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Game Info:

Shin Megami Tensei
Developed By: Atlus
Published By: Atlus
Released: October 31, 1992
Available On: iOS, SNES
Genre: Turn-Based JRPG
ESRB Rating: Teen (iOS version rated for this, SNES version nominally Mature)
Number of Players: Singleplayer
Price: $27.99 (SNES version) $5.99 (Apple iOS version)

Note: This mainly concerns the SNES (fan translation patch to English from original Japanese, must own a legitimate copy of the original game to use the patch) and iOS versions (official English translation by Atlus, only playable via certain emulators and older phones currently). Content from other Japan-only ports like the PSX, Sega CD and PC Engine versions (unavailable via any legal means in English at this time) will not be covered.

When people discuss religion, questions of ethics and philosophy naturally stem from said discussions, as many ethics and philosophical positions have originated from religions. However, that doesn't usually make for an interesting video game experience, but Atlus decided to go against the grain and try with the 1992 release of Shin Megami Tensei.

Before we continue, some background. Shin (meaning "True" in Japanese) Megami Tensei is a semi-reboot of the Japanese Megami Tensei series for the NES, which themselves were based on a sci-fi novel series called Digital Devil Story by Aya Nishitani. The "Megami Tensei" part of the title refers to the "Resurrection of the Goddess", a reference to Japanese mythology and it's key goddess figure Izanami, which was a plot point of the original novels. The SMT series (also available in Japan for its early games for the most part) tells it's own story, merely reusing some themes (though some elements directly related to the source still make some cameos), so the title is a bit of an artifact not very indicative of its own story and gameplay.

The story is as follows. In 19XX, while checking your email, some mysterious man named Steven sent you and everyone he could find an email with something called the "Demon Summoning Program", and included a dire warning that someone had broken down the barriers of the natural and supernatural worlds. The first half of the game involves seeing his warnings come true and ends with the world being destroyed in nuclear fire despite your best attempts to stop the forces of Law and Chaos from destroying everyone caught in the middle.

The second half of the story resumes after the apocalypse, where humanity is split into factions, and you must choose whether you will align with Law, Neutrality, or Chaos, all of which are manipulated and led by demons of various religions and myths, and the dramatic finale takes place at one of the few bastions of civilization left (after what amounts to a replay of the Great Flood of Genesis), where you must decide what ideology you will side with while the forces of Law (led by the highest orders of angels in service to God) and Chaos (led by Lucifer) vie for your allegiance.

The gameplay is quite similar to first-person computer RPGs like Wizardry, utilizing 3D style dungeons and a top-down overworld map. Combat involves using melee, ranged (guns), and magical attacks, and both humans and demons can be party members.

Shin Megami Tensei
Highlights:

Strong Points: Interesting monster summon and control mechanics; interesting story discussing themes of ethics and philosophy
Weak Points: Some game-breaking bugs; tedious menu-based controls; repetitive music; some game mechanics poorly explained and fleshed out
Moral Warnings: Occult and demon summoning references as explicit plot points and gameplay mechanics; some RPG based violence and unavoidable scenes of murder; moderately strong language used by all characters throughout; option to directly oppose God and a faction that is Christian-like in many respects; many ethically questionable decisions available to the player; some sexual content depicted in monster designs; frequent usage of religions and mythology in a crossover context that would be considered blasphemous

Predating Pokemon, the game allows negotiating with demons to get them to join your party as opposed to fighting them, and you can also combine them in summoning chambers to create more powerful demons. Demons are used as a generic term for everything in the game (even humans count and are treated as such if recruited) that can be ally or enemy. Depending on the choices you make through the game, some demons will be more inclined to join or reject you depending on your alignment to Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.

Eventually, there is a point where your alignment is locked into one of the three ideologies, and this will affect the final bosses you encounter and certain rewards specific to siding with one of three ideologies as well as giving one of three endings, where representatives of each ideology congratulate you on making your choice for good or ill. There are also some more minor gameplay features. Maps and combat feature a "moon phase", which will affect certain treasures and chances to successfully negotiate with certain demons. Another feature, which would get expanded in the sequel, is sword fusion, where one can infuse a sword with a demon and get a more powerful weapon from it, some of which are only usable if you have a certain alignment.

Graphics are, by 1992 standards, adequate. All demons are well designed, albeit some are palette swaps of each other with minor changes. Dungeons tend towards a monochrome look due to limited palettes, and exploration can be boring and difficult due to little variation in theme aside from wall colors in many of them.

Controls are a mix of first-person RPG controls in dungeons and combat and top-down controls in the overworld. Both function reasonably well, though there are a lot of menus to wade through. Sound is good if limited, with many iconic if repetitive techno/cyberpunk style themes mixed in with many themes appropriate to the factions (the Law theme has a cathedral music motif, appropriate given its leaders for example), and sound effects are adequate but little more than that.

