The Megami Tensei series is Atlus’ JRPG jewel; huge in both its native Japan and, more recently, here in the West though the Persona spinoff line. We’ll get there eventually, but you probably know by now I can’t just start in the middle of a series. Through a relatively recent fan translation, we’ve gotta go waaaay back – past Shin (New) Megami Tensei, past the remakes on the Super Famicom, and all the way back to when MegaTen was just a new attempt to expand dungeon crawling gameplay in Japan through its most popular game console.
The games are inspired by Aya Nishitani’s “Digital Devil Story” novels. The first two have been fan-translated into English, or if you prefer, there is a crotch-munching anime covering the first book. Reading it, it’s very late 80’s – the kind of wild technological speculation that created The Lawnmower Man, combined with the body horror of Hellraiser. In it, loner genius and shameless asswipe Akemi Nakajima writes a computer program that takes in ancient mystical writings and astrological charts and burps out literal demons. He uses their power to mind-control his classmates, murder two students that wronged him, and offer sexual sacrifices in exchange for power. He is somehow the hero of this tale.
This first game takes place directly after the first two novels. Lucifer has watched Loki and Set get their balls stomped by our protagonists, and decides he wants a shot at the title. Nakajima, with the help of transfer student Yumiko Shirasagi, are lured into a massive dungeon hosting regenerated versions of all the demons they squashed in the novels. Nakajima has his classy pocket computer. Yumiko has the power of magic, after discovering in the books that she is the reincarnation of Japanese goddess Izanami (Megami Tensei = Goddess Resurrection). Together they must plumb the dungeon of a game that’s been accurately described as Wizardry meets Pokémon.
Megami Tensei’s most unique point is that Nakajima and Yumiko are your only permanent party members. They’re the only characters that level up and the only ones you can equip gear to. The rest of your party will be made up of the very demons you face within the dungeon. Perhaps inspired by Wizardry 4 – though definitely in line with the novels – Nakajima has the ability to negotiate as part of any fight sequence. If successful, that demon will agree to join your quest. They’ll hang out inside Nakajima’s computer, healing any damage they may have taken, until called upon. You can summon demon compatriots at any time, in and out of combat, with the COMP command. You can keep a maximum of seven demons in reserve, with a total party size of five.
This adds an odd, almost trading card mechanic to what is otherwise a standard dungeon crawler. Demons are divided into classes and two classes can never be negotiated with – usually insects and creatures that physically cannot talk. The other four classes are fair game and some randomization makes it so that asking them to join is never a sure thing. This “negotiation” is actually more of a very short dialogue tree that branches based on how receptive the demon is. Later MegaTen games really fill this out into its own minigame, but for this first one, you pretty much ask to talk, get an offer from them, and agree to it or not. There’s no guarantee it will be successful, and a lot of seemingly random chance decides whether they join, steal your gift and run, or become enraged and fight you anyway.
There’s not a lot of reliable guides to follow or tricks to more success, as there are for the later games. The demons are appropriately unpredictable and I wouldn’t recommend trying to talk to a demon you aren’t sure you can beat anyway. The only clear hint given relates to phases of the moon, which is constantly tracked on the game screen. Demons are more open to talking or fleeing during a New Moon. They are greedier and more hostile during a Full Moon. Combat strength doesn’t appear to ramp up or down accordingly, it strictly affects how stubborn they are. In practice, you’re just going to spend a lot of time trying and failing. When you finally do bag a demon though, it feels pretty good. It’s fun to see what they’re capable of, and as a bonus, if you ever face that kind of demon again and try talking to them, they’ll give a shout out to their brethren on your team and leave without a fight.
Demons give necessary strength to the party. If you’re keeping up on your roster, then Nakajima and Yumiko will often be the weakest members. Yumiko grows into a mighty mage as the game progresses, but everyone’s spell power is limited and cannot be recharged in the field. You’ll want to have extra healing and spellcasting demons on the bench. Opposition becomes fierce the further along you go, and it won’t take long for you to need extra party members just to spread out the damage received. Characters at the top of the party list are more likely to take hits, so you can reorder the party to place sturdier demons in between our two heroes and the incoming damage.
