I have been slowly playing through the early Japanese-style role-playing games, although I haven’t managed to do so in the right order. I most recently played Dragon Quest III, but then realized there were a few other games released before it that I also wanted to play. The first of those is Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, which was only released in Japan, in September 1987 (placing it three months before Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star, and five months before Dragon Quest III). In fact, there were two different games with that title, both based on the novel of the same name. The game for personal computers is a top-down action role-playing game, but the game for the Famicom (rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the Western market) is a first-person, tile-based dungeon crawl role-playing game in the mold of Wizardry or Might and Magic. It’s this one that proved popular, eventually spawning the Shin Megami Tensei series which rivals Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in popularity in Japan, and has more recently enjoyed some crossover success in the west. The franchise includes the Persona series of spin-off games, which may be the most successful internationally. I had no idea that this series traced its roots all the way back to the earliest Japanese console role-playing games, so I was intrigued to try out the very first entry.
Since Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei was never released outside of Japan, no official English translation exists. I am, alas, unable to read or speak Japanese, so I was forced to turn to fans for help. Fortunately, there’s a fan-made translation patch for the game available, provided one is playing using emulation. I was, using Retroarch and the Mesen core, as I’ve described previously. Applying the translation patch took a little effort, as it requires a separate patcher utility which then applies the patch to the ROM and generates a new, translated ROM to run in the emulator. Once I did that, however, it worked great, and the translators even included English versions of the game box and manual. There is one known lockup bug at a specific place in the game that seems to only plague the translated ROM, but this can simply be avoided while playing. I did occasionally run into other glitches or game-stopping freezes, but I’m not sure if these are due to the translation or if they could occur in the original game as well. Regardless, they were rare, and most of my time with the game worked just fine.
I admit I was a little trepidatious about the game due to its theme. The novel upon which it’s based is about a student named Nakajima who writes a computer program that can summon demons. As you might expect, that doesn’t go well, and he has to team up with a transfer student, Yumiko, to battle the demons (with the help of a few friendlier demons) and save the day. The game takes place after the events of the book, but brings back the main antagonists, and has Nakajima and Yumiko enter their underworld labyrinth to take them down again, recruiting demons to their cause as they go. This heavy focus on demons gave me pause. I’ve never felt that demons are interesting opponents, preferring something more nuanced than a monstrous manifestation of evil to fight against. And demons in games often go hand in hand with unrelentingly grim stories and worlds, like the original Diablo with its dark gothic setting devoid of any hope.
But it turns out my thinking was blinkered by my Western perspective. While the main villain in Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei is Lucifer, the game’s “demons” are hardly limited to Christian theology, something I should have realized given that Christianity is not common in Japan. In fact, it would be more accurate to use the term “mythological figures” instead of “demons”. During their explorations, Nakajima and Yumiko will encounter creatures from Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythology, deities from the Egyptian and Hindu pantheons, kami from Shinto, and many more that I was unfamiliar with. It’s a globe-spanning array of myths, legends, and gods, only some of whom would be considered evil. In fact, the friendlier entities are key, since Nakajima and Yumiko will need their help if they hope to prevail.
Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei’s headline feature is its system for recruiting demons to join the player’s party. As Nakajima and Yumiko explore the otherworldly labyrinth, Nakajima can use his computer to attempt to communicate with the foes they encounter. Phantasy Star also let players talk to the enemies to avoid a fight, but the system in Digital Devil Story is much more involved. Perhaps a demon looks cautious. Should Nakajima approach, or stay back? Should the party sheathe their weapons? OK, that seems to have mollified the demon for the moment, but now it’s asking for some money. Sure, we can hand that over. Hmm, now it wants a jewel? Oh, all right. Wait, it’s still not pleased, and is attacking anyway? Yes, some demons will try to scam the party, while others may refuse to negotiate altogether. There are an impressive number of different interactions like this, and with several chained together each time, every attempt to recruit a demon feels tense and uncertain. Successfully recruit the demon, however, and Nakajima can summon it with his computer as an additional party member. Only three demons can be summoned at any given time, but there’s space for a roster of seven in Nakajima’s computer, so demons can be swapped in and out when appropriate.
