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This Is the Way the World Ends

With the defeat of Giygas behind us, some surprisingly personal thoughts about one of gaming's strangest experiences.

(This article is going to have numerous spoilers about EarthBound, so be wary!)

The credits have rolled, the epilogue has concluded, and it’s hard to write this article without a heavy heart in hand. EarthBound has wrapped up, my time with Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo has come to an end, and it’s sad to watch them move on. Don’t they know they’ve left me behind? Hello?

Jeez, guys. Fine. I’ll just shuffle my feet over here...

But hours and hours later, with thanks to a wonderful walkthrough from Starmen.net, it’s over. EarthBound knows it’s hard to say goodbye, so rather than immediately pulling the JRPG trick of leaving the game at a “THE END” screen and asking you to turn off the cartridge (in this case, head back to the main screen of my Wii U, a task with decidedly less finality to it), there’s an opportunity to head back into the world, sans enemies, and take one last gasp of air. The world has changed, too, with many characters acknowledging time has moved forward and change has occurred, even if they’re blissfully unaware of the very crucial role they played in your defeat of Giygas.

It’s a victory lap of sorts, an acknowledgement that while this virtual world was built for the purposes of this story, your quest was not without purpose and not without validation from the virtual citizens it impacted. It’s these moments that help make Giygas’ death so powerful.

I must confess, though, that I didn’t spend time in my own game learning what happened because Giygas was gone, and instead looked that up on the Internet later. No, it was vitally important to me to return home to my mom. After I dropped off Paula at the preschool, I returned home, and even though my mom told me it was okay to say hi to my friends, I’d been away from home for so long, and I’d already had my adventure. It was time to eat pizza and look at photos, so I pushed past the point of no return and told the game it was OK. I was done. Close the book. (To continue comparing everything in my life to LOST, it’s a bit like what happens with the church. I don’t want to say anything more, since this isn’t an article about LOST, but it fits, right?)

Let’s go back to that bit about the cartridge, though. It’s a huge event that's critically, tragically lost in emulation. I can’t remember the first game that asked me to turn it off when the story was over, and maybe I’m assuming too much when I assign that trope to JRPGs. Correct me if I’m wrong. When EarthBound says “The End..?” and sits there, I did what I’ve always done: I waited five minutes to see if it changed. (I can’t be the only one who read theories on the Internet about leaving your machine on to access a secret ending in Final Fantasy VII.) A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions there was nothing more to be done, and it was time to move on. But pulling up the interface with the “Home button” and closing the “software” is hardly as satisfying. There was real power in what these games were asking of the player. Physically pulling a switch and turning off the SNES is a game reaching into the real-world and tapping you on the shoulder, just in case you didn’t realize this was really over. You don’t get that in the Virtual Console version, and it’s a loss.

And despite already being suitably impressed, the most remarkable moments in EarthBound don't happen until the very end. It wasn’t until that point when EarthBound, a game already giggling at undermining player’s expectations, decided to pull back the curtain and reveal who was really the mastermind behind everything that was happening: you. Yeah, you. Okay, well, me, technically. At least, in the case of my playthrough.

EarthBound fans did a remarkably poor job at holding back their glee at the game’s final “trick” in the battle against Giygas. Fortunately, the trick itself ends up being pretty meaningless. For those with fuzzy memories, you travel back in time to confront Giygas, but you can’t seem to do much damage against him. Plus, he keeps tossing random attacks that randomly kill your friends, and constantly cause stressful status ailments. The deck has been stacked against you, but considering this is an all-powerful alien from another world, maybe that’s to be expected when we’re talking about four average kids trying to save the world.

We have to rewind a bit, though.

Over and over again, EarthBound tosses material your way--dialogue, characters, items, weapons, everything--that either doesn’t make sense or has no material impact on playing the game. It's stuff to color the world and poke you in the eye. Jeff, remember, starts the game with a ruler that cannot be used, existing only to take up an inventory slot. It doesn’t do anything and the game never acknowledges this. Fans were forced to dig into the game’s code to make sure there wasn’t some unnamed trick was going on, and there was nothing to be found. This happens over and over again throughout EarthBound, and it eventually becomes one of its greatest charms, a series of harmless tricks made at the player’s expense. But EarthBound was playing the longest con of all with Paula’s “pray” ability. Technically, this is a little muddled. Pray can be used to heal characters, but it doesn’t happen every time, so the randomness removes its usefulness pretty quickly. Within a few hours, especially after characters gain the ability to cast healing spells and items are more prominent, pray becomes an ignored menu option. It’s now background noise, despite pray being the only thing so that Ness and friends can gain the power to defeat Giygas.