There are two currencies in the game, Makka and MAG. Makka is your standard gold, used for purchasing goods. It will also cost an amount of Makka to summon a demon (download charges from Nakajima’s ISP?), scaling up with that demon’s strength. MAG is a material needed to keep the demon in a physical form. It works as sort of a timer – the more demons you have out, the more rapidly you’re eating into your MAG reserve. Both currencies are collected from combat, and both flow pretty generously. You’ll need to fight a lot of battles to earn enough Makka, and new gear comes with the expected sticker shock, but I never felt like I didn’t have enough MAG to run with the demons I wanted to run with.
Finally, you can fuse demons to make stronger ones. At the “House of Heresy,” you can see everyone you’ve collected, their class, and their level. Picking any two demons will take you to a screen showing what their combination would look like. If you like the results, you’ll get that demon after a slightly overlong, very epileptic cutscene. Fusing demons is always free and generally results in a better creature than the two source demons by themselves. It’s also as complicated as you want to make it. There’s underlying rules and tricks, but the preview screen and the fact that it’s free make it accessible to anyone. I was fine just running through the combinations manually and stopping when I got something I liked.
Beyond the demons, MegaTen is fundamentally the first Wizardry. You will explore a grid-based level, looking for the stairs that lead to the next. You’ll retreat back to town when you need to recharge. There’s a locked elevator in the first tower you can use once you find the right item. You’ll need to draw your own maps, and will face occasional challenges like dark rooms, spinning floors, and trapped tiles meant to make your mapping difficult. Yumiko will learn new spells only through leveling – Nakajima can’t use magic at all, while demons don’t level up. Those spells (at least in the English fan translation) use arcane-sounding names that pretty much require you to try it once to see what it actually does.
Where it splits from Wizardry is in how comparatively generous it is. Password saves are built into the game, either allowing you to visit an elder in the first town to save, or by using a spell Yumiko learns around level 20. Death will still mean losing any progress past the last password, but it’s a much more reasonable system. You’ll always restart at the game’s first town, but it can effectively pull your team out of trouble and return them with full health – a pretty small price to pay for entering a long string of characters and doing some minor backtracking. Dead demons can always be revived with a perfect success rate at the House of Heresy – you’ll only lose them if you want to, while the prices for bringing them back are even quite reasonable.
Yumiko has a map spell right away, which makes an actual, completed map appear on the screen. Pressing B slides your view between an “action” mode and a “navigation” mode. You’ll have a compass heading and a dungeon level always displayed, while Yumiko’s map spell places a live minimap in a small window. You can see two squares left and right, and four up and down, making this invaluable for verifying your own map or finding your way around to a limited degree. It’s still a tough game, and a modern perspective cries out for quicksaves to blunt the difficulty of some of the encounters, but this is much more accessible than the original Wiz.
Both games probably clock in at around 4,000 total grid squares, but MegaTen’s layout is much more complex. The first eight floors are made up of simple 8×8 squares, but you’ll soon find this is just one of five “towers” with a massive ground floor spanning and connecting them. The screen border changes colors as you enter a new tower/area, making this a little easier to track, but there’s a lot here to map before you even get into the basements, or the flying city. That’s right, one of the towers can actually move its location and park over the final two, acting as a mobile base that brings healing facilities closer to you.
I really appreciate the creativity here within grid-based design restrictions, though I admit, it stands to get confusing. Wizardry turned out to be a great place for me to start dungeon mapping, because the hard 20×20 limits of every floor meant I knew exactly what to expect. MegaTen throws most of that out. You start to see that maps are formed through “tiles” of 8×8 grids, offering a little consistency, but how far they go and in what directions initially seems arbitrary. Get ready to erase and redraw, or graciously reference that in-game map spell far more often than you might expect to. I can’t imagine trying to track this one on real graph paper.
And while it’s more accessible, this is still rough in the same way Wizardry was – filled with old design decisions that do not respect a player’s time. There’s no party-wide healing spell, so everyone must be attended to individually. Dungeon runs consistently get cut short as you have to teleport (or earlier, walk) back to a healer to recover your party. The early game is marked by dipping into a dungeon for a few squares, then scurrying back to safety. There’s lots of scraping together coin to buy basic equipment, only to have those plans derailed by needing to spend the money on unexpected healing instead. Progress seems to stretch out forever as you keep blowing limited funds on staying alive. Example: a Zombie on the first floor gave Yumiko “Palsy,” making it so she can’t attack or cast magic. You won’t have a way to heal this until level 25. The House of Heresy back in town can fix this for 60 makka. 60 makka that was going to go toward getting her a helmet.