Unlike Nakajima and Yumiko, recruited demons do not gain experience or level up from winning battles. To keep pace with increasingly tough opposition, recruited demons can be fused together to make new, stronger allies. In fact, the best allies can only be obtained through this fusion process. That’s right: the “collect and breed” concepts that form the core of the behemoth Pokémon franchise — which, despite being the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, I have somehow never interacted with — were first found here. And if Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei is any indication, I can understand why Pokémon became so popular. Recruiting and fusing demons is a fantastic motivating force while exploring the maze-like corridors. Fused demons are often far more powerful than Nakajima and Yumiko themselves, so a strong roster of demons is critical for survival. Fusions can only be performed once Nakajima and Yumiko have reached a high enough level, but the designers weren’t shy about letting players glimpse the powerful demons that are out of reach at the moment. Sure, you might settle for that Kelpie right now, but did you see that Naga? Its attributes are awesome! I can’t wait until I’m high enough level to fuse that bad boy.
Speaking of attributes, they play a bigger role in Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei than they have in any of the other Japanese role-playing games I’ve covered so far. Dragon Quest kicked off the genre by borrowing the first person battles of Wizardry, combining them with the top-down exploration of Ultima, and simplifying all the stats and numbers so new players could easily get into the game. From this foundation, the series (and its imitators) built up complexity again in new ways that came to define the Japanese style. Some of this is already apparent in the larger battles and wide array of spells in Dragon Quest III, which would arrive five months after Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. Nakajima and Yumiko’s adventure, however, takes more direct inspiration from Wizardry, including its first-person exploration and grid-based mapping, and its bigger emphasis on stats and optimizing numbers. Players must allocate points across Nakajima’s and Yumiko’s five attributes at the start of the game: Strength, Wisdom, Attack Power, Agility, and Luck. When Nakajima and Yumiko level up, they get one more point each to allocate a the player chooses. The Dragon Quest series, and most of its imitators, don’t give players choices about attributes like this, preferring to automatically allocate points. Having to choose attribute values at the start is an extra hurdle for new players, especially since they won’t know how important each attribute is yet.
There are a lot of resources to keep track of, too. The currency in the underworld is makka, and Nakajima and Yumiko will need it for more than just outfitting themselves with better equipment from shops. Summoning demons costs makka too, so players may not want to swap demons in and out too often. But, having demons in the party while exploring will drain magnetite, a separate resource, with every step. Run out of magnetite and demons will start to take damage with each step instead. Then there are jewels, which can be used to fully heal a party member, but is it better to use them for healing or to use magic for healing, which will drain the party’s magical reserves? Early on, I worried about these questions quite a bit, afraid of getting myself into a bad situation where I was out of the resources I needed to proceed effectively. Since different demons drain magnetite at different rates, I would keep the expensive demons bound in Nakajima’s computer and only bring them out in tough areas or when I needed their specific spells. I even hoarded jewels for quite a while, rather than use them. Eventually I learned that these resources aren’t as scarce as they seem. The party can’t carry more than 7 jewels at once, which means it’s worth using them often rather than trying to save them up. And the penalty for running out of magnetite is not as harsh as I’d feared, merely causing demons to lose one health point for each step taken. And enemies drop more jewels and magnetite often, so it’s not something to get too concerned about.
But all of these details do make Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei feel closer to its early role-playing game inspirations like Wizardry than to Dragon Quest and its ilk. And that extends, of course, to the first-person grid-based exploration. Phantasy Star, which would arrive three months later, had first person exploration for its dungeon areas, with mind-blowing fullscreen presentation and smoothly animated movements and turns specifically designed to showcase the capabilities of the Sega Master System over the rival Famicom. The Famicom-powered Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei does not look nearly as impressive, instead copying the style of Wizardry or Might and Magic by showing the first-person view only in one corner of the screen, and without any animation when moving around. It is, however, more colorful than its PC inspirations, and has better sound and music. The Japanese-style role playing games I’ve covered so far have all imitated orchestral compositions with their music, but the modern, semi-cyberpunk setting of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei lends itself well to a more electronic-sounding score. There’s heavier percussion and a lot of synth melodies and drones to evoke a sinister atmosphere. A nice reminder of the breadth that can be achieved with the 8-bit sound chip in the Famicom.
