Maki fled to hide with Mai in the Lost Forest, forcing us to backtrack through the old dungeon to reach the Gingerbread House. There we met Mai, now openly called “Maki” (which won’t make this confusing at all), who explained that Aki had woken a fourth and final aspect of Maki, Pandora, who was presumably made up of all of Maki’s worst traits the way the Maki in our party had been the idealized self. Mai/Maki said we’d need the compacts owned by all the Makis: the original, the one split between Mai and Aki, and uh… well the third was confusing. In a later scene, Mai/Maki would say it was from the real Maki, but that it wasn’t the one from the real world? I’m not sure why the game was so obsessed with compacts to begin with, from a metaphorical point-of-view I mean. They let you view but also change yourself?
From there, out the back door to a new section of the Forest. There, we encountered some of the toughest monsters yet, including high-HP tanks like Legion, all without our best Persona user. At the end of the dungeon, we were tired and exhausted by the game and its one-way paths, and ended up stuck in an extended cutscene just to make things all the worse. In the cutscene, we found the ideal Maki in a bed wearing an iron mask. While this was a striking visual and fairly useful metaphorically given Maki’s sudden self-loathing, it was swiftly removed after a few brief friendship speeches and felt rather pointless after the fact. Maybe if it had stuck around for a quest or two?
With the party reunited, we left for the Gingerbread House where Maki (Mai) told us to go to the Alaya Shrine, where this had nearly all started, to talk to the real Maki for the last compact. Finally, Mrs. Sonomura explained the magic words “Erusaer Tsymmom”: it was “Mommy’s Treasure” in reverse, something that she used to call Maki back when they were on better terms.
Philemon came to meet us at the shrine in his butterfly form, where he informed us that only Maki and one other could go into the Alaya Caverns under the shrine to confront the real Maki. The party chose Sorrow, of course, so it was just the two of them for the next step of the run. Apparently, this is the best time in the game to grind because experience would only be divided between the two of them and everyone else would dynamically catch up, but we learned that too late, well after the dungeon had already been closed behind us.
Not that this didn’t give us a lot of time to get used to Sorrow, leading to such valuable insights as “Sorrow, you always sound like you’re passing a kidney stone when you’re summoning your Persona.” We’re a class act.
Towards the end of the shrine, we encountered this dungeon’s big twist: that the alternate universe version of Sorrow was hanging out here, playing on an arcade machine. Alternate Sorrow implies the ideal Sorrow is inside ourselves and is a possible self we could “don” like the other Personae, implying the same to Maki. That’s cute and all, and I get it, but I’m just… I’m so tired. So tired.
In brief, alt-Sorrow gave us items to invoke people’s Ultimate Personas if we had made moral choices at other points in the game. Unfortunately, what with these being Ultimate Personas, you had to be an incredibly high level to use them, and Kyle and I had mostly just collected them for shits and giggles.
We made our way to the final room, the land of the dead, where we found the real Maki in a bubble. There, ideal Maki accosted real Maki in a way Kyle described as “Suck it up and get better.” So tired. I’m not… you know what? Forget it. I’m cutting to the end of this dungeon. Fuck this game.
We returned to the school and went through the black gate to the “Avidya World,” the final dungeon. This went on for floors and floors, with different enemies on each floor, and no sense of flow or real progress. Comparing the enemies between the rooms makes the levelling issues in this game obvious: enemies just WEREN’T levelled properly, and they jump by degrees between rooms, it’s just not balanced, not even remotely. After a while we finally reached the final boss, killed its first form and were wiped out in a single attack from the second. And that’s where things got worse.
Losing was one thing, but trying to win was another, in this petty, hateful, spiteful experience. I need to fill you in on an important Marathon story at this point. One day early in the Marathon run, we decided to return to our founding Mega Man Marathon after a long break. We were trying to avoid playing Mega Man X7, as you do. Wwe decided to start playing Mega Man Zero, instead. We got all the way to the final set of stages (Stage 2, I believe) before we realized we had gone too fast, and hadn’t grinded out Zero’s Saber and Cyber Elves enough to carry on. We closed up for the night… and never came back. The prospect of turning on a game just to grind was so obnoxious to us that every time the subject came up, we put it off. We played Mega Man Legends for a while, instead.
