My Top Ten Favourite Shin Megami Tensei Soundtracks
Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei universe is pretty large, consisting of the main "SMT" 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, the Devil Survivor 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 (Sega Saturn)
Musically speaking, a lot of SMT tracks uses distinctive basslines paired with atmospheric chords. Otherworld Dungeon 1 being a fine example of that. I'm not too sure what the original purpose of this music direction was, but whatever it be, it certainly worked very well during the games. Especially in the older entries when dungeon crawling was nothing more than corridor after corridor of featureless, mono-colour walls. The looping music fades away as you lose yourself in the maze, then suddenly leaps back in to awake you. I share that I survive many hours of such dungeon trudging simply because of the music. It sustained my desire to finish the quest. It also kept me constantly ready for battle.
9. Arcade - Shin Megami Tensei (Super Famicom) and several other entries in the franchise
Alternate version in Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne
First of all, "Arcade" is not the only name for this soundtrack. In Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, it was renamed as Ginza. In SMT IV, it was called Traffic.
Whichever the name or arrangement, its signature motifs remain. The frenetic beat, the hypnotic 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 of alleys. At the same time, Arcade is also representative of the music style that features heavily in every SMT game, including those in the sister series. That of a punchy tune that loops on and on. This might feel to be dreary, but believe me, it complements the dungeon crawling aspect of the games very well. You are kept in the mood, but never too distracted by the background music.
8. Mass Destruction - Persona 3
In episode three of the main series, leading composer Shoji Meguro started experimenting with using lyrics and voices in the battle themes. In Persona 3, he switched from sinister demonic speech to rap, giving us this highly unusual fight music for a RPG game.
It raises eyebrows. Takes you by surprise and makes you go, WHAT? I would say though, it was a creative and intelligent choice because of the grunge nature of rap music. All episodes of Persona revolved around the darker side of human personalities. The Shadow, to use the technical term. A person's shadow could be the polar opposite of how he projects himself to the world, think repressed emotions and the likes of. Doesn't the latent angst in rap music expresses this so well? Wouldn't the sordid tale of what a schoolgirl does behind everybody's back be the perfect subject for a rap song?
Do You Know?
Many entries in this list were composed by Shoji Meguro, who has worked on Atlus BGMs since 1995. Outside of the Shin Megami Tensei series, he also composed soundtracks for other Atlus titles, such as Trauma Centre: Under the Knife.
7. Heaven - Persona 4
I've vaguely mentioned in my others hubs on game music that I love songs that alternates between "light" and "darkness." Heaven is an example of that style, in a softer way that is. What else endears this composition to me is its dreamy, melancholic feel. For those who have played Persona IV, you would remember this as "Nanako's theme." Which played when she was trapped in her shadow world. A colourful and bright realm that subtly mirrored the fragility of her aspirations. Without doubt, Heaven was one of the most appropriate soundtracks ever produced by Atlus. To me, it is also the most memorable soundtrack from the many compositions of Persona 4.
6. River of Samsara (Digital Devil Saga 1)
Like its function in movies, music in games complements the drama happening on screen. It points you in the direction of the emotion to feel. It fills in the gaps left by visuals and action.
This track from the first Digital Devil Saga game is a great example of that function. It has a drowsy, hypnotic sensation. Which is exactly how you would feel, or should feel, during the stage it plays. That being a vast sewer connecting all major areas of the game world. Its title is highly appropriate too. Samsara in Buddhism denotes cyclic, circuitous change, and during this stage, many relationships in the game reach fruition. Without giving the plot away, I encourage you to play Digital Devil Saga and experience those moments for yourself. But be warned. DDS is not an easy play. It might take you a while to reach this mythical river.
Between him and her, him and him
Inter-character relationship is a heavy element in many SMT games. This is especially so in the Persona titles.
5. Aboveground Urban Area A - Shin Megami Tensei IV
The main series of Shin Megami Tensei is very dark. Apocalypse is always looming, if not already upon the player. Murderous demons and angels are never more than a few steps away.
Which is why there is a need for intense music like this soundtrack. Edgy compositions that keep the player on his toes. At the same time, also well-composed so that the player doesn't turn off the BGM in disgust.
