Arriving in Threed, Ness and Paula discover the town has been overtaken by zombies. The Runaway Five depart towards Fourside, leaving the pair of children no option but to solve the town’s crisis before continuing onward. Shortly after exploring the graveyard and finding passage blocked, they are drawn to a hotel overrun by monsters, captured, and imprisoned. Using her psychic powers, Paula reaches out to Jeff in Winters, who returns to his scientist father and gains transportation back to Threed. With another friend in their ranks, the trio escape and pass through the graveyard to Mr. Saturn Valley, home to a curious breed of alien creature being used as slaves for one Master Belch. By entering Belch’s factory the crew learn of his servitude to Giygas, and by defeating him free Threed of its undead shackles. They also open the path to Milky Well, the third Your Sanctuary location. With the first town truly tormented by Giygas’ evil influence saved, the trio hop aboard a bus to their next destination…
Even though the player has just arrived in town, they waste no time sending you up to a new location. Winters, the first town whose name has nothing to do with the sequential order in which you visit it. Well, not so much a “town” as much as it is a region. Now in control of Jeff, the player must once more begin at level one.
Which is what makes the general design of Winters interesting in hindsight. I never thought too much about it before, but Winters is separate into two or three general dungeon areas that act as a sort of speedy “catch-up” for Jeff. His equipment is better than what Ness started with, allowing him to swiftly dispatch and defend from similar threats while taking less damage. There are some new enemies mixed in, such as the Gruff Goat and the Mad Duck, but old foes like the Rowdy Mouse and Runaway Dog return. Each foe gives Jeff a proportionate amount of experience that keeps him advancing in level at an accelerated rate, much faster than Ness had leveled up.
Brick Road’s amateur dungeon attraction is also a much more simplified “maze”, designed to take some time but not too much. The zig-zagging passage down to Lake Nessie and Brick Road’s dungeon are all designed to force the player to take as much time as possible getting into fights in a small space. It is, on the whole, the first several hours of EarthBound condensed to about thirty or forty minutes, an hour max.
The Pond Cave is the final location, a straightaway path that contains Struttin’ Evil Mushrooms. Unlike their Ramblin’ brethren, these mushrooms never seem to drop spores. There is, after all, no wise old man at the hospital willing to buy the fungus upon your head or mushroom collecting girl on the lookout to snag such cranial sprouts. Another indication that a similar enemy that Ness faced was added in with no greater purpose than to help Jeff level up.
In some ways it feels a bit like padding. Why not simply start Jeff at a higher level? Why not just create weaker enemies that give more experience? For a couple reasons that I think later pay off. Aside from typical padding, the method as designed allows Jeff’s level to make contextual sense within the game’s story. There’s no reason a young man attending a boarding school would be higher than level one. The player also gets to appreciate and understand Jeff’s growing strength, while also being given opportunities to experiment with his more unique toolset as he lacks psychic powers. Furthermore, groundwork becomes laid for future events within the game. Players will return to Winters in order to investigate Stonehenge, an inaccessible area at this time, as well as conquer the Sanctuary Location. Brick Road will also make a return later on.
Rather than just having these moments appear at random down the line, Jeff’s journey through Winters allows the player to anticipate what’s coming ahead. It can be exciting to know that, once you’re powerful enough, you’ll return to conquer new territory.
There’s not much else unique to discuss in terms of Threed. It is perhaps one of the more linear locations of the game, though twice it will rely on the player wandering the environment after hitting a dead end. Discovering the traitorous woman luring visitors to the hotel is all but a guarantee, as many players will yearn to recover health and energy after venturing into the graveyard. The Boogey Tent, on the other hand, is out of the way and relies on the player exploring the entire town again. From there the game sort of takes care of itself.
The real shift here is the spike in difficulty, as enemies will grow more powerful. Paula’s psychic powers are a necessity for getting through not only the graveyard, but the passage to Saturn Valley. Mandatory, even, as foes like the Armored Frog and Plain Crocodile take very little physical damage. With Paula and Jeff being at lower levels and being more vulnerable, they are at high risk of being knocked out of commission.
In addition to having another character to share inventory and fight in combat, Jeff also brings along the ability to fix broken machines. Those random pieces of garbage now have a purpose, and based on Jeff’s IQ there’s a chance he will fix specific objects over night. Some of these are one-time use items, but many of them allow Jeff to deploy shields, absorb hit points, or craft new weapons. It’s wise to keep broken gear in his inventory, and if you ever find a place you can spend the night for free, go ahead and spend several nights seeing if he can fix something up. It’s no 100% guarantee, and if his IQ is too low there are just some things he cannot fix, but many of these inventions come in really handy in combat.
Threed was pretty straight forward. The greatest adjustment was in the difficulty of its enemies, both in how many will join in on a single fight to adjust for the player’s increased number of party members as well as new status ailments and importance of psychic attacks. However, the next step is Fourside, which feels like a lot more time spent in Dusty Dunes Desert if memory serves. And for me, Dusty Dunes was always another hefty difficulty spike. So we’ll see how my no-grind efforts persist into new territory.