There are a small handful of games I consider to be the "big five" for 16-bit JRPGs; five that stand as immortal classics to this day and major defining points in both what shaped me as a gamer and a writer. I've already nutshelled four of them - Illusion of Gaia, Phantasy Star IV, Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG. So what's my fifth irreplacable game from that era? That would be none other than Shigesato Itoi's Earthbound, the second game in the Mother series.
Yes, Earthbound. A humble RPG released late in the system's lifespan which, despite a considerable advertising campaign from Nintendo and even a big-box release that included a bundled player's guide and a handful of other cool extras, was deemed "mediocre" by the gaming press and largely snubbed by the then-niche JRPG fanbase for its simplistic visual style and generic storyline. However, it had a small but devoted fanbase drawn in by its unconventional nature, as well as its suprisingly down-to-earth and sincere writing, which was no mean feat for a game that featured enemies like the Enraged Fire Plug and the Worthless Protoplasm. Those lucky few were the ones that saw Earthbound's true genius; this was not an RPG meant to redefine storytelling or gaming as we knew it, but to show the player a good time, letting them embark on an adventure in a largely modern setting, enjoy all sorts of strange sights, meet plenty of unforgettable characters and let their own emotions set the tone of the game. Earthbound's minimal narrative and overall humility also proved to be its strongest asset; the player was the one enjoying the journey, laughing at the jokes and getting invested in the events therein, not just their in-game avatars.
Of course, it took the general JRPG audience the better part of a decade to recognize its genius, largely because the market was being flooded with CGI-filled action movie RPGs at the time that were more interested in showing off a system's graphical prowess than having any idea how to structure a script. But once the 16-bit era became immortalized in gamer's minds as a high point for gaming as a whole and more and more unsung classics of the era started to gain attention, it was a turning point for storytelling in games. From then on, games generally aimed to have more human, relatable characters, as well as still managing to tell captivating stories in spite of their outlandish elements. Games like Yume Nikki, Contact, Persona 4 and especially Undertale owe much of what they are to Earthbound, and even some of my other modern favorites like the PC Shadowrun games and Gravity Rush seem to take pointers from it, just letting the player get immersed in a strange, surreal new universe and experience all it has to offer at their own pace. For those reason, as well as more I'll get into as we cover the journey in detail, Earthbound was my favorite RPG in its time and continues to be so today. Hell, I'll go a step further by saying that were it not for Earthbound, I probably wouldn't have become an RPG fan at all, or at least not nearly as big of one as I am.
For a start, even the attract mode of Earthbound broke the mold that many games at the time adhered to, fading into a title card depicting UFOs attacking a gas station that simply read "EarthBound: The War Against Giygas!". That then fades out and we get an opening sequence of the game's four heroes journeying across numerous strange locales while some very upbeat music plays; first as a somewhat tense tune, then as a more laid-back, jazzy number, which soon gives way to a loud "kaboom" noise and concludes on a more low-key, minimal series of notes. It dictates a playful tone throughout and leaves you wondering just what kind of experience you really are in for with the game.
...A feeling which is only further compounded with the game's naming screen, which again touts some memorable, quirky music and some animations as you name your characters, your favorite food (which comes up in dialog at a few points in the game) and your "favorite thing" (which determines the name of the main character's special attack). Each entry is also punctuated with a small voice clip asking "Ok desu ka?" (Is it okay?), and the final confirmation is greeted with an energetic "YEOW!".
Spoony: It may seem like I'm going over every detail, but that's only because Earthbound really does go out of its way to make sure even mundane things like a naming screen are distinct and memorable. Oh, and you also get your choice of window "Flavors" ranging from "Plain" to "Mint", "Peanut" and "Strawberry", so even picking the menu color has a unique quirk.
We're then taken to the small mountainous town of Onett in the year 199X, where our protagonist (hereafter referred to as Ness) is awoken late at night by a meteor crashing into the hilltop near his town. The police arrive in very short order, priding themselves on their ability to set up roadblocks, and cordon off the scene, ensuring that Ness can't get in to take a closer look. His neighbor Pokey is also there, being a nuisance to the police, who basically tells Ness that there's nothing to see here. So with nothing else to do for now, Ness returns home and goes back to bed.
He's awoken a second time that night, this time by Pokey in search of his younger brother Picky, who has gone missing. The police have since packed up and left to deal with the local hoodlums known as the Sharks, so with nowhere else to turn, he goes to his neighbor. After being strong-armed into helping the search, Ness acquires a Cracked Bat, recruits his dog King, and gets a phone call from his dad, which will become a frequent theme throughout the game.
Spoony: I absolutely love the amount of thought that went into the game's modern setting. You make phone calls, you order pizzas, you withdraw cash from ATMs, you equip yo-yos and frying pans and baseball bats as weapons, and enemies frequently take the forms of possessed cars, road signs, shrubs and yes, even UFOs that wear bowties and shoot beams that cause "night-time stuffiness". Everything about Earthbound is both contemporary and nostalgic, and for that reason alone it's a cut above every other RPG out there. Even the visual style is part of this; the minimalistic comic strip style it employs was a point of criticism when it came out, but I always thought it was a big part of the game's charm, adding much to the quirky humor of the game's world.
With the police gone, the sound of sirens and chaos has now been replaced by a low, moody tune, and the countryside is now populated with Coil Snakes, Spiteful Crows and Runaway Dogs, none of which prove particularly dangerous for those diligent with PSI Lifeup. Pokey also proves to be a coward who just lets you and King do all the fighting, which only further compounds the feeling of him being kind of a dick. But eventually you make your way up the mountain to the site of the meteor, find Picky, and King chickens out, fleeing back to Ness' house and staying there for the rest of the game.
With Picky in tow, we are about to head back down, but before we can, the meteor glows and a bee(?) named Buzz-Buzz appears from the beam of light, explaining that he is from ten years in the future and that everything has been ruined at the hands of Giygas. However, four heroes - three boys and a girl - are prophecized to stand against him and prevent this dark future from coming to pass, one of whom happens to be Ness. So Buzz Buzz joins the group, serving as Ness' guardian for a time.
