Persona 5 is right around the corner. I've been playing it excessively. You might already know how it is (if you imported a Japanese copy). If you’re excited—be it from being a diehard fan of Persona 4 and its gaggle of teen detectives or are just anticipating the ever-stylish Persona 5 to steal your heart away as your first venture into the series—then I have news for you. You have to play nine other Shin Megami Tensei games before you even get the right to touch the glory of Persona 5. (Just kidding.)
So this list is a bit muddled. It’s not really ranked (it’s in order by year of release). Some are more tangentially tied to Persona than Shin Megami Tensei as a whole. Some, one might argue, shouldn’t even qualify as a Shin Megami Tensei game. All of these criticisms are fine. But what I say goes. My word is law around these parts. But before we dive into the most essential games of the series, allow me to establish just what makes a game bestow the Shin Megami Tensei marquee.
What Makes a Shin Megami Tensei Game?
Well, for starters: demons, a grim atmosphere, teenagers, mature themes, and dungeon crawling is embedded in the DNA of any Shin Megami Tensei game (or rather, most of them). Oh, and a recurring phallic demon named Mara. But beyond that, it gets a bit tricky. The series got its start way back in 1992, with Shin Megami Tensei sleuthing its way onto Famicom. The game was technically born of two other games of the Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei series, released in 1987 and 1990 respectively on the Famicom, themselves based on a popular novel by the same name. The series quickly garnered a reputation for being a bit hardcore in their difficulty (and, to be quite honest, a bit of a slog too; first-person dungeon crawling is not great).
In the years since, Shin Megami Tensei has evolved itself immensely, leaving behind its intense, slightly alienating past and making itself an easily accessible and more in-depth series for the better. For instance, in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, a brief tryst of fan service between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei series, the harrowing atmosphere of Shin Megami Tensei is discarded in favor of saccharine teen idol drama… with dungeon navigating and “Performa” summoning thrown in for fun. Catherine, a game that some will decry as unfit for this list, was developed by the Persona team at Atlus. It features twisty block puzzles, navigating the social pitfalls of being a regular at a bar, and tackles the moral qualms surrounding infidelity as an adult (some might say it’s the rare video game made truly for adults). In the ongoing Shin Megami Tensei universe, sometimes dark and gloomy doesn’t necessarily even cement the series. And as a series that has always said "nay" to the typical trappings of a standard JRPG, it shouldn’t be bound to such strict guidelines.
Which Games in the Series Should I Play?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Depending on your tastes and your amount of time (though—let’s be real—all these games will run you a decent chunk of time), just one of these games might pique your interest. Or, alternatively, even all of them... and suddenly you have five years worth of backlogged games to play. There are also far more Shin Megami Tensei games than this list bares (arguably, too many), but in this humble Shin Megami Tensei mega-fan’s opinion, these are the most essential, and provide the most diverse, oddest, and worthwhile games to dive in before Persona 5 blesses you with its existence.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
2004 | Playstation 2
In Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, you play as a teenager-turned-Demi-fiend, which basically amounts to hanging out with demons and suddenly getting really cool tattoos. The game is also unrelenting in its difficulty. It's bleak in its outlook of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, complete with its own Lucifer always lingering about. Nocturne cast aside the series' usual first-person dungeon crawling by dragging the camera back to third-person, and ushering the series into a new era almost single-handedly. While the game is intriguing, it’s also not for the faint of heart, unless you’re into the whole “I dig hard games” thing.
Where to Find It: The Playstation 2 classic is available digitally on Playstation 3, but for a physical copy you have to venture into the depths of Ebay.
Persona 3 FES / Portable
2008 | Playstation 2 / 2010 | Playstation Portable
I’ve mildly defended my position on our Axe of the Blood God podcast, but I’ll say it again here: Persona 3 is one of my favorite games of all-time. It has virtually everything I desire in it: the charms of mundane life simulators meshed with grindy, often tedious dungeon crawling as you scale the omnipresent Tartarus to see what’s looming at the top. In a lot of respects, its successor, Persona 4, is by all accounts a “better” game—it fixes the combat, grounds the cast in a small-town, shifts its eyes away from the apocalypse to a simpler whodunit.
Alas, Persona 3’s cast connected more with me. Hardly any of its characters I ever found grating. Its eerie imagery, like the coffins that take up the space of human beings during the Dark Hour, has remained steadfast in my memory. Composer Shoji Meguro's insanely catchy tunes are forever embedded deep inside my mind. I’ll never have another gaming experience like the first time I played Persona 3, hushed in my room on my crappy CRT, but that’s okay. It’s dark, it’s cool, and best of all... it has multiple versions. There’s FES, an addition to the flawed original edition of the game that adds an epilogue and fixes other minor things. And there’s Portable, a more visual novel-y styling of the game that amends the PS2 game’s flawed, protagonist-only-controlling combat. You can also play as a girl in Portable (and romance those sweet, sweet boys). But in my opinion, Portable sacrifices the connections you grow with the environments and characters in FES. So for the sake of recommendations: I personally recommend FES.
