2019-Nov-07: Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei: MegaTen 1 Rebooted

I've always had this weird side-eyed relationship with the Megami Tensei series. It's a big one, with over 70 installments spewed out across a bunch of genres, sub-plots, and consoles. I like its dark and gritty take on morality and generally like its post-apoc setting, but I've never been huge on non-medieval/fantasy blobbers. So getting into it's been a bit rough for me.

I decided to dive into Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei on stream. It's a SNES remake of the original "Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei" and its sequel. This is the grandfather of the series, where it all begins. Most people start with Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES, but this was its predecessor, with the original article coming out on the Famicom, MSX and the PC-88. From what I understand, Kyuuyaku is a pretty faithful re-imagining of the original, with mostly quality of life fixes and a couple of small level redesigns in place. The cart includes both games, with an interesting bridge between the two I'll get into later, and presents the original plot in an engine and system pretty similar to Shin.

Unlike Shin, the original Megami Tensei takes place in one huge dungeon. In total tile space it's probably the biggest dungeon I've ever seen in a blobber, though this distinction is mostly cosmetic as the dungeon has several town-like rest points strewn across it. The dungeon is neatly divided into zones organized horizontally on a 2D map with each zone being a sub-dungeon that exits to the east or west to its neighboring region. There's five in all: an 8 floor maze-like tower called Daedalus (of Greek mythology fame), the long horizontal Valhalla Corridor upon which rests the flying city of Bien (I consider these one conjoined area), the enigmatic Mazurka tunnel to the underworld, the Sea of Flames, and finally the Infini Palace.

The goal in general is simple enough: proceed from left to right on the map. At the end of each zone some major plot reveal and a boss fight happens. Backtracking is pretty minimal, limited to one trip from Infini back to the Sea of Flames to get an item; at least if you completely scour each area before moving to the next. Level progression seems to assume you do just this, as each new area represents a marked jump in difficulty. While you can proceed straight to Infini after you liberate the city of Bien, skipping about half the game content, you'll instantly be barbecued by the foes and eventually hit a brick wall in the form of the final boss's plot armor.

Instead, you need to power up in three different ways as you move through the world: first is the basic experience for your two protagonists: the physical powerhouse Nakajima and the magician Yumiko. With each level, you can allocate a single stat point (as is tradition for early MegaTen games), but really your first 30 or so levels should all immediately go into Vitality or else your heroes will be made of paper. With Nakajima having (almost) no use for Intellect and Yumiko having no use for Strength, the builds are pretty static.

Second on the progression path is equipment. Gear is linear with no real side-grades to consider. More expensive = better here. Gear is also gender-locked, which is the game's way of saying "For Nakajima" or "For Yumiko" seeing as they're the only two party members able to equip things. At each new shop a little grinding may be necessary to gear up, but not too much. In the final leg of the game you get dungeon loot that becomes the game's best-in-slot equipment, further forcing Nakajima and Yumiko into their respective roles of physical damage and caster.

Finally there's the mainstay of the MegaTen franchise: demon summoning. A good fraction of the foes you encounter in the world can be bargained with. This introduces a mini-game in which you can negotiate, bribe, and threaten demons to either leave you alone or join you. It's a pretty complex system that takes into account Nakajima's Intellect (I think, anyway), the moon phase, the enemy type, and your relative strength versus the enemy. I could talk about the negotiation system alone for an entire post. Suffice to say, the end goal is to get demons to join you. Once they do, they're usable party members with static stats and spells. They don't level up, so they eventually obsolete and need to be replaced, which can be done by finding a new demon in the mazes, or fusing two demons together to get a new demon.

Fusion, despite looking complex on the surface, is actually really simple in MegaTen 1. There's many "classes" of demon. These are things like Fairies, Yoma, Beasts, etc. Merging two classes will produce a demon of a specific class and then their levels will determine which demon you get. The pool is actually fairly small so I feel most players will end up on the same fusion progression path eventually. Also while you can negotiate with any demon, there's several classes of demon that will never join you, removing them from the fusion equation.

Early on, you may be tempted to focus purely on Nakajima's and Yumiko's levels as your metric for how ready you are to proceed, but in truth it comes down just as much to your demons. You can't fuse up or recruit a demon that out-levels you, so the levels do matter-- but it doesn't matter if you're level 20 or 30 if your demons aren't up to par too. As a result, the start of each area will usually be a short trip out to get specific demons to fuse up the best ones you can manage before heading on. Keeping your demons fully maxed out though eventually presents a new problem: MAG.

MAG, or Magnetite is the material needed to keep your demons manifested in the world. The higher level your demons, the faster it drains as you walk around. If you run out, your demons take damage with each step. It may be a source of stress early on but around Bien the game starts throwing MAG at you hand over fist. You'll feel like running out is impossible, and it is, until the Sea of Flames. At that point your demons are so MAG hungry that there's no way to keep stocked. That's when you just learn to relax and embrace the damage. It's 1hp per step, on demons with up to 600. It adds a hard timer to your explorations, but it's worth it for the power those demons bring you. Fortunately it remains 1 damage per step whether you're 1 MAG in the hole or 100. It's kind of silly really; I consider the whole system a bit of a waste since it literally never mattered. I was either swimming in MAG or swimming in HP.

