So I played Virtue’s Last Reward

I dropped Persona 4: The Golden for a while because my brother told me I had to play this game to completion.

Here’s the thing. The visual novel genre has been going strong in Japan for a long while without making its way over here.

So the fact that the two games in the Zero Escape series have made their way over here means two things.

1) Visual novels on the whole have very little appeal, but

2) Zero Escape does something to separate itself from all the rest.

When you look at the roster of characters for Virtue’s Last Reward (designed by Capcom artist Kinu Nishimura) you might think, “Whoa, this is Japanese as fuck.”

But anyone who played played 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors will tell you that writer Kotaro Uchikoshi is a man with a wide range of interests, especially when compared to other Japanese video game scenario writers.

The idea of a group of people stuck someplace with no memory of how they got there and needing to adhere to a set of rules to escape is directly influenced by the Cube series of movies. Indeed, the second Zero Escape game expands on the possibilities of its predecessor much in the same way the second Cube movie does.

I learned in school that a good story should not only be gripping, but teach you something new as well. Like all good science fiction, the plot devices in these games are based on existing, actually fascinating scientific theories.

There are also some not so real, but very convincing ideas as well. Both games make direct and oblique references to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s so fucking comforting to know these guys have read a book before setting out to write an interactive one themselves, and don’t just get all of their ideas from anime.

I won’t suggest these are as good as Vonnegut’s works, but like them, there are giant ideas being used to explain some very intimate things.

This is the best science fiction video game of the year. Maybe of the past few years.

And the characters of Zero Escape seem at first glance to be molded from all the old stereotypes. In many ways, they are. But they change. What’s nice about the format of the visual novel – they’re basically a choose-your-adventure book – is that you get to decide what happens. And because of the nature of the story, your decisions not only affect you, but the rest of the cast. Some of them become desperate. You get to see all the characters at their best and at their worst.

This is a game you play more than once. You have to. It’s kind of the point. To say more would be to say too much. Let’s just say that while it introduces you to the concept of the visual novel, it also deconstructs the genre as you play it. While so many AAA titles are trying to make games more like movies, Virtue’s Last Reward argues that there are as many or more similarities to the novel – the long-form narrative, the player’s control of the flow of time…

Virtue’s Last Reward is the Spec Ops: The Line of puzzle-based visual novels.

2012 in Games

Blockbuster triple A titles are generally fucked because they’re too goddamned expensive, and people are willing to spend more time on video games that are made by three or less people.

In a similar vein, Mass Effect 3’s ending disappoints literally every living thing that witnesses it, proving that it’s a story worth finishing correctly and that they cannot afford not to try and please every single customer at every single moment. Fortunately, people are still willing to pay money for an imaginary gun.

Some third party Japanese developers dare to give a shit about the worldwide market. Xenoblade Chronicles grants Western-style exploration and accessibility on a console begging for any kind of substance, making Nintendo fans everywhere mumble, “Better late than never, I guess!” ATLUS releases Persona 4 again, demonstrating that they already figured this shit out years ago.

Square Enix releases Final Fantasy IV again to distract consumers from all their other decisions. Mouth-breathing cretin Motomu Toriyama promises Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns next year. North American releases for Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy Versus XIII have been delayed to make time to develop a Nintendo 3DS version of the iOS version of the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy IV.

Some YouTube users admit that the trailer for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is “kinda cool”.

Basically everyone is disappointed in the WiiU to the point that some savvier parents convince their children that Santa Claus is dead so they don’t have to buy it.

Nintendo for some reason chooses not to reveal that the best way to play Kid Icarus Uprising is with the thumb-mounted stylus they used with Metroid Prime Hunters fucking, like, six years ago.

Reviewers reveal they have no idea what they’re doing, giving shitty games low ratings and giving equally shitty games generally favorable reviews.

Capcom admits they have no idea what they’re doing, distributing a survey through crowd control service Capcom Unity to find out what the hell the people who buy their games even like. They throw a pile of papers up into the air and shake their heads when man-children clamor for a new Mega Man Battle Network.

With Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on the horizon and the release of The Phantom Pain’s trailer, everyone is forced to trust that Hideo Kojima knows what he’s doing.

The Walking Dead made all developers everywhere realize that they should quit games and that Brendan McNamara, director of L.A. Noire, should kill himself.

“Boy, I really screwed up on that one,” McNamara said as he carried a large stone tied to his ankle toward the edge of a suspension bridge. “L.A. Noire cost exactly a gazillion dollars to make and was shitty as fuck. The development team for the Walking Dead was one-eightieth the size of ours, and they made one of the best video games in history.”

“Well, can’t win ’em all,” McNamara said as he heaved the stone over the side of the bridge.