Stability is another story. While otherwise completely playable from beginning to end, the alignment system (stored as a variable in the game engine) can get buggy if the player tries to sequence break certain story points, which can break the game, such as leaving the player locked into one alignment ending while their alignment is locked into something different.


Given this is a game around demon summoning, use of religions for discussing moral and ethical positions, and general occult and magical themes, it has a lot of moral concerns that require discussing in detail.

Violence in-game is rather sterile and RPG like in combat, but several murders do occur and are described in enough detail there is no mistaking what has happened. Sexual content is somewhat prevalent, and some demon design feature nudity and at least one attempts to seduce you at more than one point in the story. The SNES and iOS releases, however, do censor even more explicit details in this regard to be found in other Japan-only releases like the Sega CD and PC Engine versions, as no explicit nudity is present in these scenes. Language is somewhat crass and some mild sexual innuendo is present, and the religious will certainly be offended by certain characters who blaspheme God. There are references to the occult alongside explicit demon worship, services you can partake in if you are so inclined.

The ethical and moral need to be elaborated on, as the game takes one of three positions: Law is associated with monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity (and their serial numbers filed off adherents called Messians) and concerns a desire for order and a willingness to sacrifice free will. Neutrality concerns a desire for a choice between the extremes of Law and Chaos and is represented by Taoism and other esoteric faiths that fall between the Law and Chaos extremes. Chaos is represented by enemies of Law such as Lucifer, who leads an alliance of polytheistic faiths, fallen angels, and other classic opponents of monotheism (and their human adherents are collectively called Gaians). Chaos is primarily concerned with absolute free will, which leads to a world where no one is master over another and is a world based on personal strength for good or ill.

None of the three are presented as absolutely good or evil; all sides have arguments they can make for their sides. The player can, until the point of decision, work for or against whatever side they please; whatever questionable ethics they choose to show are their choice. After the alignment lock, they must work for the side they have chosen, and if on the Law or Chaos side, all demons explicitly aligned with the opposing side are barred from recruitment and will not work with you if summoned.

Further, the story is a crossover cosmology. While Law is primarily associated with Judaism and Christianity, it occasionally strikes alliances with Law inclined beings from other faiths. Chaos does the same thing from the other perspective, and according to the developers, human belief shapes the power and perception of the supernatural, hence the presentation of the supernatural in the story.

Shin Megami Tensei
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 70%
Gameplay - 16/20
Graphics - 6/10
Sound - 6/10
Stability - 3/5
Controls - 4/5

Morality Score - 24%
Violence - 5/10
Language - 3/10
Sexual Content - 4/10
Occult/Supernatural - 0/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 0/10

While the above is certainly bound to offend depending on your religious principles, God is certainly implied (if not shown in this game, his seraphim act as agents of His Will) to be devoid of his more reasonable and compassionate traits, with his side being rather fanatical. Chaos is not much better, with Lucifer making no secret his world design is one of the strong trumping the weak and any semblance of order trampled into nothingness, so while the ethics of the Law and Chaos sides may have their virtues, neither of their leaders come off as overly sympathetic. Neutrality even has issues, as it involves what amounts to genocide of the leaders of Law and Chaos, basically declaring one will side with neither Law or Chaos' extreme views via omnicide. While it's the canon ending used for the next game, it is a morally checkered choice that isn't much better than siding with Lucifer, even if you are a Christian. Even Law may be offensive, as you are imposing God's Will via force instead of choice, which is certain to offend Christians who do not support the forcible imposition of theocracy.

The creators have again gone on record in interviews that they take no particular sides, religions were used as a backdrop to explore the extremes in the Law/Neutral/Chaos philosophies. The final decision as to what is right is for the player to decide for themselves, though, again, the manner in which they did this will certainly offend anyone of faith in some manner, given how there is precious little ground for a non-extreme view of any of the material they presented in the story.

Overall, as a game, it has an interesting story with a mix of science fiction meets fantasy that dares to make the player ask themselves questions of ethics in the process. It also has the gameplay that Pokemon would later refine further that requires strategy and foresight for getting the different endings in the long term.

On the moral side, this game is bound to be controversial to Christians at best, as well as adherents to many other faiths, especially given the fantasy kitchen sink where all religions and myths are presumed true, and the summoning of demons, occult imagery, and the choice to directly oppose God will certainly offend Christians, though working for him is also presented as a somewhat negative choice unless you don't mind imposing His Will via force as opposed to choice.

It's a timeless classic that set a bar future games in the SMT series would meet, improve on, and excel in terms of gameplay. However, if the presentation of morals is remotely offensive to you, and as a Christian, they nigh likely will be, then steer clear of this title, especially if you're not an adult capable of handling mature themes of this nature.

About the Author

Daniel Cullen

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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