This week I beat EarthBound for the first time. I’d played it on many an occasion in the past, including almost to completion in its native Japanese thanks to the GBA compilation title Mother 1+2, but with the game finally receiving a legitimate release in Europe for the first time through the Wii U’s Virtual Console service, I knew it was time I saw it through until the very end. I thought I loved EarthBound before. Now I’ve beaten it, I understand why some consider it to be one of the greatest games ever made, a title I believe it is fully worthy of.
Whilst EarthBound displays such a level of quality found in few games throughout its entire duration, I’d like to talk in particular about the game’s ending section, the meaning behind it and its significance both to me personally and as a video game story. If you’ve yet to play EarthBound then I strongly advise you stop reading now, because massive spoilers will follow. I can safely say that you’ll be better off witnessing the events I’ll be discussing with your own eyes.
“This is very hard for me to tell you, but…”
These are the words uttered by Dr. Andonuts to Ness and his friends before he paces off-screen, his back turned. By this point, the four ‘chosen ones’ have ventured across the entirety of the fictional Eagleland; these children have conquered the scorching deserts of Scaraba, traversed the murky depths of Deep Darkness, overcome many a foe, both human and inhuman, who outmatched them in every possible way. The leader of this group, Ness, who humbly accepted the dying request of a space alien to face up against the universe’s greatest evil, has gone from his small town roots to venture deep into his own being, risking his very conscious to clear all evil from his heart. These four children, for the sake of the world, have witnessed true hardship and made a genuine sacrifice.
As the haunting brass melody of ‘The Cliff That Time Forgot’ echoes in the background, bringing with it a heavy and chilling atmosphere that perfectly accompanies the empty, black abyss that surrounds you, one that serves as the final frontier before witnessing true evil and very possibly the final moments of existence for our four heroes, it becomes starkly clear why Dr. Andonuts has left the screen.
One more sacrifice. Possibly the greatest one of all. This man only knows a glimmer of the hardships these children have faced and he can barely bring himself to tell them that in order to save the world, they may be forced to sacrifice the most important thing of all; their own lives.
This scene is one of the ways that EarthBound succeeds in using the medium of video games to its upmost effectiveness. The movement of this one character out of the player’s view could easily be overlooked by many a player, seemingly insignificant in the dramatic buildup to the game’s climax. But if you stop, just for a moment, and ponder on the gravity of the words and motions carried out by this character, it suddenly becomes very easy to realise the emotions carried by this scene and in turn, question the fact that this game was made for children.
Dr. Andonuts reveals to the party that in order to travel into the past to finally face their greatest adversary, Giygas, who threatens the destruction of the universe itself, they must sacrifice all but their souls, losing their very humanity in the process. He reveals that he is unable to guarantee that they will be able to return to their bodies following this process, if they are successful in defeating Giygas at all. This revelation is disturbing one in itself; these four children have already lost so much, sacrificing their youths for the good of the planet with seemingly no desire for any kind of return. Unlike most RPG stories, this particular group of heroes won’t be recognised for their deed; the ordinary mind couldn’t even begin to comprehend what these children have been through or what they’re up against. What makes this dramatic plot twist even more disturbing is that Dr. Andonuts is not making said revelation to four heroes – he is making it to four children, not to mention his own son. Of course, by the end of the game’s events you can hardly consider the protagonists to be ordinary children, having traversed the entire world on their own and faced up against supernatural horrors, not to mention three of them wielding psychic powers. But at the end of the day, they’re still children, and giving them the choice between making the ultimate sacrifice or allowing the world to sink into the clutches of true evil is one that obviously cannot be taken lightly.
In some ways, by presenting you with this choice, EarthBound challenges the conceptions and tropes of the RPG genre in a way rarely addressed by games at the time; whilst ultimately you must agree to go along with this heavy-handed process if you wish to reach the final battle, the game’s writing challenges you to ponder on the gravity of your entire journey with these four characters, as well as their place in the grander scale of the world. One of the key strengths of EarthBound’s writing and characterisation is the manner in which it allows characters, be it playable or NPCs, to feel human. Even amongst the outlandish and bizarre residents of EarthBound’s world, the ordinary people who dot the streets from Twoson to Fourside are crafted in a manner that makes you feel a genuine desire to go ahead with this final sacrifice to protect the world. There are a lot of characters in EarthBound who do bad things, but are good people at heart. In the same way, there are characters who address the uglier sides to human nature; they might not be good people, but they feel like actual people, and that’s what makes them more memorable and relevant. Their innocence and naivety towards the incomprehensible evil that threatens their very existence makes them appear inferior to our protagonists, but in fact serves as reflection of us as people and our greater society; the obliviousness towards the greater evil, or simply the way that we go about our daily business with little true knowledge of the world and its mysteries, is captured perfectly here.