Around the same time, we were polishing off the new Robot Masters added to Mega Man Powered Up. A few days later, I realized that Powered Up had an additional secret boss I hadn’t heard of before: if you played as Mega Man’s sister, Roll, the “Copy Robot” boss near the end of the end of the game would allow you to fight Roll – something you can’t do at any other point in the franchise! What an opportunity! An evil Roll was the one missing gap on our plaque of clearing over a hundred Robot Masters! But there was a problem: the Copy Robot boss fight was after the traditional Mega Man stage where you re-fight all the other bosses, and we were really, really bad at controlling Roll. I warned Kyle that we’d have to gather up a full set of 9 extra lives before we even attempted it. But who cares, right? Gathering 9 1-ups couldn’t take more than ten minutes, we could do it any time!
…and we almost never came back.
Grinding is just so disagreeable for the two of us that simply grinding for ten minutes to complete our stupid 1-up collection sounded like a total waste of time. The idea starting a gaming session in a grind, even a short one, was so ugly that we would rather have done anything else, and so we did. For years. While we eventually did grind for 1-ups and went on to defeat Copy Roll, we still haven’t gotten back to Mega Man Zero!
So when it came time to grind in Persona 1, we weren’t happy about it. We decided to play Birth By Sleep (Kyle wanted to replay the Kingdom Hearts games again in the lead-up to KH3), and the person who wasn’t playing Kingdom Hearts would start grinding. Later, we decided to get to work on Crisis Core… while still grinding. To make matters worse, we spent most of the first day with Crisis Core grinding in that game as well, by completing optional side-missions. I joked to Kyle that all “we” had really accomplished in that whole day of gaming was to “defeat” a major villain in Final Fantasy Unlimited – the TV show we had watched during dinner! We left the day emotionally drained and laughing at ourselves. I don’t know how you grinders do it!
During the BBS day, we took a long break to talk about some game ideas we had been designing over, and that I had been prototyping. We talked about how much we’d rather play an RPG without traditional levelling. We tried not to mention the fact that we would be grinding in Persona for the rest of the day, but we knew it was coming. You could say there’s a reason the first rule of our RPG Marathons is about narrative, and not gameplay.
And we grinded, and grinded, clearing Terra’s Story in BBS and the majority of Crisis Core as we worked. Hours of grinding, days spent on this one tedious task, pacing back and forth in front of the stairs to grind, and it still wasn’t enough for Persona 1. RPGs are one of the few genres so lost in 80s tropes, calcified with pride, that it’s considered reasonable to punish basic player competence. How dare we have gotten here underlevelled, it seemed to say. How dare.
Somehow Reiji fell behind during this days-long grinding session, despite his half-game lead. Reiji ,we had such big hopes for you, what happened? This is how you’ve fallen. He became the official Rattle Drink-giver. Nanjo and Mark, who fell behind the level curve somewhere around the first trip to Lost Forest, never caught up. Our only hope was to get Sorrow to Level 62 to get his Ultimate Persona after all (and later, to get Maki to a similar level for her Ultimate, since she was only one level behind Sorrow at that point). This we did, but through such doldrums that I feel the frustrated just recounting the experience. Our inside jokes even took on a lethargic tone. One joke was “forgetting Reiji existed,” and another was “only remembering Mark because he was our healer.” Then there was “sleepily announcing ‘Nanjo’s dead’ whenever his Persona’s weaknesses caused him to drop like a rock when the rest of the party took damage in the single digits.” Such a thrill to look back on this.
The final battle against Pandora involved the reveal of the monster: a giant penis-bodied, Maki-headed demon that could barely harm us, followed by a butterfly fairy form that launched butterflies at us in an attack so dangerous that it could lottery us to death even after grinding. I can’t say there was any strategy to our final play after all that grinding, but it’s not like strategy would have saved us from her butterfly attack in the first place, since (as I understand it) it’s non-elemental and can’t be protected against besides sheer luck. The fairy Pandora swapped between two forms with different weaknesses, which Kyle (who was controlling) coped with just fine, though our spearhead was Sorrow’s new Ultimate and its special, final-boss-specific ultimate attack. Just a grinding numbers game, and good riddance. I don’t even care. I had no emotion about the end of the game. I could have still been playing Crisis Core at the time for all it mattered, though I wasn’t. The ending had something to do with everyone coming to graduation (Reiji showed up with no shirt on) and Sorrow and real Maki hooking up as a couple. So tired.
And just think? The game’s only half-over!
This retrospective’s screenshots come from ZEROthefirst’s Let’s Play of the PSP release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona at YouTube.