Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei is arguably the most influential JRPG series in the world these days, beating out the likes of traditional heavy weights Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Tales. The RPG company has found a way to make use of cheap and efficient game development to create great critical reception and huge revenue through multiple mediums all over the world.
Movies, toys, animes, arcades, pachinko machines. Cheaply made, but beloved by all. That’s the dream, yeah?
But with so many spin-off series, entries lost in translation, localization issues with the canon, and straight up lost games, newcomers can feel a lot of anxiety in wrapping their brains around all there is to take in.
If you are interested in breaking into and enjoying the series, here are a few key points to know and how to jump in.
First are foremost, that cute character at the top is Jack Frost, the series’ unofficial mascot and controllable demon in most games. Secondly we’ll break down the main-series, sub series, and one shot games. For the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll only focus on those localized in English.
Each game in the series is also long. Very long, with the shortest clocking in at around 40 hours and the longest stretching up to 100. If you plan to jump in, please make sure you have a lot of time to do so.
Also remember that Atlus LOVES to put its digital games on sale, so all the prices seen are base prices. Given the right timing or enough patience, you’ll more than likely be able to find them cheaper a few weeks down the road.
Shin Megami Tensei
The main series of Shin Megami Tensei has four games total with three localized in English.
The first game, Shin Megami Tensei, was originally released in Japan on the Super Famicom in 1992 as a retelling of the original Famicom games and novel they were based on. It plays as a first-person dungeon crawler, and it established many of the series’ traits like making pacts with demons, fusing demons together, and carving your own world through choices based on chaos or law.
It has been available cheaply on iOS since earlier in 2014 as the only official localization. As of yet, Shin Megami Tensei II has yet to receive the same treatment, but I wouldn’t expect it to be far behind.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne drops its roman numerals in America as it was the first game in the main series to be localized, and Atlus wanted to avoid confusion. Thus, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2 and carries on many traditions found in the first game, but it does so without diving back into the first-person dungeon crawling. This is a full blown 3D game with a huge city to explore.
Of the three main games in America, it definitely has the best sense of style, but has a lot to ask of newcomers looking to get involved. It’s one tough game, and was just made available for the PlayStation 3 recently as a PlayStation 2 Classic for $9.99.
Shin Megami Tensei IV was released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, and it is one of the best RPGs available for the handheld. Deep themes of law vs chaos, an excellent setting crossing a medieval world with a modern day destroyed Tokyo, excellent dungeon layout that cleverly blends first-person maps and third-person exploration, and easy pick up and play mechanics that will all please both newcomers and veterans alike.
Again, it’s only available for the Nintendo 3DS for the asking price of $39.99, but it drops quite often.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Before we move on to the biggest and most important sub-series of our list, lets take a quick look at Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. While it officially belongs to the main series of games, it was never give a roman numeral because it uses mechanics more similar to the first game with the first-person dungeon crawling than it does with Shin Megami Tensei III or IV.
This excellent little game shakes up the formula by sending a demon hunting team to the cold Antarctic as they investigate a portal that will soon envelop the Earth. The setting and storyline are clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, and they bring so much coolness to this game that it is able to outshine its lack of a roman numeral. Strange Journey might be one of the best in the series overall.
The only way to play this one is to track down a physical Nintendo DS cart for it. Used copies usually go for $20 and new ones go for $30.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
The Persona series is the current reason why Shin Megami Tensei is such a hit around the world these days. It has five main games, all of which have been localized into English by this point.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona’s origins are really complicated as the series jumped from the Super Famicom to the PlayStation, but what’s important to remember is that this is the first Shin Megami Tensei game to arrive in America, unless you count the stupid and ultra-rare Virtua Boy puzzle game, Jack Bros.
Revelations: Persona, as it was called back then, launched for the PlayStation in 1996 just before Final Fantasy VII got the ball rolling for the JRPG genre, making it one of four early RPGs on the PlayStation. It returned to the first-person dungeon crawling found in the Super Famicom Shin Megami Tensei games, but this time starred normal high school students who were butchered by a horrible localization that replaced the entire Asian cast with weird American kids.
