This short collection of interviews covers the conception, development and post-release thoughts of several of the key members behind the original Super Famicom version of Shin Megami Tensei, the cataclysmic demon-negotiation RPG that would amass a hardcore following, spawn a multitude of spin-offs and sub-series and even eventually find an audience overseas, despite the concerns of some of the developers at the time.

These interviews were found at the GSLA, a Japanese a website that, among other things, preserves game developer interviews from older, now-defunct print sources. The GSLA often redacts the original interviewer questions, so the text ends up reading more like a narrative than an interview.

Translated by Peter Barnard

K. Kaneko x T. Kobayashi (1996)
Zone of the Enders 2 (2003)

Shin Megami Tensei – 1992 Developer Interviews

originally taken from the GSLA archive

Seigo Aihara – Atlus PR
Kazunari Suzuki – scenario writer
Yousuke Niinou – producer
Kouji “COZY” Okada – programmer
Kazuma Kaneko – designer

Concerning player choice between the alignments of Law, Neutral, and Chaos

Okada: Looking at the user feedback there doesn’t appear to be a dramatic leaning towards either law or chaos. There were actually a lot of players who followed the neutral path.

Niino: It was pretty much a 50/50 split between Law and Chaos.

url

Atlus co-founder, programmer and former Shin Megami Tensei head honcho Cozy Okada (199X)

Okada: As with many RPGs, progressing through the game selecting mostly positive choices, yes over no, will naturally lead you towards Law; think a little harder about your choices and how they might impact the world and conversely, you may end up following the path of Chaos. I feel like many players these days test out the negative choice first, which might account for the number of players which remained neutral through the game.

Suzuki: I’m sure if players really went with their gut instinct then we’d see a different outcome.

Aihara: I received a call from a player saying ‘I’ve met Thorman and Gotou, which one of them should I kill? I’ve been sitting here thinking about it for the last 30 minutes and I just can’t decide!’ (laughs). Of course, I told them that that choice depends on you, I can’t make it for you.

On the game’s difficulty

Suzuki: Well it’s not as if it’s impossible to complete. Although it seems to vary from player to player as to how difficult they find it… some may only just scrape through, while others will find it easy.

Okada: Well there is Cú Chulainn…

Aihara: His design is from a girl’s manga.

Kaneko: Let’s not talk about that!

Suzuki: I wasn’t particularly happy with Cú Chulainn’s representation in this game. I played around with his parameters but I probably should have tried to flesh out his character.

Aihara: Returning to difficulty, I think the real boss of the game was the Tengu. I mean, they’re as strong as some of the bosses aren’t they? If you stray into a red-roofed area, even if you’re strong enough to take out the Yaksha you won’t be able to kill the Tengu. Encounter five at once and it’s faster to just reset the console.

Suzuki: Well, the red-roofed areas are purposefully difficult so of course you’ll have trouble if you enter them too early. Wait until you’re appropriately powered up and you won’t have too much trouble.

url

Longtime Megami Tensei scenario writer Kazunari Suzuki (2009); his works include SMT, SMT2 & the MMO SMT Imagine, plus a director role on the obscure PC-9801 entry Giten Megami Tensei: Tokyo Mokushiroku.

On censorship

Niino: There was a scene where the hero’s mother was eaten by a demon which didn’t make it into the final game. It wasn’t something we were told to remove, we just came to that decision among ourselves.

Okada: In the dream sequence where the young maiden is being sacrificed, the men standing on either side of her were originally naked until a designer told us to put some pants on them. I guess it’s up to them who is clothed and who is naked.

Suzuki: The Succubus and Lilith sprites were originally drawn facing away from the player, weren’t they?

Kaneko: Yes, I spent some time on them.

Okada: Regarding nudity, if it was a small part of a larger scene then it was deemed okay—likewise demons who are human-animal hybrids were also granted a pass.

Adult themes and language

Niino: From listening to player feedback it seems that children start to understand some of the darker, more complex themes from around the 6th year of elementary school. Players younger than that simply ignore what they don’t understand and plow on through the game. I think we really need to be careful about the kind of language we use in future games.

It seems that many younger players found the game gloomy and depressing, and I’m sure it would have had an even deeper impact on children raised by single mothers.

Suzuki: Those themes are present in Nishitani’s original novel, where the hero’s parents are killed off quite early.

What would you like to see in a sequel

Kaneko: This time we stuck to a relatively traditional design, so I’d like to be more adventurous in the next game.

Niino: Initially, we aimed at a wide audience with this game and while it ended up having a slightly more limited appeal, I think that actually turned out to be a good thing. If we were to make another game I’d like to continue to cater to the audience we found with the original.

Okada: I’d like to make it a more visually appealing game using 3D!

Suzuki: I’d like to think about the balance more, and perhaps explore new themes in the scenario.

url

Shin Megami Tensei’s Cú Chulainn design (left) and its inspiration, the Cú Chulainn character from the Ryoki Yamagishi manga Yousei-ou.

Shin Megami Tensei – Yousuke Niino Interview (1992)

The world of Shin Megami Tensei doesn’t exist in isolation, rather it’s just one of an infinite number of parallel dimensions. By the same token, our world is also nothing more than one of these concurrent realities. It’s because of this setting that we were able to include demons from all mythologies and cultures without worrying about their eastern or western origins.

