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34 Years of Demons: The Evolution of the Shin Megami Tensei Franchise

Ahead of SMT V’s release, a look back at the iconic demons that have shaped the series.

A video game still shows a character trapped in a demon’s tentacles above the caption “Noooo!”
A still from Shin Megami Tensei V.
Courtesy SEGA.
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The upcoming release of Shin Megami Tensei V marks almost 35 years since Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei first came out in Japan in 1987. That makes the franchise (known to many fans as “MegaTen”) a peer of the most venerable and globally popular Japanese role-playing game series, and over the decades it has spawned dozens of mainline entries, spinoff series (like the hugely popular Persona franchise), and standalone games. Despite this, compared with some of its contemporaries, it has remained relatively niche outside of Japan — an RPG fanatic’s RPG, for hardcore genre enthusiasts. SMT V is poised to bring the series to a whole new level, though, with a global release on Nintendo Switch and audiences primed by the enormous success of Persona 5 and the recently remastered release of Shin Megamei Tensei III: Nocturne.

Adapted from Aya Nishitani’s sci-fi novella of the same name, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (“rebirth of the goddess”) follows a disaffected teenager who finds a computer program that lets him download demons. Almost a decade before another smash-hit game had millions of players around the world trying to catch ‘em all, Megami Tensei pioneered the monster-collecting genre. In its universe, the monsters in question are “demons” — an array of deities and mythical beings pulled from global religions and folklore traditions. While the franchise has since explored a wide range of stories and genres, its cast of demons has remained a constant, expanding and evolving with each new entry.

Because they have spanned every gaming hardware generation from the NES to the present, SMT’s demons provide us with a unique opportunity to reflect on over three decades of technology and artistry. Each new game has given artists a chance to tweak, refresh, or completely overhaul old designs, as well as introduce completely new ones.

In anticipation of SMT V, let’s focus on the evolution of three demons coming to the new game. Artist Masayuki Doi recently provided some of his design thoughts in a pre-release campaign on developer Atlus’ Twitter, offering a behind-the-scenes glance at the creative process.

Jack Frost

Snowman-like Jack Frost character with a blue pointed collar and blue cap.
Jack Frost in Shin Megami Tensei V.
ⒸATLUS. ⒸSEGA. All rights reserved.

The English folkloric embodiment of winter cold, Jack Frost has been a stalwart of the series since the 1990 release of Megami Tensei II. Originally depicted as a more traditional snowman, he first donned his signature blue jester’s cap in 1992’s Shin Megami Tensei for the Super Famicom. That design, by artist Kazuma Kaneko, soon became so iconic that Jack Frost took on the role of mascot for the franchise and developer Atlus overall.

Central as it is to SMT’s visual identity, Jack Frost’s design changed very little for SMT V. Doi tweaked his proportions slightly and put that sharp white lining on his cap and collar. Jack Frost’s static look over so many decades now makes his presentation an excellent measuring stick for how graphics technology has improved over time, and the little guy is looking better than ever.

Angel

An angel character with a gold mask and white, flowing robes.
Angel in Shin Megami Tensei V.
ⒸATLUS. ⒸSEGA. All rights reserved.

Angel is another absolute staple of the series, first appearing in Shin Megami Tensei and showing up in nearly every game since. SMT’s Angel is inspired by the Christian divine being and started out as a conventional rendition. Much like the angels of traditional western art, the demon was originally depicted as a long-haired woman with a flowing robe and large, feathered wings. SMT III’s redesign took the character in a decidedly more adult direction, with a bondage aesthetic drawing heavily from the character Leeloo from The Fifth Element, and in particular her bandage dress designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.

After remaining relatively static for quite a while, Angel’s look is getting a refresh for SMT V to better reflect the character’s role in the upcoming game. Angels are foot soldiers in the war between Order and Chaos that takes center stage in SMT V, and the new design plays up their “angelic” features to create a visual contrast with the demons you’ll see them battling. There is a return to more traditional imagery throughout the design, but with some subtle and meaningful twists. The character’s features are now more androgynous, and its golden mask and robotic voice and movements are symbols of its devout — and almost mechanical — loyalty to God.

Lahmu

A mask-like character with shaggy hair and tentacles.
Lahmu in Shin Megami Tensei V.
ⒸATLUS. ⒸSEGA. All rights reserved.

Finally, Lahmu is an entirely new addition to the series for SMT V, giving Doi a chance to flex his artistic muscles and show the process of creating a new SMT demon from start to finish. Lahmu is a Babylonian deity, represented alternately as a serpent, a muddy river, or a man with six long curls of hair. This is highly typical of how myths operate around the globe, with central figures taking different forms from one culture to the next. Doi’s design elegantly combines all of these images into a mask made of mud, with six tentacles and shaggy hair cascading down its length like a river. On Twitter, Doi shared an early 2D render alongside the ultimate 3D model, revealing just how closely a final product can match the artist’s original vision.

Doi is one of many designers who left their impression on the franchise over the decades. From a late-80s first-person pixelated dungeon crawler to fully 3D and HD on the upcoming Nintendo Switch release, Shin Megami Tensei encompasses nearly the entire history of video game graphics. Even as trends have come and gone, Megami Tensei has remained defiantly true to its vision of collecting and combining extraordinary mythological figures from around the world. SMT V will take the demons to new heights and introduce them to wider audiences than ever. Shin Megami Tensei V launches exclusively on the Nintendo Switch on November 12.

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