The PlayStation release is hard to track down, but Sony remade this game on the PSP with a brand new localization much more loyal to the original, and it can be picked up on the PlayStation Store for $19.99.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2’s origins are just as complicated. In Japan, it is actually broken up into two separate chapters, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. In America, we got the second chapter, Eternal Darkness, but had little knowledge of Innocent Sin until much later, meaning it can be enjoyed without the first half.
Persona 2 ditches the first-person dungeon crawling for a more straightforward RPG experience that looks a little like Breath of Fire IV in its style, and it benefits greatly from it. Be wary though that this is easily the most unsettling game in the series with some seriously controversial themes and gut-wrenching story moments. Definitely not for the squeamish.
Persona 2: Eternal Darkness‘ original PlayStation release can be quite pricey, but it can more easily be picked up digitally as a PSOne classic for just $5.99 on the PlayStation Store. As for Innocent Sin, Atlus also remade it and released it for the PSP for $19.99 and the digital version is definitely recommended so it can be played on a Vita.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is where things get especially interesting. Consider this the Final Fantasy VII of the series as it blew open the doors for all to enjoy.
Released deep into the PlayStation 2’s lifetime in 2007, it ripped through the critics circles, stealing countless awards from highly anticipated next-gen RPG hits like Mass Effect. Its success put the series back in the limelight thanks to its speedy gameplay and fun social/dating aspects, and its popularity hasn’t looked back ever since.
Persona 3 was released two more times as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES on the PlayStation 2 with added bonus content, and Shin Megami Tensei 3 Portable on the PSP. Both are excellent ways to experience the game, and it all depends on if you want a bigger and more expansive console experience or a more streamlined portable game.
Atlus also has made two animated movies directly tied to the events of Persona 3, and the first one is coming stateside in an expensive collector’s edition.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
This game gets its own category simple because of how huge it has become. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 first released in 2008, and the game takes all of Persona 3’s brilliant ideas and runs a marathon with them, easily making it the best game in the series. The best part about it is that you actually can control your party members outside of the protagonist, offsetting one of Persona 3’s more frustrating design choices.
Shin Megami Tensei 4 was also given the portable treatment on the PS Vita with Persona 4 Golden, and it is also available on the PlayStation 3 as a PlayStation 2 Classic. Again, either is a great option, and the biggest difference Golden makes is that it adds a few new scenes and ideas to make it smoother. Several voice actors have been replaced with the portable game though, something that never sits well with fans.
Persona 4’s popularity has seen several spin-offs. The biggest success has been Persona 4: Arena, a fighting game series starring many characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4 and being helmed by Guilty Gear and BlazBlue developer, Arc Systems Work.
It’s been a huge financial success on the arcade scene in Japan, and home versions have been released for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. A sequel is due out in Japan before the end of the year
Persona 4 also has two more spin-offs in the works, namely Persona 4: Dancing All Night, a PlayStation Vita rhythm game and Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth, a first-person dungeon crawler under development by the Etrian Odyssey team that will unite the Persona 3 and Persona 4 cast again.
Lastly, Persona 4 has spawned two anime series, one which wrapped up production two years ago and one set to begin airing in July.
Most importantly, though, development for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 is underway in the halls of Atlus for the PlayStation 3, and while the director has promised a few fundamental changes, the core ideas should remain the same. All we know about the story is that it will speak to those unhappily chained into a life they hate. The game will definitely be localized into English, confirmed by this point.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
After Persona, the most relevant and popular sub-series in the Shin Megami Tensei parent series is Devil Survivor. These two games take all the ideas from the bigger games and cram them into a grid-based strategy RPG similar to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.
