Released in 1992 in Japan, the original Shin Megami Tensei has finally made its North American debut with the first official English localization of the game. The iOS version is an almost direct port of the 2003 Game Boy Advance remake which has been on the Japanese App Store since 2012. Unfortunately, the fact that this is a port of a GBA game is all too apparent and can at times hold back an otherwise decent localization of this classic.
"...while this version is certainly not perfect, it is more than playable and enjoyable despite the annoyances."
Despite the fact that Shin Megami Tensei was developed over twenty years ago, the core first-person dungeon crawling would be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Nocturne, Strange Journey, or more recently SMT IV. Having spent a lot of time with Nocturne, I was surprised to see just how much of the core systems were already well-developed in this version. One funny thing is that when I was originally playing Nocturne I thought that the game felt like a throwback, but I had no idea how many improvements and modern conveniences that game actually incorporated. For example the map in SMT is terrible, as it's often takes a few moments to get your bearings and in general get used to the tiny grid map. I wish that the map had been modernized for touch screens, as it would have been great to be able have a legible modern video game map with the ability to easily zoom in, move around, and set waypoints.
The main reason that it's a shame that the map isn't better is because it is incredibly easy to get lost. Corridors inside of dungeons are identical looking hallways filled with identical looking doors. The major underground hub area of Shinjuku in particular is so nondescript it's easy to get disoriented just trying to find your way from a shop back to the save point, regardless of how many times you have done it. Honestly, the fact that at any time you can quickly jump to a browser window by virtue of this being on a smartphone is a saving grace for an older, obtuse game like this. It lets you worry less about memorizing corridors, figuring out where you need to go, and instead focus on the interesting story, great music, and creative demon designs.
Demons in Shin Megami Tensei function differently than in later games. You use a resource called Magnetite to summon demons, to use as a bargaining tool during demon negotiations, and it continually drains if you walk while having demons summoned. As a result, I often felt discouraged from walking around with a full party of demons and draining my Magnetite. During negotiations demons can be pretty greedy and will often ask you for large amounts of Magnetite. As a result, I ended up only using demons during boss battles and when I was short on party members. Thankfully, this becomes less of a problem as time goes on, but it's still something you are constantly aware of.
As for demon negotiations, they are more trial and error than an actual negotiation. I found myself having to memorize what a particular demon didn't respond to and just keep trying options until it finally worked. It feels even less precise and reliable than the modern SMT games. That combined with the fact that demons don't level up or learn new abilities means they feel more disposable and less like valuable team members.
The biggest problem with the iOS port is that it is essentially a Game Boy Advance game on a touch screen with a virtual d-pad and buttons. There is no touch screen optimization for menus or movement. Instead, everything is controlled with a virtual GBA button layout. You actually have two orientation options for playing the game with a double tap of the screen switching between portrait and landscape. In landscape, the game screen is bigger, but large semi-transparent buttons are overlaid all across the screen. Strangely enough while in landscape you can't rotate the screen, so I couldn't play the game in this mode with headphones plugged in because the position of the headphone jack meant that the base of the headphone connector would dig into my palm.
As a result, I spent most of my time with SMT playing in portrait mode. Here, the gameplay window is reduced to somewhere between the size of a Regular GBA screen and a Gameboy Micro Screen. The bottom half is then dedicated to a stylized Game Boy Advance SP control layout. I found this to be the most comfortable to play, as it even let me play one handed when needed.
Another thing of note is that this is strictly an iPhone game. While you can play it on an iPad, it isn't optimized for it in the least. As a result, the button layout is less than ideal on larger screens and things like the date/time and battery indicators are overlaid on the screen obscuring some of the action. It's a shame, because at times I certainly felt cramped while playing, which is why I tried it out on the iPad. This is definitely a game that would benefit from an iPhone with a larger screen.
The one thing that I can praise in the iOS version is the great auto-save feature that constantly creates saves in the background while playing. Save points are few and far between, and to make things even worse, there is often nowhere to save before boss battles. Thankfully, the auto-save feature has helped out on numerous occasions. For example, If you die during a boss fight, you'll often find yourself in the corridor right outside the entrance to a bosses lair rather than having lost progress and experience points. Of course creating manual saves is still important, especially if you wander into an area under-leveled and keep reloading into an unwinnable zone.
I may sound very negative about this game, but the truth is that there is a lot I like about Shin Megami Tensei. This charming game features a mature subject matter and a lot of decisions that impact the direction of the story. It's easy to see why this was a hit that spawned several great sequels. Not to mention that having a long, hardcore RPG with me on the go, that I can even play one-handed, is fantastic.
The thing is I'm not sure I could recommend this to anyone except the biggest Megami Tensei fans. You can get largely the same experience, albeit with improved gameplay and a better control interface, on the DS, 3DS, Vita and PSP in the form of Strange Journey or Shin Megami Tensei IV to name a few. On the other hand, people like me have been waiting for a localization of this game for a long time. So despite that, while this version is certainly not perfect, it is more than playable and enjoyable despite the annoyances. It's just important to note that shoving some virtual buttons into an iOS port is no longer good enough. Things have changed pretty rapidly in the smartphone world, and people now expect much better integration with the iOS platform with features such as intuitive control options and universal support for iPhone and iPad, which this game lacks. While this definitely would have been a better experience if it were a complete iOS remake or better yet an enhanced port to the Vita or 3DS, to many of us Megami Tensei fans this is certainly better than not getting the game at all.