This proves to be a good thing as one of Giygas' underlings, Starman Junior, appears before the group and attacks, intending to bring down Ness before he can become a threat. However, Buzz-Buzz protects the party with his Psychic Shields and defeats Starman Junior almost singlehandedly... only to be swatted by Pokey's mom, who mistakes him for a dung beetle. Dark humor!
In his final moments, Buzz-Buzz tells Ness to seek out the eight "Your Sanctuary" locations, giving him the Sound Stone so that he can record their melodies and absorb their latent powers. He mentions that the first of these is called "Giant Step" and is located atop a nearby hill in Onett, giving us our first quest. So we step outside, are greeted by the morning sun and the recurring photographer character (whose photos show up as a memento of your journey in the closing credits), and set off on our journey proper.
Of course, just going straight to Giant Step is out of the question; seeing as this is a JRPG, we have some business in town to sort out first. The mayor is currently having a PR meltdown dealing with the Sharks, so in order to get him to open the path, we have to defeat the Sharks. Simply continuing on to Twoson isn't an option either, as the police have set up another roadblock barring the path. So we don't have much say in the matter here - we have to beat their leader and disband the gang.
Spoony: This is also one of the rare parts in the game where you have to do a bit of grinding, as your starting equipment is basically worthless against the Sharks. So make sure you've got the Cheap Bracelet, the T-Ball Bat and a Baseball Cap! Thankfully, it doesn't take too long to save up the cash, and if you visit the treehouse on the northwest end of town, you can get the "Mr. Baseball Cap" for free, which is better than the one the store sells. It also resells for a pretty good chunk of change later!
Oh, and one thing that's somewhat easy to miss at the beginning of the game is your neighbor, Lier X. Agerate, who claims to have unearthed a "great treasure". Investigating reveals it to be a sinister-looking statue, but not much else is said about it for a while to come.
Something else that makes Earthbound a cut above most RPG is that it's one of the earliest RPGs I can think of to abolish "random encounters", making all enemies visible on the overworld and giving the player a chance to outmaneuver and avoid them (much helped by the fact that the world design and movement in the game are not bound to a grid). Enemies that are well below your current level can also be completely skipped thanks to an ingenious feature that causes them to run away from you on sight. Fighting one regardless will simply skip the combat screen entirely, bringing up the message "YOU WON!" and giving you any experience and items you would have earned from the fight. Handy, to say the least.
Anyhow, once you've gained a few levels, you can make your way to the arcade they use as a base of operations, fight your way through their ranks and battle their boss, Frank Fly. Who happens to have a steampunk wooden mech that attacks you once he's defeated. Both he and it hit hard, but as long as you keep your HP relatively high, you should bring them down without too much trouble.
Spoony: Another unique mechanic of the game is the "rolling HP meter", where you don't take damage from an attack all at once, but rather watch your HP meter slowly "roll down" after a hit until it's at the correct level. This still applies even if your character's HP total should be below zero, so until that happens, you have time to heal them and prevent them from dying. Our HP is still too low at this point to put it to much use, but it becomes a very handy mechanic later on!
After being beaten, Frank acknowledges your strength and disbands the Sharks, causing Mayor Pirkle to give you the key to the entertainers' shack that grants entrance to the mountains. One can also talk to the traveling entertainers outside to get a Travel Charm for free once the door is unlocked, but if you go inside before doing so, they'll vanish and you miss your chance. Bummer.
Anyhow, after a swarm of slugs, mice and "antoids" we come to the area boss, Big Antoid. He hits fairly hard, but is also flanked by two Black Antoids who will restore his HP, so your first priority should be to take them out. Once that's done, he's pretty easy, just as long as you spend most of your Psi points before he gets a chance to drain them all. Preferably on PSI Rockin, Ness' primary Psi attack which you should have learned in the interim.
Defeating him grants you access to Giant Step, as well as getting you admonished by the police for trespassing and told to come by the police station later. This results in another fight with the cops, something which feels very out-of-place considering Nintendo's straight-edge content policies of the time. Regardless, after fighting four of them, the fifth will chicken out and Chief Strong will fight you instead, though he only proves slightly tougher than his men. Defeating them all will cause him to acknowledge your strength and open the roadblock to Twoson so that you can continue your journey.
If you stayed at Ness' house or the local hotel at some point in the Onett quest, you may start getting psychic messages from Paula, who is being held captive somewhere. As it turns out, she's the talk of the town in Twoson, having been kidnapped by Carpainter, the head of the Happy Happyist cult from the next town over. That proves to be a problem, though, as the pathway leading there is blocked by an iron pencil statue and you have no readily-available way to get through. Simply skipping Twoson isn't an option either, as the tunnel to Threed is populated by ghosts who prevent you from passing through. It looks like we'll need some help.
Our options come in the form of two local inventors: one named Orange Kid, who is well-regarded and quite well off besides, and another named Apple Kid, whom nobody seems to like and lives in poverty. Orange Kid doesn't prove to be much help; even if you pay him the $200 he asks, he just gives you a useless item called the "Suporma" (which breaks after one use) and always comes up with some lame excuse for why he hasn't yet gotten around to doing anything to help. And no, he never gives your money back either.
Spoony: So in a way, Orange Kid predicted the rise of crowdfunding. BA-ZING!
Apple Kid, on the other hand, is a lot more helpful, getting to work on an invention of his right away. His mouse (who goes unnamed) also gives you the Receiver Phone, which allows you to get phone calls from him and others throughout the game (but not make them). One oddity is that he won't actually finish working on his invention until you return to Peaceful Rest Valley and investigate the pencil statue again (even if you've gone to see it before), so be sure to do that. Once you do, you'll get a call and he'll hand over his new invention, the "Pencil Eraser", a device which erases pencil-shaped objects.