You’ll be over this hump by the end of the first tower and probably feeling pretty good, barring some unexpected grinding (maybe) to defeat the first boss. Then the middle levels open up, and you’re confronted with a game that expects you to explore all of it. As much as you may hate checking empty, useless room after empty, useless room, you still need to map everything because some out-of-the-way square will house a key object or an NPC offering vital clues. Enemy difficulty also seems balanced toward assuming you’re walking everywhere and fighting everything, so any shortcuts you try to take will need to be made up with forced grinding.
The remaining bosses guard objects you’ll need for the end game, and each boss is matched to a lost item that will weaken them. Most of these NPC clues will be pointing you toward finding that item, but it’s very much looking for one the one square out of hundreds in the area. If you don’t find it, you probably can’t beat the boss. Take Loki – every 3rd or 4th of his attacks will be a devastating spell if you don’t have his amulet to nullify it. You’ll get shredded, and grinding alone is not the answer. If you’re not cheating with a walkthrough, you’ve got to find both the amulet and the NPCs who will tell you about it in the first place, or simply die enough times until you figure out you need something more to beat him.
Multi-encounters are common throughout the game, where after defeating one group of enemies, you’ll immediately have to fight one or two more surprise ones before the battle is over. I don’t understand the purpose, but it certainly drags fights out. Magic uses spell points here instead of charges, but you still cannot regenerate spell points in the field through any means. You must head back to a town and find a healer. There’s only one House of Heresy in the whole game – at the first town – so you’ll be backtracking there for demon fusing constantly. Finally, yes, you will eventually encounter enemies who will drain you of character levels. I don’t know why this was such a common feature of early RPGs – I guess other than instant death, it’s the biggest stick they have to drive fear into an encounter. But if you actually accept this and re-grind out your stolen levels instead of simply reloading a password, you’re a better gamer than I.
There are also some little annoyances unique to this version. First, only Yumiko’s spells can be used outside of battle. If you have a demon with a healing spell, too bad, you’ll have to get into a fight to use it. Second, an “Auto” battle is an option, but you cannot stop it once it starts. If you find some demons are too strong for you, too bad, you’ll have to watch your party get destroyed and know not to auto-battle next time. Third, you can only remove a demon from your team through fusing or death – specifically, using a password without reviving them first. This really cuts down on any mad scientist impulses you have for demon fusing, as your seven slots become far more precious than it feels like they should be. I definitely had some killer fusions that I wasn’t a high enough level to control yet, and just had to let the source demons go because they were holding back my ability to fight effectively.
In 1995, the first two games were remade for the Super Famicom as Kyūyaku Megami Tensei. Graphics are better, using the Shin Megami Tensei engine, and the above issues are addressed. It definitely feels more modern, but it’s still a tough recommendation simply because the demon library is overwhelming. Like later editions of Pokémon, there are now SO. MANY. DEMONS. that the whole fusing mechanic became tough for me to wrap my head around as a newcomer. It’s definitely a game made for fans and veterans of Shin Megami Tensei, and harder to recommend as a first play for the entire series. The Famicom original, though it hews closer to original Wizardry in terms of difficulty and design, is a bit simpler to understand.
Overall, I enjoyed Megami Tensei at the start, but it felt like a marathon by the end. I haven’t played any of the later games, so I don’t know how much this ties in. My understanding is little at all. The series’ post-apocalyptic themes won’t even show up until the Famicom sequel. This is mostly like playing the first Wizardry, with a few appreciated quality of life improvements. The dungeon is a little less abstract, but “towns” are just a few rooms on the grid and NPCs just give out one-way messages. It’s primarily a proof-of-concept of the demon negotiation system, and neat for that respect, but it’s a tough one to recommend slogging through.
Demon negotiation is an interesting twist. Building your party out of the very monsters you fight works well. Complicated maps that do more with world building than earlier dungeon crawlers. Built-in saves, an on-screen map (with the correct spell), generous revives.
Not much plot here, just fights with the novels’ greatest hits. Still some punishing design (backtracking, traps, level stealing). Seems to have the least in common with modern MegaTen.