Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Spell Names

Well, I said I was gonna do this rant, and ain’t no man what calls me a liar, so here we go.

It’s been tough to decide where I stand, exactly, when it comes to spell names in the Shin Megami Tensei games. On the one hand, they’re very annoying to figure out and remember, at least if you’re not starting the series with some of the recent games that give little element icons and descriptions for each ability. If I want to play any SMT game, I have to remember that Agi means Fire, Bufu means Ice, Zio means Lightning, Dia means Heal, Recarm means Revive, Zan is Wind except when it’s not in which case Garu is Wind, Mudo is Death, Hama is Also Death But It’s Shinier, Megido means Non-Elemental/Holy/Almighty/Whatever, Patra means Some Status Ailment Healing, Posumudi means Some Other Status Ailment Healing, and any time I want to raise or lower stats I have to be sure I keep in mind which stats correspond with Taru, Suku, Raka, and...hell, I’ve actually forgotten the last one, which just goes to show you how annoying it is to keep all of this straight.

All of that is bad enough, but it gets far worse when the prefixes and suffixes come into play. If an ability hits all enemies/allies, then it gets the prefix Ma- if it’s an attack spell or Me- if it’s a healing spell (an all-enemy hitting ice spell, for example, is Mabufu, and an all-ally healing spell is Media). Unless it’s Agi, in which case the prefix is Mar- because Agi already starts with an A and for some reason Maagi or just Magi isn’t okay. Oh, and Megido is an exception, too, because it starts with Me- but isn’t a healing spell. And the stat-adjusting spells usually target groups but they don’t get the prefixes. Then the suffix tells you how powerful the spell is, except that mid-tier spell suffixes don’t have any concrete rules because -nga makes Zio mid-tier but it’s -la for Bufu, Megido, and Garu and -ma for Zan and -zi for Tera in that one game and -on for both Death spells except their mid-tier is also their high-tier, and even when you get the seeming simplicity of the high-tier suffixes all being -dyne, some spells still buck the trend with -rahan instead, or have the prefix sama- put in front of them instead, and then there was that whole -rama business for all the spells for a little while. Then there’s -kunda and -kaja to denote whether stat spells are increasing or decreasing stats, and -dra for that one Recarm spell that kills its user for no reason, and -laon for the Megido spells...oh, and I forgot to mention the Deka spells for elimination stat buffs, and how Taka and Maka make the difference in reflection spells, and...guh, what a mess!

It’s by no means impossible to figure out and memorize, but what a hassle all the same. Maybe I’m just an idiot (I did play Lunar: Dragon Song from start to finish, so it’s a strong possibility), but it took me until about my sixth SMT game to really get it all straight. And while I can finally easily recognize and know the spells when I see them in the games, even now I can’t always recall to mind the exact spell name myself.

But, on the other hand...there IS a purpose to all this, I’ve discovered. In one way or another, pretty much all these spell-naming conventions have ties to one culture or another. Mudo, the instant death spell, is Spanish for Silent and Japanese for Curse, while Megido, a spell name that some well-played RPG enthusiasts have probably seen at least a few times before in other series, is named for Megiddo, the mountain at which Armageddon will take place according to some Christian views. Agi is very close to Agni, a Hindu god of fire. There’s even something to those confusing prefixes and suffixes. For example, the prefix Ma- can be traced to Maha, which in Sanskrit means Great, which makes sense as Ma- spells are ones that hit all targets instead of just one. The suffix -Dyne is Greek for Power or Force, which fits for a suffix indicating the most powerful version of a spell. And so on and so forth; there seems to be an explanation for nearly every spell name in the SMT series. This video covers a lot of them pretty well, if you’re interested.

It seems that these strange spell names and confusing syntax rules are a coming together of words and ideas from many cultures, not just a bunch of nonsense words or a few haphazard references. But why should that make a difference, you might wonder. After all, I gave no special consideration to the Final Fantasy series during my rant on its -Ara and -Aga suffixes many years ago even though they apparently do have some meaning in Japanese. Why should Shin Megami Tensei get away with it?