Spoony: This is one of the more famous changes between the English and Japanese versions; the Japanese version had a statue of an octopus rather than a pencil, so Apple Kid instead gives you an item called the "Octopus Erasing Machine". This was apparently a joke based on a remark by Itoi (who compared being lost and not knowing what to do to "having your path blocked by an octopus"), but in the US version it's more of a play on words. Either way, it's another testament to Earthbound's quirky sense of humor, as well as the fact that the game's translators did an excellent job of adapting the jokes without subtracting from the overall style of the game.
With that out of the way, we can make our way through Peaceful Rest Valley (not an ominous name at all) and come to Happy Happy Village, a place painted completely blue, populated by a horde of people in blue hoods and robes, and playing creepy music to complement it all. It's still a funny scene (mostly due to the outlandish character dialog), but it definitely provides a bit of creep factor and menace as well.
Spoony: I've mentioned the music a lot so far, but that's only because the soundtrack in the game is absolutely impeccable. Every background track perfectly suits the environment and enhances the mood of whatever area they're trying to create; I can listen to any track from this game and instantly memories of that area will come flooding back. So in a way, one could say that this is the best video game soundtrack ever made - if not for its production values, then certainly in terms of crafting an immersive game environment.
Anyhow, attempting to confront Carpainter directly simply results in him blasting you with lightning and dumping you outside, so we may as well look for Paula. She turns out to be locked up in a cabin accessible through a cave behind the town, and gives you an item that will protect you from Carpainter's lightning - a Franklin Badge.
Spoony: Both a reference to Benjamin Franklin's famous experiments (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin#Electricity) and to the first Mother game, where a similar badge deflects instant-kill Beam attacks.
Going back outside reveals that Paula's abduction was masterminded by none other than Pokey, who is now an important person in the Happy Happy cult. He sics a few of his underlings on you and then runs away. But with that in hand, we can now make our way through Carpainter's base, confront him, and defeat him in battle (helped by the fact that he frequently injures himself with his own lightning). He immediately comes to his senses after the fight, with the cult disbanding quickly thereafter. Oh, and that statue Lier X. Agerate unearthed earlier is also in his possession for reasons unexplained. We haven't seen the last of it, either!
Anyhow, we free Paula, meet up with Pokey again (who taunts you and runs away, revealing he wasn't under Carpainter's control at all) and after a short stop at another Your Sanctuary (Lilliput Steps), make our way back to Twoson. The local crime boss, Everdred, is impressed at our feat and hands over a wad of cash, while the Runaway Five, a band playing at the local theater, hands over a Backstage Pass.
Spoony: This was also something novel at the time - a game with its own music act. This was still in the era before music games became big, so having a fictional band up on stage playing some pretty amazing original tunes was definitely a cool addition. It was also theorized that the reason this game's rerelease on the Virtual Console was so long-delayed was because of copyright issues with the Runaway Five (as they bear a strong resemblance to the Blues Brothers), but that doesn't seem to be true as none of the text, graphics or music were altered in the VC release.
(For those curious, the only thing changed for the Virtual Console release was that the system puts a blur filter on the screen during some of the more intense PSI effects in an attempt to prevent epileptic seizures.)
In this course of events, we learn that the Runaway Five are ten-thousand dollars in debt to the theater manager, but luckily for us, we happen to have a wad of cash on hand. So we turn that over and free the Runaway Five from their contract, and as thanks they give us a ride through the tunnel to Threed since their music is loud enough to ward off the ghosts in the tunnel. They then take off for Fourside, looking to find another gig at the theater there.
Threed turns out to be a town overrun by zombies and other supernatural creatures. They've even taken over the press, with the local hotel now getting deliveries from a pro-zombie publication called the "Zombie Tribune" instead of their usual source. A few humans also seem to be in league with them, as evidenced when we follow a strange woman into the hotel only to get led into a trap, beat up by a horde of the undead and dumped into an underground prison.
With no way out, Paula sends out a psychic call to our next party member, Jeff. Jeff is kind of the Badass Normal (link) of the group in that he's the only character who never learns any psychic powers; however, he makes up for this with his unique weapon type (various types of guns, which have very high accuracy but also never land critical hits) and his ability to repair broken machines and repurpose them into powerful items. From Shield Killers to Defense Showers to crafting a laser beam out of a broken harmonica, he definitely adds a lot to Earthbound's outlandish charm.
Jeff lives all the way up in Winters, though, so he has to find a way to get to Threed first, leading into a small solo adventure with him. It turns out to be quite an eventful one despite its length as well, with Jeff befriending the Bubble Monkey, meeting the eccentric dungeon designer "Brick Road" (who seeks to become the first human dungeon), riding across Lake Tess on the back of Tessie, and even passing a Your Sanctuary location which we'll come back to quite a bit later (its guardian simply ignoring him because he doesn't have the Sound Stone). Our end destination ends up being the lab of Dr. Andonuts, situated just south of Stonehenge.
He turns out to be Jeff's father, a well-regarded but absentminded scientist who has created such devices as the Instant Revitalization Machine and the Sky Runner, and who is currently building a time machine called the Phase Distorter. That will come into play later, of course, but for now we board the Sky Runner, fly over several locations we'll visit later with some nice backing music, and eventually crash-land in Ness and Paula's prison.
Fortunately, we have the means to unlock the door now, so we escape back into Threed and prepare to strike back against the zombies. First by taking down the Boogey Tent and stealing the Fly Honey stored within, then later getting a phone call from Apple Kid, who has just finished his latest invention - Zombie Paper. It's like fly paper, but it works on zombies.
Spoony: One thing I always liked was that it's never clear whether Apple Kid's inventions are a product of his genius, or whether it's just a bizarre coincidence that his latest invention always ends up being something you need at that exact moment. Most of them are pretty strange, so it does leave you wondering...
