[Spoilers for Twilight Princess, EarthBound, Mother 3 and Cave Story]
“It’s hard to believe that it’s over, isn’t it?”
-Old Woman, Celeste
It’s a statistical fact that most people don’t beat the games they play. A not insignificant portion don’t even start the games they buy, but that’s another topic altogether. For the first few decades of videogame history many games — especially those in arcades — simply couldn’t be beaten, as they were predicated on high scores and fail states; nobody beats the bricks in Tetris. Even the designers and programmers of a game with a definitive climax like Donkey Kong didn’t foresee players reaching a skill ceiling so high that they would arrive at a “kill screen”, wherein the game’s internal variables cross an untenable threshold and “overflow”, causing the game to cease to function. Here the win state is a fail state of another sort.
The arcade expectation of inevitable loss that encouraged quarter-pumping carried over to the limited lives and continues of home console titles in the 1980’s and 1990’s. While one could now own and eventually master these games, for many the most expedient way to play a shallow amount of a broad selection was the repeat rental market. It wasn’t uncommon for these retro games to have a sort of reverse difficulty ramp that deterred player progress, with the canonical examples being the Dam from Ninja Turtles, the Turbo Tunnel from Battletoads and later on the rings from Superman 64. Others like Alf and Bart vs. the Space Mutants started out as obtuse adventure/puzzle games before ultimately resigning to more reliable action/platforming.
Some of these instances were the result of a lack of thorough playtesting, while others were entirely purposefully punishing. It’s ironic that movie tie-in games like The Lion King were particularly notorious, as their properties came from a medium which had the luxury of assuming the audience wouldn’t walk out of the theater. My own personal Sisyphean task from childhood was Disney’s Hercules: Action Game, which was more lenient with its difficulty modes yet still incredulously themed the first quarter of the game as training levels.
While many who are nostalgic about videogames tend to wrack their brains to remember the first ones they encountered, it’s generally harder to recall the first game one has beaten, despite being theoretically fresher in the mind. I can remember getting to the penultimate boss Biokinton — a conspicuously simplistic cloud with eyes — in Super Mario Land before being felled by its bizarre bird projectiles. Andross in Star Fox 64 and the less revered Alphonse Perrier du von Scheck from Hey Arnold: The Movie for GBA also bested me, and these defeats seem almost more humiliating since there’s a “so close yet so far” aspect at play. I believe the first non-edutainment game I beat was Crash Team Racing in a single sitting on a PlayStation without a memory card, though even then the bonus collectible relics that unlocked the true ending eluded me as my limited time with the system was up.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of my favourite games of the past few years like Celeste and Super Mario Odyssey have extensive post-game content, which I eventually 100%-ed with time and patience. However, these games also tend to have Return of the King syndrome, in that they end then keep on going then end again multiple times (Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is especially guilty of this). On the flipside there’s a huge market for games which never end: the seemingly infinite supply of endless runners on the App Store as well as Rogue-like/lites such as Spelunky and its sequel. Yet even these procedural experiences remind me of the one random plumbing puzzle from Pajama Sam 3 that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out, as it had never appeared in any of my other playthroughs.
I also can’t quite recall if I ever beat my all-time favourite game Banjo-Tooie on N64, which ought to have been formative but has maybe been conflated with my later Xbox 360 replay. So whether I knew about “Banjo-Threeie” because I witnessed the final cutscene, heard it from an acquaintance or did the math myself is uncertain. What I do know is that the game is one of many which forces players to choose between fulfilling the destiny of the heroic narrative conceit and fulfilling the gameplay promise of an explorable and reactive environment. As Carmilla Morrell notes about Tooie, “returning to your completed adventure is to return to worlds rendered vacuous by your accomplishment”.
“Never forget that there’s another world bound to this one”
-Midna, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
This strange hollowness was also how I felt about Twilight Princess when I initially beat it. First off, I didn’t quite care for the Ganondorf reveal because it was really no surprise at all, to the extent that he’s an on-the-box selling point in the HD re-release. TP has a reputation for being essentially Ocarina of Time Dark Mode, which I don’t fully agree with, but it earns it in these final moments. Perhaps the dev team got the bait-and-switch idea from Rare’s ersatz Zelda game Star Fox: Adventures? I also really liked Zant as a villain and thought his boss fight was the highlight of the game with its Swiss Army knife approach regarding all of Link’s unique accumulated items. Fighting Darknuts in Hyrule Castle and the multi-phase final boss were both well executed, but it was what came after that irked me most.
Following the final cutscene and being booted out to the main menu I immediately reloaded my last save only to find myself once again at the doorstep of the final area. So I bided my time doing everything else there was to do but it didn’t change the fact that I could never bring Hyrule into a literal saved state, and all the rupees in my wallet couldn’t change that. While some may find closure in a cutscene, the impact of the events it portrays go unfelt on the gameworld, and this cheapens the sense of victory for me (Alex J. Tunney levels the same criticism against Sonic Adventure in its final moments). Similarly I didn’t feel compelled to finish Breath of the Wild because Calamity Ganon was an even less imposing presence and I knew going in he could be beaten from the start, casting the same endgame ennui over the entire experience of perpetual digression.