Demons of all kinds have existed throughout human history in all cultures and civilizations. Interestingly, the same demon might be portrayed as a benevolent being in one culture, whereas in another they’ve come to represent pure evil. In Shin Megami Tensei we’ve tried to strip as much of that away as possible, to do away with our preconceived notions of good or evil and return to something approaching their original image. Instead of copying demons from existing myths and legends, we tried to create our own.

On the Fusion system

The demon fusion mechanic actually began with Go Nagai’s Devilman. There are many fans of the series among the staff and the idea is just something that arose from their conversations.

The demons that appear in Shin Megami Tensei are spirits, given physical form and then converted into digital data. The summoning circle functions as both a gate to summon them through and also as a barrier to protect the summoner. So when you have the computer perform the ritual then naturally it’s the monitor that becomes your ‘summoning circle’.

url

Former Atlus producer
Yousuke Niino (2006)

On the characteristics of the different factions in the world

Law is made up of those who respect order and discipline above all else. They despise anything which disrupts their carefully crafted organization. If you were to equate them to a musical style then it would have to be traditional classical music. It’s a fiercely hierarchical system where you are expected to sacrifice any shred of individuality for the good of the many.

The neutral faction are basically humanitarians without any radical or extreme beliefs. Unlike those who follow law, they seek personal freedom above all else. However, because they are conservative they tend to adopt a policy of ‘don’t rock the boat’. They care little about the outside world which causes them to become more and more withdrawn and unaware of the things happening around them.

Chaos is made up of those who are driven by their base emotions. They crave nothing other than the fulfillment of their own hopes and desires but will act impulsively rather than steadily working towards their goals. They are the complete opposite of law, placing individuality above organization, the self above everything else, but they are also disorganized and wasteful and their rash actions can often cause more harm than good.
 
On the difference between magic and summoning

Magic in the world of Shin Megami Tensei is the physical manifestation of the caster’s spirit energy, while summoning is the process of transporting powerful demons from the world of Atziluth to our own. While casting fire magic and summoning a salamander will produce the same result, only certain people possess the ability to use magic, whereas anyone who can run the summoning program on a computer can summon a demon.

How the player views the world

url

Shin Megami Tensei’s first-person dungeon sections (top) and 2D between-dungeon world map (bottom)

In making this game, we tried really hard to show the world as humans see it. The 3D exploration sections could be shown from a first-person view, but the 2D world map was a little more troublesome. In many RPG games, the world map screen is shown via an aerial camera looking down on your party of heroes. When you think about it, isn’t that a little strange? That’s not the way we see the world.

To solve the problem we looked at satellite navigation systems, so on the map screen the player isn’t looking at their character directly, but at their location on a map on their computer screen. By doing this we can remain in the game world and direct the party without having to display the player character. The display window and cursor aren’t simply there because they look cool, we were trying to emphasize the fact that you are looking at a computer monitor. Perhaps it would have been easier to understand if we’d have shown the back of the player’s head but that might have been taking it too far. (laughs)

On setting the game in Tokyo

The late 20th-century setting is essential to the Megami Tensei series. Present-day Tokyo is one of the largest, most powerful cities in the world and continues to thrive despite being decimated by numerous natural disasters and air-raids. I imagine that environmental destruction on this scale does go against the natural order of things which makes it even more interesting. It really is a fascinating city—somewhere like Berlin or LA could also be interesting, but I don’t think they compare to Tokyo.

There’s a rumor that Shin Megami Tensei is a nine-part story (laughs). At some point, there might be room for a game that takes place in another city. Really I’m just joking with you, but as to the likelihood of the series leaving Tokyo, well, I can’t rule it out entirely.

Shin Megami Tensei – Kazuma Kaneko Interview (1992)

I didn’t originally want to make games. It all happened by chance. I was working at another place and this company offered me a job. I always wanted to do a job where I could create—not just games, but also music and film. I wanted a job which gave me a chance to communicate ideas.

I was in charge of the graphics on Shin Megami Tensei, but really the entire team collaborates on all areas, so I also did some work on the world systems and story. I’ve been fascinated by the occult for many years so I was delighted that I was able to bring that to this project. Sadly, there are things in the game that meant it wasn’t able to be sold abroad, such as the Star of David.

Speaking as a creator, even if the game wasn’t going to be released abroad I was determined to include some kind of deeper message or meaning. I remember reading manga and novels like Devilman when I was a child… at the time I was just amazed at how graphic some of the scenes were, and that was that. But, after I grew up and read things like the book of revelations I started to realize the parallels between the two and began to appreciate just what a fantastic manga it was. I’d love for players of this game to reflect back on it in 10 or 20 years and realize ‘Oh, that’s what they were trying to say’. If I’ve achieved that, then I’ll be satisfied.

For those who want to be designers, I’d say rather than simply playing games all the time, go outside and seek inspiration doing other things. Be that play, or sports or anything like that, even getting in trouble could help. (laughs) If you concentrate too much on games you’ll become ignorant of the world outside you, and even if you create something interesting, it won’t be revolutionary. Finally, if you keep focused, stay motivated, and work towards your goal, then you’re sure to succeed. Be forthright and act positively and with conviction. Negativity will get you nowhere.

url

Atlus’ famed “devil artist” and self-confessed 100-cigarettes-a-day smoker, Kazuma Kaneko (199X)