Incidentally, if you compare this to Arcade (Entry 9 above), you might notice the musical similarities. Both tunes revolve around extended chords contrasted against a more complicated baseline. Personally, I consider this a subtle continuity of audio and storytelling direction. 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 also consider this the signature "SMT sound."
4. Tsukudo Cho - Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs the Souless Army
You don't really need me to explain in detail why I love this soundtrack. Isn't it just so catchy? The overworld music for the first Raidou Kuzunoha adventure, the energetic beat is the perfect companion to the bustling streets found in the game. The spunky feel of the composition also complements the detective angle of the story very well.
Outside of the game, Tsukudo Cho is wonderful music to listen to when exploring historical districts of Tokyo. The Asakusa district, for example. Or the actual Tsukudo / Kagurazaka districts the games areas are based on. Do try it if you get the chance to visit Tokyo. Just don't ... bob too much while listening and exploring. And don't venture into devilish areas that you do not have the magic to extract yourself from.
3. Challenge Quest β - Shin Megami Tensei IV
My favourite piece from episode four of the main series is easily the odd horse in that collection. The funky beat makes it far more at home in the urban settings of Persona and the Devil Survivor games, rather than the gritty eternal night world of Shin Megami Tensei IV. I remember frowning in puzzlement the first time this soundtrack played during the game.
Yet, it makes sense after I considered the choice of sounds used, particularly the bright piano and picked bass. It has a live performance feel to it, don't you think so? Something you might hear in a snug bar where amateur-pros gather to flaunt their musical talents? In the game, you get this soundtrack when you take on one of the many optional side quests, which are mostly issued from sleazy pubs found in the Tokyo underworld. Can you envision yourself quietly discussing the details of your next assignment, while gruffly musicians dish out this piece in the corner? "Rid Shinjuku of all faeries? Depends on what you're willing to pay ..." Yeah. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
2. Last Boss Battle Before Transformation - Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne
I need to go into gameplay detail to explain why I love this final boss music from Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. Like many other RPGs, you need to rely on "game breakers" in order to beat the SMT games. These are the kaja and kunda spells. Kaja spells augment your battle abilities. Kunda spells negate boosts enemies have cast on themselves.
And so every boss battle in SMT begins with intense kaja-ing, and tactically timed kunda-ing. Slip up, and the first hit you receive could wipe half of your party.
A frenetic situation wonderfully expressed by the incredibly long build-up in this soundtrack. 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 reached 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 music! I often get quite giddy from it.
1. Staff Roll - Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne
I played my first SMT game in 1993, and quickly became a huge fan of the philosophical story lines and heavy use of real-world mythological figures. As for the music, it was enjoyable, but honestly, I didn't pay much attention to it. Not till I played Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne in 2005.
That was the one that got me hooked on their music. Incidentally, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne was also the first SMT game Shoji Meguro was the leading composer on, and did he produce a slew of unforgettable tracks for the game!
From battle themes with "demon speech," to sinister ambient echoes, to this. The Staff Roll or ending track, which also plays in a different arrangement as the alternate opening track, is hands down my favourite Nocturne soundtrack. As well as my all time favourite SMT soundtrack. This is not only because of its perfect symmetry of light and darkness, a style I've already mentioned I fond of. It's also how the track starts off so fragile, so vulnerable, but soon builds into a swelling declaration. Needless to say, this perfectly parallels the journey of the game protagonist. At the same time, the whimsical phrasing of the tune also reminds that victory is never glorious in SMT games. A difficult future still awaits. The protagonist's victory is ephemeral. He has but surmounted one of many steps before him.
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 for consideration when preparing 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 to the public way before the game itself. I love the dance beats and Hammond organ backing!
Special Mention 2: Tokyo (Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse)
2016 is a great year for SMT, "Megaten" fans. We are getting Persona V. We are also getting another episode in the main series. The US version of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (Or Final, in it's Japanese name) is due to be released on September 20, 2016.
Here's the opening theme. It sounds noticeably different from the usual SMT tracks, mostly because of the oriental slant. As I've yet to start on the game, I wouldn't pass judgement. All I would say is, it sounds ... intriguing. The SMT feel is not lost, it's actually made more complex. I'm definitely looking forward to investing many hours into this entry.