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Keeping Demon Busting Alive: The Story of Shin Megami Tensei: ReIMAGINE

The second half of the 2000s were a weird time for online video games. MMOs were being released by the dozen every couple of months, with such memorable titles as Asda Story, Elsword, and Tabula Rasa all launching at or around the same time. The only one of these you probably recognize is Tabula Rasa, and only because Richard Garriott’s name was slapped on the cover. You had the big names too — World of Warcraft’s The Burning Crusade launched in 2007, as did The Lord of the Rings Online and Warhammer Online.

And all of them were vying for that relatively open market of online gamers, Atlus included, which led to the creation of Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE — Atlus’ first and only entrance into the MMO market. Despite the official server of IMAGINE having long since shut down, however, you can still experience the game right now, thanks to a group of dedicated fans and translators. But why go through the trouble of reviving a decade-old MMO? To answer that question, we have to talk about evil, greed-driven monsters, and also demons.

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Did I mention you can punch Satan in the face? (Image courtesy of Fizzy, ReIMAGINE)

Where Demons Gather

Released in 2007, IMAGINE attempted to bring the popular formula of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Persona 3 to an MMO landscape. Foregoing the usual turn-based combat that the series is known for, it instead opted for a cooldown system similar to Final Fantasy XI or World of Warcraft. What made IMAGINE unique among the chaff, however, was its demon fusion and rebirth system.

In SMT games, the protagonist befriends demons, usually through demon negotiation. These negotiations have a chance to fail, but if successful, they reward money, items, or even the demon itself as a partner. You can then take two or more of these demons and mash them together to create a brand new demon. The “demon fusion chart” lists how you can create these demons, and is extremely in-depth.

IMAGINE allows you to befriend any number of demons and continuously fuse them until you get a demon with the skills or abilities you want. I’ve seen Angels (a relatively low-level demon) with endgame type abilities and stats, made possible through fusion and rebirth, a system where you continually reset your demon to level 1, with higher base stats and stat growth.

This type of customization for something that wasn’t your character was unheard of in MMOs at the time, and while confusing at first, it was a deep system that and promoted player cohesion. Players had to work together to figure out the system and master its nuances. People would even work on fun, comparatively pointless “projects” that pushed the limits of the system, like the aforementioned Uber-Angel.

You of course also had avatar customization, with outfits from other SMT titles making an appearance. But this is where things started to take a turn for the worse. MMO equipment has stats in almost every game, but no other MMO that I’ve played before or since IMAGINE has had the audacity to make the best gear exclusively available through a random gachapon.

If you wanted to get the best gear in IMAGINE, you had to spend money to take a spin at their “Fortune Card” system, which essentially was a loot box before loot boxes existed. Fortune Card spins cost about $1 USD per roll, with certain rarer Fortune Cards costing about $2 a roll, which is admittedly quaint compared to today’s mobile game gacha costs.

The main hub of the game, Shinjuku Babel (Image courtesy of Altair, ReIMAGINE)

The Definition of Pay-To-Win

You’d think that with that type of cash flow coming in, Aeria Games and CAVE would be more than happy to set up a continuous drip feed of newer content for its player base — and you’d be wrong. The international server did not receive content updates often outside of the occasional new gachapon, and when it did, they were often plagued with untranslated text and bugs, many of them game-breaking. Add that on to four years of existing buggy content, and anti-free-to-play measures that were added in, and IMAGINE soon began to hemorrhage players.

IMAGINE changed publishers twice — once from Aeria Games to Atlus Online, and then from Atlus Online to Marvelous. Despite the new management, only two major updates — Diaspora Shinagawa (an endgame dungeon) and Ikebukuro Casino — made their way to the global server. Meanwhile, there were still numerous untranslated lines in the game from earlier patches. And after Ikebukuro, no updates came except for the usual rotation of Fortune Card gachapon. In 2014, Marvelous USA shut down, dropping the international version of IMAGINE by the wayside.

Fans, however, were not deterred. CAVE kept the JP server running for an additional two years after the international server died, and many rolled characters there — a task that was extremely difficult if you didn’t read Japanese. English patches were eventually created, and players were able to enjoy IMAGINE all the way up to its last days. For some, though, that wasn’t enough.

