Pick your pocket monsters: Pokémon vs. Shin Megami Tensei

3DS owners are at no shortage of collectibles to horde, menus to navigate, and all things monster-packed thanks to the release of Pokémon X & Y and Shin Megami Tensei IV, the most recent installments in two of the handheld’s longest-running RPG franchises. The problem has now become how to choose the creature hunt that’s right for you. The two are similar enough, to be sure: Both feature a collection-based creature system and are known and loved for their old-school text-and-menu setups. For many, the series harken back to bygone days of Persona antics and Gameboy-powered romps through Saffron City. However, there are a number of deviations, both obvious and subtle, that can swing player favor to either side. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the DS releases for both franchises and suss out just which pocket monsters are right for who.

If you want a compelling storyline…

Pokemon X & Y

Adorable, but not exactly oozing levity.

…then you may want to toss Pokémon out the window now. It’s certainly no deal-breaker, but the plot of traditional Pokémon games, from Black/White to X/Y, can safely be summed up as “Beat the gym leaders, thwart the cliche and suspiciously familiar villains, and walk around.” SMT on the other hand is known for its colorful narratives, most if not all of which focus on building relationships with party members – who come and go as the plot progresses – through interactive dialogue. Whether you’re struggling to escape a paralyzed, demon-ridden city or palling around with modern-day samurai, Shin Megami Tensei never disappoints in the story department. You’ll sweat, shake, cringe at voice acting (rarely, mind you), and possibly laugh—and not just because you named your character after some profane mannerism.

If you want a world to explore…

Pokemon X & Y

Eat your heart out, Grand Theft Auto V.

…then Pokémon is your premier realm. Although more recent entries have drifted toward dungeon-crawl-esque exploration, Shin Megami Tensei is a predominantly linear experience—at least on the 3DS. Pokémon however, is rightfully lauded for its enormous, no-strings-attached worlds, rife with regions, paths, and enough random encounters to induce premature balding.

It’s a good thing, trust me.

If it’s all about the creatures…

Pokemon X & Y

Dragons or demons … decisions, decisions.

Pokémon has a sizeable advantage. If Nintendo has taught us anything, it’s that nostalgic memories are a powerful thing. In no small part thanks to the enormous following behind the brand, catching and raising your own Pokémon is extremely enjoyable. That said, you shouldn’t count SMT out just yet. Pokémon has quantity in spades and nostalgia under its thumb, but the mythology-packed and gorgeously realized art of Shin Megami Tensei can turn even the most die-hard trainer to its side. Quite frankly, your many demon comrades are far more useful and varied than your 17th Zubat.

If you like strategy in your JRPG experience…

Devil Survivor 2

Word to the wise: Bring pen and paper.

…look no further than Shin Megami Tensei. From its grid- and turn-based combat to the intricacies behind extra turns, elemental variety, race skills, turn order and more, SMT will put your brain to the test. You’ll constantly be training, purchasing and fusing new demons, all the while working to balance offensive, defensive, and restorative abilities, and offset ever-growing challenges.

…whereas “strategy” in Pokémon often boils down to “hit the thing with the opposite thing." As long as your team is comparable to a rainbow (e.g. you have a member of each type to counter other types), you’re all but guaranteed that next gym badge.

If you want the best bang for your buck…

Pokémon is a safe bet. That’s not to say that there’s nothing beyond New Game 1 in the world of Shin Megami Tensei. There is: a literal New Game+ system, and multiple challenges that all but require multiple playthroughs. However, the random encounters of Pokémon games introduce an almost rogue-like quality of randomization that keeps every playthrough fresh. Your lineup will never be the same (without some hardcore grinding, that is), and the sandbox worlds place greater direction in the player’s hands.Of course, we can’t forget about the countless “special” playthroughs that can be arranged (superficially, of course; there's no such setting in-game), such as solo and Yahtzee runs, in which you use only one and five of the same Pokemon, respectively.  

If you’re concerned about the nuts and bolts…

Devil Survivors: Overclocked

Pretty and creepy. Perfect!

…don’t worry; both games look, sound and play superbly. The newfangled 3D graphics of Pokémon X & Y are truly worthy of carrying the Pokémon mantle, and the gorgeous sprites and fully voiced narratives of Shin Megami Tensei bring nothing but pride to the series’ anime roots. They're as handheld-y as it gets, and the result is a visceral experience no matter where you end up. 

The Verdict

It’s a tie game, so grab your 3DS and decide for yourself whether you’re a Pokémon or Demon Tamer.

Oh, and if you’re unswervingly of the former and looking for more on Pokémon X & Y, check out GameZone’s extensive list of tips and tricks (you may want to start here).