Opinion

“Essay Thirty-One: Your Spirit Will Go with the Robot–EarthBound and the Odyssey”

essay31.png

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz

 

 

bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Welcome back! As Ryan suggested, I went ahead and made a BookwarmGames account on Twitch. Though so far I haven’t graduated to live-streaming, I did use it to put together a live Concluding Q&A as episode 33, a nice Dantesque number to end on, and as Conversation 8 a good Sound Stone number. The transcription of that will be posted here in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime I hope you’ll leave a few more questions and comments; I’ll round them up from all the other essays, too, and try to address them in one place, so I don’t end up, like certain characters in Shakespeare, just talking to myself!

Today, we pick up from where Ness has been doing just that, talking to himself deep in the Sea of Eden and telling himself where to go now, at the end of the game: to Saturn Valley. The game confirms it parenthetically, in case there was any doubt: (Ness really heard his own voice); and it doubles down on this by teleporting the party straight there with Ness’ newly unlocked PSI Teleport B, much as at the conclusion of the strange clear dream of Poo in Dalaam he teleported along to join his friends on the beach in Summers.

In that self-talk which the player overhears, we are placed in the position of Ness when he overheard his parents talking beside his cradle. In this moment he rises from his deep, deathlike sleep and is reborn, like the Phoenix, beside the Fire Spring. His friends, too, heard him say something. In one of the few interactions we see between them, all of which deal with an impasse and a party member (re-)joining–Ness himself in this case–they say,

What happened, Ness? You’ve been unconscious for a long time…

          You kept saying something…

          …Saturn Valley?

What’s waiting for us there?

Anyway, we need to teleport…

After overcoming his nightmare, Ness reminds himself and us of the threat Giygas poses, but also of the confident expectation he has of victory… 

Everything in the universe could be destroyed at the hands of Giygas.

But he and his followers are also in trouble.

The Apple of Enlightenment has foretold

that Giygas’ attempt will fail.

It is because of the existence of a boy named Ness.

…That’s me!

In the final episode, we will discuss that Apple of Enlightenment at long last, as it deserves.

Now, decelerating from a teleport to a run to a walk in Saturn Valley, the friends find themselves, like Prince Poo, crashing a party that looks to be well underway. This party is a dream-team of brilliant creators comprised of Dr Andonuts, Apple Kid, the desert miner, and Mr Saturn. Like the once-shy man of few words in the library, like Picky and Tracy or the Runaway Five, we can imaginatively fill in from what we have seen of the characters gathered in Saturn Valley something about the adventures they must have been having while Ness and his friends have been visiting the Sanctuaries. They were brought together not by Paula’s psychic summons, but by being kidnapped and held in the bowels of the Starmen’s Stonehenge base. Since then, they’ve collaborated on the Phase Distorter, a theoretical project of Dr Andonuts and Apple Kid’s now coming to fruition thanks to the technical prowess of Mr Saturn, in whose honor the device has been shaped. (Or perhaps there is something in the shape of Mr Saturn, essentially a walking head, which is inherently adept at breaking the bonds of space and time, and the honor is incidental.)

Image result for itoi gold mining

As for what the miner might be doing there, I’ve been giving it some thought and I believe the answer might be another breaking of the fourth wall, illuminated by Clyde Mandelin in his Legends of Localization. The first clue is that building on the outskirts of Fourside, where the sign says the planning meeting for “EarthBound 2” is taking place. Then we heard how the stress of his job was giving the miner ulcers. My theory is that he, like Lier X. Agerate the treasure hunter and Brick Road the Dungeon Man, is another stand-in for Itoi himself. Maybe he’s a programmer gone out to the desert to escape the stress of work on the sequel. A story told in Mandelin lends the connection much more substance:

