Digital Devil Monogatori: Megami Tensei II

When compared to the original Megami Tensei, MegaTen II is really sequel in name only. It abandons Aya Nishitani’s characters Nakajima and Yumiko, as well as all of his third book. But for the series as a whole, this is where its apocalyptic adventures across Tokyo and heavy focus on storytelling start to take shape. From here on out, the series is less interested in aping Wizardry and more in making a name for itself. Previously, the only fan translation was for the Super Famicom remake, but as one recently finished for the Famicom original release, that’s the one we’ll be taking a look at.

It’s an interesting way to introduce the sequel’s overworld

Megami Tensei II begins by pulling a sneaky on you. You start in an overhead view of a familiar dungeon layout- it’s the city of Mikon from the start of the first game. The first three levels of original MegaTen’s first tower are recreated here, with similar foes and a quest to defeat the Minotaur. Succeed and you’ll find that you and your best friend (you provide names for both) have been playing a game of “Devil Busters” on the computer in the basement of a fallout shelter. As referenced in the opening cinematic, nuclear war broke out years ago. The ruins of Tokyo are now home to countless roaming demons – and as it turns out, their nefarious politics.

Beating the Minotaur boss has the Devil Busters game hijacked by the demon Pazuzu. He claims to be God’s messenger and that you and your friend are the chosen Messiahs. You are meant to leave the shelter, venture into the wastes, and slay another demon, Bael, who currently rules over Tokyo. Doing so will free humanity of the demon scourge, as God allegedly wills.

Right away, we can see why this never got released in the West. Between traveling around various districts in Tokyo that would mean nothing to a foreigner, to (optionally) fighting the literal Old Testament God by the end, you’ve got something that was never meant for an international audience. Nintendo censorship aside, I can easily see how no one would think the considerable translation work would be worth the effort for references that would go right over the heads of a 1980s NES audience.

Bars let you meet some interesting characters and get info

Which is a shame, because MegaTen II’s narrative ends up being surprisingly rich. There’s mysteries, betrayals, shocking twists to your character, and more that you probably wouldn’t expect out of a console game of this vintage. About the only disappointment is that you can’t truly make any choices. You can choose your ending – neither of them happy – but that’s it. A big decision roughly 1/3rd into the game gets forced on you, though admittedly, a branching storyline of this magnitude is maybe too much to ask of an 8-bit cartridge.

Gameplay remains nearly identical to the first MegaTen. You and your companion will be the only permanent party members, with demons filling out the rest of your ranks. Both of you are the only characters that can equip gear, with stores selling a wide selection of armor pieces and melee weapons. Guns are also introduced here. Both of you can hold a sword in one slot and a firearm in the other. The reason to use one over the other is a little unclear – the manual suggests that swords are more effective against certain demon types, but usually it comes down to which weapon is newer/more expensive.

The series’ staple demon negotiation returns and doesn’t function any differently. There’s a whole host of new monsters to sway to your side, but no new conversation topics or clearer indicators about what’s going to work. Like the first, I had my best success with persuading, then bribing, but this could absolutely just be perception rather than anything coded. The moon phase tracker returns, and once again, demons are more open to negotiation on a new moon. Likewise, nothing changes about fusion beyond simply having new demons to work with. You’ll always want to fuse the strongest demons you can control.

City ruins mark towns you can enter.

The newest part is an overhead overworld map of Tokyo’s ruins. Instead of taking place entirely within first person, you’ll hoof it between recognizable Tokyo districts to get to the next dungeon.  Most of the overworld is irradiated slag, but you can spot some landmarks like the Tokyo Tower in Shiba, or the statue of Hachikō in Shibuya. Districts act as towns do in Final Fantasy – you can enter buildings, get clues from NPCs, and do some shopping depending on the layout. Some buildings feature an odd totem pole called the Watchman, who will let you save your game (to battery backup – no passwords!) or teleport between later districts.

The overworld also gates off areas of Tokyo until you’re strong enough to deal with them. The starting island acts as an isolated training area. A friendly demon will offer to carry you across water areas if you can find the items he’s looking for. Doors need keys and bosses need to be defeated – overall, you probably know the drill. Your eventual goal is an enormous nuclear crater in the middle of the city, where a portal to Hell appropriately awaits.

At its core though, this is still a dungeon crawler. Enter a building or a sewer and you pop back to first-person mazes identical to the original game. You rotate in 90-degree increments and all areas are grid-based, so have your graph paper or equivalent standing by. Early areas are basic enough that you can get by without mapping, but later areas definitely aren’t – plus there will be quite a few areas of note that you’ll have to refer back to later. Your own maps are going to help with this. Even though the Super Famicom remake contains an auto-map, it doesn’t label these important areas.

The minimap spell frequently pays off.

