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Matt Kamen on the video-game origins of Persona 4

Persona 4 was originally released in 2008 on the PlayStation 2 and is currently available in brilliantly enhanced form as Persona 4 Golden on the PlayStation Vita. While the tale of the nameless hero (Yu Narukami in the anime) and his friends in the small but macabre town of Inaba became arguably the most popular entry in the Persona series of role-playing games, it was far from the first.

The Persona franchise itself is spun off from developer Atlus’ much longer-running Shin Megami Tensei, which dates back to 1987 and the original NES console. The first entry, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, was loosely adapted from a trilogy of novels by Aya Nishitani, an early attempt at combining elements of Japanese mythology with the then-dawning age of popular computing. The story followed computer adept Akemi Nakajima, who unwittingly contacts the demon world through his computer, drawing its denizens into the real world. Along with his friend Yumiko, who had an unknown connection to divinity herself – not a huge twist given the series’ name translates to ‘Reincarnation of the Goddess’ – the pair must undo the damage caused. The protagonists were carried over to the game, with players controlling Yukiko’s magic and Nakajima’s ability to summon and control demons. It was a modest success, at least enough of one to warrant a sequel in 1990.

Like the Final Fantasy games, most Megami Tensei titles have no direct connections between entries, instead sharing thematic elements. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei II was the first example of this, abandoning any connection to Nishitani’s books, instead focusing on a post-apocalyptic world where demons ran amok. However, gameplay elements such as summoning and fusing demons remained, becoming a hallmark of the series. Progressing to the Super Nintendo in 1992 with Shin Megami Tensei, the franchise grew in popularity and Atlus began experimenting with spin-offs.

Of note was Devil Summoner for the Sega Saturn, set in the present day and blending a murder mystery subplot into the more familiar RPG mechanics. This would see its own chain of sequels over the years, including two Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha entries for PS2 which saw release in the UK. Another sub-series, Devil Children, tried to tone down the horror elements for a kids’ audience, while the Last Bible and Majin Tensei games introduced tactical strategy gameplay to the universe.

It was 1996’s Revelations: Persona that proved a breakthrough though, bringing the series westward for the first time. Released on the original PlayStation, it abandoned the concept of summoning demons and instead turned to the realms of the human mind for inspiration. Its teen cast called upon persona, aspects of their own subconscious as proposed by psychotherapist Carl Jung. As the protagonists had gotten more cerebral, so too did the monsters they fought, each a representation of some form of psychosis. Sadly, Persona 2 fared less well – released in two parts in 1999, only the second, subtitled Eternal Punishment, saw western release. Both games were heavily edited for American audiences – including changing ethnicities of characters – though subsequent re-releases have restored the censored content.

2007’s Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was the first title to see an untouched western release, as well as being the first of the Persona series to make it to the UK. For many players, it would be the first time they had experienced such a mix of role playing and dating sim-style relationship management between controllable characters. Coupled with a continuing exploration of Jungian psychology, the unique approach turned the game into a cult hit, paving the way for Persona 4’s breakout success less than two years later. While that most recent game is undoubtedly a sterling release itself, it owes its all to decades of groundwork from some of the oddest, darkest games Japan has produced.

Persona 4, part two, is out April 1st on UK DVD through Manga Entertainment.


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