Well, because it’s thematically appropriate for SMT to do it. Every SMT game creates its story by taking a huge sampling from mythologies, religions, and superstitions the world over, those both recent and (much more often) ancient. They’re games in which Norse deities, central figures of Buddhist lore, Biblical icons, fairy tale animals and heroes of lore, along with entities of a hundred other origins, are all present, and usually important characters to the plot. In any given SMT, you may find the game’s characters interacting with Shiva, the Archangels, Lucifer, Thor, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, fairies straight from Shakespeare’s works, a Minotaur...the list goes on and on. So, since the SMT series’s schtick is to tell its stories, illustrate its points and theories, and explore its thoughts on humanity and belief by drawing from the ideas of human culture from all over the place, it actually fits with SMT’s storytelling methods for its spell-naming system to be the same, particularly since a lot of the sources for these spell names (India, the Bible, ancient Greece, and so on) are particularly important contributors to SMT’s pool of mythologies. While Final Fantasy’s stories and characters generally have no particular tie to Japan more than that which comes as a consequence of being made in the country, and thus no legitimate reason to keep the Japanese suffixes when translated if a more sensible, less-silly-in-this-new-language-it’s-being-translated-into option is available, for SMT this whole multi-cultural spell naming thing is a way to tie the game’s mechanics themselves into the thematic package. There’s method to this madness.

So in the end, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Is it really worth making the games’ magic so much less comprehensible just because it happens to connect with the story in a roundabout way? Well...for me, I’ll have to say yes. My policy’s always pretty adamantly been that when it comes to RPGs, I value them for their intellectual worth, not the small details like gameplay, so whatever irritations this spell naming system has caused me, I must reluctantly admit that it’s ultimately a positive for its adding to the multicultural identity of the SMT games. That said, though, I sure as hell begrudge no one the right to hate it.


  1. Yeah it can get pretty silly.

    But that's nothing compared to PS at least with some SMT games you can tell what some spells do off of description.

    But PS man when I played PS4 for the first time I had to work it out though nothing but trial and error.

    1. True that. I just consulted a walkthrough to figure those ones out.

  2. In the Persona 1, Duelology there's also Aqua for water, Magna for earth, gry for gravity, zan for force, and frei for nuclear (though the last three sometimes fall into almighty)

    Also congratulations on getting village nuisance

    1. Magna for Earth...while they've got a different one (Tera) in SMT Digital Devil Saga. Awesome.

      Village Nuisance seems, at least from the description given, like everything I had hoped for my role to be, so I'm quite pleased. Thank you. Also it is weird and a little stalker-esque that you know that, but I've never been noteworthy enough to be followed around before so I'll just enjoy the notoriety for the moment.

  3. If there's a learning curve to looking at a spell name and knowing what it does, the system is fucked. You hate the FF naming trend, or at least enjoy ribbing it, but it's at least intuitive and consistent. One spell line tells me how they all work.

    I dunno. I've never had a scenario in FF where I dropped a useful skill for a spell like Recarmdra, because an unknown and IIRC unique suffix rendered a move as useful in battle as a soft reset. But I'm not all about whining. The spell names are probably far more coherent when looked at laterally rather than within individual lines.

    This is coming from someone who is a fucking nerd when it comes to loving mythological and cultural references. It's tricky; don't get the references, and you're stuck with random ass names. Get them, and you've got a trifle amount of cultural flavor. Doesn't help from my perspective when the references don't correlate to anything else in the game, which I consider in the same realm - but worlds above, don't get me wrong - as throwing the most random of Judeo-Christian references, no matter how pointless or warped, because it seemed "cool" at the time.

    You can probably tell the coffee at my office wasn't fresh this morning.

    Insert obligatory factoid about FF13 spells being situational, avoiding the classic naming pseudo-issue entirely.

    1. Note that most of my differences at resolved if I can see a description before committing to learning a given move. I have no idea why P3 decided to be so obtuse in this particular area. Leave that mystery crap with the NES.

    2. Fuck Recarmdra, man. Who the hell thought that crap up?

      Anyway, I totally do understand where you're coming from. You know what I liked? I liked Treasure of the Rudras, where you'd make your own spell names and the spell's element and power came from the name you gave it. Far too complicated to do again from a programming perspective--it'd practically be making a small part of your gameplay the entire game Scribblenauts--but it sure was fun, and at times quite entertaining. I liked when I named a spell "Crono" and it turned out to be a lightning spell.