, I start by researching their profiles in legends and folklores,” says Kaneko. “Gods and demons that appear in myths greatly reflect the environment, culture and customs of the area they originate from. For example, both Zeus from Greek mythology and Thor from Norse mythology are thunder gods, but their attire and equipment are quite different. I get all that information in my head first, then give the demons new form, sometimes in accordance with their traditional image, and in other times giving them a modern interpretation.”
During demon negotiations and certain story sequences, MegaTen games challenge the player to examine and consider their own personal philosophy and morality. It’s very reminiscent of the types of choice encountered in Western-developed console role-playing games.
“The player should always be at the center of the story; event scenes with the subjective view of the player help maintain that feeling,” says Ishida. “We made an effort to do that as much as we could when we worked on Strange Journey. When the players are confronted with questions and choices that shake the very reason for their actions, they think, ‘Man, what should I do … ?’ Those tense moments when the players are sucked right in to the game are, to me, the pinnacle of in-game storytelling … You can only get that kind of experience from event scenes in games! It’s so awesome!”
A silver tongue in battle won’t let players talk their way out of every situation, and when it comes to epic boss battles, MegaTen can be notoriously brutal for its level of challenge. Striking that critical balance between frustration and maintaining player engagement is a daunting task to get exactly right, even for the most experienced designers, but it’s a quality that is consistently demonstrated in nearly all of the MegaTen games.
“I believe that for any challenge, the important thing is to make both the goal (the reward for overcoming the challenge) and the means to achieve that goal clear to the player,” Ishida says. “It’s really basic and nothing out of the ordinary. However, I think that is the single most crucial point when developing games; it’s what gives the players the feeling of accomplishment.”
Although the supernatural enemies during MegaTen‘s battles will crush you for errors, even in failure it feels fair because it is always the result of a strategic flaw or mistake. Because of this, the desire to win and the compulsion to reconfigure and try again is very strong.
“The staff and I focused on one thing: to clearly show the players the reason for losing the battle. If the players can analyze the battle and understand why they lost, they can figure out how to win the battle and can control the process to victory themselves,” Ishida explains. “Keeping the battles simple enabled us to make the gameplay surprisingly straightforward, logical, and deep. As long as the goal and the means are made clear, the players can control the process to their liking. That makes the process itself an enjoyable experience, and when the players achieve the goal, they get a strong sense of accomplishment.”
The mixture of modern ideas like science and technology with world mythology and imagery is another recurring thread in almost every game in the franchise, from Shin Megami Tensei on the Super Famicom to Strange Journey, which depicts an international mission to Antarctica to investigate a demonic outbreak stemming from a mysterious rift in the fabric of space-time. This type of thematic juxtaposition distinguishes MegaTen not only from other Japanese RPGs, but from most games in general.
“Because MegaTen is all about the ordinary lives becoming inconceivably unordinary, it has to be connected to modern society somehow,” Kaneko says. “To accomplish that, we often adapt concepts theorized in cutting-edge science into the game. At the same time, though, a huge number of gods and demons from all over the world appear in MegaTen. They too have a close relationship with our lives, but it’s more from a folkloric standpoint – you might consider that to be the analog approach, as opposed to the digital approach of science. We lay the foundation of the games by tying science and folklore – two seemingly incompatible approaches – together with philosophy. That’s what makes the MegaTen settings unique.”
It’s not uncommon in MegaTen games to see modern elements such as machine guns and computer AIs alongside Japanese nature spirits or fearful, statuesque Angelic beings from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Even Atlus’ trademark mascot, Jack Frost, is a cute and cuddly interpretation of a mischievous spirit from Anglo-Saxon folklore. Judging by the variety of supernatural beings on display, and the extensive detail provided in their profiles, it’s obvious that Kaneko has a broad yet profound interest in this area. However, one set of myths and legends holds more interest for him than others.
“For the myths … I like the Old Testament of the Bible. Many myths in the world share traits like the triad of deities, duality such as good and evil, the creation of the world, and the flood. But because the Old Testament is the most simple, it gives me the idea that it might actually be the root of all the myths,” Kaneko explains.
MegaTen also portrays a more nuanced yet sophisticated type of morality that differs from simple, binary depictions of good and evil. It tends to explore contrasting world-views and beliefs of characters driven by abstract ideals. The narrative In Nocturne, for example, begins with an occultist who uses a forbidden power to trigger the end of the world. As the player explores the surreal, post-apocalyptic landscape of Tokyo, different factions of divine beings rise up to compete for the right to determine the nature of the new world to be reborn in place of the old. Their views on how this new reality should be molded are not so clear-cut between black and white, but it is ultimately the player’s choice, not theirs, that determines the form of the world to come.
“MegaTen games are designed so that the player’s decisions as the protagonist determine the course of the story,” Kaneko explains. “Within that story are many characters who oppose the protagonist and others who want to befriend him – and each of them has their own motivations. Frankly, I’d even go so far as to say that events in the world of MegaTen are metaphors for the real world.
“It’s not wrong to put everything into simple ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ like in other games, but what’s right and wrong can be completely different, depending on your position and perspective,” says Kaneko. “In Japan, there is a Buddhist sutra called Hannya Shingyo. It says that things with shape actually have no shape, and it’s the things with no shape that have shape. The basic idea is that the world is in constant motion and everything is transient, so anything in this world can be seen differently, depending to one’s personal perspective. So I say, why not let each player tackle that question of what’s right and wrong? I think that’s why the fans have loved and supported the series for so long.”
Despite some perceptions of the JRPG genre in modern gaming circles as waning in relevance, MegaTen stands out as a critical success that has garnered a devoted following. What does the future hold for fans of this unique franchise?
“I’m personally interested in AR (augmented reality) technology,” Ishida says. “You go out, and when you see through a camera – or even your own eyes – there’s a MegaTen demon on the street! I’d love to make a game like that. ‘I heard there’s a huge demon named Beelzebub at an intersection in Shibuya! Let’s go beat it!’, ‘If we can get a hundred people together, we can summon Metatron! We’ll meet tomorrow in front of Tokyo Big Sight!’ Doesn’t that sound exciting?” Ishida suggests.
Kaneko offers a more enigmatic hint about what’s next on MegaTen‘s horizons.
“The recent game console trends began changing the way people play and enjoy games,” Kaneko explains. “One direction I’m considering is for each MegaTen subseries to have a unique type of consequence for the player’s choices, and enhancing it in a way that suits that specific subseries. I’m thinking it would be nice to incorporate that into the player’s in-game choice-making, and thereby enhance the gameplay experience.”
Through its use of thought-provoking player choices, addictive challenges, and a uniquely philosophical outlook on the nature of reality, the games of the MegaTen franchise offer a captivating blend of old-school, tough-as-nails turn-based role-playing combat, while pushing the envelop of player choice and interactivity in their own distinctively intriguing way. Hopefully we, as gamers and fans, can look forward to another 20 years (or more) of deliciously demonic role-playing delight.
The author would like to extend very special “doomo arigato” to Aram Jabbari, Manager of PR and Sales, Nich Maragos, Editor, and Yu Namba, Senior Project Manager, of Atlus U.S.A., Inc., and of course, Eiji Ishida and Kazuma Kaneko for their gracious contributions, assistance, and support.
Edward Moore is a veteran game designer and producer currently hard at work on a top secret project with Spark Unlimited in Los Angeles, CA. Despite investing nearly 42 hours into Strange Journey, his Demonic Compendium stands at a measly 24 percent completion, so he has quite a bit of demon negotiation and fusion left to catch up on!