persona.jpg['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. Recently IGN’s Best of 2006 feature listed Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army as a runner-up in the “Best Game Nobody Played” category. As collectors know, the games “Nobody Played” typically become the games “Everybody Wishes They Could Find”.]

Shin Megami Tensei

The Shin Megami Tensei series got its start back in 1987 with a Japanese RPG called Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, which could be translated as “Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation”. Based on a series of novels by Aya Nishitani, the game was first published by NAMCO for the MSX computer and later that year for Nintendo’s Famicom. A sequel followed and then Atlus took over publishing the series. Subsequent games added the word Shin to the title, which is read in Japanese as “true/genuine” but is also homonymous with “new”. In the years since, Atlus has made Shin Megami Tensei a cornerstone of their business, releasing a bewildering assortment of remakes, sequels, side stories and spin-offs. However, only a handful of these games have received English language releases.

Persona

persona.jpgAmerica got its first taste of the Shin Megami Tensei series in 1996 when Atlus brought Persona over. One of the Playstation’s early RPGs, Persona was unusual for its contemporary, urban setting that was far removed from the fantasy worlds that most other RPGs inhabited. Its “dungeons” were shopping malls and schools that were explored from a first person perspective. Persona’s “world map” was a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood, complete with crosswalks and subways.

In other respects, Persona stuck close to well-established RPG conventions. It had a party of intrepid adventurers, magic, swords, monsters, and a lot of turn-based combat. Fighting was enlivened by the ability to parley with enemies in order to wheedle items from them or avoid combat altogether and characters had the ability to transform into powerful “Persona” entities. Despite its unique presentation, Persona was a slow and somewhat tedious game that involved a great deal of stat management. Some described it as a good game for budding, young CPAs. Persona was also marginalized by a sloppy translation and odd changes to its content made by Atlus in an awkward effort to make the game more appealing to a Western audience. Persona is not too difficult to find as most who have it find it fairly easy to let go of. Expect to pay about $40.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment

persona2.jpgReleased in 2000, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was a much more successful game (at least artistically) than its predecessor. Although the translation remained a little dodgy and its graphics were well behind the curve for a game arriving at the end of the Playstation’s life span, Person 2: Eternal Punishment was a complex and mysterious RPG, filled with interesting characters and a distinctly grown-up story.

Eternal Punishment was actually the second part of a two game series, the first being Persona 2: Innocent Sin which was never released outside of Japan. However, it stood well on its own and was packed with enough content to keep players busy for many, many hours. Once again set in a modern, slightly sci-fi, urban environment, Person 2 turned a darker shade with serial killers, demons, and a satanic mega-corporation lurking behind a veneer of steel and glass, air-conditioned normality. Persona 2 was also noteworthy for featuring as its main characters adults with jobs and responsibilities. Perhaps the long-running success of the Shin Megami Tensei series can be attributed to a willingness to grow along with its audience.

Persona 2 came with a second disc that featured an animated trailer for the game and a short video interview with producer Cozy Okada and illustrator Kazuma Kaneko. This is one is also relatively easy to acquire at $40.

Nocturne

nocturne.jpgLongtime Shin Megami Tensei producer Cozy Okada left Atlus in 2003 to form a new studio called GAIA (creators of the upcoming Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner for PSP). However, before leaving he oversaw the development of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the Playstation 2.

At first glance Nocturne was a little underwhelming. The cell-shaded graphics were well-crafted but subtle. The story seemed vague with few characters to interact with. The combat was frequent and punishing. After spending a couple of hours wandering through Nocturne’s lonely hallways many asked themselves “Is this all there is?”

Well, yes and no. Nocturne was an esoteric game that discouraged casual players but could be very rewarding for the initiate who was willing to invest the time to understand all of its intricacies. The game was a bit of throw back to an earlier age when RPGs were exacting dungeon crawls rather than elaborate interactive novels. Progress through Nocturne was dependent on one’s ability to navigate convoluted mazes as well as understand the combat system and exploit enemy weaknesses. Conversing with demons assumed a new importance as they could be recruited into the party and combined with one another to create exotic, new creatures.

The game was released in America as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne in 2004 and includes additional “Director’s Cut” material as well as a CD soundtrack. Now out-of-print, Nocturne sells for around $60.

Digital Devil Saga

ddsbox.jpgDigital Devil Saga found the Shin Megami Tensei series moving back to firmer narrative ground with a somber sci-fi tale. Set in a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape laced with imagery from the Vedic Hymns, Digital Devil Saga had a look that was unlike any other RPG. The combat system from Nocturne was reused although demon recruitment was no longer an aspect of play. Instead, characters could transform into demons themselves and devour enemies.

Digital Devil Saga was an ambitious, two part game with the first volume released in 2005. It came in a slightly higher priced deluxe box that would hold the second DDS when it was released later that year. DDS I included a CD soundtrack but DDS II came with a soundtrack only as a pre-order bonus. Fortunately, Atlus still has extra copies of DDS II’s soundtrack and it can be ordered separately from their web site. The Digital Devil Saga deluxe box is no longer available and sells online for around $60. DDS II can still be acquired new.

Devil Summoner

summoner.jpgThe latest Shin Megami Tensei game is the currently available Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army which was released late in 2006. This time the setting is Taisho era (around 1932) Tokyo and Atlus put a lot of effort into depicting that uncertain period in Japan’s history when traditional culture was being swept aside in favor of rapidly advancing modernism. Despite its realistic backdrop, Devil Summoner is a fairly breezy game with a much more forgiving difficulty level. Combat is played out as a fast paced hack ‘n slash with most engagements over in a manner of seconds. Demons can be captured for use in battle or combined together in a system very similar to the one in Nocturne.

Spin-Offs

The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is very broad and encompasses many spin-offs that have only a tenuous connection to the main series. Over the years Atlus has made a few of these available in America.

Beginning in 1995, even before the release of Persona, Atlus brought over Jack Bros., a little known action game for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and in 1999 they published Revelations: The Demon Slayer for the Game Boy Color. Revelations was part of a fantasy themed Shin Megami Tensei series called Last Bible in Japan. Also, in 2003 Atlus released two games for the Game Boy Advance called Demi Kids: Light version and Demi Kids: Dark version. These were monster collecting RPGs intended for younger players.

Although Maken X for the Dreamcast was not specifically part of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, it had much of the same look and feel. Published by Sega in 1999, Maken X was an interesting first person melee game that was hampered by a dreadful localization and frustrating game play. However, it is worth owning for Kazuma Kaneko’s decadent and bizarre character designs which seem to reference the fashions of both haute couture and S&M dungeons. It is easily obtained for about $10.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) 1996-2006 Atlus All Rights Reserved