There hasn’t been a JRPG series that has quite captured the imaginations of folks across the world as much as Persona since the release of Persona 5 in 2016. Of course, there was plenty of love and affection for the series, and its parent franchise Shin Megami Tensai before Persona 5, but there was something about 5 that really struck a chord with existing fans, JRPG fans and others new to Persona‘s world all around the world.The blend of turn-based action, wonderfully written characters, engaging story beats, and a gorgeous art style are many of the reasons why this game is held with such high regard. For me though, I fell in love as soon as I heard those first two Hammond chords in the title track.
The music of Persona 5, and the whole catalogue of Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games have been nothing short of miraculous. Each entry has found new motifs, sonic inspirations and aural idiosyncrasies that make the soundtracks so joyous, both within the confines of the game and beyond it. For nearly 30 years, Shoji Meguro, the lead composer on both franchises, has crafted the perfect soundtrack time and time again to capture the very essence of each remarkable game. But after almost three decades with Atlus, Shoji Meguro has left Atlus to pursue his dream of indie game development with his new title: Guns Undarkness. For NME, I spoke with Meguro-san about his time with Atlus, his 25 years of Persona and what to expect from his first venture in indie game development.
Meguro-san started with Atlus in 1995 and was immediately tasked with bringing music to PlayStation 1 title Revelations: Persona. Like many other video game composers at the time, Meguro-san found the challenges of composing music for such limited hardware quite the challenge.
“In the 90s, I was involved in a lot of work-related to BGM (background music) composition, arrangements, conversion for game systems, creating sound effects and sounds. I’d say that the most challenging part at that time was the task in which I had to convert 100kb or 200kb composed works and fit them into sampler functions.”
Gaming hardware could only allow so much space and energy for sound design, especially in a space still dominated by the bit-wars being played out by Sony’s competitors Nintendo and SEGA. For every 32bit or 64bit GPU (graphics processing unit), the bit-space allowed for the SPU (sound processing unit) would usually be around half, with only around 512kb of RAM and up to 24 audio channels available to them. This isn’t a lot. But even within these restrictions, this didn’t stop Meguro-san from writing the now-iconic “Aria For The Soul”. This track, which started life as a midi-piano and melismatic vocal performance is now a mainstay in the Persona franchise, perfectly capturing the thematic sensations of the game’s “Velvet Room”, and the musings of its patron, Igor. The legato, arpeggiated chords paired with the ethereal soprano voice is haunting and almost heartbreaking as the tempo ebbs and flows like the tide. As the years have gone on, this symbolic track has grown in ambition, sonic creativity and technological scope, with more complex harmonies and reverb effects added to further Meguro-san’s haunting melodies. Even with this leap in technology, like all good video game music, Aria For The Soul’s roots is firmly planted in its origins – the PS1’s 16bit SPU that birthed it.
This hardware limitation forced composers to be smarter with their melodies and instrumentation. This, in turn, made the music catchy and captivating. It also presented other benefits when it came to complete aural creative control, as composers and sound designers like Meguro-san had more power over diegetic sound design than is possible in modern game design, something that he misses.
“I made sound effects up until the mid-2000s. I definitely miss that. The scale of things was much smaller back in the day, so I was able to compose both music and sound effects. In such settings, it was fun being in control of all aspects of sound production.”
Since that breakthrough role, Meguro-san has gone on to work with Atlus on pretty much every SMT and Persona title that has gone on to be made, even being given the director role as part of the Revelations: Persona PSP port. This experience culminated in his magnum opus soundtrack for Persona 5, composed alongside longtime collaborators Toshiki Konishi and Atsushi Kitajoh. The game has a stunning soundscape of acid-jazz chordal comps and harmonic ingenuity particularly highlighted in the aforementioned title track ‘Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There‘ and the epic battle song ‘Last Surprise‘. The score would go on to be nominated for numerous soundtrack of the year awards, with the soundtrack to Persona 5: Royal eventually winning Best Music at the Famitsu Dengeki Game Awards in 2019.
After decades of hard work and dedication to the franchise, Meguro-san never tired of working on it. This is in part thanks to Persona’s ever-evolving tonal identity, as well as the flexibility of longtime Persona Team Director Hashino Kei.
“I enjoy making RPGs, so continuing to work on and produce IP was not painful to me in the least bit. Even within IP, every work was different than the previous, so I never really fell into a slump at any point. There hasn’t been any work that did not align with my writing style, but I can say that projects with Director Hashino-san had few restrictions, and I could freely compose songs the way that I wanted to, which made it extremely easy to go about each project.”
