Shin Megami Tensei 3’s US release had quite an impact on the hardcore RPG community, because it was the first game of its kind to find its way to this side of the Pacific. The only hints of the MegaTen franchise that the US had seen were the two Persona games which had been translated. While these were each very good in their own right, Atlus’s first entries in the series, the Super Famicom Shin Megami Tensei games remain to this day virtually unknown outside of a small population of the RPG community. In terms of music, the MegaTen games of today are known by the mixture of jazz, rock, and even a little orchestral that Shoji Meguro and Toshiko Tasaki brought to the late 90s and early 21st century entries. These styles were present at the series’ inception as well, with the compositions of Tsukasa Masuko.
Shin Megami Tensei’s early 90s soundtrack release consists of two discs: one for the original game music, and the other for arranged versions. Unfortunately, the problems with this soundtrack begin there; the two discs have a combined running time of about 77 minutes. The tracks on the “Law Disc,” the original soundtrack portion, are not looped, and even worse, they don’t fade. The tracks cut off abruptly, sometimes at seemingly arbitrary places. Combined with the poor recording quality for some portions of the arranged disc, the Shin Megami Tensei soundtrack appears a very poor effort on the part of Victor Entertainment. On a positive note, the packaging has a nice look to it, and the liner notes are quite extensive, including everything from comments on every track to interviews with various staff members to a slightly ecchi comic in the booklet’s center. Packaging cannot make or break a release, however; soundtracks are bought for the music.
Initially, the most striking thing about the original music for Shin Megami Tensei is the synth: it has a Sega Genesis sound to it, far below most SFC music of its era, or any era. The first two tracks, totaling under a minute in length, immediately show a minimalist style: “Title” consists entirely of the same bass piano chord repeated, with some ‘heartbeat’ percussion. Despite its effectiveness in setting the dark tone of the game, it doesn’t accomplish anything as music. “Dream” has the same general style, but utilizes it to greater effect: with simple arpeggios repeating consistently, an almost sitar-like instrument adds a minimalist melody in the foreground. It works well, and strikes the listener as decently euphonic.
A lot of this disc does not even live up to that standard. Where the music in this game succeeds, it succeeds well, but likewise, its failures are equally visible. Several of the tracks have similar structures; in one way or another, a simple bass line repeats, with some melodic variation in the foreground. “Arcade Town,” “Kichijouji,” “Shop,” “Shibuya,” and “Ginza” all work within this construction, and it can get tiresome quickly. Some of the origins of MegaTen musical style can be seen in these tracks, but the music in later games was more well developed than the simplistic material seen here.
The battle themes are also clearly of the MegaTen lineage, and the decently well developed “Boss” eclipses the relatively bland “Fighting.” A similar style of electric guitar work can be seen in these tracks to that of Shoji Meguro’s MegaTen battle music. The best track on the Law Disc side of the soundtrack, “Mansion of Heresy,” features an organ playing a baroque style melody.
A lot of early games had mediocre soundtracks, however, and still pulled through on their CD releases with great arranged versions. This soundtrack has a “Chaos Disc,” arranged by Tatsuya Nishiwaki, to offset its “Law Disc.” Unfortunately, however, the quality of the Chaos disc, while generally at a higher level than the Law disc, does not surpass its origins exponentially.
The first track on the Chaos disc, “Revelation,” juxtaposes the Law and Chaos themes with some sound effects. While an interesting idea, the relative simplicity of the source material prohibits the effect from working; in contrast, if the composition of the track were ignored, it does not stand on its own musically. “Wandering” uses several of the bass lined tracks, using the “Arcade” riff as a reference point. Some sections of this track work well, while others just drown in gratuitous electric guitar distortion.
“Heat Waves,” the third track, melds the “Dream” music, played to good effect on piano, with some keyboard sections and a bit of the “Neutral” theme. The arrangement utilizes the piano’s dramatic range well, and it works well without knowing the original music’s context. A little bit of an odder arrangement, “Far Arrival” transforms the dull “Home” music into a waltz, juxtaposing it with the “Law theme at times. “Summons” takes the organ piece and transforms it with strings and a harpsichord.
“Eaves” and “Abandoned Sky” are not as interesting, one being a mostly keyboard and electric guitar track that accomplishes very little melodically, and the other a simple guitar version of the “Law” theme. The final track, however, makes up for this. “Sublation” takes the battle themes, the “Law” theme, the “Neutral” theme, and “Epilogue” and somehow transforms them into a single coherent entity. The electric guitars are not overindulged as much here, leaving more room for innovative arrangement.
Shin Megami Tensei’s soundtrack is not easy to find, and on top of that, the music itself will most likely not justify the actual amount spent on it. All but the most dedicated MegaTen collector should pass on searching for these CDs.