Fourside, Part 3: An Annoying Apotheosis

The moment you step out of the warehouse with the battered Mani Mani statue, Apple Kid calls you to inform you of his newest invention, a yogurt machine that only dispenses trout-flavored yogurt. He’s nice enough to send it to you via Escargo Express’ “neglected class” delivery service.

When you step out of Jackie’s Cafe, a monkey will come up and tell you that the simian guru Talah Rama is awaiting your presence at the caves in Dusty Dune Desert.

Just as the talking monkey leaves, a guy from Escargo Express comes up and tells you that he lost the yogurt dispenser in the desert, so you can go and get it yourself.

Then the moment the Escargo guy leaves, Electra, Geldegarde Monotoli’s overworked maid, drops by to tell you that she could really use some trout-flavored yogurt to serve to Mr. Monotoli’s special guests – probably the goddamn Minches.

FINALLY, once everyone’s done running on- and off-screen like a Scooby Doo hallway scene, you get control back, and it’s time to head to the Monkey Caves in the Dusty Dunes desert.

Now this shit is some ridiculous trolling. It’s not a monster-filled dungeon, but it’s just as harrowing. You have to navigate your way through this monkey maze, but the only way to access each entrance is to give a consumable item to the monkey blocking your way.

This is especially devious considering at this point you’re still hoping Paula will rejoin the party so you can start carrying more things again. Now, when inventory space is most precious, the game asks you to lug around a bunch of bullshit just so you can give it away to the these filthy monkeys.

The good news is, unlike the game’s previous cavernous troll, this one is worth the effort. The monkeys are all pretty funny, and you get some super sweet items, including a Fire Pendant, a Bag of Dragonite (Using it in battle transforms you into a dragon for one turn and do big-time damage. Yeah, this game’s mythology is all-encompassing), and the always useful revivifying Cup of Lifenoodles.

Not only that, but once you finally reach the end of cave, you meet Talah Rama, an enlightened Monkey with visions of the future who ascertains that, YES, YOU are meant to restore balance to the Earth, and he offers you an awesome power to help you. [You can accept or reject this awesome power. Talah Rama jovially supports either choice.] He also gives you the Trout Yogurt Dispenser.

Ultimately, you’ll end up following one of his monkey disciples all of the way out of the cave and onto the desert highway. Here, you are taught the ability PSI Teleport, which allows you to travel back to any place you have previously visited. Well, hot fucking damn.

What I love about PSI Teleport is that, even with the ability to travel anywhere almost instantly, you still have to put some effort in. You can only use it if you have enough space in front of you to gather speed and then “take off”. If you collide with anything before you actually teleport, the skill fails and you lose those Psychic Points.

What’s especially devious about this is that, if you were to teleport to Saturn Valley as I did when I first got this ability, you would not be able to teleport OUT of Saturn Valley, because there’s not enough room! I don’t think that’s a coincidence – it’s one of the few places in the game you can rest without spending money.

Anyway, now you never have to take a bus again! If you Teleport back to Fourside, you’ll find Electra standing outside of the Monotoli Building, who’ll swipe the Trout Yogurt Dispenser and then grant you access to the VIP elevator inside!

Up on the 48th floor are a series of hallways and meeting rooms that are eerily empty, save for creepy Sentry Robots who will come directly after you once you draw near, ask you for identification, discover you have none, and initiate battle. These guys are especially diabolical because they’re always in places where it LOOKS LIKE you can avoid them, but in all but one situation, you can’t through normal means.

You can also find a room with Electra in it. She’ll give you some trout-flavored yogurt.

Finally, you end up in a room with a really doofy looking bucket o’ bolts called the Clumsy Robot. What’s funny about this guy is that, when it’s not wasting a turn doing something stupid, it fires missiles at you, doing massive damage. It’s the Mr. Magoo of boss fights.

The Clumsy Robot can also feed itself bolgna sandwiches, endlessly healing its HP to maximum. It seems like one of those stupid RPG rigged fights that you’re supposed to lose because the story says so!

But just as things seem bad, The Runaway Five bust in and the boss music changes to something rompin’ and awesome! One of the them accidentally flips the robot’s power switch, and the fight is won.

You can always count on one thing – every time you bail The Runaway Five outta debt, they always return the favor.

[The truth is, I found out, the balogna sandwich does nothing to heal the Clumsy Robot. Once the Runaway Five show up, that basically means to did enough damage to defeat him, like any other fight. But this way is so much funnier. Oh my God! Why don’t more RPGs have fights that end like this? The set piece possibilities are endless!]

In the next room, you find a broken old man who immediately begs for forgiveness and runs behind Paula, cowering.

Paula behaves just as she did the first time you rescued her from captivity, calm and optimistic. She also assures you that Monotoli actually isn’t all that bad.

Monotoli basically places all of the blame on the Mani Mani Statue, which he claims attracts evil and weakens the hearts of those who come into contact with it.