“You know what, my heart is beating incredibly fast. ...I must be experiencing absolute terror! Do you want to scream for help here in the dark?! Hha ha ha ha ha! Why not call your mommy, Ness? Say “Mommy! Daddy! I’m so frightened! I think I’m gonna wet my pants! I know you have telepathy or something, so just try and call for help, you pathetically weak heroes of so-called justice! No one will help you now! Ha ha ha ha haaah….Don’t worry, your pitiful suffering will be over soon!”

Of course, it’s easy for me to say what happens next is obvious in retrospect, but EarthBound was hinting at the solution to Giygas in its own dialogue. What are people doing when they pray? Your religious association makes the nuance of that answer different, but in general, praying involves sending a message to others--god, friends, a deceased loved one, whatever. Paula has the ability to reach out and send a message to those who care about her, but it’s been utterly useless at this point, so why bother? Think about it again. For the non-religious among us, when might we consider praying? When we’re at our most desperate, when we have no easy answers to what’s in front of us, when praying seems like the only option, even if we don’t believe in it?

As Paula prays, her friends feel motivated to think about her, and these emotions travel through time and space to break down the defenses of Giygas. With each prayer, Giygas becomes weaker, and your attacks do more and more damage. But not every prayer is answered. After Ness' mother hears the call from beyond:

“Paula’s call was absorbed by the darkness.”

When this happens, it’s easy to think: what’s the point? Why get up? Why try again?

It’s at this moment that I died during my first fight with Giygas. I didn’t know what to do next, and a random attack from Giygas took out Ness, which resulted in my party falling apart. I was stumped. Clearly, I was on the right track, but what next? I loaded up my save, called to my friends, and decided to challenge the darkness a second time. I don’t know what it was about playing Giygas the second time, but the emotion of the moment swept me up, and I felt a profound sense of pride as everyone mentally joined hands and stood up to Giygas. It’s been an emotional year for me, though, so it doesn’t exactly take much to tip me over the edge.

The second prayer did the trick, and it’s when EarthBound went from a thankful visit to a missed 90s game to an all-time favorite gaming experiences. The final prayer reached me, the player, and I realized why the game took several moments to ask the player their name. It’s almost as though EarthBound knew the cartridge might be passed around, a save might be used by more than one person, and whoever saw the adventure through to the end needed to be the right person. But I was there to receive the prayer, and I defeated Giygas.

It's not that far off from how we actually play games, either. Most games have an element of chance, especially RPGs, where dice are being rolled behind-the-scenes, and certain information is kept from us to generate stress and make poor strategic choices. This especially happens when it's the final battle, and everything is on the line. Hell, I remember fighting Sephiroth, and literally closing my eyes and praying my latest casting of a summon would take him out. I was low on health and magic. I needed a prayer answered.

We use the phrase “I” in regards to our interactions with a video game avatar all the time, and it’s always an abstraction of our own thoughts, feelings, and exchanges with a virtual character. But in this case, I really did defeat Giygas. Not only had I carefully guided Ness, Poo, Paula, and Jeff from the beginning of the game to the end, but I was the omnipotent one that heard Paula’s prayer for help. It was a layered meta commentary on what it means to be the player of a video game, and it left a profound mark. I won't soon forget the message.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
86 Comments
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Posted by BeachThunder

I really wish I remembered all of the nuances of this game. It's been a long time since I finished this.

Posted by Salarn
Posted by CaptainInvictus

Rules.

Posted by Flappy

Very nice read, Scoops! I'm glad the game managed to affect you like that, especially since these experiences seem harder to come by.

Posted by Sinusoidal

I'm halfway through this right now after a long hiatus. I tried to beat it once years ago in university when I first discovered emulation and was playing through every NES, SNES and Genesis JRPG ever released.. The items are driving me crazy. There are so many, and almost none of them explicitly tell you what they do. Some of the encounters are pretty frustrating too. I perpetually feel like I'm under-leveled, despite not having that much trouble with it. I specifically remember quitting halfway through some loooong swamp dungeon the first time I played. Let's see if I get past that this time at least. This article is some incentive at least, even if I don't particularly feel like the game is quite as poignant as Patrick is making it out to be.

