Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) may be on the precipice of being among Japan’s most popular franchises largely due to the popularity of its spin-off Persona titles. A customary glance can tell why Persona is the more popular among the SMT titles. It inherits quite a bit of the main series’ dark roots but infuses with appealing anime tropes and accessible mechanics.
Yet for many, the main series SMT remains the true dark horse of the JRPG genre. One which unabashedly embraces the antiquated mechanics and elements of the genre — simple, turn-based battle system at its very core but approaches it in a unique way in almost every other department. The incredible Nocturne which was the third entry in the main series was the earliest introduction to the series for the Western games, the earlier two Super Famicom games were never released outside Japan. So, it is primarily curiosity which reigns the mind as you begin the inaugural entry of JRPG’s most unusual franchise.
For those not familiar with SMT, unlike most JRPGs, it features mute protagonist and focuses more on recurring themes of chaos and order than a solid narrative. That said, there are quite a few of insane twists and crazy surprises in store of whatever loosely held narrative SMT has and the fact it’s all so incredibly surreal makes it feel fresh even two decades after it was originally released.
Thematically and in how elements of the game are executed, each Shin Megami Tensei games are in many ways quite ahead of times with respect to their peers. This stands in sharp contrast to the battle system which is closer to a turn-based Pokemon but with Final Fantasy’s party system thrown into the mix. The twist here being that every random enemy is a potential ally as you can talk or trick your way into recruiting them among your ranks.
The series is known for its obtuse tutorials and incredibly punishing battles which allow no room for complacency as even a mere random battle is capable of showing you the Game Over screen. Shin Megami Tensei uses the first-person perspective as you traverse through the 2D environment. Just like Ultima Underworld and Realms of Arkania from its time, this can be incredibly disorienting for those who aren’t used to it. The fact that SMT has NPCs appearing only when you’re right in front of them makes it even more disorienting and quite a chore to traverse through some of its more complexly designed dungeons.
SMT also was one of those early JRPGs who took quite a bit of inspiration from its Western counterparts particularly Ultima and the fact it has an alignment (law/neutral/chaos) and three different endings are the most obvious facts which indicate that. Even beyond that, the stats in SMT are more important under the hood than many of its JRPG peers back then.
Demons, cults, conspiracy theories and satanic rituals are commonplace to the main series SMT game. With the 16-bit graphics and weird, occasionally unsettling MIDI tunes perfectly create a mix of eerie horror and oddball humor that has become a trademark to the series.
But how does it fare as a port? Not that well, as firstly the fact it has a virtual keyboard means you have t spend your entire playtime having part of the screen obscured by keys. Secondly, the switching between landscape and portrait mode is incredibly weird. Atlus has also not done anything special in terms of making this more accessible to anyone who is new to the series, an obscure manual being your only help to the game. Likewise, the save system feels out of place on a mobile device and incredibly antiquated in terms of its usage.
All the problems are compounded by the fact that a menu-based game like SMT relies heavily on use of buttons which can get incredibly clumsy to use on the virtual keyboard. A simple implementation of touch controls could have gone a great way in making this game a lot easier for any player — long-time series fan or a newcomer intrigued by the series’ reputation for being unlike anything the JRPG genre has to offer.
Because when all is said and done, Shin Megami Tensei I is still a great RPG at its core — one that despite its quirks has aged reasonably well, largely due to its ahead-of-time themes and design but it is sadly marred by control issues which feel more like lazy porting than anything else to me.
Mikhail’s take on the Port:
When I discovered SMT 1 was on iOS a few months ago, I never thought I’d see a localized version. The Japanese game even specifies that an English version was not in the works. Atlus surprised us with this port and I was hoping against hope that it would not just be a translation of the Japanese iOS port. With iOS 7, Apple introduced controller support. SMT1 for iOS has no controller support and it isn’t even native to the iPad. An option to scale the virtual buttons would be welcome on the iPad when the iPhone game is played at 2x. I hope a future update fixes the control issues because this is definitely something any RPG fan should play. SMT games have always had amazing soundtracks and this one is where it all began. It feels insane how far ahead of its time this game was when it launched.