One franchise which I think has fantastic endings is the Mother series, specifically EarthBound and Mother 3. However they are quite different in approach, with EarthBound taking the player to the brink then returning to normalcy while Mother 3 travels to the brink and then sort of stays there. EarthBound employs what has been called a “playable denouement” by Darius Kazemi (something Art Maybury also notes in the original Dragon Quest); nearly the entire gameworld is open to re-explore and there is new dialogue for most NPC’s. With Giygas defeated there are no more enemies to fight and thus your companions have gone home. Even the music — a classical guitar and clarinet arrangement of the Fourside theme — remains constant as if Ness’ wandering plays out as a concluding montage that’s as protracted as the player wishes it to be. RPG’s are generally so much about gaining party members that it feels surreal to lose them in a non-fatal context, and when Ness gets back to riding his bike its distant familiarity is just as the saying goes.
Though it’s left ambiguous, I believe the title EarthBound refers to the special “sanctuary” locations throughout the game which Ness becomes bound to in order to unlock his nascent potential. Indeed many of the places he travels are contrarily otherworldly realms, such as Saturn Valley, Moonside and Magicant. Ultimately though, Earth is Ness’ home and therefore he is always homeward bound — a condition reflected in the homesickness he suffers throughout the game that becomes more pronounced if the player doesn’t call Ness’ mother semi-regularly — so the “there and back again” story structure is entirely fitting. I really wish Twilight Princess had done something similar even if it was restricted to select locations like Castle Town and Ordon Village. After his long sojourn across the worlds of shadow and light, I’d like the opportunity to tuck Link soundly into bed for some much deserved rest.
Mother 3 also has a playable denouement, but it’s entirely different in its execution. As Lucas lacks the warping ability of Ness and co., his adventure is overall more linear and tightly plotted, so when you reach the cavern containing the final confrontation there is no turning back (the game’s final Save Frog says as much). Unlike EarthBound, Mother 3 cannot end with a revisitation of previous areas because Lucas is on a quest to unbind the Earth rather than save it. Upon pulling the seventh and last needle out of the ground Lucas awakens a dormant dragon, triggering a cataclysmic event replete with tornadoes and meteors. As the Nowhere Islands are presumably destroyed the game cuts to black and the letters E-N-D appear on screen one after another–followed by a question mark.
In pitch darkness the unseen player can then walk around, at first accompanied only by the sound of their footsteps but eventually triggering dialogue with the various NPC’s who have “miraculously survived” in their words. In a moment that echoes the fourth wall breaking at the climax of EarthBound, the player is addressed by whichever name they provided at the start of the game and subsequently thanked by Lucas and others. Upon receiving the final message the screen fades to white, then back to black, the credits roll then fade into a version of the Mother 3 logo–which was once partially metallic but has now been restored to natural wood–accompanied by a definitive “END” before fading out to white one last time.
“You have no choice but to run”
-Kazuma Sakamoto, Cave Story
Falling somewhere between Zelda and Mother, Cave Story offers the player an interesting compromise. The game has three distinct endings: bad, normal and best. The bad ending comes about halfway through the game, with the protagonist Quote making a cowardly escape from the doomed floating island via a newly-hatched flying dragon. Interestingly, both Mother 3 and Cave Story use a question mark to imply a false ending, and in the latter the save point that immediately precedes the escape cutscene serves to motivate players to venture onward.
In the normal ending Quote defeats primary antagonist The Doctor as well as the Undead Core, but in doing so causes the island to crumble and descend. In a cutscene that feels like an emotional inversion of the slideshow credits of EarthBound, we see previously visited areas of the island falling into disarray, including the site which holds the secret to obtaining the best ending. While this ending is deemed sufficient enough to trigger the end credits, it is clear that it is a conclusion in the same way that the Moon crashing into Termina in Majora’s Mask is.
In the best ending Quote reunites with his ally Curly Brace and together they take on the game’s last gauntlet, the Bloodstained Sanctuary (also known as the Sacred Grounds), which leads to the secret final boss Ballos. After defeating Ballos, Quote and Curly Brace are saved by previous mini-boss Balrog and depart the island forever. While that may be where the narrative ends, the gameplay continues on through an optional item that is only available if the player is on track for the best ending: a timer. Here Cave Story seems to be self-aware of the limitations of its own save system and thus provides a built-in mechanism for prolonging its ending as a courtesy to the player who has seen and done everything, namely via speedrunning. Completing the Bloodstained Sanctuary in speedy enough times even unlocks different title screen graphics and music.
It is strange then that despite being a love letter to Mario, Metroid and Mega Man, its cultural significance within the history of indie games and its widespread availability, as a speedgame Cave Story is relatively niche. Perhaps this is because Quote’s movement is fairly rigid for the first third of the run, which tends towards what Rainforest Scully-Blaker would call a “finesse run” that is not oriented around tricks and glitches (though there are a few damage boosts and at least one significant skip). The Bloodstained Sanctuary also breaks with contemporary speedgame design wisdom as it features unskippable text boxes which interrupt play to deliver lore, a falling block section heavily determined by RNG and timed gates which force the player to wait. Regardless, Cave Story left an indelible impression on me that broke past the unavoidable bittersweetness of departure and has carried through to my love of the never-ending pursuit that is speedrunning.