Fandom Explained: Shin Megami Tensei

Henry Gilbert

When you think of long-running Japanese role-playing franchises, maybe your first thought is Final Fantasy, or maybe Dragon Quest or even Tales of… games. Alongside those decades-old franchises, there’s another well-established series that’s having a huge year in 2016, both in America and Japan. Shin Megami Tensei games have been around for nearly 30 years, and with multiple new entries this year, it’s about time you got to know SMT.

This summer saw the launch of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, the long-awaited crossover title that combines some of the best elements of Shin Megami Tensei with equally revered Fire Emblem. Then there’s September’s Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, the 3DS sequel to SMTIV that’s getting great reviews. And that’s just the start of the many Shin Megami Tensei games you’ll find on just about every console ever made. But before you dive into the complex series — affectionately known as MegaTen to its fans — you need to know what makes the series so unique.

Shin Megami Tensei is a Mature Pokémon Meets Satan

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Stange as it may sound, SMT and Pokémon games have similar beginnings: A young person is initiated into a new life of collecting unique creatures, and throughout the game, those creatures will grow and evolve to face more powerful enemies. Only in MegaTen those monsters come directly from Hell and would as soon as kill humanity as help it. It’s up to players to forge contracts with hellspawn to complete SMT’s lengthy campaigns, and you’ll often fuse together your growing collection of ridiculous looking demons to make even stronger monstrosities to battle your way through challenging dungeons. And SMT has a very odd bestiary, including some monsters who are more than a little phallic.

Shin Megami Tensei is High School Students Preventing the Apocalypse

No matter the setting or gameplay variations, SMT titles have the unifying theme of average Japanese teenagers battling against the end of the world (and not always winning). You’re often leading a brigade of moody students through the apocalypse, and even as the world falls apart around them, the youngsters explore some mature subject matter. Depression, sexuality, discrimination, and other weighty topics are commonly approached in SMT games, usually in a more sophisticated style than most games ever attempt. And it really matters how players choose to deal with those heavy subjects — SMT’s multiple endings are often decided by the branching paths players take throughout its stories.

Shin Megami Tensei is Hardcore Dungeon-Crawling

Choices and monsters are fine, but what will you actually be doing through most SMT games? You explore some of the most grueling dungeons in role-playing games. Each SMT journey begins with a challenging trip through a menacing dungeon crawling with demons, and it only gets tougher from there. Getting through a standard SMT dungeon takes skill and planning, and it’s immensely satisfying once you finally complete one. Seriously, these are heavy duty, multi-level dungeons — there’s a reason most Shin Megami Tensei games take at least 50 hours to complete.

Shin Megami Tensei is Persona, the Best JRPG of This Century

Beyond the core Shin Megami Tensei games are some fantastic sequels, including strategy subseries Devil Survivor and the Blade Runner-like Soul Hackers. But the top SMT spinoff is Persona. First launching on the PlayStation, Persona slightly lightens the mood of standard MegaTen and mixes in more of the day-to-day life of a high school student. Later entries added in dating sim elements and animated cutscenes that pulled in even more new fans, and now Persona is arguably more popular internationally than the series that spawned it. Persona 4, in particular, has tons of acclaim from press and fans alike, appearing on a number of “best games ever” lists. The upcoming Persona 5 is now out in Japan, and Fandom is extra excited for it, so look for P5 to make SMT more famous than ever next year.

Shin Megami Tensei is the Most Promising RPGs of 2016

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In the years since its 1987 debut, Shin Megami Tensei has grown to be one of biggest RPG franchises around, home to dozens of great titles, and that list is only growing in the next 12 months. June already saw the launch of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, perhaps the most colorful SMT game ever and featuring some great music. September sees the launch of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse on the 3DS, a well-reviews sequel/retelling of the events in the epic Shin Megami Tensei IV. And next Valentine’s Day sees the release of Persona 5, in what could finally be the moment when the series becomes embraced by mainstream gamers.

For a series known for its dark and moody view of the future, the next year seems increasingly bright for Shin Megami Tensei. Jump on the bandwagon now before it gets too crowded.

Henry Gilbert
Henry Gilbert is Senior Games Editor at Fandom. He's worked in the gaming press since 2008, writing for sites as diverse as GamesRadar, IGN, and Paste Magazine. He's also been known to record a podcast or two with Laser Time. Follow him on Twitter @henereyg.
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