I originally posted this article on my blog which you can follow here if you want: http://experimentalrambling.tumblr.com/ - I'll aim to upload the second part on both whenever I get around to it.
Earthbound is a fantastic game, one that despite being 20 years old (happy twentieth!) feels like it could still come out today. Despite relatively standard mechanics, Earthbound manages to take a genre - the JRPG - which can easily fall into a trap of being stale and predictable and instead of trying to be “different”, it takes the players expectations and uses them in some absolutely brilliant ways. (spoilers ahead)
Shigesato Itoi, the creator of Earthbound, managed to knit together the plot in a way that’ll appeal to two different audiences: the casual audience who may not be avid JRPG players, as well as the JRPG enthusiast. Now, most JRPGS have the same basic structure.
1. The Hero/Heroin wakes up in their hometown and within a few minutes are whisked off on an adventure i.e. Pokemon - Call from Prof. Oak, Final Fantasy VII - Hopping off the train.
2. They will most likely gain the aid from the supernatural i.e. Final Fantasy VIII - the power to use GFs, Chrono Trigger - the power to travel through time.
3. They’ll meet companions i.e. literally every JRPG from Final Fantasy onwards.
4. They’ll fight through a bunch of dungeons, the story propelling them from area to area in a linear manner.
5. Eventually, the Hero and their companions will defeat the Evil that they have been trying to beat for most of the game.
Just about every JRPG features the above 5 steps with different sub-categories within them and Earthbound understands this - it doesn’t even try to hide it.
Ness starts by getting a call to adventure via a knock on the door - he meets Buzz Buzz, an insect from the future, who tells him he’s one of the special chosen four and his destiny is to beat Giygas (the evil of the game) and that the road will be tough. Literally within the first 10 minutes all of the genre tropes are laid out, Itoi saying to the two different audiences either “Hey, this is the quest that this kid is going on,” as well as “Hey, you’re playing a JRPG, you know the drill.”
The rest of the game revels in its meta knowledge of the genre - mentioning controller buttons, the name of the towns being one-four as well as seasons (most JRPGS take place over the world y’know) and continually Ness is reminded of his destiny - beat Giygas - because eventually if you play the game long enough you’ll beat Giygas, the only way to subvert destiny is to turn off the game. The player even gives his/her name to the game and is actually the last person to “pray” and help the four beat Giygas, their last act of pushing Ness and his friends towards their destiny.
Now, that’s all fine and Dandy - Earthbound is an incredibly smart game that knows it’s a JRPG and plays around with the concept in tons of “quirky” (ugh, the greatest disservice to Earthbound is its status as a “quirky game” when it’s smarter than nearly every game I’ve played) ways, but what about Mother 3? Well, you’ll have to forgive me because whilst I love Mother 3, I haven’t completed it in 4-5 years so my memory will be a bit hazy but Mother 3 is a JRPG that plays like a JRPG but instead of playing around with common expectations, Mother 3 subverts those expectations. Why? Well, I’ll play it and I’ll get back to you…
Earthbound is Mother 2 though and Mother 3 despite being so different is a direct (?) sequel. They’re tied together by one major character - someone who was rejected by destiny and instead of accepting it, Pokey Minch tried to subvert it.
Pokey wasn’t chosen by destiny, he wasn’t even factored in yet he becomes arguably the most important character of Earthbound and Mother 3. Everywhere Ness foils Giygas’ plan, he finds Pokey. Pokey, who claims “he hopes he isn’t part of the four” right at the start of the journey, decides to spite Ness at every turn. He steals a helicopter from Ness, he steals the phase distorter and uses it for his spider machine at the end of the game and why? Well, we only get a real hint of Pokey’s reasons from Magicant, a world created by Ness. The Pokey in Ness’ mind says he “envies” Ness and the player isn’t given any reason to disagree with Ness. Pokey’s richer than Ness, has a bigger house than Ness, met Buzz Buzz with Ness yet Ness is a hero and Poker is rejected?
Like a kid throwing a tantrum, Pokey decides to try and stop Ness yet rather than falling away in the early-mid game like the multitude of other people helping Giygas, Pokey stands alongside Giygas when Ness fulfills his destiny and manages to escape with his incredible machine - arguably becoming more “powerful” than Ness despite being seen as a complete nobody in terms of the overall picture.
At the end of the game, Pokey sends Ness a letter telling him to “come catch me”, yet Ness has no real way to do so. Even if he wanted to, Ness has fulfilled his part of destiny and unless another meteor strikes and another insect tells Ness it’s his destiny to find Pokey, he isn’t going to be able to do it. The guiding hand of destiny - the player themself - has no way of guiding Ness towards Pokey. Somehow, Pokey has managed to free himself of his destiny, something even the almighty Giygas wasn’t able to do and in theory, he’s become untouchable - not even destiny could beat Pokey Minch.
Once I’ve played through Mother 3 and refreshed myself we’ll continue on this train of thought and show how Mother 3, a game that’s plot is spearheaded by Pokey rather than destiny, completely subverts every expectation the player has of the game based on their own experiences in Earthbound and JRPGs in general.