The scenes that portray the four party members going through this unexpected transformation are subtle, but truly haunting. The sprites representing the children who you have guided on a grand adventure lie still in the darkness, the mechanical whirring and buzzing sounds suggesting the grim reality of the process they must face, their familiar appearances that you have slowly but surely grown to recognise and care about, suddenly no more. In this short but powerful sequence, it’s unnerving to ponder on the thoughts and feelings of Dr. Andonuts in particular as Jeff’s sprite appears on screen; the context of their relationship as father and son requires some deeper thought beyond what is addressed in the game itself, again a factor likely to be overlooked by many a player, but this provides a shocking topic none-the-less that displays EarthBound’s great power to serve as a thought-provoking piece of media.
The area you must traverse before fighting Giygas and the final area in the game is The Cave of the Past, an almost colourless cavern that, similar to the previous area, is accompanied by suitably a disturbing soundtrack in the form of ‘The Place’. This song carries a succinct level of ambience that, in a rather bizarre manner, could almost be considered calming as much as it could be described as unsettling. The ringing echo of its heavy tone provides a grandiose yet minimal accompaniment for a time and place simply unknown and incomprehensible to mankind, existing as an entity beyond mortal understanding that serves as a fitting gateway for our heroes final destination; they’ve conquered the earth, and now they have to face up to what lies beyond. Its simple, lacking architecture occasionally dotted with surrealist forms such as floating spheres, not to mention the bleak, colourless path that lies before the heroes serves as an apt visual of the sheer nothingness of the point in time they have finally found themselves inhabiting, housing the very force they embarked on their journey to destroy. Halfway through this eerie domicile of evil the party make their way into Giygas’ lair, the belly of the beast that is this point of ‘unknown’ on the face of reality – this is a more literal definition than it seems, the ground made of seemingly organic, pulsing matter that defies all reasoning; it should be clear now that the four children are far, far away from the gentle suburban ‘Americana’ of Onett and Threed.
As the heroes, now contained in the lifeless mechanical shells that make up their ‘bodies’, traverse the winding, fleshy path that leads to Giygas himself, only the gentle sound of their now metallic footsteps ring out against the pounding ambience reminiscent of the sound heard when inside the womb; fitting, as this twisted domain serves as the birthing place of the very embodiment of evil. Alternatively, this soft but tension-building sound could just as easily be interpreted as that of a beating heart, perhaps suggesting the presence of Giygas’ evil-consumed life-force, or perhaps even that despite losing their human forms, the four chosen ones carry the hopes of humanity within them. As you make your way to the head of this chamber, it is revealed that the entire organic stage was in fact the ‘Devil’s Machine’, an inhuman device used to contain Giygas’s power and quickly deteriorating mind. Approaching it causes the face of Ness to be pictured in its ‘lens’, perhaps a sign that shows the reflecting image of Giygas, who has succumbed to true evil, and Ness, who has rid his very being of evil and thus possesses only goodness.
When it comes to the Giygas battle, it’s easy to focus on the presence of Pokey, Ness’ de facto rival who has attempted to hinder his quest at every step of the way, influenced by Giygas through his jealousy of Ness. Whilst his debatably ‘light-hearted’ dialogue (at least in comparison to that surrounding the game’s climax) and appearance may lead players to think otherwise, a key element of Pokey’s character is that he is truly a disturbed figure, abused by his father and engulfed in jealousy and a misguided obsession with Ness. Whilst it is true that Giygas manipulates him through his desire for power (and primarily, superiority to Ness), throughout the final battle he acts of his own accord, free of Giygas’ control, even to the extent that he releases the evil entity from the Devil’s Machine. By doing so, he utilises his last resort to defeat Ness, in turn essentially ‘killing’ Giygas by destroying his mind, utterly consumed by power and leading him to take the unforgettable form of a swirling red mass, a type of evil truly unfathomable. Itoi has commented, when discussing the famous events to which he attributes Giygas’ creation, that “[the] sense of terror having atrocity and eroticism side-by-side” has played a significant role in defining his erratic, bizarre and disturbing appearance and mindless speech that serves to represent a literal evil and lack of control.