In any case, we head to the resistance tent in the middle of town, set a trap with the Zombie Paper, and stay the night at the hotel. Over the course of the night, most of the zombies about town venture into the tent and get trapped, allowing us access to the graveyard path that they had blocked off earlier. This takes us through an underground path to a new area called Grapefruit Falls, neighboring another strange locale called Saturn Valley. A place populated by the unofficial mascot of the series, the Mr. Saturns - bowtie-wearing aliens who speak in a strange font.
They reveal that several members of their race have been abducted and forced to work in Master Belch's factory, located behind the waterfall at Grapefruit Falls. The only way in is to give the gatekeeper the "password" of doing nothing for three minutes. Yes, it's timed for three actual minutes. No, there is no way to bypass it or speed it up.
The factory is a pretty short dungeon (though a pretty good place to level up thanks to the hordes of Foppies that spawn). The battle with Belch is also a gimmick fight, requiring you to use the Fly Honey you picked up earlier; if you don't, he'll just restore himself to full HP each turn, making him effectively invincible. Doing so, however, causes him to simply ignore you and scarf down the honey, allowing you to easily defeat him.
Defeating Belch causes the zombie occupation in Threed to end, but Saturn Valley is also home to another Your Sanctuary, so it's worth stopping by there before you head back. It's guarded by the Trillionage Sprout, who isn't too dangerous on his own (though he can occasionally Diamondize a character), but the amount of enemies on the path there who can Mushroomize you can definitely make your life difficult. Still, you should eventually win out against him and gain access to the Milky Well.
With the undead occupation over, the tunnels are open again, allowing us to take a bus to Fourside. Well, not quite; we hit a traffic jam on the way there and are forced to venture through the Dusty Dunes Desert for a time, probaby coming across a monkey cave and a couple of miners named the Montague brothers. Neither of which we can do much with yet, but both will become important a bit later.
Fourside turns out to be the largest location we've seen by far, essentially being a big city with isometric-styled visuals, which always gave me a bit of a Simcity 2000 vibe (probably not a coincidence, as Simcity was also a popular game on the SNES). We can venture around and see the sights, learning that Pokey is now in the employ of the rich CEO "Mr. Monotoli" and that the Runaway Five have landed themselves in trouble again, stuck at the local theater with a debt of a million dollars this time.
Spoony: And since you can only carry a maximum of $99,999 with you at any given time, simply saving up that much is out!
So instead what we end up doing is helping out the miners in the desert, whose digging unearths a subterranean cavern populated by five giant moles. Said moles all proclaim themselves the "third strongest" before they attack you (and they're technically right as all of their stats are the same). This is definitely one of the longer and more convoluted maze areas in the game, but since you can rest for free right outside, it's not too much of a bother to complete. Doing so earns you two grateful miners and a giant diamond, which you use to pay off the Runaway Five's debt a second time.
Doing that causes the department store to open, which finally allows us to upgrade our equipment again after a long hiatus. Before we can leave, however, Paula gets whisked away by the Department Store Spook and we get called up to the top floor to get her back. In the few seconds since that happened, the lights have gone out and the store has become populated with absurdly dangerous enemies - coffee cups that do tons of fire damage, records that hit like trucks and guitars that can put characters to sleep, to be exact. They attack in tandem, too, which makes this whole segment downright nasty. Fortunately, Department Store Spook himself really isn't much to worry about, especially if you bought a Big Bottle Rocket or two from the arms dealer here.
Spook reveals that he's working for Monotoli and that Paula is now in his custody. And since we can't get into his office building (his guards will simply throw us out if we try), we instead have to follow some leads that tell us he occasionally visits Jackie's Cafe. Following up on that, we visit the bar, find Everdred outside in a sad state (having come to Fourside in search of the Mani Mani statue but paying the price for running afoul of Monotoli) and get told to check behind the counter in the bar. Doing that takes us to...
Moonside! A dark mirror of Fourside where everyone speaks gibberish and "yes" and "no" have opposite meanings. It has a nice aesthetic to it with its neon colors and trippy enemies, but it is a bit annoying to navigate since it mostly just involves being teleported around until you stumble upon the right path.
Spoony: Admittedly, the Fourside arc is probably my least favorite part of the game; it's overly long, the environment isn't very interesting overall, you end up backtracking and retreading a lot of familiar ground along the way, and you just get a bit tired of seeing the same few locations again and again after a while. It's not a deal-breaker, of course, but this whole arc definitely could have benefitted from some more streamlined design.
After much trial and error, you find a guy guarding the Mani Mani Statue, who claims he'll only let you pass if you find his friend - a man with connected eyebrows and a gold tooth. To find him, you follow a long path of teleporty-guys to a room with no doors, talk to the nearly-invisible guy there, then get booted out. It turns out he's the friend of the other guy, so you head back there, they depart and leave you free to investigate the statue.
Not surprisingly, the Mani Mani statue, evil mind-poisoning artifact that it is, also proves to be a threat in battle, throwing around all sorts of nasty status effects. Fortunately it has relatively low HP, so it's not too hard to take out (especially with bottle rockets - the game-breaker attack item). Defeating it reduces the statue to ruins and causes Moonside to vanish, revealing that the whole thing was a bizarre illusion created by the statue and that you just spent the last couple days wandering around the cafe's warehouse in a stupor. Alright, that's pretty funny.
As soon as you leave, you get a call from Apple Kid, who has finished another strange invention in the form of a machine capable of making trout-flavored yogurt. Which we happen to need as Monotoli's maid Electra comes by shortly thereafter asking about just that. Unfortunately, Apple Kid stiffed the delivery boy, so he just dumped the package in a hole in the desert and tells us to go get it ourselves. So we're backtracking to the desert once more to pay the cave of the monkeys a visit!
After a lengthy trading sequence and another maze, we find Talah Rama, who gives us some advice, returns the Yogurt Machine to us and even teaches Ness Psi Teleport on top, which lets us revisit any area we've already been to instantly (but requires a bit of running space). It's also quite the time-saver, as we don't have to walk or sit through that long bus animation anymore either. Dandy!
Anyhow, we return to Fourside, turn over the yogurt machine and gain access to the upper floors of the Monotoli Building at last. Not much to say about it, save that it's a fairly short maze with some rather annoying robot enemies to fight. Oh, and you can stop by Electra's room for some free trout yogurt if that's your thing.
Spoony: This are underwent a couple of design changes over the course of development. There is an inaccessible item in the game's code simply called "Temporary Goods" whose description reads "Given to you by a maid at the Monotoli Building". Also, the boss here has an unused function where he "pours black smoke" upon defeat, which immediately ends the fight and drops you outside the front entrance of the building. This suggests that you may have needed to take some special steps to avoid or otherwise disable him before fighting him; possibly tied to the Temporary Goods somehow. Regardless, both of these ideas (whatever they may have been) go unimplemented in the final game, so they're just curious artifacts for fans to wonder about now.
Said boss is the Clumsy Robot, a very annoying bugger who rarely attacks, but hits hard when he does. Aside from that, he mostly just takes useless actions and eats "bologne sandwiches" to recover all of his health. Once you fight him for a few turns, though, the Runaway Five burst in, duck behind him and flip his "off" switch, bringing the battle to a quick end. So with all obstacles out of the way, we enter Monotoli's office and find both him and Paula.
Monotoli surrenders and flees into a corner to cower in fear, though Paula insists that he's really not a bad guy. Confirming this, Monotoli explains that he was being ordered by Giygas to stop you and that the destruction of the Mani Mani statue severed contact between them. He mentions that Giygas told him to make sure you never visited Summers, which means that's probably where you should visit next; he even lends you his helicopter as a token of good will.
..Or at least, he would if Pokey weren't one step ahead of us once again, swiping the helicopter and flying off to Summers himself while taunting us for good measure. We do have a backup plan, at least; Paula tells us that we should pay another visit to Threed, so the Runaway Five give us a lift there. Revisting the old prison cell, we find that the locals have mostly rebuilt the Skyrunner. With a little help from Jeff, it's good to go once again, so we return to Winters and have Dr. Andonuts do some reprogramming on it to get us to Summers.
While we wait on that, we can finally revisit the Sanctuary that Jeff passed by several hours before on his solo adventure. It's the Rainy Circle, guarded by a mushroom monster named Shrooom! (that's three o's and one exclamation point)! Shrooom! himself isn't too dangerous, but he does have the very annoying ability to Mushroomize your characters, which is basically a permanent confusion effect with no easy cure. Which can be a real problem when he does it to Paula or Ness, as they can end up firing their psi powers on their own teammates and wiping out your party. Ouch. Needless to say, you should probably stick mostly to normal attacks for the duration.
With that done, we depart in the Skyrunner once again, ending the long cycle of backtracking we've been stuck in for several hours by this point. Yay! Crash-landing on the beach (and totalling the Skyrunner for good this time), we set off into the resort town of Summers. As one would expect from such a place, everything here is high-class and ridiculously overpriced (but mostly worth investing in regardless).
Monotoli mentioned a pyramid, and the local museum is having an exhibition on ancient Egypt, so it seems like a logical link. However, a brief investigation reveals that the exhibit on the upper floor is closed off, with the curator offering to let you in if you give him something valuable in exchange *wink wink nudge nudge*. He doesn't take cash, though, so we'll have to come up with another idea.
Investigating a little more reveals that there's a local place called the Stoic Club, a pretentious members-only place that only the invited can come into. We find that a sailor's wife is in there and is known for her "magic cakes", and searching another house or two on the dock area locates you the phone number. You also get a phone call from Jeff's roommate Tony, asking you (as in, the player) to input your name. This does come into play later, so go for it!
We visit the Stoic Club, talk to the sailor's wife and eventually convince her to let us try her Magic Cake, which causes us to have a vision of a faraway land...
Spoony: And no, she wasn't slipping you some hallucinogenic drugs or something; it's called a Magic Cake in both the English and Japanese versions. If you want to see that, play Mother 3!
The land of Dalaam, to be exact, homeland of Prince Poo, our final party member (and oddly the only overtly Asian locale in the game). He ventures to Mu, the Place of Nothingness, and undergoes a meditative trial of sorts, with the spirit of his ancestor taking posession of his mind. Having passed, he then teleports to Summers and joins the group, bringing with him a Tiny Ruby. This lets us bribe our way into the Egypt exhibit on the upper floor and read the heiroglyphics there, learning a secret combination to enter the pyramid in the process. Oh, and fight a couple of mummies too.
At some point in the interim we also hear about an "amazing discovery" back in Fourside by Mr. Spoon, the curator of the museum there. Investigating reveals him to have discovered something in the sewers below, but like Mr. Fork, he wants a bribe before he'll let you in to see it. So we venture to the local theater and get an autograph from the singer Venus. His discovery turns out to be a giant rat named the Plague Rat of Doom, guarding a fifth Your Sanctuary Location, Magnet Hill. Not a very difficult fight overall, but it can be a bit annoying as he gets frequent critical hits and can poison party members with his bite.
Spoony: This provides us with the obligatory generic sewer level for the game, proving once and for all that Fourside is where the developers had an idea drought!
Magnet Hill also contains a chest with the "Carrot Key" inside, which allows us to bypass the rabbit statues in Dalaam and gain access to another dungeon. This ends up being the domain of Thunder and Storm, guardians of another Your Sanctuary, the Pink Cloud. They can hit pretty hard, but the Thunder Badge we got much earlier still proves effective in deflecting their electrical attacks, so put it to work here!
Back in Summers, with his wife freed from the shackles of pseudo-intellectual pretense (insert your own internet community joke here), the sailor guy we talked to before is more than happy to give us a lift to Scaraba. On the way there, though, we get attacked by the Kraken, a fire-breathing sea serpent (not a giant squid as the name may have led you to believe). But with three psychic forces and a kid armed with bottle rockets capable of leveling small buildings, the Kraken doesn't prove too much of a threat.
