We’re just a few days out from the Nintendo Direct that was, for many Shin Megami Tensei fans, a healing spring in a weird, infernal mesoamerican pyramid. I know I was topical last week, but hey, I’ve been going deep in the sometimes derided, definitely cultish, and much loved MegaTen franchise every week for over a month now. I’ll take any chance to rap with y’all about dungeon crawlers that aren’t shy about their Wizardry roots even as they spiral out and iterate on them.
That’s what the Shin Megami Tensei games are. Unabashed in their roots, with a strong focus on party composition, resource management, and above all else, punishing dungeons.
Turns out, it takes more than fanciful sprite work and a simple but robust play on Wizardry mechanics to kill gods in the winding corridors of a satanic hellscape.
You also need slamming beats.
But we’re not going to Shoji Meguro. No. You know him, you stan. And for good reason. He’s composed some absolute bangers, from the pop music laden Persona series, to Strange Journey’s ominous and distorted choirs. But for this, our tenth installment of Audio Logs, we’re going way back to the beginning.
This week we’re all about Tsukasa Masuko. So, grab your graph paper, kids. It’s time to summon some demons.
This is it, the one that started it all. And it’s rough. The dungeons are long, desolate, and circuitous. Enemies will straight up ambush and obliterate you in seconds. What sets it apart is the revolutionary (and spartan, and byzantine) Demon Negotiation system. But with incredible sprites, simple, purposeful animations, and a quintessential JRPG score, it all works.
Cartridge limitations may have been a challenge, but in spite of that, composer Tsukasa Masuko manages a soundtrack that is evocative, and at times, absolutely slaps.
Micom City is the driving 8-bit town theme that you expect from a console RPG of this vintage, the welcome refuge of healing and gearing up for the horrors ahead. Here it’s just off-kilter enough to remind you that this whole structure is one giant demonic labyrinth. The dire undercurrents at the end, before the loop begins again? Those weird themes? The dude with the snake that will raise the dead and synthesize new demons for you? It’s as creepy as the best tracks from Shadowgate.
The actual dungeon themes are propellant, pushing you quickly through corridors with tempos you’d expect from a game like Ninja Gaiden. Urging drum loops and synth arpeggios hurrying you along. It’s devilish. Rushing is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing in a game that requires careful mapmaking, but like the time my mom drove from Richmond to Nags Head in two and a half hours because I was playing the first Garbage album and not NPR, sometimes you can’t help but get infected by the sound.
Give Tsukasa Masuko more and he’ll give you more. Without the restrictions of the diminutive Famicom cartridge’s storage capacity, Masuko is free to build up a sonic palette for this spooky, rockin’, and extremely post-apocalypse Tokyo. Normalcy is gone from the jump when you start with dreaming about crucified Matrix avatars and you’ve given software to torrent demons, so naturally this isn’t the usual JRPG fair.
When we think of deep bass heavy grooves, we’re talking about the Sega Genesis. We all know it, or we’ve heard some old person talk to us about it (hi, it’s me, I’m old). Nintendo, generally speaking, just didn’t bring that to the 16-bit party. Except for Masuko, who appeared, Maleficent-like, to bring the sick demon-summoning beats you need to get through the hours and hours of grinding these games take.
When you’re lost in a dungeon maze, trust me, you want something that’s always there in the back of your head keeping you going, but you absolutely don’t want 10 hours of being lost in corridor-hell (because you didn’t bring your graph paper) having to deal with a random encounter table that will make you want to rip your own teeth out while “Vampire Killer” is just wailing at you.
Masuko is benevolent in that regard. He’s brought you beats to get lost to.
You probably haven’t played it. Hell, you might be scratching your head right now going “Dia, what the hell? GITEN Megami Tensei?!”
Look, I only heard about it a month ago when I decided to LP the whole series. And yeah, as far as I know even emulated there’s no English patch. But hey, this PC-98 game is a real ass MegaTen game, taking place between SMT 1 and 2. And while those of us who don’t read Japanese or don’t want to deal with getting it to run in 2020 will never know its delights, we can still appreciate this absolutely jam-filled soundtrack.
Fact: PC-98 beats slam.
Shout out to the venerable YM2608 sound chip, a.k.a. OPNA. This beast of a Yamaha is responsible for letting Masuko go apeshit with scratchy synth guitar that barely resembles the real instrument but still totally shreds. Funky beats give way to searing metallic harmonies that transition into even more robotic bells and whistles. Practically pop songs at times, it has a classic arcade-like feel that would sound more at home in a Falcom action RPG than a tentpole of the DRPG genre. Rarely does this soundtrack take a break. But when it does, it’s equal parts chill and eerie. The artificiality of the YM2608 produces sounds that seem almost like carnival music. It’s just shy of comical at times, but when mixed with not-quite uncanny valley Yamaha grand piano synths the results creep with sinister energy. Then it plunges right back into those Shadowrun basslines. The Genesis one, again, that deep thumpy bass. And it’s fitting. This is an anime as fuck cyberpunk-ass game. It needs those cyberjamz, as much as we need it brought to modern platforms outside of Japan.
Atlus, please. My crops are dying, my sons are having bad opinions about Gundam’s politics. Just localize this one. We need it.
Okay, that’s your three this week…or is it?
I know we’re all so exhausted by getting teased and disappointed by SMT announcements, it’d be unfair if I just left you Shoji Meguro fans hanging. You are my MegaTen people, Dia is for the people, and this is a celebration of the franchise. So let’s celebrate. But we’re not doing Persona or Nocturne. No.
This is a special bonus soundtrack, just for the true faith, as we celebrate our 10 week anniversary together…with digital devils.
“Muladhara” is one of those tracks you’d hear on a demo CD that came packed with a pair of monied douchebag headphones in the 90s. “Svadhisthana” is track two on the same disc. The kind of hybrid “Cool Guy” jazz (note: not Cool Jazz) with the occasional dip into AOR guitar riffs that really resonated with Boomer men desperate to show off their mid-life crisis hi-fi set up and all its stereo separation in their home away from Porsche 911 Turbo.
If this sounds like a diss, trust me, it isn’t. Digital Devil Saga’s soundtrack rips.
Shoji Meguro is given enhanced audio fidelity and storage capacity with the PS2 and GODDAMNIT, he’s going to let you know about it. It’s just that that’s exactly what those royalty free song compilations designed to show off your state-of-the-art Bose Wave Radio or your Blaupunkt car stereo also aspire to.
Here, however, it works. The weird bluesy, inspired-by-Hendrix-inspired riffs feel right at home nestled with weird squelches of synth noise, house techno, spooky anime industrial, and above all else that roving undercurrent of “Cool Guy” Jazz. It’s weird, wild, wacky. It’s almost tonally incongruent, but this game is tonally incongruent. It works
And when Shoji needs to let you have the business? By God this soundtrack delivers with heavy slams on the skins and crunchy heavy metal guitar you can proudly say aren’t licks your rich stepdad would appreciate.
If you happen to be in college right now, you absolutely should play this on big ass hand-me-down JBL loudspeakers hooked up to entirely-too-much Yamaha amp, and massively piss off everyone in your chronically roach-infested student apartment building when they’re just trying to get high, watch SpongeBob, and bang.
I promise it’s a good time.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.