The imagery and visuals used throughout the Giygas boss fight are incredibly well thought-out. The sense of progression serves less as a signpost to your position in the battle, but acts as a gradual portrayal of Giygas’ descent further and further into sheer incomprehensibility. The sound design throughout the fight also contains heavy symbolism and uses excellent progression; the battle’s sounds begin in a disturbingly ‘playful’ manner, ‘Pokey Means Business’ using mesmerising 8-bit rhythms that move swiftly into synth guitars to create an atmosphere that focuses more on the character of Pokey himself, almost giving his traits an audio presentation. As far as boss music goes, this is the sort of track you’d come to expect from a final boss fight, fast paced and fierce; it arguably wouldn’t be out of place in Bowser fight in a Mario game. However, once Pokey switches off the Devil Machine and releases all of Giygas’ power, the preconceived notion of what a final boss fight is comes crashing down around the player, bringing with it a striking audio cue; Giygas’ true form isn’t just incomprehensible to the in-game characters, but, when compared to any previous RPG title, or perhaps even any game made before that point, is incomprehensible to the player. This is just one of many ways that EarthBound excels in using the medium of video games to tell a story that couldn’t be told using any other.
Now the unforgettably haunting image of Giygas’ true appearance becomes apparent, taking the form of a swirling, blood-toned mass with a seeming lack of cognition. Pokey laughs to himself as he describes him as an “all-mighty idiot”, explaining that Giygas has lost all rational thought and now acts with no awareness as to what he is doing. Despite their intense training throughout their journey, the heroes attacks are useless against this chaotic entity, leaving them in the face of this unfathomable foe with seemingly no hope. It is here where surprisingly, Paula’s ‘pray’ ability becomes an essential weapon; throughout the game this bizarre ‘attack’ serves fairly little purpose, occasionally provoking a random effect in battle and possibly even serving as a double-edged sword that can fully heal party members and enemies alike. To reach the climax of the game, this ability is completely unneeded, but in the final moments it serves as the catalyst that brings the fruits of your entire journey into culmination; each of the prayers required to defeat Giygas touches the heart of a character you have met on your journey, all familiar faces, but ultimately NPCs with a seeming obliviousness towards the threat their world is facing. However, it turns out that its their thoughts, feelings and wishes that give you the power to weaken and ultimately destroy Giygas, again emphasising the human side of characters who play a role that would often see them overlooked and unimportant in your ordinary RPG. After several prayers from across the game world, Giygas is wounded, fragmented further and further into an even more disturbing form, displaying twisted, skull-like faces that flash frantically with a static-like effect. The whole fight is genuinely unsettling, but it’s the final moments of Giygas
Paula’s ninth and final prayer is the most powerful, both in terms of its effect on the final boss and its presentation as a progression device; the person her final desperate cry for help reaches is not someone the four party members have ever met, nor a character in the game itself; the final person to lend their power to the protagonists takes the form of the player themselves. Fourth-wall breaking in games is hardly an obscure occurrence, especially when used in comedic scenes, but few titles have ever used it to the effect seen in EarthBound. Slowly as the player ‘prays’ more and more, their name, which they inputted at an earlier point in the game (an act that likely was forgotten by many players up until this climatic moment), is revealed letter by letter, its monumental importance to the game’s final act revealing itself in a dramatic fashion.
The final words of the ninth prayer disappear. The screen cuts to a startling, crimson static effect, before fading to black. The war against Giygas is over.
This is a game that truly makes a connection with its player, from the subtleties in its characterisation which allow it to engage with players on a more human level, to the more apparent yet powerful inclusion of them as a crucial plot device that sees them actually become a part of the game’s story. A unique and remarkable combination of visuals, audio and writing allow EarthBound to achieve this lofty feat, in a way that only video games could possibly allow.
EarthBound regularly finds itself described as one of the most individual, bizarre, well-thought out role-playing games ever made, and as I mentioned in my introduction, it is fully deserving of the many accolades and the critical acclaim it has received; it maintains a joyful consistency throughout its at times hilarious, at times sad, but wholly engrossing story, offering simple yet enjoyable gameplay with a unique and thoroughly charming flair, taking many an opportunity to break down the conventions of both the RPG genre and video game storytelling. It uses its medium to the highest advantage on many occasions, allowing it to take pride of place as a game that, despite not flying off the shelves at its initial western release, will continue to positively influence and inspire games for generations to come.
The final moments of EarthBound are some of its finest, a culmination of many of the game’s strengths mentioned above, along with a whole lot more. Returning to the game’s sleepy suburbia one final time right after facing up to the terrifying embodiment of evil itself is a rather grounding experience; as you conclude your journey, you’ll find that not only has Ness changed as a person, but the world has changed around him – you might even discover that you, the player have changed too – EarthBound is a thoroughly human experience, one that could easily change the way you think and feel about, not to mention approach RPGs, or perhaps even gaming in general. Play it right until the end, you won’t regret it.