We soon arrive in Scaraba and head a bit south to the pyramids, following the heiroglyph's instructions so that we can open the passage and enter. Within we encounter not only the stereotypical mummy enemies, but also odder elements like heiroglyphics that jump right off the wall to attack you. We eventually make our way to the central chamber and acquire an artifact known as the "Hawk Eye", said to be able to see through any darkness.
Spoony: One of my favorite aspects of Earthbound is that while it's based in something resembling our reality, it also isn't afraid to incorporate some mystical elements. Again, I think this largely calls back to the wonderment of one's youth, where we'd find magic in the arcane and unknown and let our imaginations run wild with what it all means.
Once we exit the pyramid, we encounter Poo's mentor, the Star Master. He insists that Poo depart with him for a time to learn the ultimate technique, PSI Starstorm, as it will be necessary to complete our quest. So even though he hasn't been with us long and is still a bit underleveled, he gets whisked away for a while to learn this new power. In the meantime, we hear talk of a mysterious "tower" in the north end of the desert and set off to investigate.
The tower turns out to be a giant, humanoid-esque structure, and examining within reveals it to be Brick Road, successfully turned into the Dungeon Man by Dr. Andonuts. Amusingly, he even joins the party for a short time, allowing you to go on a merry rampage for a while and crush UFOs and Bookas with his sheer power. However, venturing to the south end of the desert causes him to become trapped in some trees and unable to continue with you. A warrior here also states that the ocean here cannot be crossed via boat, leaving you stuck for the time being.
Dungeon Man does have something to help, however, telling you to check out his vehicle stash within (a sign moving in the meantime to allow you access). It turns out to be a yellow submarine, which Jeff fixes, allowing you to safely cross the sea.
Spoony: There are quite a few Beatles references throughout the game, from musical samples to more explicit ones like this. The Japanese version even goes a step further by having one of the default name sets reference the four members of the band (with Paula fitting into the list as "Yoko"). Even the name of the series (Mother) is a reference to a Beatles song of the same name, so Itoi's obviously a pretty big fan.
The Deep Darkness, as its name implies, is a sprawling, dark swamp area. In the tradition of RPGs, it slowly drains your health as you walk through it as well. It also becomes too dark to see a short while in, but the Hawk Eye takes care of that at least. On our ventures through, we find the crashed helicopter Pokey stole earlier, hinting that he's still one step ahead of us, and soon reunite with an old foe in Master Belch, now calling himself "Master Barf".
Sadly the Fly Honey trick doesn't work a second time, so we have to fight him legit now. He proves to be quite the annoyance, blinding people and causing their HP to steadily drop with Nausea status, but with a combination of Psi (or just a Multi Bottle Rocket or two), he doesn't prove much of a threat. Once you deal enough damage, Poo abruptly leaps into the battle and finishes him off with PSI Starstorm, ending the fight immediately.
Spoony: Defeating Barf also earns you the Casey Bat, a reference to the famous poem; as that would imply, it's a powerful weapon (the single strongest one in the game, in fact) with an extremely high miss rate of 75%. This was also an example of the translators showing their cleverness, as its original name was something like the "Swing With All Your Might Bat"; they effectively kept the joke in there while also working in a familiar bit of Americana. Props!
At the end of the Deep Darkness lies the Tenda Village, home of the Tenda, a group of shy blue creatures (save one talkative guy). The path to the Lost Underworld lies further into their cave, but only one of them is strong enough to move the rock and he's sadly not the talkative one, so we're stuck for now.
But we get another phone call from Apple Kid, whom we haven't heard from in a long while. He's tracked down Dr. Andonuts and completed work on the Phase Distorter with him, as well as creating another invention in the meantime. Before he can get into specifics, though, the lab comes under attack and both of them are apprehended by an unknown force.
Teleporting to Winters to investigate reveals that the place is now overrun by Giygas' minions. Pretty nasty ones, in fact, as they like to diamondize you and nuke you with PSI Fire. I believe it's also around here that we first encounter the ever-annoying danger of the Atomic Reactor Robots, annoying enemies who like to refill one enemy's health every turn to drag out the fight and explode when killed, doing a lot of damage to your party if they're not the very last enemy you eliminate. Yes, they're quite irritating. But it can be amusing when you successfully Mirror one with Poo and have him heal your characters instead.
Arriving at the lab reveals that Andonuts and Apple Kid have been taken to an alien base beneath Stonehenge nearby, and that Apple Kid's invention happened to be an object that will get you inside. Namely the Eraser Eraser, a device which erases pencil erasers. Tee hee.
Spoony: This was also a somewhat obscure joke that the translators had to adapt - the Japanese version has an iron kokeshi (a type of doll) blocking the path, so the player had to get the "Kokeshi Keshi" (eraser) to clear the path. So they changed the graphic to a pencil eraser and had the player remove it with the "Eraser Eraser". Again, a pretty elegant adaptation of a joke that doesn't really translate to English.
The Stonehenge Base ends up being the largest dungeon in the game by far, consisting of a maze, a factory-like area and another short maze before the end with lights that flicker on and off. You'll also encounter a familiar foe here in the form of Starmen and their stronger forms, Starman Super. Both are pretty dangerous Psi users, but are also very easy to get sneak attacks on (making contact with one whenever they're not teleporting counts), so they make a great source of experience as well.
Starmen Supers also mark the first major appearance of Earthbound's infamous rare item drops; to be exact, they have a 1/128 (or roughly 0.78%) chance to drop the Sword of Kings, the only weapon Poo can equip. Despite several playthroughs and hours and hours of trying, though, I have never successfully acquired one. I've gotten a couple of the other rare items (the Magic Frying Pan and Broken Antenna) by sheer luck, but this one continues to elude me despite a dedicated effort to get one. One day...
