Twenty-two years. Give that a moment to sink in. A whole twenty-two years has gone by, and finally, US gamers are getting a crack at the original Shin Megami Tensei; the game that gave the brand its namesake.
Known for its mixture of science-fiction and religion, the Shin Megami Tensei series has grown a lot over these years and its many newer and successful spin-offs have no doubt helped to pave the way for Atlus’ recent releases of more classic titles in the west.
Shin Megami Tensei 1, or SMTi, as it is dubbed by the Atlus team for this release, has quite its own legacy. In a 2009 interview with Famitsu, Kazuyuki Yamai (Director of such titles as Shin Megami Tensei IV and Raidou Kuzunoha), went as far as to call it the antithesis of RPGs— saying that the game had a punk attitude that set it apart from its peers. However, is that punk attitude enough to carry a game after two decades and some chunk change?
The answer is no. And at the same time, yes. Actually, let me reword that: the answer depends on who the player is. To most people, the game would show its age incredibly. Like the unpopular kid at prom, there is no hand holding here. Much is left up to the player to figure out, and wandering into the wrong area too soon will result in a quick defeat.
There’s also a lot to keep track of between your Yen, Magnetite, The Phases of the Moon, Your current Alignment, and Health and Magic Points. Throw in some first-person mazes that sometimes are disorienting to navigate and you’ve got yourself a relentlessly retro experience.
It doesn’t help that most of what you need to keep track of depletes quickly. To even summon a demon will cost you Yen, and in this economy weapons, armor, guns, and bullets are all quite expensive. Then there’s your Magnetite, which you use up by just walking.
If none of that sounds like it is for you, you aren’t missing much. By no means will SMTi convert anyone into a fan of this style of play if they aren’t already attracted to the prospect of an oldschool approach to dungeon-crawling. That said, if you enjoyed previous releases first-person dungeon crawlers in the series such as Strange Journey and Soul Hackers (which should give you an idea of how Magnetite works), you could find something to like here.
SMTi is not the first re-release of Shin Megami Tensei 1, and it’s actually a ‘fusion,’ if you will, of some of the previous remakes of the game. The first thing you’ll notice is that it uses the appearance of the GBA version of the game. However, the audio is actually not taken from the GBA release, but as far as I can tell, is audio used in the PSOne release of the game.
The colors are a bit washed out since this is an earlier Gameboy Advance game, so this version is not as dark or rich as the original Super Famicom version. That said, given the portable nature of this release it may be for the best. The reworked backgrounds especially, are a huge step up from the barren nature of the Super Famicom’s graphics, that were overly simplistic and downright boring to look at. Honestly, in the looks department it’s an improvement, even if the textures are a bit pixilated and blurry at times.
I found the music wasn’t entirely to my liking, though. The original Super Famicom music was already pretty great, but the PSOne remixes are a bit tinny and high-pitched. As strange as it is, in this situation, the PlayStation version of the music may actually not be the best version. That’s not to say it is entirely bad. While some songs come off high-pitched, others sound great. The battle theme and level up theme are exciting and can get your heart racing. So the high-pitched nature isn’t in all the songs, but the ones that are high-pitched are quite noticeable and sound pretty bad.
Below is a quick example for you. The Super Famicom version plays first, and then the PlayStation version kicks in after that:
The most noticeable features in SMTi, however, are the iPhone-specific changes. Touch controls are, of course, involved. SMTi sports two different control schemes. First, there is the default Portrait Mode. This mode has you holding your phone in the up-right vertical position. The screen is then shared with what can only be described as The Revenge of the Turbo Express, a virtual controller. This mode makes one hand control easy, and makes it seem like you might actually be doing something professional instead of playing a video game. The downside is that the screen is smaller, since the virtual controller takes up at least half the space.
By tapping the screen display (not the virtual controller) in Portrait Mode, the game switches over to second variant: Landscape Mode. Opting out of a virtual controller and instead placing transparent buttons right on top of the screen. This mode is held like most mobile games—in a horizontal position. The game is still framed, though, and doesn’t take up the full phone screen, but is still much bigger. You can switch back to the Portrait Mode by tapping a folder-looking button on the right.
