NOTE: I played a little further in EarthBound and I realized that this post only makes like 45% sense. Maybe I should revise it? Hmm.
I’ve been replaying EarthBound on the Wii U Virtual Console and thinking a lot about the decisions involved in constructing its narrative. A particular choice caught my attention, and I am going to analyze it here, but since it involves spoilers from the tail end of the game, and because I have a feeling you might not care about EarthBound at all, I will place my analysis on the other side of a break thingy.
The Lost Underworld is as remote a location as you ever explore in EarthBound. It is far beneath the Lumine Hall cave, which is beneath the Tenda Village, which is at the extreme end of a place called “Deep Darkness”. I tend to think that depicting the party as tiny little sprites in the Lost Underworld is intended as much to emphasize how far down you’ve fallen as it is to show how big the dinosaurs are. You are basically at the center of the earth.
It’s a huge imposing sprawl of a place, but when you find the Tenda encampment, the talking rock there gives you some very explicit directions and says the last Your Sanctuary location is to the southwest. The path from there to the Fire Spring dungeon is pretty straightforward, with a couple of very short detours. The second one is the easy-to-find gift box with the Cloak of Kings, but that’s not super interesting. The first one is the entrance to the Cave of the Past, and it is very interesting. To me, anyway.
Ness and his friends will see this cave again, when they turn into robots and travel into the distant past. The crumbled machine is the Phase Distorter that takes them there; the weird twisted metal spike is a weird twisted metal spike. In the present, grass is growing here, but in the past, everything will be cast in an eerie monochrome.
[Ideally a corresponding screenshot would be here]
Why does the game take you here twice?
The easy answer is “foreshadowing”: you see something mysterious, and later it gets explained. But it’s very, very odd to see such opaque and environmental foreshadowing in EarthBound. When this game does foreshadowing, it’s very explicit, and it’s always accomplished through text: Buzz Buzz says you’ll meet two more boys and a girl; people in one town are all talking about what’s going on in the next town; Brick Road says he’s planning to become Dungeon Man, and invites you to meet him again then. There’s no such transparency here.
In fact, given the way the game has behaved up to this point, there’s little reason for a first-time player to assume that this bizarre scene will ever be referred to again. EarthBound has numerous red herrings, throwaway lines of dialog, and significant-seeming but inaccessible bits of geography. Remember that pocket north of Saturn Valley where Mad Ducks keep spawning for no reason, and you can never fight them?
But EarthBound also loves to use the map to tell the story, and in particular it loves to change the map to show you something in the story has changed: I’m thinking of the color of the houses in Happy Happy Village (and the broken bridge being fixed in Peaceful Rest Valley), the difference between day and night in Threed and Onett, and the real-time palette swapping in Magicant.
The Cave of the Past operates along similar lines, of course. The same level geometry appears in two different color schemes: white and scary in the past, green and (relatively) welcoming in the present. But the past version is terrifying enough on its own—it’s still not clear why the present version has to make an appearance at all.
I can think of two reasons! They’re both going to be a little underwhelming, though, so be prepared:
For one thing, and this can probably be an essay of its own, EarthBound is very, very concerned with comforting and reassuring its players. It wants you to feel anxious, but never discouraged; it always wants you to believe that you’ll succeed. After seeing some of the aftermath of your time-traveling, when you actually get around to going to the past, you recognize that you’ve ended up where you’re supposed to be, and your success—up to that point at least—was a foregone conclusion.
The second reason feels slightly more clever to me, though. If we imagine an EarthBound without a weird visit to the present version of the Cave of the Past, we see a game where you return to Saturn Valley, turn into robots, ride the Phase Distorter to a bizarre white place that’s supposed to be millions of years in the past, climb inside of a Gigeresque tentacle-cave, and fight probably the best final boss in any RPG.
But, critically, you have no idea where that white place is! You are nominally in a cave, and you are presumably on the planet Earth, but you might be on the north pole, or the south pole, or the spot where Saturn Valley will eventually be. There’s a certain mystery to the climax of this version of EarthBound, but it’s a generic sort of mystery that we recognize from other final battles in other games.
In the real EarthBound, when we arrive as robots in the Cave of the Past, we remember the scene from when we were walking around the Lost Underworld, and with that context in mind we know exactly where the climactic battle that ensues is taking place: at the center of the earth. Which is pretty awesome.