The original’s shifting main view screen is dropped in the sequel, but the map spell does return. Casting it throws an 5×3 minimap in the corner, which mostly helps you firm up your own maps. Though rare, you will still encounter drops and rotating floors, especially once you start trying to navigate Hell’s five islands. The map spell will help you get your bearings after these trip you up.

You’ll face random enemy encounters both inside and outside of the dungeons. You should be fine as long as you keep your two main characters geared up and your remaining demons as strong as they can be. The same rules from the original apply here, with the exception that you can now select who is casting a beneficial spell outside of battle. Whereas Yumiko was forced to be the team’s medic in the first game, you can now pass that off to an appropriately-skilled demon, if you have one.

Light grinding is going to be necessary, mostly to build up enough cash for good equipment. As with the previous, MAG is necessary to keep demons summoned while Makka acts as the game’s gold. I always had enough MAG from taking every fight I encountered, but Makka needed frequent grindy boosts when new areas and new gear came around. Thankfully, you can also still select Auto to breeze through low-level fights. You can also Talk to demons you already have a copy of to avoid fights, though this time they may actually leave you gifts when you depart. Finally, you can gamble in certain towns, but you won’t be making significant returns unless you’re ready to abuse save states.

Autopilot is a nice inclusion, when it works.

New to the sequel “autopilot” function. The theory here is clear – set a marker, travel ahead, and when you “recall” you will automatically walk back to your marker. You could use this to navigate back to the dungeon entrance if you get lost, or find your way back to a lock once you have the key. You even get two separate slots to set two different marks. The trouble is, it just isn’t very reliable. The further out you go, or really, the more complicated the path back becomes, the more likely you are to get stuck. The auto path will “break” and no longer move you. You also are still walking, and so are still subject to MAG costs and random encounters. You should absolutely not rely on this to replace drawing maps.

While you’re not playing as Nakajima and Yumiko, your two characters end up acting exactly like them. The party leader (“you”) has access to the demon summoning computer and cannot cast magic. The second character starts adept to magic and learns spells as the game goes on. I suppose you could allocate points to make that character more physical, but that does not seem to be the game’s intent. You will need a reliable healer, and while there are demons that can fill this role, you can never trust that you’ll find a good one at your current level. Certainly not like the second character, leveling right up alongside you.

Also carried over from the first game is the inability to target specific enemies. I don’t understand this one. Encounters often have multiple copies of an enemy type, tracked at the top of the battle window by little figures. As a demon gets tagged with a debuff or close to death, the figure will indicate this. The problem is, every member of your party chooses a copy to attack at random.

Random luck can have you fighting WAY more guys than you can handle.

Let’s say you’ve successfully cast Sleep on a foe. They’re out for some turns, so it would be beneficial to attack someone else. Unlike, say, Final Fantasy, you can’t direct everyone to attack someone else. Or you can’t consolidate all your attacks on one enemy at a time. No demon’s attacks get weaker as they have less health, so spreading damage around randomly is just inefficient. It makes these battles take longer than it feels like they should.

There are also three spots where a specific demon is needed to proceed. Meaning you have to have them in your party to trigger a crucial event. NPCs in town will give you clues both that A) you’ll need a specific demon type and B) what type that is. Trouble is, no one tells you where. You’ll have to have kept a log of what demons hang out in what areas, or what combos result in creating them, with no prompting ahead of time that you’ll need to do this. This felt scummy and I absolutely had to consult a walkthrough. Even me telling you it’s going to happen doesn’t seem worth the hassle of making a list of every demon you come across.

I also thought the game started to drag as you slogged through Hell. I get it, the place is not supposed to be a stroll on the boardwalk, but it’s home to labyrinths many times more complicated than the ones you were facing on the surface. Part of it is probably because this is just a long game – there’s a lot of bosses, a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of random encounters. If you’re dutifully mapping and exploring, you’ll level up pretty naturally. But the game’s greatest challenges do come at you at a point where you may be tired of the whole ordeal already.

Overall, this is a much better story than the first, which does a better job of enticing you to continue than the simple exploration of the original. However, it plays much the same. For 1990, it’s still a game in Wizardry’s shadow, and still one that likes to poke you in the eye in the name of offering a challenge. It’s not a bad place to start one’s journey through the Megami Tensei series, but is most impressive only when comparing its advancements to its progenitor.

 

The Good

Much greater emphasis on story and storytelling. Some events could be considered common tropes, but it’s still surprising to see them executed well in an early video game. Builds on the best parts of the first game.

 

The Bad

Still an old-style dungeon crawler at the end of the day, and one that’s not particularly interested in making things easy for you. Some grinding might be necessary. Hand-drawn maps are definitely required. Backtracking for specific demons is unexpected and frustrating.

 

We’re conducting cybernetic research here. Which isn’t an easy thing to do, now that Tokyo’s been reduced to rubble.”

 

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