My Top Ten Favourite "Shin Megami Tensei" Soundtracks
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, 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)
Composition wise, a lot of SMT tracks consist of distinctive basslines paired with atmospheric chords, Otherworld Dungeon 1 being a fine example of this. I'm not too sure what’s the original purpose 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 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 - Shin Megami Tensei (Super Famicom) and Several Other Variations in the Franchise
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, the 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. 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 very well. You are kept in the mood, but never too distracted by the looping soundtrack.
8. Mass Destruction - Persona 3
In episode three of the main series, leading composer Shoji Meguro started experimenting 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, 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 Shadow, to use the technical term. Musically speaking, isn’t this so aptly expressed through the latent angst in rap music? Is there a better way too to tell the dark stories of what students hide in their hearts, away from the scrutiny and the public? In my opinion, the use of unexpected music genres for artistic emphasis was key to the Persona series’ worldwide enduring popularity.
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 mentioned in my other articles on game music that I love songs that alternates between "light" and "darkness." Heaven is a great 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. In my opinion, Heaven is one of the most appropriate soundtracks ever produced by Atlus for a stage. To me, it is also the most memorable soundtrack from the many quality 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 suggests the emotion to feel. It also fills in the gaps left by visuals and gameplay.
This track 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 highly symbolic as well. 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.
Between Him and Her, Him and Him
Inter-character relationship is a heavy element in many "Shin Megami Tensei" 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 then calls 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 might 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 "Shin Megami Tensei 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? 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 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 historical districts of Tokyo. The Asakusa district, for example. Or the actual Tsukudo/Kagurazaka districts the game areas are based on. Do try this if you get the chance to visit Tokyo. Just don't bob too much while listening and exploring. Of course, don't venture into devilish areas that you don’t have summoner magic to survive with too.
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, working in partnership to deliver the impression of musicians competing against each other in a live show. It’s the exact kind of music you would expect to hear in a snug 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 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 being the kaja and kunda spells. Kaja spells augment your battle abilities. Kunda spells, on the other hand, negate boosts enemies have cast on themselves.
And so every major boss battle in SMT begins with intense kaja-ing, and tactically timed kunda-ing. Slip up, and the first hit you receive would wipe out half of your party.
It’s a frenetic process, and in this soundtrack, so succinctly summarised by the incredibly long build-up. 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. Not till I played Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne in 2005, that is.
That was the episode that got me hooked on SMT music. Incidentally, this game was also the first SMT game Shoji Meguro was the leading composer on. Oh man, did he produce a slew of unforgettable tracks for the game! From battle themes with "demon speech," to sinister ambient echoes, to this wonderfully atmospheric title track. Titled simply as the 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 hands down my favourite Nocturne soundtrack. Hands down my all-time favourite 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 ephemeral and vulnerable. He has but surmounted one of many steps in the endless cycles of time. Another challenge will await, somewhere.
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
2016 is a great year for SMT, "Megaten" fans. We are getting Persona 5. We are also getting another episode in the main series. The US version of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (Or Final, in the Japanese version) 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 also 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.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong