‘I am thou… Thou art I…’ A Look at MegaTen, Persona, and a Divided Fanbase
Several months ago, I recall browsing a Facebook page where someone had posted a picture in which a certain PlayStation2 game was crushed into pieces. When I say “crushed into pieces,” I mean literally; the game in question was Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and the image showed the game disc obliterated far beyond repair. Sadly, the picture in question has been lost to time and the sheer amount of images uploaded by the very active Facebook page.
The caption said “my reaction when Persona fans say 4 is the best,” or something to that effect. Unsurprisingly, there was much fighting on the comments section about the Persona series, and mudslinging occurred on both sides of the debate: Persona 4 fans would criticize the previous games for having “god-awful gameplay” (to quote one such comment) and the other side would claim the story of Persona 4 is “flat and uninteresting” and that Atlus is “milking the franchise hard with this game.”
Now, I bet many of you are thinking “what is Persona?” or “Megami What-say?” Let me begin by apologizing for not being clearer earlier. To many, what I just described sounds like a typical fight over the internet. To be honest, it really is. However, in order to understand what’s so special about this Facebook feud, we must delve into video game history for short while…
In 1987, the Famicom (the Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System) was graced by Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, a role-playing game (RPG) that adapted the novel of the same name by author Aya Nishitani. Published by the game company Atlus, the game features main characters fighting against demons in order to reach their goal. One Facebook user joked that the game is “like Pokémon, but with Satan being a Pokémon.” His comment is not far from the truth. Just like the Pokémon games, players are able to capture monsters or demons (or in the case of Digital, persuade the demons to join their team) and summon them in later battles to aid them. Additionally, the game featured the option to fuse two or more demons together, which would result in an even more powerful creation. The game was released to a warm reception for its fast-paced combat (an amazing feat, considering fights in RPGs are mostly turn-based) and its use of a futuristic cyberpunk setting rather than the standard medieval fantasy worlds that dominate the RPG genre to this day. Needless to say, the success of the first game spawned three sequels (the latest came out last year on the Nintendo 3DS) and three “side” titles (one being an MMORPG, or an online roleplaying game), all of which followed different casts of characters but retained the core concept of obtaining, summoning, and fusing demons.
No one would have predicted it back then, but on the coattails of Digital came numerous offshoot series, turning one game series into the metaseries collectively known as Megami Tensei (often shortened to MegaTen). To those unfamiliar with the term, a “metaseries” is essentially a series of series. For a western example, take a look at the Star Wars expanded universe: a giant space epic formed by interconected movies, video games, TV shows, novels, and comics. In the case of MegaTen, most of the series’ entries are video games that share a certain theme, concept, or motif. Many of these “subseries” have similar names, such as Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, and Devil Survivor, and often had the same demons appearing in each series, they all brought something different, either plot and/or gameplay-wise to the table. In the Persona games, arguably the most popular subseries, each title stars a group of high school students summoning the titular Personas, or manifestations of their psyche.
In the fourth installment, Persona 3 (as the third title was a direct sequel to the second game), a gameplay mechanic known as “Social Links” was introduced. While the first three Persona titles were strictly “dungeon-crawlers” that emphasized combat and exploration, Persona 3 added a “life simulation” element to the game where the player character could partake in everyday activities in addition to entering dungeons and fighting monsters. In short, developing Social Links is an activity where the main character creates a personal bond with another character, which could be a character directly involved in the protagonist’s adventure (known as a party member) or a character that has absolutely nothing to do with the quest. This bond would increase the strength the player’s fused Personas and make them more effective in combat.
Persona 4 (abbreviated as P4), the latest main game in the series, fine-tunes Social Links and increases their importance in the player’s journey. The deeper the player has bonded with his or her party members, the more helpful they may be in combat, such as diving in front of the protagonist to take a hit that would have killed him or following up with an attack to knock down their enemies. In a way, the game presents an idealized image of friendship where everyone is willing to go to extreme lengths for the good of the team.
The basic premise of P4 has the player character (named by the player) moving into a small rural town because of his parents working overseas. Now living with his younger cousin and uncle, a police officer, he makes quick friends with a cast of quirky but charming characters including the heiress of a local inn, a delinquent who fights biker gangs by day and sews by night, and a detective “prince” who is as mysterious as the town they live in. Soon enough, the protagonist is thrust into a murder mystery involving a hidden world that can only be entered through TV screens. Knowing the police would never believe them, the protagonist and his friends decide to take matters into their own hands and start their own investigation.
