THE GREATEST SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI DEMONS: PART I (SOME DEMONS MAY BE NSFW)Every Halloween, I finally dust off something I almost reviewed time and time again over the years of running this website, and the monsters from Shin Megami Tensei and its related games have been some of the most requested since the site's beginnings. Unfortunately, having never played these games myself, the sheer scope of their content is a significant challenge to sort through, and I can't even begin to parse where "Shin Megami Tensei" begins and its spiritual siblings and spin-offs begin. This is a situation where fans of the series aren't going to need much of an introduction, but nor are newcomers gonna get a very coherent one out of me in only a few short paragraphs.
What I can summarize for you is that this series has lots and lots and lots of monsters. Almost all of these monsters, at least in the core series, are considered "demons," but they draw from mythology and popular culture across the globe. They encompass gods, angels, youkai, vampires, ghosts, cryptids and yes, sometimes even actual demons, and in most cases, players can acquire them to summon in battle like an exceptionally terrifying array of Pokemon.
In many cases, demons have gone through a number of redesigns over the years, but most have a fairly canonized final look we'll usually be sticking with unless I find some older version significantly more appealing. With that in mind, we're probably going to review thirteen monsters at a time, in no particular order, until I run out of any I feel strongly enough about.
Let's just start off with the first Megami Tensei demon to ever really grab my attention. The Pisaca is named after a type of malevolent, flesh-eating spirit in Hinduism, usually depicted with blackened skin and bulging eyeballs. As you can see, Megami Tensei takes extreme liberties with most of its creatures, which I've personally always had mixed feelings about. If it's at the point where the relation between your monster and your inspiration is almost unrecognizable...is that connection necessary anymore? What they have here is a wildly original and horrifying being, eyes on snail-like stalks, mouth all the way down its body and skin in weird, overlapping flaps. It's fantastic, and it really sticks out, but enough so that I feel it may as well have had its own original name and lore.
The Pisaca's even changed a bit from its appearances in older games, but not extremely so. I will say that this version, with even gloopier skin and a smaller, beaked proboscis instead of the gigantic chest-maw, is really quite a bit more disturbing in a lot of ways. It's hard for me to a choose a favorite between the two. The newer Pisaca looks more unnatural, but the older looks more putrid.
Yeah, "Chris," like Steven King's "Christine," get it? I include this because it's just really fun for the series to throw in some famous horror literature, even fairly modern literature, amidst all its ancient fairies and deities. For just a beat-up car, this artwork also has a whole lot of personality to it. The face we're already inclined to see in the front of an automobile really looks angry and feral here, and I'm glad they chose a car with four headlights, which immediately translates to four "eyes."
This and the majority of the artwork we'll be seeing, by the way, is by Kazuma Kaneko, lead character and demon designer since the beginning of the series in 1990.
Straight back to mythology is SMT's take on the Norse serpent who gnaws the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree. I know what I just said about designs straying needlessly far from mythology, but everything about this ghoulish worm feels very true to Nidhoggr's spirit. This is exactly what I might expect something to look like that spends its existence parasitizing the roots of a god-sized tree...and just wait until you see this game's take on Yddrasil itself.
Though the "hundred-handed giants" come from Greek mythology, the first thing I think of now (and may always think of) when I hear this term are the Hekatons from the webcomic Feast for a King, which is really fantastic if you can handle something with both graphic gore and graphic sex scenes. I swear it's not as dark as that sounds. In fact, it's one of the most uplifting comics I've ever read.
But where was I? In Megami Tensei, these things have pretty great, warped blob-heads. Nowhere near an actual hundred limbs, but that's understandable.
Some creature designs from the series are infamously not-work-safe, and there's enough of those that every one of these reviews are going to need that little warning. A good starting point for this is Arioch, named after a fallen angel who features prominently in Paradise Lost. The teeth and tongue tell us we're looking at a huge, vertical mouth, but the multiple fleshy lips and folds tell us exactly what Kazuma was going for. Arioch looks less than thrilled about the whole affair; even the menacing pose he's striking seems half-hearted.