Shigesato Itoi’s Gold Mining Adventure
Shigesato Itoi became especially well known in the early 1990s when he searched for legendary buried gold on national TV.
According to Japanese legend, a large amount of gold was stolen from the capital and hidden just the before the ruling government fell to opposition forces in 1868. Although it’s difficult to calculate what it would be worth now, conservative estimates suggest it was at least the equivalent of 100 million U.S. dollars today. Treasure hunters, relying on clues and historical artifacts, have tried to locate the gold for the past 150 years.
Based on new information, Itoi became convinced that the gold was buried at Mt. Akagi in central Japan. There, he famously declared, “It exists. I just know it.” Together with a team of construction experts, historians, and even psychics, he dug deep holes into the mountainside with heavy machinery. Although many tunnels and items from the mid-1800s were discovered, no gold was ever found.
Despite the setback, Itoi remained convinced. Eventually, though, he publicly admitted defeat and humorously stated that he had produced “the one and only civil engineering show in the world”. The entire event was notable enough that several
Japanese books were written about it, and Itoi himself included a similar gold mine adventure in MOTHER 2. The hunt for the hidden gold continues to this day – in fact, one family has been searching for it for three generations! (208)

And so here the miner is to help with the construction of a second machine that can travel through space-time. For as it happens, the first Phase Distorter has already been stolen by Pokey and transported him and a kidnapped Mr Saturn to the Lost Underworld. By the time you arrive in Saturn Valley, this Phase Distorter is belatedly sensing the presence of the enemy. If you’re remembering that cave where a bit of broken technology was visible across the abyss, and that broken helicopter in the Deep Darkness, and starting to put the pieces together, I think you’re on the right track. It seems we should have been prepared for this latest betrayal, despite Ness’ attempts to understand Pokey through his avatar in Magicant. But there is some evidence supporting Ness’ sympathy, too: don’t leave out the broken Sky Runner, either in Threed or in Summers, which surely attests to Ness and his friends’ ability to take and destroy Dr Andonuts’ creations as well as Pokey can. However noble their intentions, the results are akin. In a funny twist, now when you go to operate the Phase Distorter Mark II and pursue Pokey, it spits you out burned to a crisp, the same as happens whenever a try at teleportation runs into a wall or some other obstacle. It seems there has been a less than groovy distortion of phase-space this time, but Dr Andonuts believes he can get the device working properly with the addition of a rare element, extracted from an extraterrestrial substrate.

Have you seen any meteorites lately?

So, rather than teleporting with the Phase Distorter after the speedy Pokey, chasing him on to a place and a time you’ve never trodden, your feet instead take you via your own teleportation PSI back to the town where it all began, to Onett, Ness’ hometown and Pokey’s too. Is it as he says in Magicant (or as Ness says to himself speaking through Pokey there), that he has had no luck, to have been born one house over, into a family the reverse of the love and harmony Ness’ wrapped him in from infancy? Or haven’t Pokey’s choices led him step by step to this final act of theft, destruction, and cowardice? 

As the A Team of scientists warns you, Giygas has bent all his armed forces on the once-peaceful suburb, hoping to prevent the heroes’ accessing a chunk of the burning space rock and taking it back to the scientists for universe-saving applied research. As long as Phase Distorter II is incomplete, the future Buzz Buzz has traveled back from will remain unchanged. Giygas’ open conquest of Onett is even the first overt sign of it, perhaps, hearkening back as it does to the title screen with UFOs brandishing lasers and gas stations going kaboom. This is not the Onett of the cheerful bouncy town theme, nor even of the wonder and unbounded possibility of the night when the meteorite fell. Though it is dark as night, this dark Onett is breathless with the throbbing beat of Stonehenge and Fire Spring coursing through it. It is empty downtown and all the doors are shut to you, no matter how annoyingly you try knocking. Even the Sharks are barricaded in their arcade; even Frank’s not strolling in his yard; and the cops’ flashing lights and famous roadblocks are nowhere in evidence. Even your bit of beachfront property is barred to you, somehow, though you should have the key and the back wall was missing anyway. Even the way to Giant Step, the first Your Sanctuary,  is closed, and also the secret tree-house around the corner, whose top you could see from the ridge among the treetops back on that first mysterious night. There is only one door opens to you, and it is your home.

