Despite being a spin-off of a spin-off, Persona’s runaway success made it the most recognizable of the Shin Megami Tensei RPG series. But in 1994, two years before the very first Persona game arrived on PlayStation, the blueprint for those future games was laid down in another lesser-known side story with a peculiar title.
Shin Megami Tensei if… for Nintendo’s 16-bit Super Famicom offered a more scaled-back take on the Shin Megami Tensei formula. Instead of a world-ending calamity throwing humanity into pandemonium, a single school has been transported to a demonic dimension known as the Expanse. And rather than taking part in an apocalyptic battle between law and chaos, the big bad is a student who got sick of being bullied.
If that sounds familiar, there’s good reason: Shin Megami Tensei if… ended up being the basis for the Persona series. Katsura Hashino, who got his start at Atlus as a designer on if… and is known today as Persona’s head honcho, said as much during a 2009 interview with the now-defunct Play Magazine. The school setting was apparently so well received that Atlus greenlit 1996’s Megami Ibunroku Persona—which Atlus USA localized as Revelations: Persona—as the first game in a new series about “the inner struggles of young adults.”
But it goes beyond just the setting. Shin Megami Tensei if… opens as the Japanese campus of Karukozaka High School is transplanted from our everyday reality to a decidedly more demonic dimension. It’s in these early moments, as the game does its best to teach you how to play as obtusely as possible, that you’re introduced to three more students: your close friend Yumi Shirakawa, honor student Reiko Akanezawa, and self-centered punk Shinji “Charlie” Kuroi.
Depending on who you immediately decide to spend time with, the game sets you down one of three story paths. (There’s a fourth character, Akira Miyamoto, who’ll only join you in a second playthrough.) It’s not quite as involved as the Persona series’ “Social Link” system, in which working on your relationships improves your party’s combat abilities, but the idea of friendship affecting how the story progresses wasn’t prevalent in previous Shin Megami Tensei games.
A big part of Shin Megami Tensei if… also revolves around unique demons known as Guardians. While the game is like its predecessors in that you recruit demons pulled from folklore and myth to join you in battle, your two human party members—your own high-school student and whichever of the others you choose to accompany—are also closely linked with a Guardian that changes every time they die.
Yep, death isn’t the end of the story in Shin Megami Tensei if…, even if the main character bites the dust. As you progress and gain experience to level up, a separate Guardian meter also builds. The higher it is when you die, the better Guardian you’ll get when you’re revived. This kindred spirit affects your characters’ stats and which magic spells they can use.
Again, not quite as involved as games in the Persona series, wherein the protagonist can freely switch their equipped Persona demon and the other party members have specific, often story-based partners, but the idea clearly has its foundations in the Super Famicom classic.
Here’s Hashino again, from the same 2009 interview:
“The first title I worked on after I joined Atlus was Shin Megami Tensei if…, where I was put in charge of the Guardian system,” Hashino said. “Now that I think about it, that Guardian system became the basis of the Persona series, so I’ve been involved with the series since then. Wow, that’s a long time.”
Apart from those aspects, however, Shin Megami Tensei if… plays pretty much the same as the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games of that era. You spend most of your time navigating sprawling dungeons in first-person, with battles being less complicated affairs than the weakness-based systems introduced in later games. Sure, it’s still pretty damn difficult, with a lot of backtracking and other oddities that so often make these specific role-playing games a chore to revisit, but you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in Shin Megami Tensei if… assuming you already like Shin Megami Tensei.
After its Super Famicom debut, Shin Megami Tensei if… would go on to be ported to the PC and original PlayStation. It’s even enjoyed some modern love thanks to both the Wii Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online (where it debuts next week in Japan). As Atlus celebrates Persona’s 25th anniversary and fans set their sights on a potential sixth entry, it’s been fun checking out the game that acted as a prototype for the now globally popular role-playing series.
Shin Megami Tensei proper may not be as stylish or well-received as the more recent Persona games, but it’s hard to deny the former has a certain underlying charm that went on to serve as a foundation for Persona’s eventual, explosive success. And to think, it all started in a game with such a silly, awkward name.