The first-person exploration is the order of the day here, there are no overhead view segments like in Phantasy Star. Even in friendly locations, Nakajima and Yumiko explore square by square and players must map things out themselves. Yumiko’s mappa spell is hugely helpful here, displaying a mini-map that shows a limited surrounding area, but players can’t rely on it constantly. While exploring, the moon changes phase, and on the new moon the mappa spell will fail and player must navigate without it. Besides, with only a few friendly places in the entire game, traveling between locations is important and players will often have to refer to maps of earlier locations, and take notes of hints they find there. This may sound like an annoyance, but really making maps is a big part of the fun. The act of exploring the hostile environment is as much of a challenge as the monsters within.
If there’s a weakness to the game, however, it’s that the labyrinth really is just a labyrinth. When I played Might and Magic Book One I was hugely impressed by the location design, which made every area feel distinct to explore, be it a magical forest or a treacherous mountain pass or a grumpy wizard’s cave full of illusions and traps. Digial Devil Story: Megami Tensei has several different areas with their own look and music, and new enemies to fight (typically a lot harder than those that preceded them), but mapping each area feels the same. The manual explains that maps are 8×8 grids, but that there are exceptions to this size; in fact, many maps are larger than this. But they all contain similar mazes of walls and doorways, often without anything interesting within. There are just enough special encounters, clues, or other points of interest scattered around that players will want to explore everything, but constructing each map starts to feel repetitive.
I kept going, though, because I wanted to recruit and fuse more demons. As I mentioned earlier, demons are often far better fighters than Nakajima and Yumiko, so trading up for even stronger ones is essential, and a lot of fun. Every demon has a set of attributes like Nakajima and Yumiko, except they replace Luck with Defense. They also can each have up to three spells in their arsenal, but can only cast them during battles. Magic is something I had mixed feelings about, to be honest. There are a range of different attack spells, based around different elements like fire, ice, or psychic energy. It was unclear if these elements were merely for flavor, or if, say, certain enemies were more susceptible to one type versus another. There are some clear functional differences, however, such as psychic attacks targeting single enemies while other spells could hit groups, or ice-based spells also being able to freeze enemies for a turn, preventing them from acting. There are also spells that incapacitate enemies, or boost the party’s attack or defense. To be effective with spells, however, demons must have high Wisdom, which is not always the case. It often seemed like spells were wasted effort, when demons could just attack instead, and I could save my magical reserves for healing. Having said that, at certain points in the game I found magic very useful for eliminating or incapacitating enemies who would otherwise use their own magic to stun members of my party, or for taking out large groups of enemies before they could land their damaging attacks.
Battles are similar to those that would come in Phantasy Star. Only one type of enemy can be fought at a time, but it might be a whole pack of them, and our heroes cannot single out a specific foe to eliminate. Attacks and spells simply hit one of the enemies at random, so when facing a large group it takes a while before individuals start to fall. Unlike any of these early games I’ve played so far, once a pack of enemies is defeated, another might appear, without any respite in between. If half of the party is stunned and those who aren’t are close to death, players must gauge whether they can handle this second group of enemies. Running away means forgoing all the rewards from the enemies defeated so far. And who knows if yet another group is waiting after this one?