Posted by Abendlaender

Man, I wish they would bring Earthbound to the 3DS. I want to play this game so bad...

Online
Posted by golguin

The praying thing reminds me of the final fight in Okami. Toward the end of the fight you are left alone and completely powerless and it seems that you are about to fight without your abilities, but then your buddy and all the characters that you helped during the game realize that you're in trouble because the sun (you are the sun goddess) stopped shining. They don't know what to do so they figure they should pray with the hope that it'll help.

It does help and you get the ultimate power to defeat the boss. It's actually quite touching.

Posted by coakroach

Aaaaaand now you need to play Mother 3 as well.

Posted by GValo

Nothing makes me happier than seeing @patrickklepek reference Earthbound as "an all-time favorite gaming experience." It's my all time favorite game.

Now play Mother 3 Patrick!

Edited by BrechtianDinnerTheater

I just want to add my voice to the many saying you should play Mother 3 as well. I just played through it a second time (thanks to the fantastic fan made translation rom-hack floating around) and was surprised how favorably it compares to its predecessor. In a lot of ways it's a weirder beast than Earthbound, but one that is equally rewarding.

Anyone else out there following the development of the better-looking-than-it-should-be fan made Mother 4, by the way?

Posted by Tomorrowman

My favorite game of all time. I'm so glad to see it get some love here. Just hearing the music floods back memories from 12 year old Chris. It hit at a time in a kid's life when he starts wondering what's outside the front door and pushing his boundaries. Like the game though, you can't go too far at that age without the help of your family and friends. Now that I'm knocking on 30 and have a family of my own and live on the opposite side of the state from the one that raised me, I still think about curing 'homesickness' like in Earthbound, but this age it's with my mom over Skype while we play Animal Crossing. Such a deep influence on my perception of what it means to make it through life, and to remember those important to you at the end of the day.

Posted by BanzaiBandito

Very few games have as big a heart as this one did. One of the greatest of all time.

Posted by Viking_Funeral

The ending of Earthbound is easily one of my fondest memories of video games as a kid. It really did feel like you had a journey that all came together, with your friends and your loved ones. It's a hard to thing to describe unless you've actually experienced it, and luckily I had no internet to ruin it for me.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned this little tidbit:

When you go back to fight Giygas in the past, the 'dungeon' leading to him is a womb, and you're actually fighting a fetus.

Posted by DazzHardy

So, living in the UK, this WiiU VC release of Earthbound is, I believe, the first legal way I've been able to get a hold of the game. Does it hold up though, if you never experienced it at the time ? I know some SNES games I've gotten to play recently have been really hard to go back to unless I'd played them at the time, and some have been super easy to get into. Secret of Mana for instance was pretty easy to get into because I played a bunch of it when it came out here. Some others like the Mario RPG and F-Zero have been easy to get into without ever playing them back when they were new. Some though have been just sort of boring and confusing. Earthbound, now that I'm older, sounds kind of interesting, but is it still playable, if this is going to be your first time even trying it ?

Edited by Qblivion

Man, if you thought that was good wait till you see then end of Persona 4.

Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

I really wish Nintendo made this available on the 3ds. This game really seems special and something I definitely want to play eventually. I don't want to have to resort playing it through unsavory means, but seeing as we're so close to new consoles, I can't really justify spending 300 dollars to play one game.

I love you Nintendo, but sometimes.....

Edited by koriar

No matter how many times I beat Earthbound I always get caught up in that same rush of emotion. I'll join everyone saying you should play Mother 3 as well. I was perhaps expecting too much from the end as I had figured out the twist long beforehand. Everything that comes before that though, oh man.

Posted by rabincrabmink

I thought the last battle was pretty cool back when I was 12. But now, at 27, it brings out an incredible emotional response. One of my favorite games ever.

Posted by sonicrift

I just finished Final Fantasy VI on my Vita on the weekend, and while I thought the story wasn't as fantastic as some have told me, the mechanics were rock-solid.

