Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced'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 thus contains soundtracks from the main series and sister series such as Devil Summoner, Digital Devil Saga, and Dx2.
I excluded the Persona series, as the many songs in this wildly successful spinoff warrant a list of their own. Lastly, as I've never played the MMO before it went offline, music from IMAGINE is not included.
10. Otherworld Dungeon 1 - Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner
In terms of musical composition, 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 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, monotone walls. The looping music fades away as you lose yourself in the maze, before always returning, abruptly, to wake you up.
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.
Many other soundtracks in the series use the same formula too, with great success. For example, 3D Center from SMT II.
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. Kinshicho - Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
One of the catchiest songs throughout the entire SMT series, Ryota Kozuka’s Kinshicho begins SMT IV: Apocalypse on a most unusual note.
The tune is dreamy and relaxing. Almost akin to the sound of background music you’d hear at a beach bar, or while on a tour bus cruising beside the beach.
But beneath the breezy notes is a certain melancholy. A certain otherworldly pessimism roo.
Very odd, for a game set in a post-apocalyptic world infested with demons, in other words. And yet, does the composition subtly depicts the tenuous existence of protagonist Nanashi?
The teen cadet lives his life on the edge every day. And yet, just steps away from his battlegrounds, his “home” is full of friends and mentors. A haven, in-and-out.
In my opinion, Kinshicho is one of the most intelligent tracks in the whole series. And certainly one of the most memorable too.
7. Battle Theme V8 - Shin Megami Tensei V
2021’s Shin Megami Tensei V features an extensive overhaul of game mechanics, going to the extent of near entirely removing dungeon crawling, the one mechanic most associated with the series.
This revamp enjoyed positive receptions from many critics. For me, however, the changes resulted in a very different playing experience, one that I can’t say I’m fond of. It didn’t help that many of the game’s soundtracks did not captivate me the same way as early compositions did too.
Not to say the tunes were bad, but they didn’t have the same sinister yet seductive ambiance of other entries on this list.
That is, with the exception of Battle Theme V8.
The boss fight theme for Ishtar, the Mesopotamian “Queen of Heaven,” this techno dance composition made me instantly sit up. It was also the only boss theme from the series that succeeded in making me pause a fight, so that I could enjoy every bit of it without distraction.
What’s so splendid about it? Well, its trance-like progression, with ethereal voices and all, exhibits an otherworldly abandonment that is so befitting of the regal goddess I’m fighting. Amidst the intensity is also a dangerous ecstasy that hints at dark rituals best less undescribed; rituals you might lose yourself in if aligned with the goddess’ agenda.
It’s truly a composition capable of getting any SMT player high. That this Ryota Kozuka masterpiece does not play anywhere else further makes it all the more unforgettable.
6. River of Samsara - Digital Devil Saga 1
Like movie soundtracks, video game music 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 ought to feel, during the underground sewer stage it partners.
At the same time, the title is 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 and just encourage you to play Digital Devil Saga 1 to experience these poignant moments for yourself.
A word of warning, though. Digital Devil Saga 1 is not an easy play. It will also take you a while to reach this mythical river. The conclusion of this stage furthermore includes some of the most heartbreaking dialogue 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. With both factions always unflinching when hunting you.
This brings on the need for gripping compositions like this overworld tune from the fourth episode. It’s edgy and ominous, i.e., it keeps you on your toes. It’s also incredibly catchy so as to prevent you from turning off the BGM in disgust, or fear.
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 similarity 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 songs for the twin Devil Summoner games, the energetic beat is the perfect companion to the bustling “Taisho Era” 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 splendid 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. Do ensure too you do not bob too much while listening and exploring. I tend to do that.
3. Challenge Quest β - Shin Megami Tensei IV
My favorite soundtrack from episode four of the main series is easily the oddball 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.
Because it makes sense when one thinks about it. The bright chords 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. Missions that 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, bro ..."
Yeah. Suddenly, it all sounds appropriate. Does it not?
2. Last Boss Battle Before Transformation - Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
I need to expand on something I earlier wrote, in order to explain why I love this superb composition. Incidentally, I consider this to be the best final boss music from the entire SMT series.
Like many other RPGs, you need to rely on "game breakers" 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.
Because of 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 will wipe out half 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 always 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 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’m greatly 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 an endless cycle of time. Another challenge awaits somewhere. For gamers, this means there will always be another SMT saga to live through. And another round of unforgettable soundtracks.
© 2016 Ced Yong