Whether or not you spend several hours trying to get the sword only to give up in vain, you'll soon make your way to the center of the base and find your friends (and several others) encased in fluid-filled tubes, a la Mother 1. The next room contains Starman Deluxe, the base's controller and another boss battle to contend with. He starts the fight with a Psychic Power shield up, which is quite a nasty surprise if you come in expecting to fire off a Psi Starstorm at him, but other than that he's not too much of a threat.
Once he's freed, you find out that the Phase Distorter was stolen and taken elsewhere by their attackers and that the book that cures shyness is, where else, at Onett's library. So with that knowledge in tow, you recover the book, visit the Tendas and have them overcome their shyness, granting you access to another dungeon!
It's another cavern area, though a bit more maze-like than most. At the end we find another Your Sanctuary boss in Electro Specter, a vaguely robotic creature that throws around lightning and uses several effects that mimic Jeff's repaired machines. Pretty novel, but it doesn't make for a very dangerous fight. The Sanctuary this time is Lumine Hall, which spells out Ness' thoughts on the wall in a scrolling marquee; kind of a neat idea.
Dropping down once more puts us in the Lost Underworld. This area is supposed to be huge, as evidenced by the pulled-back camera reducing our characters' sprites to tiny dots on the screen. Further compounding this are the enormous enemies we face in the form of dinosaurs and strange anomalies called "Ego Orbs". They're not as insurmountable as their size may suggest, but they can still put a pretty big dent in your characters.
We soon arrive at another Tenda village and told that the final Your Sanctuary, the Fire Spring, is ahead. So we press on through to a volcanic cavern, make our way through, and confront Carbon Dog. A dog that uses lots of fire attacks, but is extremely susceptible to Freeze attacks in turn. After taking just a couple of those, Carbon turns into <s>David Bowie reference</s> Diamond Dog and becomes much more dangerous, being resistant to most attacks and able to Diamondize or instantly kill party members. Still, if you've made it this far, it shouldn't take long before Diamond Dog is defeated and you reach the last Sanctuary.
Provided you've visited them all, the Sound Stone will activate, play its tune and Ness then be taken to a realm within his own mind: Magicant. Not the same as the one from the original Mother game, but similar in some ways as both are strange, fantastic worlds created from someone's memories. Here we revisit several of Ness' memories, some even before the events of the game, and even meet a friendly version of Pokey, suggesting the two were once good friends.
Spoony: It's not entirely clear whether Ness and Pokey fell out earlier or whether it was Giygas who came between them, but it does lend a bit of tragedy to both Ness and Pokey's characters. Not much in the way of sympathy for the latter, though, especially once later events in the game and especially the storyline of Mother 3 are brought to light!
We're also told of the Sea of Eden, the darkest part of Ness' psyche, and naturally set out to investigate it. At the center is Ness' Nightmare, which manifests in the form of the Mani Mani statue. There's no direct explanation for this, but it can be assumed that, being such a malevolent object, Ness would associate its with the evil bured within himself as well. It turns out to be a pretty dangerous foe as it can use all of Ness' Psi attacks and can even heal itself (not fully, thankfully). Managing your Psi points is very important here; you want to dish out damage, prevent Nightmare from killing you and avoid using physical attacks (as he puts up Power Shields) all at the same time. Still, with some persistence he should eventually go down, cueing a very long cutscene.
Ness, having overcome his inner darkness, is finally able to grasp his full potential and become the propecized one capable of defeating Giygas. As a result, he absorbs the power of the eight Your Sanctuaries, getting a substantial boost to all of his stats, and gains a whopping 200,000 experience on top of that, earning a massive amount of Psi points and basically becoming a one-man army. Then, one trippy awakening sequence later, we're back in reality and getting called to Saturn Valley.
Apple Kid and Dr. Andonuts are here, having completed a second Phase Distorter with the help of the Mr. Saturns. However, it needs a power source, and the only one will do is a material called "Zexonyte" that can't be found on Earth. Now where can we find some exotic material from an unknown faraway world, me wonders. Well, there was that meteor that crashed on a hilltop a few weeks back, I guess; it's worth checking out at least.
Returning to Onett reveals that Giygas' invasion has begun in earnest; Starmen, robots and aliens roam the streets, and the populace has either fled the town or are in hiding. The lone holdout seems to be Ness' mom, who gives you shelter and cheers you on, knowing you're humanity's best hope. Aww.
Anyhow, we battle our way to the top of the hill, recover a piece of the meteor (which has finally cooled down) and return to Saturn Valley. With the Distorter completed the next day, we're now ready to travel to the past and confront Giygas. So we press the button, get ripped through time and space and...
...desposited in a tunnel in the Lost Underworld which you may have spotted earlier but not actually have been able to reach the main area of. Here we find the original Phase Distorter, smashed beyond repair, and are greeted once again by the Star Master, who teaches Poo his ultimate attack (Starstorm Omega). Apple Kid and Andonuts arrive shortly thereafter in a third Phase Distorter, explaining that Giygas is attacking from this location, only several aeons in the past. Unfortunately, the current Phase Distorter kills any living matter it transports, so the only way to travel back is to transplant your consciousnesses into robotic bodies; even then, there is no guarantee you'll be able to return when (or if) Giygas is defeated. Still, with no other choice, we agree to undergo the operation and make the trip into the past...
We emerge in another surreal place; a tunnel composed of angular white rock formations and odd orbs that teleport the player around. Of course, it's also rife with Giygas' most dangerous minions; Ghosts of Starmen, Final Starmen and Bionic Krakens just to name a few. It's a pretty brutal gauntlet, but again, if you've come this far you should be able to survive it.
At the end lies a triangular opening to a cavern, and we step into something straight out of a nightmare - a mass of tubes snakes across the cavern floor, pulsing as though they're alive, complete with the sound of deep, heavy breathing. This all leads up to an eyeball-like machine, which opens to reveal an image of Ness' face, and alongside it, none other than Pokey himself, piloting a bio-mechanical spider machine. Pokey seems a bit impressed that we've come this far, but promises we'll die here.
