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I feel like this is much less the Fourside chapter and much more the Dusty Dunes segment of the game. There’s very little time spent in EarthBound’s metropolis, unless you count the trippy Moonside counterpart as one in the same. My gameplay this week covers the traffic jam in the Desert, where three kids think it’s a better idea to risk sunstroke, scorpions, and wild buffalo than to stay in a safe and comfortable bus, all the way to the rescuing of Paula in Monotoli’s building. There is no Sanctuary location covered this week as there’s a lot of gameplay and dungeon hopping in this chapter alone.

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OKAY, WHAT NOW?

If you don’t have a strategy guide or walkthrough, then Fourside is the most likely place to just give up on the game. Or rather, as an adult with limited gaming time, this is the most likely place to abandon the quest and just let Giygas take over. Or perhaps I, as much as anyone else, have gotten so used to games providing objective markers and hints that I’ve failed to file away small, important bits of information for later. Remember how all those old instruction manuals came with “Notes” pages in the back? This chapter is where EarthBound’s would come in handy, had they not included a strategy guide instead.

The player is unable to proceed beyond Fourside once they arrive. It is literally the end of the road thus far paved by the game. The residence indicate a lack of satisfaction in Monotoli, the new head of the city. This very same Monotoli is also partnered with Pokey, whom you last saw being an accomplice to Paula’s kidnapping. It’s safe to say that wherever your chubby neighbor finds himself, the rotten stench of darkness follows. The Department store is also similarly closed with not-so-subtle hints to monstrous shenanigans occurring within.

Only the dreadful debt owed by the Runaway Five owns a clue to the game’s next goal. They owe the proprietor of the Topolla Theater one million dollars, a sum that might be familiar if you think back to chance encounters in the Dusty Dunes Desert. Of course, there is no guarantee you will have run into the man digging for buried treasure, but if you so happened to stumble upon his dig site then you’ll have heard him bragging to find up to a million dollar’s worth of gold.

This is the string of logic the game wants you to follow. That this man that you can miss out on meeting is dreaming of discovering the same amount of money that the Runaway Five owes. While there’s no reason to believe anything will have changed, the game expects you to follow this lead back into the Desert, where you will find a new dungeon to dive into.

This leads to obtaining the diamond which can be used to free the Runaway Five, an action that is completely unrelated to what the player must next do, which is enter the department store. A shopping mall promising new equipment and weaponry is a beacon strong enough to assume any player’s interest, but once Paula is kidnapped and the two remaining boys wipe out the alien menace haunting the establishment, there’s no further clues as to where to go. There’s no reason the players would think “Let’s go to Jackie’s ‘Cafe’, because surely something is happening there”. Even if the player wanders the streets talking to Fourside’s citizens, there’s nothing much to indicate anything there will have changed from an initial visit.

Which is why Fourside is bound to be so frustrating to guide-less players. Unless you spend the money speaking to the Hint Man, the only option is to basically wander and guess as to what might be different than before. By time you’ve completed Moonside, the game almost overcompensates by having three characters show up and inform you of the next linear steps you must accomplish.

From here onward my memories of EarthBound grow weaker and weaker. Like almost every game I owned as a child, I restarted this one repeatedly as I found the newness of beginning a game enjoyable and refreshing. There was comfort in starting a new journey with nothing but (familiar) possibilities. This has left me completely familiar with the first portion of the game, but now that I’ve completed Fourside my memories are a bit more vague. I know of select locations and set-pieces, but I don’t entirely recall what sequence the events take place in. That Fourside is also the last numbered city no doubt contributes to this.

In the end, I’m curious to see if I ever find myself as lost and confused as a newbie to the title.

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THE MOST LIVELY WASTELAND

Let’s backtrack a bit to Dusty Dunes Desert, a location that feels much more alive than Fourside itself. If nothing else, this place is littered with monsters and beasts like no other location. From the at-home Wild Buffalo and Desert Wolf to the invading Cute Li’l UFO to the bizarre Crested Booka, the place is teeming with a variety of menacing monsters to torment and hound our heroes. Perhaps most interesting is the Criminal Caterpillar, a foe that will always flee the protagonists at a high speed. Your best bet is to approach them while invulnerable from a prior fight, and hopefully with a surprise attack. The Criminal Caterpillar is easy to kill but packs a wallop with its psychic capabilities. Defeat it, though, and your party earns over 10,000 experience. A hefty sum worth its weight in dollars.