That’s not to say there weren’t hardships within those years. As Meguro-san explained to me, one of his most rewarding projects also proved to be one of the most challenging experiences of his career.
“Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga was the most fun while also being the work that caused the most hardships. I was in charge of producing just about all of the BGM and the sound effects of fields and events within a short development period. It’s not really a work that succeeded commercially, but I felt at that time, I was able to put everything I had into that project. I was burnt out after the development was completed.”
With Meguro-san’s clear love and admiration for the franchise he helped cement as a JRPG tentpole, it came as somewhat of a surprise when in October 2021 he announced he would be departing Atlus. But for Meguro-san, it was time to chase a dream.
“For many years, it has been my dream to be in an environment where I can create the games that I want to create. I parted with Atlus because it would have been difficult to make my own personal game and release it while still being there.”
Shoji Meguro’s debut title will be a tactical action JRPG called Guns Undarkness, going as far as to invent the word “Undarkness” as, according to Meguro-san, Undarkness “expressed a nuanced opposite to dark” and also “left an extremely nice sensation” when he first voiced it. Meguro-san took some time to explain what players can expect from his new IP.
“The aspects of Guns Undarkness to take special note of are: You will be in a world where the player fights with near-futuristic guns seen in science fiction settings. While having elements of shooters and stealth-based games, it will not be an action game with a high degree of difficulty. Rather, you will shoot your enemy to initiate an encounter that will then become a turn-based battle, and the player will be able to enjoy a fighting system similar to Shin Megami Tensei and Persona.”
This gameplay similarity to his previous work not only comes from an intimate familiarity with his previous Atlus titles. Guns Undarkness started life as an Atlus game.
“Guns Undarkness is a game that I drafted in 2005 while I was still working at Atlus. Much to my dismay, the development for this project ended up falling through for various reasons. I struggled, thinking of ways to somehow revive the project, and in 2016, I re-did the plot writing using Unreal Engine. Sadly, the development of the game did not end up being resumed. But Atlus was kind enough to recognize my passion for the project and gave me permission to make the game on my own, stating that they did not mind. I am working on a new version of the Guns Undarkness project on my own, only keeping the original concept of battling with guns in a JRPG.”
The Guns Undarkness soundtrack will also be a completely solo affair, looking to explore alternative rock motifs throughout. Meguro-san promises that this soundtrack will very much be “[his] personal image of alternative rock” and that “if a pre-existing band comes to mind when reading alternative rock, it will probably be something completely different than that.”
Meguro-san is marching forward into solo development with absolute confidence in both what he knows and who to ask for help on the things he doesn’t. An absolution to fulfil a life-long dream and passion that has burned within him since youth. But he isn’t naive to the fact that this project will not be of the standard of his previous works, as he earnestly explained to me.
“I have been making small-scale games on my own since my junior high school days, so I have more programming knowledge than the average person. However, outside of that, there’s modelling, motion, level design, scenarios etc., all of which I am doing by myself within my own capabilities. Every day is fun, and every day is a learning experience. I have external members help with the things that I can absolutely not do on my own, such as character design and complicated modelling.”
“I’m producing this project independently, so I think that it will not reach Grade-A quality. Even so, if I would like for people to warmly support this 50-year old man who is putting strenuous effort into this game day by day.”
Shoji Meguro is a man firmly chasing his dream to produce his own video game. A dream that, by his own admission, would not have been feasible without the most recent success of the Persona franchise. Something that he is deeply grateful for.
“I never expected [Persona 5] to be received this well on a global scale, so I am overly delighted with the outcome. Thanks to that, I’ve gained enough attention to sit down and have this interview with you even after leaving Atlus and working independently. I am grateful to the fans and folks at Atlus and the Persona IP.”
Looking beyond Guns Undarkness, Meguro-san is looking to keep his productions smaller and more intimate, telling me that “[I] am not very intent on enlarging the scale of my development at this point.” But does this move towards freelance work spell the end of Shoji Meguro and Persona? Well, maybe not. Even a departure from Atlus doesn’t necessarily mean his time on these beloved franchises, games that he has helped shape and develop into the juggernauts they are today thanks to his personable, catchy, harmonically engaging music, is completely over. As Meguro-san told me.
“I still plan to continue working with Atlus, the organization that I love very much, but I cannot declare which projects I will be working on.”
For more information on Guns Undarkness, you can check it out on Steam. Interview translated by Ahraun Chambliss.