We fight the two of them, but find ourselves completely unable to harm Giygas - every attack we fire at him gets deflected back at us as he constantly bombards us with Rockin spells. So, with no other option, we attack Pokey instead; he at least takes damage, though he's highly resistant to much of what we can throw at him. After the fight rages for a while, Pokey just laughs, saying that we're fighting Giygas without even knowing his true form. So he shuts off the Devil's Machine (purportedly the means by which he corrupts people and objects in the present) and whatever is inside the machine gets released.
Spoony: And what lies within is one of the most legitimately unsettling sights in gaming. Even moreso if you've played the first game and know the character's backstory.
What we see pour out of the Devil's Machine is a distorted anomaly, vaguely forming itself into a demon-like face, that emits nothing resembling a cohesive thought, instead just repeating Ness' name or eminating short, incoherent phrases like "feels goo..d..." or "friends...". Giygas, consumed with fury and thoughts of revenge on the species that betrayed his people and humiliated him personally, lapsed so far into darkness that he destroyed his own mind and effectively become hate itself. There is no longer any reason for his actions, not even simple pleasure; he destroys and corrupts simply because that is all he is now. And in a way, that's a lot more terrifying than any other villain I can think of.
Pokey is strangely unperturbed in this scenario, simply taunting and mocking you while standing on the sidelines. He turns out to be right, too - no matter how much damage Giygas takes, he shows no reaction to it at all, simply bombarding you again and again with waves of energy while continuing his unintelligible babble. So, with things at their most hopeless, our party in the heart of darkness and facing an indescribable force that threatens existence itself, there's only one thing left to do: Pray.
...No, really. Paula's Pray skill is what turns the tide in your favor. With it she reaches out to the present, contacting all of the people you've encountered on your journey, and they in turn begin to pray for your safety. In the face of this show of love, Giygas' form begins to crumble, slowly becoming more unstable and distorted. As you reach out to Ness' family, Paula's family, your friends back in Saturn Valley, the Runaway Five, Poo's friends in Dalaam and even Frank Fly from all the way back in Onett, Giygas' form becomes more and more distorted. It proves to not be enough, however, as Giygas continues to attack even after Paula's called to everyone she could think of and they begin to vanish into the darkness. So, in desperation, she calls out again to someone she's never met before, asking then to lend any help they can.
That final call goes out and is finally answered by someone, with their name obscured at first but slowly being revealed as the sceme goes on. It turns out to be the same name you entered earlier at Tony's prompting, meaning that you - the player - are the one responding to the call and delivering the final push to defeat Giygas once and for all.
Spoony: I admit it's sappy as hell, but I always love a good fourth-wall-breaking gimmick. Not to mention that they at least made a solid effort to have the "love is the ultimate trump card" cliche work out here; after all, Giygas is an entity of absolute hatred, so it's not a stretch to think that a show of love in the face of his terror would be what ultimately undoes him. Not to mention that you've gotten so invested in the adventure that you really do want to see the hero win out in the end, so in a way, you really are praying for them to overcome and succeed against impossible odds.
With this, Giygas finally seems to have been dealt a fatal blow, staggering and rapidly losing what little form he had left. Pokey, still largely unfazed, simply taunts you one more time and vanishes as Giygas rapidly distorts and finally dissolves into nothingness. We then fade back in to find our four heroes' robot forms, battered and broken, on the cavern floor. But of course a little thing like having an entire dimension collapse on our heads isn't going to stop us after fighting impossible odds, enduring incredible hardships, staring into the heart of darkness itself and daring to fight on regardless, so our heroes' spirits return to the present and reunite with their bodies.
With the war finally over, Poo returns to his home country, Jeff decides to bond with his father after many years apart, and Paula asks Ness to take her home. We also get to read several letters from people we've encountered on our journey and even get to venture around to various locales we've visited and talk to almost every character in the game about our adventure, which is a pretty cool feature that I've seen surprisingly few other games try to emulate.
At the end of it all you escort Paula back home, and while she seems to briefly consider saying something, all she ultimately tells you is that you may meet again one day. Paula's mother and even Jeff hint that Ness and Paula get together, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the case based on what she says!
Spoony: Again, it's a moment open to interpretation, but I always read it as her rejecting Ness even after all they'd been through together. Harsh for sure, but given that Earthbound seemingly goes out of its way to defy as many RPG tropes as it can, that always just seemed like another example of that to me.
Once you've ventured around, talked to everyone you care to talk to and do anything left you care to do, Ness returns home, talks to his mother and tells her about his adventure, leading into the cast roll of the game (as in, every character the game has to offer, even the unnamed NPCs), capped with the credits roll showing off all of the photos taken over the course of the adventure.
Oh, and in a post credits sequence, we get awoken by a knock at the door in a scene that closely mirrors the start of the game. But rather than Pokey, this time it's Picky, reading a letter he'd received from Pokey. In it, Pokey simply taunts Ness one last time, hinting that he'll be back. The screen then fades out to "The End...?" as the game concludes.
Spoony: Earthbound is a game with no equal in what it sets out to accomplish. It returns the player to a time in their youth when everything in the world seemed novel and magical, and when one could find adventure and humor even in the mundane and familiar. It does exactly that too, taking the player on an unforgettable adventure through locales and scenarios that, while they may resemble familiar locations and legends when described at length, all have a unique twist that fits them perfectly into Earthbound's quirky, humorous style. It's for that same reason that this this was quite possibly the hardest nutshell I've written, because I could sit here for weeks, writing and revising this article over and over, and still not feel like I've given this game the credit it deserves. Shigesato Itoi's brilliance only truly shines through when you pick up the controller and experience his world yourself - his passion for life and all it entails shines through, with every minute detail of the game's design contributing to an experience that is creative, uplifting and sincere on a level no other game I have played has even come close to. So track down a cartridge or buy a copy on the Wii U or 3DS EShop, cast all of your pre-formed perceptions about what video games are aside, and let Earthbound draw you into its world, because nothing I could put to print can possibly do it justice.