The open nature of the desert also makes it harder to flee foes. They spawn anywhere and everywhere, and while in traditional dungeons you can hide behind walls, obstacles, or even backtrack to “despawn” foes, the desert is just way too open to avoid anything. It amplifies just how harsh a location it is, with Ness’ psychic power best reserved for healing sunstroke, poison, and health, while Paula’s Freeze ability is essential for taking on the stronger foes more efficiently.

Hungry and malevolent creatures aside, the wildlife is not really the teeming life I meant. A general store and meditating monk’s cave are just the introduction to the desert’s population. Within this desert also exists the aforementioned gold digger, hoping to hit it big by a busted up shack at the opposite end of the wastes. A pair of sunbathers wear a magical lotion as capable of repelling violent critters as it is harmful UV rays. A man from Fourside misplaced his grandmother’s contact lens in the Northern end of the desert. A black sesame wallows in regret over having hurt the feelings of its love, the white sesame seed, whom wishes to let the black sesame know it has been forgiven. No reward is offered for conferring messages between the two. It’s just a curious inclusion within the desert.

Finally are the Brothers Sanchez, a trio of men acting as a slot machine. Insert a dollar into the actual broken slot machine and they’ll spin round and round. If they line up, you can win a prize that may or may not be worth the time spent playing.

It’s curious that it feels like there’s so much to do in Dusty Dunes Desert, but perhaps this is largely because Fourside keeps sending you right back. Or perhaps it’s that Dusty Dunes has so much peculiar going on in such a short span of time, whereas Fourside’s citizenry feels comparatively straight-laced. Either way, Dusty Dunes is a surprisingly lively location.

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HEY NESS? IT’S YOUR DAD…

It should be noted that, playing on my 3DS, I technically have not “shut the game off”. Even when I close out of the EarthBound application, it restarts right back where I last left. This gives the game itself the impression that I’ve been sitting in front of the TV screen playing non-stop.

This results in Ness’ Dad occasionally calling up and encouraging Ness to take a break. Most amusing was when he called Jeff in Winters, when Ness was nowhere around, failing to realize until the end of the call that he wasn’t speaking to his own son.

In a lot of ways, this creates a new interpretation of who Ness’ father is: Nintendo itself. Rewarding the player with unreasonably large sums of money (Ness now currently has as much money in his bank account as I make in a year), recording the player’s progress, and making sure they don’t spend too much time sitting on their ass, the father is basically Nintendo taking care of the player. Right down to recommending a break should be taken, because, let’s be honest, it’s not healthy for kids to sit and play a game for several hours straight.

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MECHANICALLY SPEAKING

Freeze is perhaps the most important psychic ability in this game, and the loss of Paula for such a long period certainly feels like a loss. Even worse is she had the Franklin Badge, leaving Jeff and Ness vulnerable to the manic guitar’s electric shock attacks.

Perhaps more frustrating is that Paula was already the most vulnerable character, and now she’s several levels behind both her male counterparts. I’m glad that Talah Rama’s cave at least doesn’t contain aggressive foes that you have no choice but to confront, but this is then met with the frustration of needing ample inventory space and select items to trade with the monkeys.

What has really helped this playthrough, however, is a smarter decision to better use Jeff’s different machines. In the past I never really used tools such as the Slime Generator or Shield Killer. As a child I was always more focused on dealing great amounts of damage, leaving the majority of Jeff’s inventory to big bottle rockets to deal heavy damage. In addition, status ailments don’t often work on bosses in the Final Fantasy series, the game franchise that would have formulated my understanding of how JRPG’s work.

Turns out there are a lot of foes with shields, however, and wiping them out with the Shield Killer is incredibly valuable at the start of battle. The Slime Generator is also very effective at keeping powerful foes at bay. It’s always startling to go back to older games and realize just how incorrectly I was playing them.

Ness may have a lot of hit points, but Paula and Jeff are the invaluable ones.


 

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