He also says that he received messages from the statue, telling him to make sure that Ness and gang never make it to the resort town, Summers, and that they never find out about the “Pyramid” or some such. He intuits that Ness definitely should go to Summers, and offers his helicopter as a means of conveyance, opening the secret door to his private helipad.

When you get out to the helipad, you find… POKEY?!

That fat fucking FUCK! Now that Monotoli is a plain old man again, Pokey has no use for him, so he steals the helicopter and flies away. Where the hell could he possibly go? Hopefully his weight throws off the helicopter’s balance and he crashes and dies. How’d he even GET out there??

When you head back inside to tell Monotoli what happened, he actually expresses concern for Pokey. I always thought this to mean that Monotoli is such a nice guy, he would even fear for the safety of someone who used him as tool and probably was the person ACTUALLY RESPONSIBLE for all of the bad attributed to his own self.

Only this time did I consider that maybe Monotoli expresses concern for Pokey because he knows something about the helicopter that we don’t…?

When you move to leave, a “!” appears over Paula’s head and everything fades to black around her.

It’s a disquieting moment, suggesting that’s Paula’s ESP is a strange and alienating thing, another facet of her feminine otherness. When things return to normal, she shrugs off the episode as a spell of dizziness and suggests that the gang heads back to the town of Threed. The Runaway Five offer you a ride there.

On your way out of the building you suddenly receive ANOTHER call from Apple Kid.

Hello! How are you? This is Apple Kid.
I think I’m a real genius… In fact, I know I’m a genius.
Why? Well, I have discovered the primary enemy of you and of all humanity.
We have to fight and defeat this being…
To do so, we need to invent a machine called the “Phase Distorter.”
I’ve got to find the wandering scientist,
Dr. Andonuts, and make the distorter. So, I may be gone for a while.
Later… *click*

I told you to remember that Phase Distorter! This is another eerie moment for me. You’ve been told about evil and darkness before, but those were by special people who have a certain spiritual awareness. Apple Kid, though a genius, is just a regular dude. Is Giygas’ evil so pervasive that even average people are starting to pick up on it?

If you still haven’t figured out what’s waiting in Threed, the Runaway Five give you a hint after they drop you off in their sweet bus: “By the way, why did you need to come back here? You must have forgotten some very important item or gadget here… How’s that for a guess? Am I close?”

Head up to the graveyard, where Jeff crash-landed the Sky Runner, and you’ll find that the members of the zombie action committee, formerly so useless, have restored the Sky Runner to working order! Hop in, and you’re on your way~~~~~~~

That was a long one, but everything in this entire sequences is basically emblematic of Earthbound.

  • Clear and intertwining objectives (Find THIS monkey to get THIS machine to rescue THIS girl to intuit THIS method of travel to reach THIS resort town…)
  • Silly fucking shit (monkeys, trout yogurt, impeccably-timed entrances, robots that eat sandwiches)
  • Arduous and sometimes clever dungeons with sweets rewards (Telportation, getting Paula back)
  • An economic use of the cast, providing depth to you, them, and the world (Apple Kid, The Runaway Five, the citizens of Threed)
  • The assertion that all people at their core are essentially good (except for Pokey)

And with that, we’re finally OUT of Fourside!!

    So I started Assassin’s Creed III

    Got some problems.

    The early game twist. For one, it’s not early enough. FFXIII’s 20-hour tutorial was better paced than this, and I hate that game.

    For two, it would have been more effective if A) I gave a shit about any of those characters and B) all promotional materials didn’t already tell me who the main character is.

    It’s like they were trying to pull some Metal Gear Solid shit on me. The difference here is that THOSE games are directed by a visionary, and THESE games are directed by a committee.

    MGS2 hoodwinks you into thinking you’ll play the whole game as Solid Snake because the whole point of the story is that people can be controlled by the manipulation of information and that anyone can be molded into a super soldier given proper context and total control.

    MGS2 contrasted its promotional material to surprise and to make a point. In AssCreed 3, the contrast made me impatient and frustrated.

    It’s too bad, ’cause Kojima clearly has a lot of respect for these games, since you can dress like Altair in MGS4 and swan dive into a pile of hay in Peace Walker.

    I don’t understand the rules. I only played a little bit of the previous games’ campaigns, and all the tutorials this game throws at me aren’t illuminating enough.

    Several times, the game pauses all action so that you can complete a tutorial sensitive to the current situation. You are unable to do anything else until you prove that you understand what the game is trying to teach you. Pressing any buttons unrelated to this tutorial yield no results. (This is a things in lots of games, and it’s shitty in all of them)

    Early on, you’re asked to shoot a wagon full of barrels of gunpowder to blow it up. PRESS L to AIM, PRESS Y to SHOOT. So I’m aiming at this wagon of gunpowder pressing the Y button and nothing is happening. No shooting, my dude doesn’t even reach for his pistol. What’s strange is that I am still able to use the B button to pick up and put down a musket that’s on the ground.

