Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. KL Yong's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.
Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) universe is pretty large, consisting of the main games and several sister series sharing the same mythos and artwork. This list considers soundtracks from the main series, the Persona series, the Devil Summoner series, and the twin Digital Devil Saga games. As I've never played the MMO at all before it went offline, music from IMAGINE was not included during consideration.
10. Otherworld Dungeon 1 - Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner
Composition wise, many SMT tracks are built on distinctive basslines paired with atmospheric chords, Otherworld Dungeon 1 being a fine example of this.
I'm not too sure what’s the original intention for this music direction, but whatever it be, it certainly works very well during the games. This is especially so in older entries when dungeon crawling was no more than corridor after corridor of featureless, mono-colour walls. The looping music fades away as you lose yourself in the maze, before suddenly returning to awake you. Might I share that I personally survive many hours of such dungeon trudging simply because of music like Otherworld Dungeon 1. It sustained my desire to finish the dungeon. It also kept me constantly primed for battle.
9. Arcade - Various Shin Megami Tensei Main Series Episodes
Before all else, "Arcade" is not the only name for this soundtrack. In Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, it was renamed as Ginza. In Shin Megami Tensei IV, it was called Traffic.
Whichever the name or arrangement, the signature motifs remain. These being the frenetic signature bassline, the hypnotic dance chords, and that incessantly repeating jingle. This trio blends together very well to generate a bewildering, trance-like kind of feel, which is the exact kind of sensation one would experience in real-life when venturing into a strange, claustrophobic, potentially hazardous labyrinth.
At the same time, Arcade is also representative of the music style featured in every SMT game, that of a punchy tune that loops on and on. This might sound to be dreary but believe me, it actually complements the dungeon crawling aspect of the games wonderfully. You are kept in the mood, but never too distracted by the looping music.
8. Mass Destruction - Persona 3
In episode three of the main series, leading composer Shoji Meguro experimented with lyrics and voices in the battle themes. Come Persona 3, he switched from sinister demonic murmurs to rap. The result was this highly unusual fight music for an RPG game.
It raises eyebrows. Takes you by surprise and makes you go, WHAT? I would say, though, that it was a creative and intelligent choice because of the grunge nature of rap music.
All episodes of Persona revolve around the darker side of human personalities; the so-called Shadow, to use the term in the games. Music-wise, isn’t this darkness so aptly expressed by the latent angst in rap music? Is there a better way too to tell the dark stories hidden by students in their hearts, away from the scrutiny of family, friends, and the public? In my opinion, such use of unexpected music genres for artistic emphasis was key to the Persona series’ enduring worldwide popularity.
7. Heaven - Persona 4
I love game tunes that alternate between "light" and "darkness," Heaven being a fantastic example of this composition style. Dreamy, melancholic, yet also unmistakably positive, the song fills you with a steely optimism, yet also constantly reminds that one should never take things for granted.
If you have played Persona 4, you’d also remember this as “Nanako’s theme,” played during the highly unique stage which was a summary of her juvenile worldview. To me, Heaven is simply one of the most appropriate soundtracks ever produced by Atlus for a dungeon stage. Additionally, I also find it the most memorable soundtrack from the many quality compositions of Persona 4. More than 10 years after the release of the game, I still regularly listen to it on quiet weekday nights.
6. River of Samsara - Digital Devil: Saga 1
Like its function in movies, music in games complements the drama happening on screen. It presents the emotions to feel. It also fills the gaps left by visuals and gameplay.
This tune from the first Digital Devil Saga game is a wonderful demonstration of these functions. It has a drowsy, hypnotic sensation, which is how you would feel, or should feel, during the underground sewer stage it partners.
At the same time, the title is also highly symbolic. Samsara in Buddhism denotes cyclic, circuitous change, and during this stage, many relationships in the game achieve bittersweet fruition. So as not to give the plot away, I’d say no more here and just encourage you to play Digital Devil Saga 1 to experience these moments for yourself. A word of warning, though. It is not an easy play. It might take you a while to reach this mythical river. The conclusion of this stage also includes some of the most heartbreaking moments in Atlus games.
5. Aboveground Urban Area A - Shin Megami Tensei IV
The main series of Shin Megami Tensei is always dark in feel. Apocalypse is looming, if not already upon the player. Murderous demons and angels are also never more than a few steps away.
Which then brings on the need for intense music like this soundtrack from the fourth episode. Edgy compositions that keep the player on his toes. Also incredibly catchy so as to prevent the player from turning off the BGM in disgust.
Incidentally, if you compare this to Arcade (Entry 9 above), you will surely notice the musical similarities. Both tunes revolve around extended chords contrasted against a more complicated baseline, then looped seamlessly for emphasis. Personally, I consider this a subtle continuity of audio and storytelling directions. Even if I'm listening to both soundtracks for the first time, I would bet on them being from the same series of games. As a player and fan, I consider this the signature "SMT sound.”