COMP_hack at work (Image courtesy of COMP Omega, COMP_hack dev team.)

Life, Death, and Rebirth

Almost immediately after the Japanese server went down, talk of a private server spread amongst the IMAGINE message boards. A player by the name of COMP Omega had been tinkering with such a server about two years after launch, and when both official servers died, they immediately took the project public and posted it on GitHub.

Private servers and local copies for online games are nothing new, and in fact are often the only ways in which many games are kept available once their publishers lose interest in maintaining their servers. Without private servers, games like Star Wars: Galaxies — the product of hundreds of people’s work — would be gone forever. And without local copies, no one would be able to experience digital-only games that get pulled from online marketplaces — perhaps most notably, P.T.

Which, finally, brings us to ReIMAGINE. Run by users Mother Dearest and Alkalime, the server boasts an authentic experience true to the original IMAGINE, only without the microtransactions. In an ironic twist, the server is 100% free, with no way to donate or pay for the rarer items. Instead, players earn tokens in-game that can be exchanged for items from a rebalanced and ever-changing stock.

The community is extremely welcoming, as well. Newer players can expect a warm reception, and veterans are always willing to answer questions. Both GMs are here to stay as well, with Mother Dearest stating that server costs are covered for a long time — their current hardware setup is able to hold exponentially more players than they currently have right now.

Furthermore, the dev team behind COMP_hack, the suite powering ReIMAGINE, has stated that it will be possible in the future to add new content to the servers, such as new demons, new missions, and more. The biggest delay, however, is coming from the untranslated content already in the game. If you’re bilingual and can read relatively high-level kanji, you can volunteer to help out at their discord.

aaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA (Nightmare courtesy of COMP Omega, COMP_hack dev team)

Linked By Fate

How does a private server like this continue to stay afloat? Even small servers have costs associated with them, and servers that don’t run microtransactions or donation boxes tend to not fare well. For GM Mother Dearest, it’s a labour of love. “IMAGINE was my only point of social interaction for a while due to personal reasons, so it holds a special place in my heart,” he tells me, adding that the server costs “are a drop in the bucket compared to what I put into the game during live for gacha!” 

COMP Omega adds that his love of MegaTen is what drives him, as well as the added challenge. “Making a server is hard and I find the challenge and struggle fun when it pays off in the end. If something is too easy and there is no struggle I don’t enjoy it.”

Furthermore, Omega and the dev team behind COMP_hack feel confident in their ability to continue updating and supporting this project, saying that they “have a lot more control of the game than Aeria/Atlus/Marvelous ever did.”

Alkalime adds, “I played this game only a little bit when it was live but the fact it was taken offline made me more interested in it because it’s a fairly unique game and I wanted to help bring it back to the people who loved it.”

Various players of ReIMAGINE, hanging out in Shinjuku Babel (Image courtesy of Hitoshura, ReIMAGINE)

Which got me thinking about my own history with and affection for the game. Could ReIMAGINE truly recapture the magic I had felt so long ago?

The time a friend and I went through the Suginami Tunnels dungeon and got our shit pushed in by a giant Garm that aggroed onto us as soon as we spawned into the boss room, all the while screaming our heads off in voice chat?

Praying desperately that the Moon Phases (which spawn extremely strong demons at Full and New Moon on different field maps) didn’t screw me over while trying to transit from one city to another?

Idly searching through the player-owned stalls looking for great deals and cool gear to equip?

Swapping build ideas for unused demons, alternate characters, and equipment with strangers and friends alike?

After spending a few days with the community at ReIMAGINE, I was able to re-experience all of that and more. It truly felt like I was back at home in 2008, staying up late with the TV on in the background, a few drinks and snacks piled around my monitor, enjoying the immersion into a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, busting demons with my friends. Atlus and the other companies running the game dumped it when it wasn’t financially viable anymore, but IMAGINE lives on, transformed into something better by players who have made it their own.

A big thank you to COMP Omega, Mother Dearest, Alkalime and Vivi for assisting with the historical information and technical details, to all the players who submitted screenshots, and to the community of ReIMAGINE at large for being so helpful and assisting with my research.

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