The biggest downside to the battles — and this ties into my issues with magic I described above — is that they are very slow. Phantasy Star kept its fights fast-paced, so players could get back to exploring the first-person dungeons quickly. In Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, battles are a little more tactical, but everything is communicated via slow text boxes, much like the Dragon Quest games. That is, unless the player chooses the “auto” option when encountering enemies, which simply makes every party member attack over and over until the battle is over (or the player cancels, by holding the B button). In this mode, there are no messages detailing the damage done, or even explaining what spell it was that the enemy just cast, only the telltale sound effects and changing health values for the party. But it moves much faster, and I ended up using it regularly for this reason. Ultimately, casting magic during battle means taking the slow route, which made me even more reluctant to try out different spells. But, since demons can only cast their spells in combat, and many of them have spells that Yumiko is unable to learn herself, I did occasionally fight manually so I could cast some healing spells or drop a particularly powerful attack spell at an opportune moment. The “auto” option can be selected at the start of any round of combat, so it’s easy to switch over to auto mode to mop up a few remaining baddies after spending the first few rounds carefully choosing actions.
These complaints aside, I enjoyed Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei far more than I expected. Every play session, I got into the groove of mapping out new areas by hand, taking note of clues and other details, and experimenting with recruiting new demons, and before I knew it I’d been playing for hours. There’s not much in the way of story, as is traditional for these types of dungeon crawl games, but there are various items to find with secret or not-so-secret uses, making the whole game feel like a giant puzzle to solve. Usually, particular items are needed before challenging the tyrants who lord over each section of the labyrinth, and an occasional friendly face found in some dark corner will provide a hint as to where to find them. A few puzzles were more perplexing, however. One, in the late game — which was technically optional but felt like it shouldn’t have been — was a complete mystery and forced me to resort to guessing. I left it alone for a while, convinced I would find a hint somewhere, but never did, and it was all the stranger because I technically only got one shot at it and could permanently screw it up if I didn’t return to a saved game from before my attempt. I could only conclude that something had been lost in translation, and that the solution may have made intuitive sense to a native speaker of Japanese.
Speaking of saved games, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei uses a password system for saving. The Dragon Quest games covered so far did too, in their original Japanese versions, but the American releases I played had added a battery-backed RAM save system. Entering passwords in Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei is clunky and slow, and I preferred to use save states in Retroarch instead for convenience, but it did serve as a reminder that for many of these games I haven’t been playing the original versions. The first game to feature a battery-backed save system was The Legend of Zelda, but Phantasy Star was the first role-playing game to use such a system (to my knowledge), and it resulted in a higher retail price than most other games at the time.
By the end of Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, I’d fused the most powerful demons, and could cruise through most fights in auto mode. The challenge in the final area is therefore purely one of navigating the labyrinth, and the designers leaned into this, offering huge maps with confounding layouts full of teleporters and spinners to disorient players. Without the prospect of fusing more demons, however, I was less excited by these sections and felt the ending dragged a little as a result. Part of this was my fault, as I’d somehow missed a stairway when drawing my maps and subsequently spent a lot of time scouring the wrong places looking for the way forward, but even so I felt the ending only demonstrated that the underworld exploration isn’t the game’s strongest point. Everything up to that, however, was great, and I’m not surprised that Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei went on to spawn a huge and successful franchise.
I’m also not surprised, however, that it was never released in America. After the video game crash of 1983, video games had a certain stigma in the United States. To enter the US market, Nintendo rebranded its Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System, specifically designed to look different than the Atari systems that had flourished before the crash, and pitched the system and its games as family-friendly entertainment, with many titles aimed at younger kids. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei may seem relatively tame today, but its premise about demons, religious figures and supernatural creatures — and especially the fact that players can cut deals with these entities — would not have gone over well at all. Its emphasis on manually drawing maps and tracking resources also meant it was better suited for older players. I’m glad to have had a chance to try it, however, as it’s a compelling design that has had lasting and widespread influence. Developers Atlus made a sequel, simply titled Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II, in 1990 that I’m excited to try out. But we’re not out of the ’80s yet: there are several more early Japanese-style role-playing games that hit the market before the end of that decade that I want to get through. In fact, I’m still catching up on some games that appeared before Dragon Quest III, so stay tuned for the next one of those.
If you are interested to try Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei yourself, the only way to play it in English is through the fan-made translation patch I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Unlike the other games covered so far, it doesn’t appear to have had many re-releases, and has never been released outside Japan, so that’s probably your best bet. Enjoy your visit to the underworld, and I hope you make some friends along the way.