I would also argue that these are the most approachable for younger gamers because they are a bit easier and the presentation isn’t so horrific or crazy rock ‘n roll anime like the main series or the Persona games. The main characters are much more young-teen friendly, the gadgets resemble iPhones and the scouters found in Dragon Ball Z, and the demons aren’t quite so hideous.
The first game is pretty fun despite the kiddy approach, and a physical copy on the Nintendo DS can be picked up relatively cheaply on the second hand market. A remixed and updated version called Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked can be found on the Nintendo 3DS for $29.99, and is the best place to turn.
The sequel Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, is also pretty good and available on the Nintendo DS, but it hasn’t been given the same Overclocked treatment on the Nintendo 3DS yet. Atlus claims to be working on it.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
The second spin-off series of Shin Megami Tensei hasn’t been treated or received with the same love and affection as Persona has. The first game, released in Japan for the SEGA Saturn, hasn’t even been localized in English.
Neither was the second game in the series, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, for many years until just recently when it was ported to the Nintendo 3DS for $29.99 to lukewarm reception.
The game was originally released for the Saturn as well in 1997 and can best be described as the first Persona game with a lot more plot themes based on hacking and computers, clearly a showing a love of 90s Japanese digital technology.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha
The third game in the Devil Summoner series comes so far out of left field that it has to be given its own category. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army is the only action game the Shin Megami Tensei series has ever seen.
Released a decade after Soul Hackers in 2006, it takes the series back in time to Showa Era Japan and has obviously nothing to do with computers or hacking. Instead, you beat up demons like a typical action RPG and use dated weapons and demon allies as your special moves.
It’s a decent game and was just released for the PlayStation 3 as a PlayStation 2 Classic for $9.99. A direct sequel called Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2008 but has yet to be released on PSN. Seriously, these titles are getting ridiculous.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne didn’t sit well with a generation of gamers who joined along with the PlayStation 2 and knew nothing about the series. Both Japanese and American gamers alike approached the game with nearly a decade of side-stories in between and didn’t know how to tackle a true blooded Shin Megami Tensei game.
This is where the Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga comes into play. It’s not necessarily easier, but it has a few ideas which make it more simple to approach than most other games. For example, no more complicated demon fusion! This is crazy for a Shin Megami Tensei game, but Digital Devil Saga dances around its lack of demons with a shape-shifting system in which your party members can become a beast.
The dark story and approachable mechanics spell a more mainstream game, but that doesn’t make them awful by any means. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 are both excellent games and can be found relatively cheaply for the PlayStation 2.
Just don’t start with them, because they miss out on a lot of what makes the series so great. The first one went live PSN this week, and you can expect to see the second one in the coming weeks. Hopefully, Atlus sticks to its generous ways and ports it soon.
Where to begin?
With so many games and so many different levels of entry, how does one get started with the Shin Megami Tensei series? Luckily, each are self-contained stories like Final Fantasy, so only a basic grasp of the themes and ideas are needed to carry from game to game. I’ll provide you with a brief list of the best games to get you going, and from there, you are on your own to discover more for yourself.
Shin Megami Tensei – The original game is still a great place to cut your teeth. It’s cheap and available on the iPhone, one of the most popular devices in the world. A no-brainer.
Shin Megami Tensei IV – The most recent game in the main series is also the most approachable. Great setting, interesting characters, deep mechanics, all at your fingertips on the Nintendo 3DS.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – Best for those without an iPhone and want a first-person dungeon crawler to try out. Again, the John Carpenter feeling is enough to give it a glance. Strange Journey is a little tough, but easy enough for a newcomer after a small learning curve.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 – Not as good as Persona 4, but this is the game to play first, mostly because it’s so good and yet it’s hard to go back to if you’ve played its sequel. It’s also the entry point a lot of modern fans broke in with, so play it with fresh eyes on either the PSP or PlayStation 3. Easily the best launching point.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor – It’s the most kid friendly, so it might be the easiest. Don’t expect the thrills and deep storytelling of the other games, but it should be enough to wrap your brain around the demon fusing mechanics. Quite fun as well.