When perhaps you begin to doubt yourself and despair, darkly wondering if this place, of all places, would not receive you, Ness and his friends are let into the living room. It is to put you in the position Pokey was in that fateful night, when he thought his little brother was lost, and he pounded on the door of the one friend he might have to help him. If he was motivated then mostly by fear of his parents’ reaction when they found out, to the point that cowardly as Pokey is he would accompany Ness and King through the search, we can still see some brotherly care operating there–Pokey, unlike Cain, at least recognizes he is his brother’s keeper.

The living room is dark, as it never has been before. That first night your mom had the lights lit cheerfully, and even in your memory vision, when you last were in this place, the black and white home seemed to glow with a dreamy radiance. Ness’ mom says she is glad you’ve arrived. Her plan was to stay quiet in the dark, not a bad one now that Ness and friends are here and she can feed them endless supplies of Steak, or whatever you chose as your favorite food. But upstairs, Tracy has her room lit as normal, and she continues to support you with the same slightly ditsy eagerness as ever. And your dog adorably comments,

(At this point, you guys just might be the strongest force in the world,

don’t you think?)

At this point in the game, with the return home at long last only to find it greatly changed, I got a little bit of a Return of the King vibe, when the hobbits are coming into the Shire: 

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.  (315)

Since that happens after Sauron is defeated, though, and this happens before you fight Giygas (within the chronology of the adventure, that is, setting the time travel aside), the parallel could be closer. As we’ll see in the final episode, there are still things you can do after defeating Giygas, but “the scouring of the Onett” is not among them. If you want more Tolkien–I know that was a short passage and it’s hard to read much from it without giving a bunch more context–Dr Olsen, the Tolkien Professor, is broadcasting weekly from within LOTRO, reading through the entire series with utmost attention to detail and on pace to get to The Return of the King in about a decade or so. I’ve also got last year’s Hobbit Camp videos up on the Signum Academy channel, ten solid hours with accompanying games and activities geared towards young readers.

I’m sure I’ll say more about Tolkien in connection with Pullman’s great series, His Dark Materials. For now, though, there’s some still-more-epic literature that I’d like to share: another partial parallel, apropos of the faithful dog motif embodied in your dog King, and in Homer’s Odyssey:

As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any enjoyment from him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaios seeing it, and said:
‘Eumaios, what a noble hound is that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?’
‘This dog,’ answered Eumaios, ‘belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.’
So saying he entered the well-built mansion and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years. (Lombardo trans. XVII 290-327)

Ulysses recognized by his dog Argos; in the left foreground, Ulysses is greeting his dog Argos on his return to his palace, Eumaios stands behind him; with a drawn border; from an album of 51 leaves depicting scenes from Homer's 'Odyssey'  Pen and grey, b

Outside, enemies start to appear beyond the neighboring house along the path leading up to the hilltop. Just about where the Starman Jr. materialized to challenge Buzz Buzz, now Ghosts of Starman flit in droves, far more powerful and somehow more wicked in death than in life. They take turns casting Starstorm and grinning, while the Octobots will steal PSI Caramels and the Evil Eyes diamondize you with a glare. If you’re quick enough, you can use the enemies’ dense massing to your advantage and dash from battle to battle, sneaking up behind them to score some green swirlies. As ever, if your levels are low you can move cautiously at the edges of the screen until the coast is clear, but on the narrow path this can leave you trapped between groups of foes above and below. A better strategy is to level up while home cooking is so close. You’ll have a similar chance again soon, in the Cave of the Past, but it will be against still more powerful enemies, and the surroundings won’t be nearly as homelike and agreeable.

Gradually you make your way up the path, picking up Meteotites dropped by Evil Eyes and, if you’re as lucky as Magicant-Pokey says, a Goddess Ribbon from the Ghost of Starman. Tough as the random encounters are, there’s no boss in this section of the game corresponding to Starman Jr. Getting the meteorite piece proves to be a little anticlimactic. Putting this together with your inability to revisit Liar, Frank, Captain Strong or any of the other people in Onett, outside of Ness’ house, to see what they’re up to when it’s darkest before the dawn, I think there were some missed opportunities here. I can only assume Itoi’s team were a bit rushed to complete the game. I could be wrong, though: they could have been hoping to keep the player moving quickly and not get side-tracked, now the end is all but in sight. All the same, fighting a boss on the hilltop in which the townspeople come to the rescue, like the Runaway Five did against the Clumsy Robot in the Monotoli building, would have been pretty cool.