    So I’m pressing everything, picking the gun up, aiming, pressing Y, putting the gun down, aiming, pressing Y, NOT aiming, pressing Y… Finally I figured, “Okay, the game must have screwed up.” So I reload my last checkpoint.

    And I’m standing in the same place with the same problem. So now I start swinging my aim around and pressing buttons. FINALLY, my dude fires his gun – at one barrel of gunpowder standing BESIDE the wagon on the ground.

    I wasn’t ALLOWED to shoot the wagon full of barrels. There was a special barrel that I was supposed to shoot.

    I feel like an idiot. I guess this is a regular AssCreed thing, but I hate how completely the terms of failure change for every single mission.

    In the same mission I was talking about earlier, my buddies and I steal this chest and I have to defend them as we make our escape. At this time, the game teaches me how to loot bodies for ammo and money. So, naturally, I start looting everybody, thinking I must need a bunch of ammo for the rest of this mission.

    As I merrily loot these corpses, the game displays a message – “WARNING: REMAIN IN THE AREA.”

    I think, “Okay,” so I stay right around where I already am, looting the bodies. A few seconds later the mission fails and I have to restart.


    The game sometimes acts like the passenger-seat navigator in a buddy comedy car chase. “Okay, follow this guy! UH OH, we got spotted! Better kill these guys! But not THAT GUY!! Alright, let’s try and– OH NO, spotted again! Nooo, you can’t fight them here, we gotta turn around and try again. Now take a left! NOO, the OTHER left!!”

    I also feel stupid because the camera is so close to you. I feel like I can’t see as much as should. For a super-assassin, I don’t feel very aware of my surroundings.

    Somehow, there are still not enough buttons. I had just killed a guy standing near a ledge, and now I wanted to drop down. However, when I pressed the button to drop from the ledge, I instead picked up the corpse of the guy I just killed. That’s not what I wanted to do.

    During this same mission, while I’m creeping through tall grass to stay hidden, I try to navigate around a ladder rising out of the grass. The moment I touch the ladder, I jump up onto it, alerting every guard around me.

    Game, I appreciate your making most of my actions flow gracefully from one to the other, but if I was sneaking through grass to avoid suspicion, why would I suddenly want to jump on a ladder and become the single most visible thing in the area? Or maybe the challenge is that I’m playing as a fucking moron.

    Transitions. I usually have trouble grasping where and when I am unless the game makes it explicitly clear. The first time I left The Green Dragon tavern on a mission, I was not outside of the Green Dragon but far away on the other side of the city.

    After a cut scene, the game displays a message that says, “A FEW DAYS LATER…” and then plops you outside of the Green Dragon. So, like… what, have I been standing in the street for a few days? Once you go into the Green Dragon, another cut scene starts right away, so why did they bother returning control to me at all?

    For a AAA title, this shit feels sloppy and lazy. I hope the Vita game is better.

    I started and finished Dishonored a little while ago, and I thought it was just a different flavor of Bioshock. Still, it might be a better game then AssCreed 3.

    EDIT (11/15/12): Now that I’m playing a Connor, this game is exponentially more fun. Is it innovative and progressive? Nah. But it’s still alright.

    EDIT (9/26/16): No, it turned this game sucked worse than Resident Evil 6 that year. Even as an American, I can see that colonial structures aren’t fun to be around compared to the grand structures of the old world. And beyond that, it’s just Ubisoft – chasing icons on maps. Sounds like Black Flag brought back the only good thing about this game: owning a sweet fucking boat.

    So I’ve been playing Xenoblade Chronicles.

    Reasons I’m glad I started Xenoblade Chronicles.

    The setting. The game’s mythology is set up right from the get go in a very Ocarina of Time fashion. Two great beings fought and came to a standstill when they each struck the finishing blow on the other. As time passed, life sprung anew upon the body of each being.

    Every once in a while, as you go from place to place, you’ll forget that the swamp or shoreside you’re running along is atop a giant dead thing until you come out onto some plateau that grants you a view of what appear to be wing-like rock formations against the blue sky, far out into the distance, even past the clouds.

    By putting such an emphasis on draw distance that the Wii is mercifully capable of, the game’s story is able to work together with its technology to set expectations for all the places you’ll go. Most of the locations in the game are named after body parts, so you can come to your own conclusions about which parts may be able to sustain life. And when you look through pouring rain atop a cliff into the face of the OTHER giant, well, you know you’ll be getting personal with it later.

    Characters wear what you equip them with.

    Gem crafting. One of the more comforting things about Xenoblade is when you realize that the developers must have ditched the isolationist attitude of their friends at Square Enix and deigned to play a Western RPG. While I await the day that mission- and quest-based gameplay dissolves into something with more, eh, elegance I’ll say, traveling and questing is as seamless and painless as I’ve known it to be in a Japanese RPG.

