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...A peaceful everyday life...
—Shin Megami Tensei If... intro.
Shin Megami Tensei: If... was the third Gaiden Game to be spun off from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise (the first being the little-remembered Majin Tensei, and the second being Last Bible, which came to America as Revelations: The Demon Slayer). The title refers to two things: first is the concept of the game, which is a What If scenario in the SMT universe, namely "what if a school was suddenly thrown into the Demon Realm?" The title and logo are also references to the arthouse British film If, where the developers seem to have gotten the school concept from (although all similarities really stop there, with one possible exception). Sadly, this game will never be released outside of Japan due to this, but Aeon Genesis has announced a fan translation of this game is ongoing. If you can find an English patch available, sound off!
Mechanically, the game is built on the engine of Shin Megami Tensei II, and even recycles a large number of art and musical assets from that title. Dungeons are navigated in a first-person view; demons are negotiated with, and fused in the Cathedral of Shadows. Perhaps the biggest change mechanically is the introduction of the idea of "guardian spirits": souls of demons that will save you from death and upon entering your body, strengthen it and even give you and your compatriots magical powers.
If this sounds just a bit familiar, it should; many of the concepts introduced in If would eventually be expanded upon in Persona 1, and the formerly anonymous main character of If even became a character in the early Persona games, putting Persona in the same continuity as If and the Devil Summoner games (which detail what'd happen if people knew about demons before a certain event in SMT 1, thanks to the events of If). In other words, what started as one Gaiden Game ended up dovetailing into a huge Alternate Continuity that has eclipsed the original Shin Megami Tensei games in popularity.
The game begins with your main character (who you can choose the name and gender of, although canonically the Protagonist is a girl named Tamaki) as an Ordinary High School Student at Karukozaka High School who is just about to go home for the day... and then, suddenly, things go very wrong. Your school doesn't seem to be on Earth anymore, demons roam the hallways, and a student named Hazama has gone missing... except he seems to be appearing to you as a kind of astral projection, taunting you. It'll be up to you and a partner of your choosing to get to the bottom of what is going on - and what Hazama may have planned for the school and the world.
- A God Am I: Hazama.
- All of the Other Reindeer: This is a large part of the root cause of Hazama's psychotic hatred for everyone around him and why he torments his schoolmates upon becoming the Demon Emperor.
- Alternate Continuity: And how! Infamous for spawning a continuity that would end up eclipsing its "mother" franchise in popularity and profitability.
- Bittersweet Ending: Reiko's ending in particular. The school is saved, most everybody makes it out alive, but Reiko and Hazama are never seen again after Reiko thanks Tamaki for helping to save Hazama from himself...
- Battle in the Center of the Mind The final boss in Reiko's Path
- Canon Name/Divergent Character Evolution: In If, you are given the option of naming your character, selecting their gender, and more or less defining their personality through gameplay. The Persona series, however, defines the Protagonist as a fairly upbeat girl named Tamaki Uchida.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Professor Otsuka, in increasing levels of hilarity and tragedy.
- Death Is a Slap on The Wrist/Continuing Is Painful: Dying simply gets you a new Guardian and bounces you back to the start of the current dungeon, which can be good or bad depending on how high your Guardian gauge was and how far in you were.
- Disc One Nuke: Surprisingly, Reiko's starting Guardian has Agilao of all things. Despite the high MP cost, it's extremely useful and will save your ass many times.
- Evil Laugh: Even at the very start of the game, Hazama appears before you and does this a lot, cluing you in to the fact that he's got something to do with the weirdness going on. The fact that he tries to draw out his overdone evil laugh at the start of the game is a hint that he's just putting on a front to try and hide his deep-seated emotional disturbance and is just acting the way he thinks a Demon Emperor should act.
- Evil Overlord List: Hazama runs into a whole bunch of these over the course of the game; this all springs, naturally, from the fact that he's a high-school kid who thinks he should be a Demon Emperor and doesn't really have the first clue how such a being should actually act. (Contrast against a certain other well-known king of the Abyss in the same franchise.)
- Five-Man Band: Although you only ever get to take one human partner with you, your options do form something like this.
- Fortune Teller: NOVA, a computerized one, gives the Player Personality Quiz.
- Freudian Excuse: Hazama's is detailed in Reiko's path.
- Gaiden Game: Naturally.
- Hello, Nurse!: Hellooooooo, Miss Kayama!
- Hospital Hottie: She's actually a nurse, to boot!
- Of course, this isn't just played for laughs: in Reiko's ending it's revealed that Hazama fell desperately in love with her, but she rejected him as she felt a relationship with him would be wildly inappropriate; this is suggested to be the snapping point at which he decided to open the portal to the Demon World. It's also the reason that she's around to heal you even when bad things happen to all the other students and faculty, though; hurt and emotionally crippled as he is, Hazama can't bring himself to harm Kayama in any way.
- It Got Worse: Whoever is in control of the Demon World seems to be doing this deliberately to the poor students of Karukozaka High. Turns out Hazama is attempting to punish them for what he perceives as each of their sins against both him and society.