You can only switch between the two modes through these touch shortcuts. Just tilting the phone horizontally or vertically won’t activate them—in fact it won’t do anything. I was actually confused for the first couple of minutes when I started playing, trying to switch over to Landscape Mode, and only activated it by accident.
I thought I would prefer Landscape Mode when I started playing SMTi, but I found it cluttered and blurry. Some instances of bad background textures are more noticeable in this mode, and over all it feels like the screen was just stretched out, and not in any proper resolution. The transparent buttons on it only clutter everything up and they don’t ever disappear ether. Portrait Mode may have been smaller, but it was still easy enough for me to read, and honestly controlled better. The precision of the (virtual) D-Pad felt more natural in Portrait Mode, and controlling with one hand was easy to do, too. Ultimately, that’s what I stuck with.
I’d like to also point that out of all the RPGs I’ve played on my iPhone, SMTi controlled the best. I think the 3D first-person nature of the game really blended well with touch controls, much more than the top-down view of the typical phone RPG. It certainly made going through doors easier. In fact you can get into rooms with just one try!
Hidden away in both Portrait and Landscape Mode is an “i” icon. Clicking on it will open up a full instruction manual. Atlus didn’t skimp on this manual. It is a full-fledged manual, just like a physical release would contain, with proper lettering, coloring, pictures, and so on. The manual explains all the basics of control as well as gives some hints, and offers a rudimentary fusion chart. While not as expansive as the chart included in the Limited Edition release of SMTIV, there is still a fair chunk of info packed away here. You can tell a lot of work went into this release and it wasn’t just a cash-in.
Most of the localization staff from SMTIV returns for this game, with Mai Namba being the Project Lead as well as returning as a translator. Almost all the translation staff returns alongside her, and the same can be said for the editors and the QA staff. This is a talented and dedicated team that has localized some great games in the past. Being almost identical to Shin Megami Tensei IV’s staff also helps keep all the translations smooth and consistent between the games.
The new script they came up with has been a joy to read, and has its own unique flavor. One of my favorite choices made is how they chose to translate Makai as “The Expanse” This keeps the ‘90s Sci-Fi feel of the game, and is a little punchier then just calling it plain ol’ Demon World. This team knows Shin Megami Tensei, and reading their work, I really think they love it, too. The smaller details weren’t missed, references were all retained, and the spirit of the original is kept well intact.
While not for everyone, SMTi is one of the most solid and all around fun RPGs experience I’ve seen on the iOS market. Good controls, a great translation, and an engaging legacy set it apart from a lot of the competition. However, its own inaccessibility to people new to the genre, and some minor visual and audio downsizes must be taken into consideration as well.
If you own an iOS device, enjoy first-person dungeon crawling, and don’t mind micro-management, you’ll probably like SMTi. It’s a crazy ride between a Military Coup, American missile crisis, and accidentally summoning demons through teleportation experiments.
Food for Thought:
1. Gamers who played Shin Megami Tensei IV should spot many similarities:
- The Cathedral of Shadows returns, and Mido uses the same introduction: “Welcome to the Cathedral of Shadows, where demons gather.”
- Teleportation Terminals play a role in both the story and traversing Tokyo.
- SMTi’s Protagonist being from Kichijoji, and SMTIV’s Flynn being from Kiccigiorgi is also intentional.
2. In the manual, Atlus uses Futsuo, Yoshio, and Waruo for the names of the Protagonist, Law Hero, and Chaos Hero respectively. These were names that showed up in guides and art books to describe the characters, back in the day. Roughly, they mean ‘Regular guy,’ ‘Good guy,’ and ‘Bad guy.’ These three names are thought to be the origins behind the three heroes’ names in Shin Megami Tensei IV; Futsuo turning into Flynn (Furin), Yoshio turning into Jonathan (Yonatan), and Waruo turning into Walter (Warutā).
3. SMTi needs a minimum of iOS 4.3, and supports all the Apple iOS devices. iPhone/iPod Touch is, however, recommended by Atlus. I personally played the game on my two-year-old iPhone 4S.
4. An Android version was available eventually in Japan. Atlus has said nothing about that version coming over here yet. With a little luck, we may hear something though.
5. There is also a port of Shin Megami Tensei II, and Shin Megami Tensei: if on mobile devices in Japan.