Recently I played through EarthBound for the first time — it’s the most unconventional JRPG I’ve ever played, with bizarre choices in monsters, a setting that seems to be more or less on our own planet, and a progressive strangeness with which I’m still struggling¹. But there were a couple of things I really loved about the ending section of the game.
In case it was not abundantly clear from either the title or the preceding paragraph, this discussion must necessarily spoil plot points from the end of EarthBound.
Powering up the player… and maybe it’s not enough. Once you finish the quest to free the eight stones and unify their song, or whatever that’s about, there’s a mechanical boost that occurs to the player. The player gets dramatically stronger, gaining maybe 30% more hit points and for me I think about doubling his magic casting resources as well. What’s wonderful about this is that when you then make your final approach to take down Giygas, you are still… kind of underpowered? I died a few times on the way just to get to him from the randomly placed enemies, and then it took me four tries to defeat Giygas himself². So despite the fact that they’ve made you comparatively really powerful, it’s still balanced in such a way as you feel like you’re the underdog. You’re not, of course, because you’re functionally immortal and can basically level indefinitely… though if you don’t figure out the trick to beating Giygas, you might spend a lot of time looping there. Still, it’s a neat feeling to see your character get dramatically stronger only to still feel like you’re barely hanging on.
Aftercare. When we talked with Jill Murray on Dev Game Club, she brought up the idea of “after care” with respect to players. Tim had observed that we’re really good at stirring up emotions like fear and aggression in our players, and maybe not so good at warmer feelings, and Jill specifically lamented that we don’t take the time to care for players after we’ve brought them to that point. It was a good point and it’s notable that EarthBound does this pretty well, as do some others of my favorite JRPGs³. It’s different from simply allowing the player to go around and do lots of clean-up tasks, as most open-world games have tended to do these days. Here, we literally have a little celebratory moment with various characters, say goodbye to a couple of our party, and escort Paula back to her home before returning home ourselves. It’s lovely; we retrace our steps, characters thank us, there are no threats. The game also lets you know that it’s about to end, should you care to save and maybe go visit other characters now that you’ve saved the world. It’s really, really pleasant, and while modern game design often doesn’t allow for it, that’s to the detriment of modern games.
Anyway, very worthwhile to return to this 20+-year-old title, which I did via the SNES Classic. Lovely bit of hardware, that, and the presentation of the games is really great. I’m looking forward to playing a few other titles on there that I’ve never had the chance to. You can play EarthBound there, or I gather it’s also available on the 3DS.
Until next time…
¹Some of this made my jaw drop (suddenly changing the size of the player sprites when you descended to the Land That Time Forgot or whatever was a highlight) and some of this I’m not sure was used to good effect (particularly numerous abstract enemies that were surreal in some way but had no real unifying theme that spoke to me). One tends to want to forgive something like that because it’s unusual, but one still must ask — sure, this is all pretty surreal and unusual, but what are you trying to make me feel? (back)
²The first time I failed was because I didn’t know what the mechanic to defeat him was (though I looked it up and was also then informed by my stream friends), the second was because he overwhelmed me with attacks, and the third due to some bad luck using a combat mechanic. The signaling of the mechanic to defeat him was so subtle that I missed it entirely — it was the only time in the game whatsoever that I was really lost as for what to do. So I won’t dwell on it, but that wasn’t my favorite — mostly because there was a lot of retreading of combat to get to try your hand against Giygas again. (back)
³Final Fantasy IX, aka the Best Final Fantasy, immediately springs to mind. There’s a bit of post-final combat falling action, then a rising action to a different sort of emotional payoff. Most of it takes place in cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-engine. (back)