I saw the ending, watched the new-in-1999 cinematic, stared into the starfield, and watched again as it looped. Then I quit the game, and immediately deleted it. I wasn't about to play it again, and it was taking up precious space on my memory card. Right after I did that, I had this panicked moment. "What did I just do?!" I think it ended up being more impactful than just ejecting the cart and shelving it, and it's not something I'm likely to do on my Wii U with Earthboud.

This story reminds me of that feeling of pride, accomplishment, and melancholy of turning off Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Chrono Cross, the Lunar remakes, and so much else, and taking the last disc out of my Playstation, putting it back in the case, and finding a resting place for it on my shelf. Teenaged me wouldn't play anything else while plowing through a new RPG, so the case wouldn't have seen its final resting place before I was through with it.

Edited by Deathpooky

Still can't believe the Internet can't keep its big mouth shut. When Patrick said something on twitter about people spoiling the end my first thought was "who would spoil such an amazing ending." Then I looked at responses to his last tweet and literally half of them had some variation of "pray" in them. You people are the worst.

Glad to see it still held up even with the spoilers. I'm not a religious person at all, but the power of everyone you met and the journey and even the player stopping to pray for your victory still affected me way back when. Especially when contrasted against the utter weirdness that is the Giygas battle otherwise. For how nonsensical that game is, it has some real emotional moments. Hell, you spend the whole game acquiring a song so Ness can travel into his own mind and defeat his self-doubt.

But I can't believe you didn't explore the world on your own! That was one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid at the end of the game. Finish off your Fuzzy Pickles collection! You can drop Paula off, pick up your long-lost bike, and ride it everywhere! Granted, when I was a kid I had a lot more time to waste doing that nonsense.

Posted by wapostyle

I'm glad to hear that a game I'm very nostalgic about is actually good.

I haven't played through this in 6 or 7 years, I think it's about time I went back to it.

Edited by chocolaterhinovampire

Great piece

Posted by Rolento

That was a really good read. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by StarvingGamer

:D

Edited by Encephalon

Wow. You literally beat the last boss with the Power of Friendship. That's some serious FFVIII Time Compression shit right there.

I can't knock it, though, because I never played Earthbound. It probably plays better in context.

Posted by Shinogu

@viking_funeral: People haven't mentioned that bit because I think either Itoi, the Japanese writer, or one of the guys behind the localization jossed that as "The Reality" of that scenario. It looks like that, but it's just for the sake of weird.

Posted by DeF

I really wish Nintendo made this available on the 3ds. This game really seems special and something I definitely want to play eventually. I don't want to have to resort playing it through unsavory means, but seeing as we're so close to new consoles, I can't really justify spending 300 dollars to play one game.

I love you Nintendo, but sometimes.....

You know there's more than one game worth playing on that thing you'd spend 300 dollars on, right? You're even getting one with those 300.

Besides, 3DS doesn't play SNES games.

Edited by KaiseR

Glad you've joined the Earthbound "Family", Patrick! Now you understand!!

Posted by CaptainJudaism

When you go back to fight Giygas in the past, the 'dungeon' leading to him is a womb, and you're actually fighting a fetus.

Honestly once I figured that part out I felt pretty damned terrible. Sure, it needed to be done to save your world but still...

Posted by pocketroid

It's too bad you had to rush through it using a walkthrough and internet.
I wonder if you'll play it again?

Posted by Milkman

If this game ever comes out on a piece of hardware that I own, I promise that I'll play it.

Posted by ildon

@pocketroid: The original game in North America was packaged with the player's guide in the box. His experience wasn't that different from that of people who played the original.

Edited by BoneChompski

This was my favourite ending to a game, ever. I still have the SNES cartridge with the giant box and strategy guide at my parents home. Been thinking of digging it out just to look at.

When it was new the game was $70 in Canada.

Edited by Brodehouse

We all know that the world ends with you.

What do people _really_ want when they pray?

They want an omnipotent supernatural being to intervene and resolve something that cannot be resolved through natural means. In every case.

If you believe wishing really hard is a virtue, then you'll probably really enjoy the 'trick' in the final fight.

For my part I really enjoyed the battle, but not because a preternatural being was aborted through the power of wishing, it was because I found the descriptions of that being to be absolutely terrifying. Which probably explains why I enjoyed Lovecraft later in my life.