    Xenoblade is the only JRPG I have played for three hours, deviated from my original mission five times, and hadn’t noticed because I discovered so many interesting new things. It’s the kind of joy that’s mostly been relegated to Western RPGs – a world that is actually kind of nice to get lost in.

    The ability to make gems best embodies the Japanese interpretation of Western design, and not just because it involves jamming precious magical stones into weaponry, which has always been awesome.

    In a game like Skyrim, you have dozens of skills at your disposal, especially when it comes to creating and altering your equipment – blacksmithing, alchemy, enchanting, etc. If you want to get something done, you have your pick of what method to use.

    In Xenoblade Chronicles, rather than being provided many options to do one thing, you are given one method with which to do many things. When you master the art of gem crafting, if you know what you want and have the materials to make it, it can be done.

    This also ties in with another system that makes a lot of sense, which is your party’s affinity – that is, how well they get along with one another. The more characters spend time with and fight alongside each other, the more quickly their affinity proves, the better they’ll cooperate in battle, share each other’s skills, and improve their gem crafting.

    I’d thank the Persona series’ Social Link mechanic for this particular inspiration, an exceedingly clever way to tie together combat, party management, and story.

    Everyone’s British. It’s so nice to hear voice actors in a video game and not recognize any of them.

    Reasons I think I’ll go back to playing Earthbound.

    I want to be surprised. Even after 17 years, Earthbound still deviates from genre norms and defies expectations more than Xenoblade does.

    Now, I don’t think cliches are a bad thing. I don’t talk about it too much, but one of my favorite RPG experiences was playing Wild Arms 4 for the first time.

    The game is a walking monstrosity of cliches, with nearly every facet being taken whole from some other game which in turn was inspired by some anime. The result is a kind of beautifully stupid mosaic that is somehow truer than the sum of its parts. Cliches are cliche for a reason. Beneath every stereotype is an archetype, something primal and real that connects deeply to fears and cares that all people have.

    Tons of video games have their young protagonists going on a coming-of-age journey. Wild Arms 4 was the first to actually make me reflect on my impending adulthood.

    So when I started playing Xenoblade Chronicles, I didn’t mind too much that my huge best friend would be the tank or that the girl would be our healer, because the game is like, “This guy said he’d protect you no matter what, and this girl is a trained medic,” and I was like, “Okay, that makes sense.” What I saw was what I got, and I rolled with it.

    Then I reached Alcamoth, on the head of the Bionis. If you played Chrono Trigger, this is kind of like the Zeal Kingdom of the game. Or for Xenogears, Solaris – a highly advanced place unlike any other up till this point which acts as an inevitable site for shattering plot revelations. (Director Tetsuya Takahashi worked on all three games, so he’s clearly strapped for ideas)

    When it should feel like a destination, it actually just serves as a road block to the place you really want to get to: Prison Island. But you have to get the king’s permission to get there, which means to have to save his daughter, which means you have to prove your worth, et cetera, et cetera.

    Up until now, the game has been pretty straight forward. Nothing has been lingered on, cut scenes have been pretty quick and unobtrusive (here’s a problem; here’s where we come in; here’s how it’s resolved). Cliche plot points really haven’t been an issue because they’re treated like building blocks for the game – not especially artful, but useful for founding objectives and challenges upon.

    When the game reaches Alcamoth, it starts presenting its cliches as though they aren’t cliches. This is the point at which I remembered, “Oh yeah, this was the same developer responsible for Xenosaga.”

    Hey, remember how we’re on a sworn mission to gain revenge on those horrible machines that tried to murder us? Well, forget about that for now. How about instead of all that stuff you’ve been looking forward to, we have several back-to-back cut scenes detailing the political machinations of people you haven’t even met before? Looks like there’s a lot of dirty dealing going on concerning things I don’t even really understand! I wonder who’s behind it all? Maybe it’s the person who looks and sounds like they’re behind it all?

    [There’s a sudden influx of really unclever cut scenes at this point, just when my roommates decided to start paying attention as I play the game. I felt almost as bad as when my dad walked in on me playing Final Fantasy X-2.]

    Like, why all the ceremony? Why all the pomp and circumstance when I KNOW what’s going to happen? I’ve played a lot of games, Takahashi! A bunch of them were games YOU made!!

    Nothing surprising happens. Nobody changes. Good people are good and bad people are bad. Everyone looks and sounds like exactly the sort of people they are.

    Now I WILL admit that, once I got to Prison Island, things vastly improved. I got to go some place that looked cool, I got to beat big things up, and the ensuing scenes provided a good balance of questions, answers, and warnings of bigger things.