The celtic Dullahan, as I've talked about before, was a much more outrageous monster that JRPG's would have you believe, typically accompanied by its own humongous, rotting, fire-breathing head while it rides a matching headless, monstrous horse, sometimes also accompanied by its own giant, rotting, fire-breathing horse head.
It kinda saddens me that the name has come to mean nothing more than a headless knight, but at least this design does something lovably wacky with it. Anyone more than very passingly familiar with fashion dolls and certain action figures should easily recognize that distinct knob where the head can be so easily pulled off.
The idea of undead from drowned corpses is pretty terrifying, but they seldom take advantage of the concept to this degree. This bloated, purple, seaweed-swathed corpse is incredibly haunting, and made doubly so with such an obscured face. Of all the eyes you can give a spooky creature, none really hit that perfect balance between "unsettling" and "cool as hell" as big, bright, simple circles.
Sadly, Depth appears exclusively in Shin Megami Tensei II, all the way back in the 90's.
And now for another loose interpretation of folklore! The Ubu is apparently the child of an Ubume, the spirit of a woman who died during childbirth. There's nothing in Japanese myth about baby ghosts with upside-down faces and spider legs, but it's not an image I'm willing to argue with. The fact that it's such a normal baby head is far, far scarier than any of the more overtly ghoulish baby monsters out there.
That's right, it's the old ones or "elder things" from H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness!...Sort of. The old ones were really more along the lines of abstract, radial echinoderms than the bat-winged dragon-squid we're seeing here, but it's still not a bad design. I can tell what it's referencing even without the name, and it has some fun embellishments of its own, like the additional eyes on the ends of its tentacles and the suckered hands entwined around each other!
We had to include Jack Frost here, since he's the official mascot of Atlus and has a million zillion appearances. He's also not a bad design, I can see why he'd be their first choice for a spokesmonster, and I am increasingly a fan of scary snowmen. Depending on the game, he can be an utter shit to boot, sometimes downright murderous, and he intersperses "hee" and "hoo" and "hee hoo" throughout his dialog for no real reason except that it's adorable.
JACK O' LANTERN
Jack Frost is not alone, however; the pumpkin-headed, flying Jack O' Lantern is usually translated in English games as "Pyro Jack," I guess so he'll seem more like the elemental counterpart to Jack Frost, and sometimes treated as another major series mascot.
...But then, there's the third brother, Jack Ripper. Yes, Megami Tensei decided that the spirit of winter, the spirit of Halloween and a famous serial killer made sense as triplets because they all have "Jack" in their name. Who am I to argue? The three even appeared as the main player characters in an adventure game on none other than the dreaded Virtual Boy:
While it may have been appropriate to end our first round on the Jack Brothers, I'd rather end on the absolutely magnificent Medusa from Shin Megami Tensei IV. If the style looks familiar, then you may be recognizing Yasushi Nirasawa, beloved for his detailed and outrageous character designs in a number of manga, anime, sentai, action figures and more. The fact that her hair is a mix of skeleton snakes and metal chain skeleton snakes is barely unusual for Nirasawa's aesthetics, nor the BDSM-punk garb or the fact that her skeletal tail is in turn stuffed with the skulls of, presumably, swallowed human victims. You can see a lot more of Nirasawa's art in my review of Volfoss enemies, or just plugging his name into google image search.
Tragically, the followup game Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse would "update" Medusa's artwork, "technically" keeping the design the same, but gutting her of all the edge and grit Nirasawa imbued her with. Even with both designs spilling out of a leather top, it's only this one that feels like cheesy, derivative anime fanservice, even softening her facial features and swapping her threatening pose for a "come hither" one. Yyyecch.
Sadder still, Nirasawa is no longer with us as of February 2016. I'd devote an article just in special tribute to his work, but I feel like that Volfoss article already sums him up better than anything else I could write. I don't know if anyone will ever be able to recapture quite the same flair.
We'll keep looking at Megami Tensei demons all the way until Halloween, though they aren't the only entities in the series, and there's also Persona to look at.