Posted by TheManWithNoPlan

@def said:

@themanwithnoplan said:

I really wish Nintendo made this available on the 3ds. This game really seems special and something I definitely want to play eventually. I don't want to have to resort playing it through unsavory means, but seeing as we're so close to new consoles, I can't really justify spending 300 dollars to play one game.

I love you Nintendo, but sometimes.....

You know there's more than one game worth playing on that thing you'd spend 300 dollars on, right? You're even getting one with those 300.

Besides, 3DS doesn't play SNES games.

Sure, but other than Earthbound, Pikmen 3 and the soon to be released Windwaker Hd, I'm not particularly interested in what Nintendo's put out on it so far. If new consoles weren't coming out so soon, it might be enough, but as of now I can't really allocate so much money on something I'd barely play. I'll get one eventually, but it'll be a few more years and another price cut.

"Besides, 3DS doesn't play SNES games."

Henceforth the wishing part.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

Is there a wiki page for "Final bosses defeated with the power of friendship"? Because that probably should exist. Persona 3 and 4 do that pretty bluntly too.

Posted by DeF

@def said:

@themanwithnoplan said:

I really wish Nintendo made this available on the 3ds. This game really seems special and something I definitely want to play eventually. I don't want to have to resort playing it through unsavory means, but seeing as we're so close to new consoles, I can't really justify spending 300 dollars to play one game.

I love you Nintendo, but sometimes.....

You know there's more than one game worth playing on that thing you'd spend 300 dollars on, right? You're even getting one with those 300.

Besides, 3DS doesn't play SNES games.

Sure, but other than Earthbound, Pikmen 3 and the soon to be released Windwaker Hd, I'm not particularly interested in what Nintendo's put out on it so far. If new consoles weren't coming out so soon, it might be enough, but as of now I can't really allocate so much money on something I'd barely play. I'll get one eventually, but it'll be a few more years and another price cut.

"Besides, 3DS doesn't play SNES games."

Henceforth the wishing part.

Not even slightly interested in ZombiU or The Wonderful 101? Patrick isn't lying, that game is pretty damn cool. And TW101, too!

Anyhow, don't want to turn this into a sales pitch lol. I can definitely relate on the money is tight part.

Posted by glasswall52

Could not be happier to see a giant picture of Onett as the headliner on Giant Bomb. Really happy you found the time to experience this, Patrick.

Posted by GorillaMoPena

Still can't believe the Internet can't keep its big mouth shut. When Patrick said something on twitter about people spoiling the end my first thought was "who would spoil such an amazing ending." Then I looked at responses to his last tweet and literally half of them had some variation of "pray" in them. You people are the worst.

Seriously, who are these people?

Posted by Brazzle

Fantastic article. Makes me wish I still had a nes.

The plural of dice is dice though, not dices.

Posted by Undeadpool

Ahhh, greatest game of all time indeed.

I remember being absolutely FLOORED by that conclusion to the Giygas battle as a kid. This was the first ever JRPG I'd played that I could actually fit my whole first name into (most of them cut-off at 4 characters and mine's 5), so when that was displayed ADDITIONALLY it was all the sweeter.

Online
Posted by paulunga

That's totally NOT a JRPG thing where they force you to power off the console after playing through it. I remember stuff like Mario and Mega Man doing this (and I suppose many other Capcom games, at least). If anything more recent JRPGs starting with Chrono Trigger did the New Game+ save thing, where it's all like "come on, let's give it another go".

Posted by TerraDelu

Really great article, Patrick! It does my heart good to know that people can still enjoy a game that means so much to me. Hell, it was my motivation for this list http://www.giantbomb.com/profile/terradelu/lists/games-with-personal-meaning/30067

Edited by peritus

I just finished it today. What a great game! Glad i started playing it. ( Thanks to Patrick's mentioning it on the site. )

And a great article to go with it.

Edited by WalkerD

Time to boot up the far superior Mother 3.

Posted by MysteriousBob

@walkerd said:

Time to boot up the far superior Mother 3.

Yep.

Posted by guilherme

This game was really touching for me as well, when I played it long ago. Very few games can mess with emotion like that, and Earthbound was one of them for me. Great game...

Posted by Deusoma

"Not like this."

Posted by mcdermij

I love that you took the time to play it to completion. My all-time favourite game.

Posted by Spikey

The moment sort of lost its impact for me because on my first playthrough my friend decided to enter my name as "Hugh G. Rection."

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