Where to Find It: For the Portable edition, the Playstation Store will suffice. For the FES PS2 version, it’s available as a PS2 Classic for PS3 as well (or Ebay, if you’re a physical copy purist). The original edition—the one without the FES at the end of the title—is negligible, honestly, and sorely misses the closure that FES and Portable offer.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
2009 | Nintendo DS
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor pins you as—you guessed it—a teenager that is suddenly thrown into a world of evil. You’ve adopted the “death clock,” which enables you to see when everyone will die, their biological clocks ticking away on full display. Tokyo is under quarantine after an unexpected attack from monsters. Of all the Shin Megami Tensei games on this list, this might be the most Shin Megami Tensei of them all (and I mean that fondly). While its sequel, Devil Survivor 2, makes a lot of improvements combat-wise (and even in terms of its characters), the original game's central premise and story are far more gripping, as it follows the inherent collapse of a society after a catastrophic event.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
2010 | Nintendo DS
Strange Journey is an odd entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series. For one, it shifts away from grim supernatural in favor of a sci-fi-centric tale. It takes a step away from the third-person dungeon crawling, returning to the first-person point-of-view that established the series in the 1990s. Plus, it takes its core inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing (even plopping its setting in Antarctica), as it weaves a tale about environmentalism. The Shin Megami Tensei series has always been one for taking risks and going against the grain of JRPG-intrepid heroism, but with Strange Journey, its risks weren’t embedded in a drab, dark tale or something the polar opposite: but in venturing into a new sort of genre entirely. By its end, it really is a strange journey. (I’m sorry, I had to).
Where to Find It: Amazon.
Persona 4 Golden
2012 | Playstation Vita
This is the one you’re likely already familiar with. There’s you, silent protagonist dude. There’s all your friends. There’s Nanako, your adorable little sister. There’s Teddie, the annoying bear-thing. There’s Rise, the love of your life (if you choose correctly). Persona 4 polishes the blemishes from the Persona games before it, ushers the player into the small, podunk town of Inaba, and shoves you into a magical tv world of fighting demons—er, I mean shadows. Persona 4, as you’ve heard, is great. It really is. It’s probably the best JRPG ever made. But you should play Persona 3 first, so you can appreciate it. Or even play Persona 1 and 2, which are drastically different from their successors, and relish in how far the series has come.
Where to Find It: For the superior Vita edition (Golden), the Playstation Store or Amazon works. For the (absurdly late) Playstation 2 version from 2008, it’s available digitally as a PS2 Classic for PS3, and there’s always Ebay for a physical copy.
2011 | Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Commenters, friends, family, foes: I can already hear your voices echoing in my ears. “Catherine is not a Shin Megami Tensei game,” you say. And I hear you. I really do. Except, it’s also tangentially related to a Shin Megami Tensei game. Vincent, the anti-hero of Catherine, even makes a cameo appearance in Persona 3 Portable as “Man Drinking Alone,” so anything is possible. The game was developed by the Persona team at Atlus. In these respects, in this “games you should play or read the Wikipedia page of before playing Persona 5” list, Catherine belongs on this list. Catherine is also one of the greatest games of the past decade, but I digress.
Catherine is unlike the Persona series before it. It follows Vincent, a non-ambitious man in a long-term relationship with a woman named Katherine. He frequents a bar every night with his buddies, which you navigate in-game through ordering beers, chatting up patrons, sending text messages. And one night he does the unthinkable: he cheats on Katherine with another woman, who also happens to be named Catherine. Oh, and every night you’re warped into a hellscape where you clamber up a puzzle tower of blocks as sheep try to murder you. Same ol’, same ol’. The game retains the perverse ideology of other Shin Megami Tensei games, but shifts its focus to unseen territory: adulthood, beyond mere teenagers.
Shin Megami Tensei IV
2013 | Nintendo 3DS
Shin Megami Tensei IV was designed to recapture what began the Shin Megami Tensei series all those decades ago, and also be an accessible entry point into the dense series. It’s a fairly typical JRPG: you’re a reincarnated samurai who’s tasked with saving the world; a world caught between two eras: a feudal society and modern-day Tokyo. The game has moral qualms, dastardly revelations, and more that you’ll grow to expect from the Shin Megami Tensei series. And there’s also Shin Megami Tensei IV’s sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, if you still want more once you wrap up the original game.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
2014 | Nintendo 3DS
Persona Q: Shadow of Labyrinth is somehow even more fan service-y than all of Persona 4’s spin-offs combined. It’s a crossover game with the characters of both Persona 3 and Persona 4 in the mix (at the start of the game, you can choose what group of heroes you want to start with). They’re cutely chibified, a la, well, a lot of JRPG spin-offs. The dungeons are resoundingly Etrian Odyssey-like, as you actively map out your path on your own map with the 3DS’ bottom touch screen. Persona Q isn’t the greatest of the bunch here, but it’s pleasant and enjoyable, and yet another excuse to spend time with your favorite Persona characters (because lord knows you haven’t already spent hundreds of hours with them already).
Persona 4: Dancing All Night
2015 | Playstation Vita
Persona 4: Dancing All Night is, uh, different. I initially found myself entranced by its premise in a way that another Persona 4 spin-off—the fighting game Persona 4 Arena—failed to. As if a lightbulb went off in my head upon hearing rhythm games and Persona in the same sentence. But there was another ingredient sorely missed in how the game was described: the fact that it’s basically a soft-sequel to Persona 4, and it’s a lot more of a mystery visual novel than a rhythm game. Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a fitting send-off to the well-trodden heroes of Persona 4, and the ever-adorable Nanako can dance along to the Junes theme. So it’s a win-win situation all around.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
2016 | Wii U
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE—in addition to Catherine—might be the most alienating on this list. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is Shin Megami Tensei in the sense that it has demons, though it’s turn-based, fast-paced battles lean more on the Persona-side of the series. It does away with the typical, all-black-everything color palette in turn for something radiantly colorful—just like the Japanese pop idols that star in the game. It surprisingly turned out to be one of my personal favorite games of last year, and I often jokingly refer to it as the Wii U’s last hurrah (because, in all honesty, it was).