Aside from the little quibble with MAG, the only other complaint I really felt with the game was the existence of level drain. Starting in Mazurka, some of the more "undead" looking enemies can inflict level drain on your two heroes as a sort of free action each turn. It doesn't have a huge chance to hit, but when it does one of your heroes loses a level, permanently. The only way to prevent it is to cast the Tetraja spell any time you get into battle with a level drainer. Tetraja cannot be learned by Yumiko; it only comes from demons. So at least one slot in your party must, at all times, be a Tetraja caster. This doesn't seem that limiting but it actually is. Due to the fact that you can't have two of the same demon in your party, and the rather simple fusion equations, you'll often be locked out of making a fusion because you'll be sacrificing your Tetraja source. Additionally, demons are usually not giant bags of MP, so quite often you'll be forced to turn back while healthy purely because your one Tetraja caster is out of MP. To risk it is to invite a level drain that should rightly be a reset.

In practice the game is pretty straightforward. In each area there's a macguffin you need to stand a chance against the boss of that area, and through the dungeon there's a couple major plot points you have to hit to be able to progress. Full exploration of each area will address both and keep you leveled up properly for the entire game. There's some pretty strong signposts when you've gone the wrong way: either an NPC turning you back or just getting pasted by out of depth enemies. I never felt lost. As you defeat the first major bosses you get orbs that have no real purpose. The purpose becomes clear in the one really frustrating mechanic of the game...

Deep in the Sea of Flames you find Izanami, the goddess you've entered the labyrinths to find and rescue. She's bound with a curse that requires the three orbs, and they must be used in the correct order and on the correct holes in her bindings. As far as I could tell there's no hints on the correct procedure. So let's math out the permutations... Three orbs, three holes, order maters. So you have a 1 in 3 chance of picking the right orb, and a 1 in 3 chance of picking the right hole. Once that's done you have a 1 in 2 chance of the right orb and a 1 in 2 chance of the right hole. Finally the third orb is free. So a 1 in 36 chance to get the entire combination right on your first go. Not very likely. The penalty? The orbs "lose their light" and you have to go walk around in the dungeon to progress the moon phase for them to recharge. Oh and while you're doing this you're taking damage per step from the gimmick of the Sea of Flames, on top of MAG-based damage in all likelihood.

It could be worse. From what I hear from the Famicom version, getting it wrong means a reset.

I guess one dishonorable mention for mechanics goes to Nakajima's critical role in the party. Practically all of the menu operations: demon summoning, negotiation, and opening your map are tied to a wrist computer Nakajima wears. He apparently uses a pretty beefy PIN for the thing because if he's KOed or crowd controlled in any way, you cannot do them. So Nakajima getting hit with sleep means you can't open your map any more. There's a backup in that Yumiko can cast Mappara, but this is a sharply inferior 5x5 tile map view versus Nakajima's view of the entire dungeon floor. I get why they did it, and without it Nakajima would just be beef with no "purpose" to the team, but it's annoying.

Honestly that and some of the early bosses were the only challenge I had in the game. Mapping is straightforward with no real surprises. Combat is pretty basic as long as you level Vitality on your heroes first so they can stay alive to tank, heal, and res, and the level drain BS doesn't matter as long as someone in your group always knows Tetraja starting at the end of Valhalla Corridor. With all that in mind, it's a straight map-and-fight romp. It actually gets really easy toward the end. The final 6 floors or so of the game, deep in Infini Palace, have nothing of interest and you can just blow through and take on Lucifer in his sanctum. I took him out easily-- though you do have to have the one backtrack mandatory item or he has the ability to heal himself infinitely. The hinting for that is a little vague but not that bad.

Ultimately I finished at level 65 with a cast of literal gods by my side: Ganesha, Odin, Krishna, and Huang Long. Krishna is a very big neon "you are at the end of the road" sign, boasting 999hp three of the strongest spells in the game. I felt pretty ready to just go kick Lucifer's door down when I saw that. Additionally, a small diversion back to Bien once you get deep enough into Infini will net you a broken-tier sword for Nakajima that will have him easily out-damaging everyone else in the group by an order of magnitude. I'd feel like this was an easter egg, except it wasn't that well hidden.

I guess its low difficulty would render the game boring for some. I could see that. I enjoyed it though. Upon finishing the game in the SNES port, you get a little bonus though: MT2 starts immediately. The original MegaTen 2 started out in a game the protagonist coded to tell the story of his adventure. Well the credits of MT1 immediately dive into that as a prologue: you're tossed into a simulation of Daedalus, back at level 1, with no explanation and no guidance. Only by getting through the first floors of Daedalus again does the real game reveal itself.

But that's for another post-- I left off after 1 and an hour of 2. This is next on my list to come back to, but some other life-things stand in the way first.