    But now I’m really worried that things are going to get worse as time goes on. I’d be willing to suffer a dumbening story if I knew the challenges would improve, but frankly the game’s been getting easier and the boss fights haven’t required too much strategizing. Even gem crafting is becoming a process of 1) boosting Agility and 2) tossing everything else.

    I think a break’ll do me good. Keep the magic of Bionis alive.

    Fourside, Part 2: Moonside and the Horrors of the American Dream

    With Paula still kidnapped, Everdred tells Ness and Jeff to check behind the counter at Jackie’s Cafe. When they do, the boys are transported to Moonside.

    Although Fourside is almost a clear representation of New York City, I’ve heard Moonside construed as a stand-in for the Las Vegas Strip. It makes sense, considering the garish neon sensibility and the trek through the desert to get there.

    I think Moonside acts as a more overt representation of the seedy underbelly of the big city at night, and how strange and terrifying it can be for two boys from a midwest suburb and an English boarding school.

    People lie to your face and purposefully misinterpret your responses (Yes becomes No and No becomes Yes). Invisible boundaries signify a complete ignorance on your part as to how to get around. The only way to find your way out is to trust complete strangers to teleport you with the click of a camera shutter about the city. Enemies roam the street represented by flickering flames, illuminating but still unknowable, untouchable.

    I say “illuminating” because, like bad guys in other parts of Earthbound, they seem to indicate the nature of their environment.

    Two of the four occurring enemies here are the Enraged Fire Plug and the Robo Pump, two ordinarily useful devices that make for a deadly combo – the fire hydrant deals crushing damage with a jet of a water, and the gas pump explodes after three rounds. These are symbols of American urbanization and the conquering of inconvenience and danger through infrastructure! Why are they killing us?

    The other two enemies here are the Abstract Art and Dali’s Clock. They represent the kind of hip beatnik style I referenced earlier, the kind of things a cultured urbanite would at the very least be aware of. Though not as overtly dangerous as the other two, the art can hypnotize you, and the clock can freeze time, very creepily muting the background music while wailing on you.

    Moonside is a city of conflicting identities. A haven for ideas and advancements for society, but also a place with dark alleys where society cannot defend you from knowledge you are too young to understand. A place of cultural understanding where nothing is what it seems and the truth is obfuscated by flashiness and idol worship.

    Literal idol worship! The goal here in Moonside is to make your way through the not-quite-visible maze of the city to reach and destroy the Mani Mani Statue. In order to do that, you have to teleport around for a while until you are greeted by an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth. The guy blocking the path to Mani Mani thinks this guy is so cool that he just has to leave his post and go get a drink with him. Adults are fucking weird

    When you do defeat the Mani Mani Statue, you’re brought back to the warehouse behind Jackie’s Cafe, next to the battered idol. A mouse tells you that you were just walking around the warehouse with a glazed expression. Moonside was evidently an illusion created by Mani Mani.

    That’s where the explanation ends. It’s unclear whether Moonside is an immutable fantasy world that Mani Mani has dominion over, or if it was a vision experienced only by Ness and Jeff. Is Moonside simply a manifestation of Ness’ fears and paranoia about the world he’s trying to save, projected by Mani Mani to protect itself?

    Moonside acts as a neat little preview of the psychological bent Earthbound is only too eager to take from this point on.

    Something that always struck me is how the Moonside theme reminded me of this unnamed song from Silent Hill, which was released about 4 years later. Some of Earthbound’s more intense music does have a similar foreboding quality to Silent Hill’s earlier songs, though there aren’t any apparent commonalities between the sound staff for either game. It stuck out to me, because both Moonside and Silent Hill are fucking weird. There are some clear nods toward Twin Peaks in the Silent Hill song, so I wonder if Moonside has similar inspirations.

    That may not be so, because Moonside’s theme is based on a riff from Ric Ocasek’s “Keep On Laughin'”. From this point on, Earthbound’s music starts having a lot of interesting inspirations.

    Fourside, Part 1: Death is Only the Beginning

    Paula is gone. AGAIN.

    When you come back from your spelunking adventure, the four-story (Wow!) Fourside Department Store is open for business. And it has everything you need! Every kind of healing item up until this point, and on the very top floor there’s brand new weaponry to equip – FINALLY! Certainly the best part, in ANY RPG, of coming to a new town is getting the newest gear.

    And then, once you descend each escalator back to the ground floor and make your way toward the exit, the lights flicker and some… THING sweeps through your party and snatches Paula away. As the lights flicker again, every NPC disappears, and a voice over the intercom summons you to the office at the top floor.

    So now a place that was once a haven of supply and demand is now one of the most devious dungeons in the whole game.

    Paula is gone. She is the most versatile striker of the team, who can direct strong attacks at single targets or whole groups, and she was the only member with elemental skills. But you can’t use those anymore because she’s gone.

    Also because she’s gone, all of Paula’s items are gone. PROTIP: Before this point, take important items away from Paula – explosives, Teddy Bears, and especially the electro-reflective Franklin Badge. In fact, if you have space, load up on Teddy Bears and Bottle Rockets. Probably shoulda mentioned this sooner!!

    The enemies here are fucking tough. There’s a huge spike in difficulty here, so I hope you bought the best stuff before the blackout. Most enemies have a “regular” attack and a “strong” attack, but it seems most of them use their strongest attacks all of the time. The Mystical Records can heal each other with Lifeup, too. If you have the Franklin Badge, that should at least protect you from the attacks from the ambulating bass guitar pretty well.

    The assortment of enemies could be a nod to the style of hip urban beatniks. Y’know, listening to their records and going to their clubs and playing their upright basses and drinking their scalding hot coffee? Y’know? The selection of enemies here seems too specific not to suggest something.

    The environment works against you. While riding the escalator, you are robbed of control until you reach the top or bottom. This restricts your ability to scroll enemies away.

    What do I mean when I say scroll enemies away? Well, if you have enough space, and you see enemies in the distance that have not noticed you yet, and you don’t want to fight them, all you have to do is walk in the opposite direction until the enemies scroll off-screen, plus a few more steps. When you walk back, the game will have basically “reshuffled” the enemies. Depending on the location, sometimes this technique will result in a different set of enemies, and sometimes you can make enemies disappear altogether.

    Since each floor in the department store is connected by an escalator, there is no opportunity to reshuffle the enemies off-screen. So each time you ascend to a new floor, it’s very likely you’ll be bum-rushed by whatever the game wants to throw at you. So be prepared each time you step on the escalator.

    The big boss on the top floor, who’s been taunting you over the PA periodically, is tough but simple, and if you let loose everything you have at him before he does the same to you, he should be taken care of pretty easily.

    Being an alien, he clearly works for Giygas, but on defeat he says, At this moment, Paula should be… Monotoli… Gwaaaarrrgh!!, then dissipates.

    Monotoli, based on NPC intel, is a Trump-styled self-made billionaire who seems to essentially run the town. Indeed, there is no city hall, but there is a giant skyscraper that says, “Monotoli” on it.

    Investigating the Monotoli building will only lead you to find… Pokey! Apparently, he’s now Monotoli’s political and economic advisor. He insults your taste, and then has you escorted from the premises – again, another one of those rare, uncomfortable times that control is robbed of you. Fucking Pokey.

    So, it seems you can’t just walk in to the office of the most influential man in Eagleland. However NPC investigation will reveal that Monotoli spends a lot at Jackie’s Cafe – an unusual dive for a man of means to patronize. The patrons at Jackie’s are pretty tight-lipped, but one will tell that she hears some kerfuffle outside.

    When you go back outside, Fourside’s upbeat music has been replaced by something creepier, and you’ll find… Everdred, lying prone in the alley! He reveals that he stole the Mani Mani statue from Carpainter in Happy Happy Village – likely with the hopes of pawning it somewhere for a chunk of change – but he was hoodwinked and robbed of the statue by none other than Monotoli. The statue is likely the source of his newfound influential power.

    This is a very scary moment. Everdred has been very good to us, and we know how clever he is, especially when it comes to dealing with greedy behind-the-desk overseers. And yet Monotoli STILL got the upper hand on this guy. Clearly, Monotoli isn’t like the other politicians and businessmen we’ve run into. He’s clever, he’s rich, and he’s evil.

    What adds to the gloom of the atmosphere, aside from the music, is that you have to push through a crowd of onlookers to get to Everdred; mostly one guy you can actually get to move out of your way if you give him something to eat. Though they don’t seem to hear the conversation, it’s a pretty intimate moment to share out in public surrounded by strangers.

    Once Everdred tells you everything he knows, he asks if you’d like him to repeat what he said. This happens in the game whenever you’re presented with a chunk of plot information, as with Buzz Buzz’s final words.

    Though paralleling Everdred with Buzz Buzz reminds me of a certain mystery. This sprite.

    Its Everdred’s angel – the same kind of sprite that replaces characters in your party when their HP hits 0 and they need to be revived. This sprite is never used, but was found amongst other junk data in the game. This sprite leads to two possible conclusions.

    At some point in planning, Everdred was supposed to die here in the alley. Just as with Buzz Buzz, an important NPC would die after telling you something very important. This would represent a big shift in scope, as it would lead to the first death of a human being, and would represent Monotoli as a reprehensible monster. If Everdred did not die in the alley, it’s possible his sprite would appear during the game’s credits. But I guess that was too much of a downer.

    Everdred was meant to be a playable character at some point. This is not a popular opinion, and there is no other data supporting this possibility, but there is some context. Only members of the player’s party have angelic sprites; all other NPCs flicker or fade from existence if they’re killed or otherwise defeated.

    Looking back at Mother 1 (Earthbound Zero), you can see that all of the playable characters in its cast were the basis for the playable characters in Earthbound – kid in red ball cap, cute blonde girl in pink, dorky smart kid with glasses. There’s also a fourth party member who joins for a period of time: a muscley, snarky gangster with sunglasses named Teddy, who is older than the rest of the kids.

    While Everdred is a much older, possible dirtier version of Teddy, it’s pretty easy to see the connection. Most people say that Teddy was the basis for Frank Fly, which certainly makes sense. Even if the idea was discarded early on, I’m almost confident it was a possibility at some point during production. It seems Itoi has a weird respect for shady gangster tough guys.

    Anyway, Everdred doesn’t die. What he does do is recite his “last” haiku poem.

    When on your way out
    Be sure that you say goodbye
    then lock the door tight.

    He urges you not to follow him as he stumbles away.

    But before he goes, he tells you to check behind the counter in the cafe.

    A Troll Too Far

    Once again, the Runaway Five are in debt. They owe the Topolla Theater in Fourside a million dollars. I still don’t really get how performers get so mired in debt. I guess they just don’t read their contracts?

    The manager suggests that you’d have to find buried gold to settle that kind of debt.

    Say, didn’t we just meet some miners in the desert? Does that mean… we have to go back there?

    I think this is the most noticeable mistake in pacing in all of Earthbound. After arriving in the fabled city of Fourside, a location entirely different from another town up until now… the only way to progress is to LEAVE this magical new place and go back to Dusty Dunes Desert, which you just finished scouring.

    Unlike the Pencil Eraser troll from earlier, this double-back can result in quite the lengthy and possibly arduous detour, and it’s repetitive. It feels like only so long ago that we just took a bus and busted the Runaway Five out of a bogus contract.

    However, like the Pencil Eraser troll, this whole scenario is basically the set up for a joke – one of my favorite long-form gags in the whole game.

    When you head back to the desert, you’ll find that the miners’ dig has really come far, but they have to stop digging because they unearthed a maze filled with hostile critters, including five monstrous moles.

    The first mole you find in the labyrinth introduces himself as one of the five master moles of this hole, and declares that he is the third strongest. It seems like coincidence that you happen to find the most average of all of the moles. When you challenge the next master mole, it says,

    I’m really the third strongest master. I’ll destroy you now!

    Uhh. I and then the next one says,

    My strength falls between the second and fourth strongest masters. Do you
    wanna test me?


    I’m truly the third strongest master of this hole. I’ll demonstrate the power of being third to you!

    And then,

    Ha. You’ve fought the strongest master of this hole, the second strongest master of this hole, the fourth strongest master of this hole, and the weakest master of this hole! I’m truly the third strongest master of this hole. Now you see the true advantage of being third!

    I love how all of these terrifying moles – they are pretty scary, their big sprite charge at you when you get close – revel in their average-ness. And yet, as average as they are, they’re all too dumb or lazy to realize who really is the most third of them.

    The dungeon itself is rather devious. As long as one of the master moles still stands, baddies will keep swarming throughout the hole. Not only to you have to defeat them all, you have to find them in the genuinely confusing underground labyrinth, doing your best not to cover old ground. It’s a very old-school, dungeon-crawly sort of dungeon, a battle of attrition as you slowly burn through all of your PP and restorative items.

    My friend Mike watched me play through this dungeon, having heard of Earthbound but never having seen it in action.

    “Looks pretty boring,” he said.

    It was a harsh thing. The whole point of this blog is to point out why Earthbound is technically a rather good game. And yet, I couldn’t immediately disagree with Mike’s assessment.

    The truth is, this is the part of the game where you might start asking yourself, “Am I playing a boring game?” Now, part of it is because you’ve had the same resources available to you for awhile: the same three characters, the same combat items for Jeff, roughly the same PSI skills. Go-to strategies have solidified by now, and one battle tends to go the same way as another. The tenacity that Ness needed to win his fights when he was alone is not quite so necessary.

    A big part of it, though, is that as clever and funny as this dungeon is, it suffers a surprisingly dull and annoying assembly of enemies. Not only are they largely color swaps of old enemies, most of them appear by themselves or with weaker enemies, obviating the need for strategies more complex than basic attacks and PSI Freeze. The real difficulty comes in the sheer amount of times you’ll be poisoned by these enemies, forcing you to hold back on Ness’ PP.

    Read that last sentence again without giggles.

    So, yeah. It’s a real shame that such a clever dungeon design and such a great joke has to be bogged down by a sudden lack of variety and repetitiveness.

    Once you’re down, though, you’ll be rewarded with a giant diamond for your efforts, with which you can pay off the Runaway Five’s debts and finally explore the rest of Fourside.

    And then: shit gets real.