Despite the daunting task ahead of him, the hero is also a high school student, and he lives an otherwise normal life. The game manages to balance mystery and horror with elements common in “slice of life” anime and manga, which results in a more light-hearted tone compared to the “looming sense of doom” in past installments. Though this may seem off-putting to some, one has to remember that the protagonist is still a teenager, with all the excitement and drama that comes with being that age. Catchy, Jpop-styled songs play in the background as you explore the town and a energetic, guitar driven track accompanies you into your fights with entities of the TV world. With Yuri Lowenthal and Matthew Mercer, among other talented voice actors, acting as the voices of your friends, you are truly in for a treat when you pop in the game disc in your Playstation2 (or play your digital copy on your PS3).
P4 was critically acclaimed. For many, the game could be considered one of the last “gems” of the late Playstation2's library. Following its success, a remake was released in 2012 for the PlayStation Vita called Persona 4 Golden, and four spin-off titles have either been released or are being developed right now. Additionally, two anime series have been made, one based off the original and the other off Golden. Apparently, there were enough differences in the remake (which I admittedly have not played) to justify it being animated, but I suppose it just goes to show how popular P4 became.
Speaking of popularity, for many Persona fans, P4 was the first (and often the only) title in the series they have played. This is understandable, since P4 is more accessible — easier to play, that is — than its predecessors and its already established fame causes most newcomers to check it out first. In fact, I am one of those people. This created a rift in the fandom, as seen on the Facebook page and plenty of online message boards scattered around the internet. Genuine criticism of the games like “the characters were weak” or “the gameplay wasn’t that great” soon devolves into petty name-calling like “nostalgia freak” and “weeaboo,” a derogatory term for someone who enjoys anime and manga.
I guess I am biased in favor of Persona 4, but when I see comments like “how can someone like this series if they’ve only played 3 and 4?” I feel like people being told they are not allowed to enjoy something because I never had the “full experience.” Following this line of thinking, we should accuse people who never played the original Pokémon or Super Mario games as not being “true fans.” We should tell people who watched an adaptation of an older work that they have to read the original. The thing is, people do these all the time. They are not contributing to any argument or discussion, they are simply expressing their elitism.
But what about the story? It is superior in every way! Irrelevant; different people enjoy different things for different reasons. I have a preference for games with enjoyable gameplay. Unfortunately for a lot of old-school RPGs, they just do not make the cut. It ends up becoming a “grindfest” (doing the same repetitive tasks for the sake of game progression). At least P4 has a balance of dungeon-crawling and Social Links. For those who criticize “milking the franchise” (in a series, to milk is release titles directly connected to one particular installment for the sake of “cashing-in” on its success), so what? Perhaps I like seeing the continued adventures of the characters I have grown to like.
My “side” of the fence is no better either, to be honest. We keep ourselves locked away from, as they call it, the full experience for a multitude of reasons. Worse yet, we tend to ignore the existence of the original games. Even if we do not like them, they still exist. Without the very first Persona, we would not have a series to love.
It kills me to see so much hostility between fans of the same series. I understand that the characters from P4 were “rehashed” from characters in previous games. I also understand that the other games had weak gameplay compared to P4. I understand every game has had its good and bad parts, but I’ll never understand the elitism, the “us or them” mentality each faction seems to have. To outsiders, this behavior is a complete turn-off and might cause them to never appreciate the work, or worse yet to have absolute disdain because of a disagreeable fanbase. Why can’t we all just enjoy what we like in peace? Perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for that.
Recently, Persona 5 has been confirmed for a 2015 release on both the PlayStation3 and PlayStation4. There will undoubtedly be people that have never played a Persona or a MegaTen game before, and people will always have strong feelings on their opinions. That is simply a truth of society in its entirety. However, to everyone that may end up reading this: I am begging you to reconsider your biases. I am not ignorant of people having tastes and preferences, but I simply cannot bear to see people who should have something in common yell and scream at each other. At the end of the day, we all enjoy Persona in our own way. “I am thou… thou art I,” we Persona fans must stand together in camaraderie.