4. Tsukudo Cho - Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army
You don't really need me to explain why I love this track, do you? Isn't it just so catchy? So spunky?
One of the overworld music for the twin Devil Summoner games, the energetic beat is the perfect companion to the bustling streets found in the game. The gutsy feel of the composition also complements the detective angle of the story so well.
Outside of the game, Tsukudo Cho is wonderful music to listen to when exploring actual historical districts of Tokyo too. For example, the Asakusa district, or the actual Tsukudo/Kagurazaka districts the game areas are based on. Do try this if you get the chance to visit Tokyo. Needless to say, just ensure you do not bob too much while listening and exploring.
3. Challenge Quest β - Shin Megami Tensei IV
My favourite soundtrack from episode four of the main series is easily the oddest one in that game. The funky beat makes it far more at home in the urban settings of Persona and Devil Survivor, rather than the eternal night wasteland of Shin Megami Tensei IV. I remember frowning in puzzlement the first time I heard it. Thereafter, I couldn’t stop grinning. And listening.
It makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it? The bright piano and picked bass work in partnership to deliver the impression of musicians competing against each other in a live show. It’s also the exact kind of music you would expect to hear in an underground bar where amateur-pros gather to flaunt their talents. Within the game, Challenge Quest β plays when you take on one of the many optional side quests, which are mostly issued from sleazy pubs found throughout the Tokyo underworld. Picture this, you are quietly discussing the details of your next assignment, while gruffly musicians in a corner dish out this workpiece. "Rid Shinjuku of all faeries? Depends on what you're willing to pay ..." Yeah. Suddenly, it sounds pretty appropriate. Does it not?
2. Last Boss Battle Before Transformation - Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
I need to go into gameplay details to explain why I adore this track, which I consider to be the best final boss music from the main SMT series.
Like many other RPGs, you need to rely on "game breakers" in order to beat the SMT games, these being the kaja and kunda spells. Kaja spells augment your battle abilities while kunda spells negate boosts enemies have cast on themselves. Thanks to that, every major boss battle in SMT begins with intense kaja-ing and tactically timed kunda-ing. Slip up, and the first hit you receive could wipe out half of your party.
It’s a frenetic process, one that is so succinctly summarized by the incredibly long build-up in this tune. Listening to it, could you not easily visualize the frantic casting of boosting spells, and that all-important dishing out of the dampener right after the boss reaches full power? To share, I used to time the casting so that the actual fighting begins simultaneously with the main theme of the soundtrack. (The transition point is at 1:29 in the video) Childish, yes. But oh! It was so enjoyable to play in sync with the music! I often get quite giddy from it.
1. Staff Roll - Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
A little history here. I played my first Shin Megami Tensei game in 1993 and quickly became a huge fan of the series. As for the music, it was enjoyable, but honestly, I didn't pay much attention to it. That is, not till I played Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne in 2005.
That was the episode that got me hooked on SMT music. Incidentally, this game was also the first SMT game in which Shoji Meguro was the leading composer. In a nutshell, the master game music composer produced such a slew of unforgettable tracks. From battle themes with "demonic speech," to sinister ambient echoes, to this wonderfully poignant title track. Titled simply as Staff Roll, different arrangements of this composition appear in different parts of Nocturne, always with a distinctively different feel. Whichever arrangement it be, it is to me hands down the best Nocturne composition. Hands down my all-time favorite SMT soundtrack too.
Why do I like it so much? It’s not just because of the perfect symmetry of light and darkness, a style I've already mentioned I’m fond of. It's also how the fragile beginning so steadily swells into an emphatic declaration, a flow that perfectly parallels the journey of the game protagonist.
At the same time, the whimsical phrasing of the tune reminds that victory is never glorious in SMT games; a difficult future always awaits. Like the undertones of the composition, the protagonist's victory is forever ephemeral and vulnerable. He has but surmounted one of many steps in the endless cycles of time. Another challenge await somewhere. For gamers, this means there will always be another SMT saga to live through.
Special Mention 1: Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There - Persona 5
Days before writing this hub, the long-awaited Persona 5 was finally released for the Sony PlayStation. As I've yet to play the game, I did not include its music when writing this list. I'm sure the soundtrack would rock, though, if only for the fact it was entirely composed by Shoji Meguro. Here's the opening theme, which was released way before the game. I simply adore the dance beats and Hammond organ backing!
Special Mention 2: Tokyo - Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
This main theme is noticeably different from the usual SMT tracks, mostly because of the oriental slant. To me, there is also a certain intrigue, one that gives hint at the odd conflicts and story twists within the game. It’s definitely a befitting opening to what is possible the most audacious episode in the series.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong