After a hiatus that went on much longer than planned, I am very happy to announce that The Memory Card is back for its fifth season! For anyone reading this that is not familiar with this feature, The Memory Card is a long-running series that dissects and honors some of the most artistic, innovative, and memorable videogame moments of all time.
To start off this new season, I decided to focus on a videogame moment that holds a very special place in my heart. Frankly, after all these years, I am surprised I haven’t featured this moment before -- it really means that much to me.
In the mid-‘90s, EarthBound -- a game I am sure most of you are familiar with -- was released for the Super Nintendo. The odd, but utterly fantastic RPG defied all genres with its modern-day setting and unique, extremely quirky and dark personality. There is a reason this game is still adored all these years later. It is an undisputed masterpiece.
And this week’s moment is one of numerous reasons EarthBound is considered by many to hold this inarguable title of masterpiece. Occurring at the end of the game, this surprising moment still holds up as being just as revolutionary, powerful, and moving as it was almost twenty years ago.
I will always remember the day I purchased EarthBound from my local Toys “[backwards] R” Us. Not only was I surprised to see the game come in such an enormous box (the official Nintendo Player’s Guide came packed inside!), I will never forget the way the game affected me.
I had no idea that the unassuming RPG I thought would be a fun, colorful distraction would turn out to be one of my favorite games of all time.
EarthBound tells the story of a young boy Ness, who, partnered with three friends he meets along his journey, must put an end to an evil alien force named Giygas that is intent on taking over the universe.
You know ... normal, everyday stuff that most kids have to deal with.
While this is an overly simplified version of what happens throughout the epic game, it gives you a good sense of what EarthBound is ultimately about: the battle between good (Ness and his friends) and pure evil (Giygas).
Along their journey to find and defeat Giygas, Ness and his three companions Paula, Jeff, and Poo encounter many different characters and situations -- some pleasant; some absolutely terrifying.
One of these terrifying characters is Ness’s overweight bully of a neighbor, Pokey. In a sad, very dark twist, Pokey takes the side of Giygas and slowly, throughout the game, becomes more and more evil, in one instance even kidnapping Paula and trying to make her the subject of a human sacrifice. Yikes! Heavy stuff!
After locating eight sanctuary locations -- places that imbue the group with the power to defeat Giygas -- Ness must do battle with his own nightmare. Upon defeating this nightmare, Ness becomes much stronger, strong enough in fact to finally be able to take on the ridiculously powerful Giygas.
But confronting Giygas in his current state will not be that simple.
At this point in the game, Ness and his friends visit Jeff’s father, a man that goes by the name of Dr. Andonuts. Dr. Andonuts reveals to them his greatest, most wondrous invention: the Phase Distorter.
Using this device, Ness and friends will be able to travel back in time, to a point when Giygas is at his most vulnerable.
The unfortunate dilemma, though: Organic material can't make the jump through time. This forces Ness and his companions to have to sacrifice their own physical bodies, transferring their exposed souls into metallic robots with slight likenesses to each of their characters.
It is a very tragic, albeit necessary step that Ness and his friends surprisingly choose to accept.
With their bodies lifeless and left behind in the present, Ness and party travel into the past and take over their new empty robot shells, determined to defeat Giygas and put an end to all that is evil in the universe.
The world the souls of Ness and friends enter is filled with twisted, gnarled imagery. The heroes are forced to navigate monochrome cliffs and pulsating entrails in a world void of all goodness. They must journey forward, bodies left behind, to a fate full of painful uncertainty.
Eventually, the group reaches the end of their path and encounters, not just Giygas, but a now sickly Pokey. Gone are the playful, rotund features Pokey once displayed. In place of his childlike appearance is a pale, ghostly form, a young boy poisoned by the effect of pure evil.
It is a very sad sight.
Living inside of a large spider-like mech, Pokey begins to taunt Ness and friends, telling them that Giygas should destroy the universe -- it will only make things better. Before Ness even has a chance to react, Pokey lunges forward in his grotesque machine and attacks the robot party.
A traditional, if extra challenging, turn-based battle ensues. Following similar mechanics to the rest of the game, players are tasked with fighting Pokey, while also defending against his and Giygas’s powerful attacks.
The battle is long and brutal.
With perseverance, Ness and his friends are triumphant, defeating Pokey and banishing him to another time period.
This leaves Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo left to face against the source of all evil: Giygas.
Without hesitation, the final battle begins.
The thing standing before Ness and friends is like nothing the party has ever encountered. Giygas does not appear as a natural form, just as an entity -- one composed of swirling, dark, dripping images.
Ness tries to attack. Nothing happens.
Trying to assist, the party jumps in, hurling PSI powers and offensive items at the massive form of evil energy. Again, nothing.
At this point things look bleak. With no way to harm Giygas, what are the heroes supposed to do?
Giygas begins to unleash his devastating attacks. Ness and his friends can do nothing but try their best to defend against the brutal onslaught.
All hope seems lost.
But then, a thought occurs. What if attacking this entity is not the way to go? Maybe there is another way to go about things.
With this, Paula selects her “Pray” command.
Up to this point in the game, the “Pray” command could be used in battle to generate a random effect. Sometimes this effect can be good (restoring hit points!) or bad (causing status ailments!).
During the battle with Giygas, praying is all the party has left to believe in.
So Paula uses the “Pray” command and the screen fades to black.
Upon returning, some friendly faces -- characters previously encountered in the game -- are shown in a far-off village. They hear Paula’s prayer and join together to pray for the safety of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo.
From here the battle continues, and, for the first time, Giygas is damaged. His defenses fall.
Praying seems to work.
The pattern then continues, with Ness, Jeff, and Poo defending, while Paula puts all her energy into praying. And each time she activates this command, a new set of friends joins in universal prayer -- each prayer doing more and more damage to Giygas.
After repeating this over and over, Paula unleashes all of her energy into one finally plea for help.
This time, in a shocking twist, the character that answers that prayer is the player himself.
That’s right: Using the name you entered during the game, your own character -- the person playing the game -- answers Paula’s prayer. You break the fourth wall and become part of the game. You pray using all your might and start to unleash powerful attacks against Giygas.
The praying continues and Giygas is more and more damaged.
Eventually, you, the player, deliver one final, devastating blow.
Giygas is defeated.
Although Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo made the epic journey to reach Giygas, you are the one who holds the power to defeat him. You use all the love and fondness you built up for these characters to finally put an end to the universe’s greatest evil.
Your prayer saves the day.
It is a magnificent, completely unexpected twist that is nothing short of brilliant.
With this defeat, Giygas fades away and Ness and friends emerge triumphant, returning to their bodies to live in a world free of evil.
All thanks to you.
You can watch the innovative, emotional twist right here:
If I had tens of thousands of more words left in this feature, I could easily go into the immense metaphors and symbolism that are found throughout the final sequence in EarthBound. Leading up to the battle with Giygas, there is a lot of pretty deep stuff going on. The climax of the game is rather stunning.
But this article is about the player’s prayer specifically, so that’s what we will stay focused on.
The moment the game breaks the fourth wall and reaches out to the player is absolutely incredible. Up to this point, there were games that tried similar rule-breaking gimmicks, but none of them had the same emotional impact as this specific moment in EarthBound.
Like most RPGs, EarthBound is a fairly long game, following the playable main characters through many adventures over many different settings. As you travel with these characters, you start to feel a bond with them. Just as you grow fond of characters in a novel, it is only natural to feel some sort of connection with a group of characters you spend an inordinate amount of time with.
So when you reach the final battle with Giygas you want Ness and his friends to triumph.
Instead of the game offering a traditional final turn-based battle, it plays on the emotions the player has for these characters and actually incorporates them into the gameplay.
How many games have you played, or movies have you watched, or books have you read, when you wanted to shout out and root for certain characters to accomplish something they are striving for? I like to call this emotional investment the “Bastian from The Neverending Story” effect. You are so intertwined with the world and characters you are experiencing that, dammit, you have no shame in screaming out “Atreyu!” at the top of your lungs every now and then.
This is the same thing that happens during the battle with Giygas in EarthBound.
As a player who loves these characters, you are watching Ness and friends basically die in front of you. They are helpless to do battle with their final foe.
On the inside, you want to help them. You want to say a prayer and see them through to victory -- even if this is happening subconsciously.
And then it happens.
The game reaches out to you. Not you as in your main character, but, literally, you. It taps into your love for these characters and asks you to pray for them.
And once you do, it is this final prayer that defeats Giygas.
And that is an important detail to note. This could have happened anywhere in the game and it would still be an unbelievably cool addition. But it is made all the more powerful by having it occur during the very last battle.
Not only does this amp up the drama, but having your prayer be the thing that defeats Giygas is, quite frankly, a stroke of genius.
The final prayer in EarthBound is an absolutely amazing moment. It is not only a highly effective narrative technique, it completely elevates the entire medium of videogames, proving that games can be so much more than just mindless running and jumping. They can be deep, layered pieces of visual storytelling that can connect to the player in unexpected, very emotional ways.
And to think: This remarkable moment occurred on the 16-bit Super Nintendo ... almost twenty years ago.
A very impressive accomplishment for an even more impressive game.
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12:00 AM on 01.24.2015