- Jerkass: Charlie. He's perfectly happy to screw the whole school over if it means getting home. Which is exactly what the two of you do in his ending.
- Journey to the Center of the Mind: The Final dungeon in Reiko's Path. There is also Soundtrack Dissonance as the Law theme from Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2 play while you trod through Hazama's mind.
- Kick the Dog: Akiko rejected Hazama's love letter and tore it up, badmouthing him to her friends.
- Lawyer (Un?)Friendly Logo Cameo: Potentially a reason the game has never gotten a Western release; the lettering of the "if" in the game logo is lifted directly from the movie of the same name, and parts of the game concept also seem to borrow heavily from the movie as well (such as the school setting itself and a major character rebelling and bringing down punishment on the school after constant abuse - Malcolm McDowell's character in if...., and Hazama in SMT If).
- Louis Cypher: Conspicuous only in his near total absence. He never shows up to talk, you don't fight him, he isn't The Chessmaster, and you can only even fuse him at level 99; making If one of the tiny handful of SMT games where he doesn't have any kind of story impact. Guesses about this aspect of the game abound.
- Meganekko: Reiko.
- Multiple Endings: Each partner has their own route and ending.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the World of Wrath, after finding Ryuuichi and Akiko were turned to stone, the villain claims that smashing the stone might free them. If you don't take the bait, your partner does it instead — killing the pair instead of freeing them. Cue Evil Laughter from Hazama and My God, What Have I Done? from your partner.
- Nintendo Hard: Not quite as bastard hard as the previous two games, although certain dungeons could still kick you around, and the final boss is no slouch.
- No Export for You: Sigh. This is one of the few SNES-era SMT games still lacking a Fan Translation, to boot. Interestingly, due to the somewhat less "controversial" nature of the game's content compared to the rest of the series (that is, you only fight a student who wants to be God instead of actually fighting God), there were whispers that the game was considered for a Western release, but this obviously never bore fruit.
- Aeon Genesis has announced that their fan translation is "roughly halfway done", however. We may see this in English after all!
- Ordinary High School Student: Everyone begins as this. Then stuff happens.
- Player Personality Quiz: At the start of the game, a computer Fortune Teller named Nova asks you questions what sort of sports and subjects you like, what sort of school club you belong to, whether or not you like video games, and if you have/use a cellphone. Once you finish, she summarizes your strengths and weaknesses, giving you a good idea what your starting stats will look like.
- Recurring Boss: Professor Otsuki, who keeps rebuilding his body in order to defeat you.
- Samus Is a Girl: After a fashion. Not only was If the first game in the SMT franchise to offer the option of a female protagonist, the Persona series retroactively made Tamaki the first canon female protagonist of an SMT game.
- Secret Character: Akira, whose path becomes available after beating the game.
- Seven Deadly Sins: Sort of. The dungeons are based on a major sin (these being the punishments Hazama wishes to deal out to those who have "wronged" him), but there are only six sins represented. One could make an argument for the "empty school" being symbolic of Pride and Hazama's mind being Wrath given how pissed he is at everything, but this isn't stated outright.
- The worlds, in order: Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy OR Wrath (depending on your partner) and Greed. The absent sin, Lust, could potentially be represented by Hazama himself, as his feelings towards both Akiko and Miss Kayama being rejected helped drive him into unleashing the Demon World.
- Shaggy Dog Story: Practically everything that happens in Sloth turns out to be pointless, beyond giving you access to the next area.
- Suspicious Videogame Generosity: Played with in the Greed world, where there are about dozen or so chests outside the boss room: opening none of them gets you a fight with an underleveled fox, taking all of them will force you to fight an overleveled god-like nine-tailed Kitsune, with various forms in-between.
- Taken for Granite: Ryuuichi and Akiko. If you take the 'Wrath' path, It Gets Worse.
- The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: The last dungeon in Reiko's path is Hazama's mind.
- Villainous Breakdown: Both Otsuka and Hazama suffer from this in the end, Otsuka welding ever wilder cybernetics to his flesh while Hazama can't believe that he isn't omnipotent in the Demon World. If you have Reiko with you, you get to see all the steps of his breakdown that led to this whole mess.
- What If: The entire concept of the game. Atlus probably didn't anticipate what this would all lead to when first making the game.
- Where It All Began: If you take the three Super Nintendo-based SMT titles (SMT 1, SMT 2, and If) as a kind of "trilogy" this applies after a fashion. SMT 1 begins in the dreams of the Protagonist of that game; the Very Definitely Final Dungeon of If is the Mindscape of Hazama, using the same "dream" graphical effect from SMT 1.
- Womb Level: Guttony has this as the real boss in the world is a demon within the stomach of the headmaster who now looks like a pig.
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Hazama, as you discover in the last dungeon of Reiko's path.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: Cruelly used in Sloth, when Hazama declares he lied about setting free whoever found the ring hidden there.