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Shin Megami Tensei 1: Collected Thoughts

Lance Noble Aster

did his best!
Elsewhere, I've been talking about Shin Megami Tensei 1 (and also Nocturne before that and a brief detour into SMT: Imagine private servers) a ton and it's at the point that I figured I should, you know, actually make a thread about it. Here's some thoughts about it that I am reposting from a different, more stream-of-consciousness format.

I think SMT1's area design is way ahead of what it could accomplish with SNES technology. Like, a lot of it makes significantly more sense if you look at the map - suddenly weird room patterns are obviously meant to be things like a fence surrounding a building, a strip mall, a row of shacks, etc. But since it can only do one kind of wall texture per map, it doesn't come across while moving around at all.

Like, looking at the Shinjuku underground map, I can so clearly see the concrete fence surrounding the Yakuza headquarters, taller and better maintained than all the buildings around it, towering over the rows of small domiciles and the few shops set up in the world's saddest market district directly adjacent to no less than three consecutive bars. It's such a perfect picture of petty tyrants lording over people already rejected by society at large. And that's before the apocalypse. After the apocalypse, the fact that the secret police have a significantly greater story presence and malice than the previous inhabitants of the Yakuza headquarters can't be missed. But walking around the Shinjuku underground? What is this, some kind of weird mall??????

The populated areas of SMT1 are the largest and most complex dungeons for most of the game because they're so ambitious in depiction. I want to see these locations fully realized so that navigating them feels more natural, but I also want them to maintain their nature as dungeons in of themselves. A "dungeon" that is an interlocking puzzle of social interaction and gathering information is so much more compelling than a dungeon that has some pitfall traps sometimes and a couple one-way doors.

I don't find myself with an extreme amount of love for SMT1. I made the mistake of first having played Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei, which executed the same kind of ideas as SMT1 with significantly higher polish, primarily thanks to being remakes of MT1&2 made after learning lessons from the design of all four of its predecessors. But I am finding secret strengths of SMT1 that give it its own character beyond its Wizardry But It's Edgy And Has Demons exterior.
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Gravity is overrated.
Oh Shin Megami Tensei. To this day its still my favorite out of the whole series. Just... the feel of that game in particular is so dreamlike. Even to this day I have this sense its a collections of dreams more than a game - its a bad method of explaining it but its the best I have. Don't even get me started on the music, was enthralled by the throwbacks in 4 to it.


behold my godlike
(she/her, or something)
i think that's a good way of putting it, with the plot progression and weird understatement of a lot of things that happen (two characters with the same name that you chose, which is a great little twist, coming back to a ruined world and the guy who exchanges your yen for macca at a terrible rate, and plenty of the other scenes) really coming off as kind of impassively surreal. the general "featurelessness" of the early series really gives a super lo-fi horror vibe i'd love to see modern "retro-styled" and indie games harness. (the first danganronpa (which is the only one i've played to date) kinda ran with some similar stuff, but that's about all i can think of from post-2000...)

if anything i think that aesthetic hit its peak with megami ibunroku persona, since that game also had stuff like the blocky 3d overworld and the save trees that talked to you, but i'm hugely fond of smt1 for that reason. smt2 i've never finished, i think storywise that game has a phenomenal vibe and it's one of my favorites in the series, but the more direct sci-fi framing detracts from what's really arresting about experiencing it to me.

early on in the pandemic season when japan had pretty much shut down there were a bunch of tweets posting pictures of empty train stations and shopping centers tagged with captions about shin megami tensei 1. thinking about a human world virtually empty of people is super weird and jarring and harnessing that vibe is unbelievably potent to me. but seeing those tweets made me feel like i wasn't alone in that, too


Just some poster
I think the old blobber convention of having npcs and enemies pop up when you enter a square definitely helps the "empty" aspect of these sorts of games in general.

My memory is pretty fuzzy on SMT1, but I do remember things like getting a random lore dump from a recruitment conversation with a late-game random encounter. And also windows into then-current trends in Japan like the "bodyconian."
Like the maps, the emptiness seemed like a limitation of the engine rather than the intent sometimes; I remember there was an area that was supposed to be a crowded dance club, but instead of being surrounded by people, you'd just see a few of them pop up when you stepped on their tiles. The atmosphere those limitations produced was pretty cool, though.

With the jump to Nocturne's engine and the PS2, they must have realized that the same effect couldn't be pulled off anymore in what was supposed to be a populated world, and went with the Vortex World setting to preserve the feeling of emptiness. SMT4 went the other way and portrayed a setting similar to 1's with a lot more visible people. Neither one really has the same vibe as the original, though. Strange Journey had dungeons modeled after a supermarket and a red light district, which was more like an inversion; you can tell from the wall textures what the area is supposed to be, but the maps are just mazes that could have been used in Etrian Odyssey or something if they were themed differently. Still, I think they're the closest the series has gotten since the SFC era to that kind of recognizable yet uncanny representation of modern civilization.