In 1995, I clutched an abnormally large box in my hands, wondering at the images and text on its back. I crinkled up my nose at the Master Belch scratch and sniff, unable to fathom what hellish materials the manufacturer had rendered to produce such a foul smell. I plugged in Earthbound, designer Shigesato Itoi's quirky role-playing game, and flipped the purple switch on my Super Nintendo system. And the real world melted away.
For over a month, I guided the main character (whom I'd named after myself) and his friends (whom I'd named after my friends) through the towns of Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside; through the cursed Peaceful Rest Valley, where many an exploding tree meant a death screen; across an ocean, a desert, a beach Resort, a maze inside a snowy mountain; through a neon-lit alien base under Stonehenge; through an ancient cavern filled with dinosaurs; and through my own deeply troubled subconscious.
The people I met and the creatures I battled were strange and wonderful in equal measure, and I loved every moment of it.
That is…until the screech of a drill cutting open my skull ripped through my bedroom.
I think as a kid, I hadn't really noticed the tone of the game becoming ever darker. It wasn't until I saw all of the characters in my party laid out one by one on a black background, shaking as some unshown instrument ripped our very souls from our bodies. We'd sacrificed our physical forms so that we might travel back in time to defeat Giygas, and it was then that I realized how far I'd come and how much this battle really meant. And in that moment, I was suddenly really, really scared.
For those of you who've played EarthBound, you know that the music in the area leading up to the final confrontation with Giygas is equally terrifying. It's only synth music played through a long delay filter, but it's used to alarming effect. Not to mention the enemies in this area are the hardest in the game: self-destructing robots, Ultimate Starmen, and fearsome octopi with lasers. You start off in this game fighting puppies. The difficulty level of the game spikes to an almost absurd level at this point. And if you manage to make it through all that, you enter Giygas' lair. The first time I did, I almost pissed my pants. Seriously.
Giygas is a pulsing, squirming mess of what looks like entrails. And the sound it makes…it's breathing. It's alive. And it wants to suck you in and smother you. This place wants to kill you.
By the time you reach the end of the path, you think you're ready. You've summoned your courage, and you feel like you're prepared. But you're not. When you come upon Giygas, and you see your face reflected in his quivering mass for the first time…then it gets worse. Because then the atonal organ notes kick in, and that fat fucking bastard Pokey, whom you've chased across time and space just to have a chance to pop him in the mouth, comes floating down in a giant goddamn spider mech. And after he calls your mute analog a wimp to his face, you get your chance.
The music in the final battle with Giygas starts off unassumingly with a surprisingly retro tune even for it's 16-bit generation. But after a few rounds, things suddenly kick into high-gear, and you get an earful of MIDI death metal, and then it lunges into a bass-driven refrain after a key moment of silence. It completely catches you off guard, and it gets your heart racing.
All of a sudden, you're not paying as close attention to the attacks you're making, and you're not keeping everyone's PSI shields and health up. You lose one party member — maybe two — and you're scrambling to get them back to life. And even though you smack Pokey around, he's still standing there smirking until he's taken enough damage to break in with more smart-ass remarks. He turns off the Devil Machine, which had allowed Giygas to mirror your attacks.
It's at this point that the music changes again. You briefly hear the sounds of Giygas breathing as Pokey explains how Giygas can't even control its actions anymore The true form of Giygas is so horrifying that even Pokey admits his fear before explaining that you'll be "just another meal to him."
Now, in the background is a dissonant drone and the occasional crackle of Giygas' evil energy. A serious feeling of dread fills your stomach as you continue to attack Giygas. But you're seriously beginning to doubt that winning this battle is your destiny.
After fighting Giygas for a bit, Pokey reappears to assure you of your doom. But even in the same breath as he's berating your efforts, he again betrays his arrogance saying, "You know, my heart is beating incredibly fast…I must be experiencing absolute terror!"
He encourages you to cry out into the darkness for help to prove the impotence of your will in the face of Giygas' overwhelming power.
Now the music shifts again. The crackling energy is still there…now backed by a fervent piping and repeating progression. The notes play in quick cadence, pushing your heart rate back up. This isn't dread anymore; this is palpable, adrenaline-fueled fear.
Paula prays again and again, offering a brief refuge from the galloping tune as she asks for help from all of the good people you've met and helped on your way to this final battle. A soothing organ plays in the background, though, the crackling of Giygas' evil tendrils linger in the background. Witnessing the return of Giygas' roiling form is all the more shocking following these interludes.
When Paula's prayers finally touch the hearts and minds of your main character's family, the music becomes a lullaby, something that sent him off to sleep as a baby. After the damage as done, Giygas forms, and the music shifts again.
Giygas becomes chaos, and the music becomes a wall of sound — the siren's song of death and Giygas is screeching in pain. Paula's prayers are twice absorbed into this cacophony, and for a moment, it seems that the Apple of Enlightenment, a prophecy about your very journey, was wrong.
But then, Paula's prayers reach an unexpected party. Suddenly, with their help, Giygas and the music stop. As Pokey assures you that he'll be seeing you again and vanishes, Giygas' death knell plays in the background with static cutting in and out until nothing is left but that droning noise and Giygas vanishing into nothingness.
The relief I felt the first time I defeated Giygas was something that I'll never forget. Since I was only 10 years old at the time and the Internet barely existed, I didn't know about the pray thing, and I had nowhere to look it up. I would battle through the Caverns of Time and through the first three stages of Giygas, enduring the terrifying music and imagery over and over again. And even when someone did finally clue me on on praying, I kept giving up when the prayers starting disappearing into the darkness.
I had nightmares about that final battle for years. I actually sold my Super Nintendo and Earthbound cart without ever beating it with my original party. It wasn't until years later at a cousin's house that I finally sat down and finished the game.
The weight off my shoulders and the knowledge that I had defeated Giygas is something that I still think about today. And when I do, it usually is the impetus for yet another playthrough of this cult-classic RPG.
The first video game I ever truly loved. The first I was ever really invested in. And thanks to its music, the first to absolutely scare the bejeezus out of me.