In Saturn Valley, to teleport back there once more, if you take the time to walk around and chat with the Mr Saturns, many of them have new dialogue–and even the old dialogue is worth hearing again. A couple of famous lines have to do with Daddy and Dakota, apparently a whiffed translation of a joke along the lines of “Invention is the daddy of necessity” and a localization-substitute for Itoi’s home prefecture of Gunma-ken, respectively. The Saturn atop the ladder says dance is over, apparently a palindrome in Japanese. You can’t redo the coffee break, but you are required to take a nap at the Saturns’ hotel while Andonuts extracts the meteorite’s Zexonyte and works on the machine, presumably so as to ensure you save the game before proceeding. And here again I think there would have been an opportunity to throw in another dream sequence or a third helping of cascading words from the coffee and tea text. As he warns you, you’re on the threshold of the final chapter. Once you warp in with the Phase Distorter, there’s no way to explore any other places until you defeat Giygas, or else quit and start a new game. I take this to be a way of understanding the “dance is over” line. Once setting foot on the far side of the abyss in the Cave of the Past, you’re rewarded for your devotion with a visit from the Star Master. Poo’s teacher bestows Starstorm Omega, a still more powerful way to shake the stars, and a major bargain at only 42 PP.

To emphasize that this is the point of no return, Dr Andonuts reveals that traveling beyond the spiky tendril into the past will mean leaving your physical bodies behind, trading them for full embodiment in robot shells. Except for the baseball cap, which Ness’ sprite wears even long after you’ve upgraded to better equipment, souvenir coins with protective and lucky charms upon them. His robot form will continue to wear his baseball cap into the past. Writing into robotic bodies the contents of minds and personalities, even spirits, since the human body would not survive the journey against the flow of time: Isn’t this what Buzz Buzz meant by his cryptic greeting A bee I am not…? And does it perhaps work the same way for the Starmen? Although they didn’t travel on the meteorite as Buzz Buzz seems to have done, could they too have had human forms in their present, Ness’ future, which they sacrificed in order to pursue Buzz Buzz into their past, your present? Only now it is not their past, but the present which will change their future and, if what Talah Rama and the Talking Rock said is true, all futures, once Ness in turn follows Pokey’s trail to the Cave of the Past where Giygas lies in wait.

The way the player’s guide puts it is more lighthearted:

Saturn Valley Time Tours

The ultimate travel experience is available now in the Saturn Valley. Travel back in history. Visit the ancient Greeks or Egyptians or Mayans. Ride a mammoth in the Pleioscene [sic] or hunt a raptor in the Cretaceous. Carve your face on the Sphinx

Special Introductory Offer

3 days, 2 nights $338

  • Watch George Washington sleep
  • Dine on asp with Cleopatra
  • Listen to Confucius

Not responsible for paradoxes or the destruction of the space time continuum

(Of course you can do none of those things–the disclaimer should really go on to say so, and suggest you play ear for more options.)

It’s a curious shift, in this game which has focused so much on Ness’ sense-memories and his bond with the Earth, that in order to reach the final battle his body must be left behind, and that he depends on a substance not of this world to travel back in time. It is yet another take, perhaps, on that central vision, where he was disembodied and returned to a crucial past moment. The return to the meteorite itself prefigures it, in a way–you essentially rehash the opening prelude of the game where Buzz Buzz traveled back to the past to set you on your way. Now Ness goes accompanied by his friends on the final leg of their adventure, with perfect clarity about the goal, for all the muddles about the time travel. We, too, will robot up with them to reach Giygas next time–the second-to-last episode in this series, with the Q&A to follow. Thanks for reading!

 

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