Earthbound’s Final Boss Turns a Cheery Game Into Pure Terror
Earthbound is relentlessly cute, charming, and silly. You battle against a cult built around painting things blue. Defeat zombies by laying sticky paper in a circus tent. Deal with a crew of moles who all feel they’re the third best. And you do so by leading a group of children into the fray, having them fight comical villains, cartoonish monsters, and oddly-aggressive humans. It just seems like a light, fun RPG. But then you face Giygas at the end and the game’s whole tone takes a drastic swerve into terror.
Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. I’ll keep them to a minimum, though.
Giygas serves as a dramatic turning point in the game’s atmosphere. Not that the game didn’t hint at sinister things happening throughout it. A strange statue seems to appear wherever trouble rears its head. Interplanetary enemies murmur about their powerful master. There’s all manner of nods that something evil is behind all of the bad stuff going on. The game’s bright, colorful locales, goofy NPCs, and funny enemies made it feel like your final foe would just be something silly, too. Maybe a little intimidating, but nothing serious.
That cheerful, lighthearted vibe is what made Earthbound stand out in the SNES era, and honestly still makes it a unique experience in RPGs even today. Facing sci-fi baddies or sword-and-sorcery foes is still, arguably, the most common RPG experience. And even when it isn’t, I rarely find myself fighting cranky old ladies, violent hippies, and evil fire hydrants. Let alone doing so with children. It’s also rare that I come across worlds so colorful and characters so outright bizarre and humorous. The game has a levity that still feels fairly unique.
That tone would get me to let my guard down, though. When you’re playing through something that focuses on so much silliness, it’s hard not to feel like that tone will continue throughout the entire work. So I wasn’t mentally prepared for Giygas, the final boss, despite things getting a little dark at the end of the game,. I don’t know if there are many things out there that could have prepared me for something so cosmically terrifying, though. And you know I enjoy horror when I don’t see it coming.
The final area, and the walk to Giygas, marks a strong shift from the bright, colorful places of Earthbound. Gone are the bright towns and vibrant lands, and instead, you walk through a sterile space. Steel gray and white surround you in a kind of unsettling purity and emptiness. The music here rises and falls, almost-shrill heights and rumbling lows mixing together to create a menace that hasn’t much been present in the game’s playful soundtrack, either. When you find the beast’s lair, you walk along what seem to be intestines to reach it. A sound like a giant’s breath fills your ears.
Your overarching foe, Giygas, as it turns out, is malevolence given form. “Giygas is no longer the wielder of Evil. He has become the embodiment of Evil itself…which he cannot control on his own,” says the game of its core villain. A far cry from roughing up nasty road signs and feeding jars of honey to living puke monsters. There’s something eerily serious in his description in a game filled with oddball dialogue from its characters. Even when speaking about the monster, the game shifts its tone in a disturbing way.
When you begin to fight Giygas, there’s another violent shift in tone, accomplished here through the music. Earthbound is full of upbeat tracks, playful tunes, and catchy music. The music is a major contributor to the game’s quirky feel, and once again, Giygas upsets everything with its presence. Instead of the usual tone of music, Giygas’ fight music is a hard, driving metal track, something I’d never heard in an RPG at the time. I’d never heard anything like this in any game at the time it released. This track slams the player with its power. Doubly hard because it’s so unlike anything you’d heard to this point.
At this point, Giygas was still only hinting at horror. Only touching upon its disturbing presence. It’s when he sheds his initial form and is freed from its confines that we see something genuinely unsettling. As I’ve said, Earthbound is full of silly foes. It’s all fun enemies with cheery, cartoonish looks. They may want to beat you up, but they don’t look like real threats. Giygas, on the other hand, is a being in agony. It’s simply a face in the background, perpetually twisted in pain. It’s perpetually mangled by the psychedelic effects that have been used for all of the game’s battle screens. Giygas is constantly hurting.
This was…a lot to take when I witnessed it as a child. It’s still a lot to take, now, If I’m honest. This being is in pain from its own malevolence. Its existence alone, without any extension of will, hurts people. It hurts itself. “Giygas cannot think rationally any more, and he isn’t even aware of what he is doing now. His own mind was destroyed by his incredible power,” the game says of him. Giygas destroys lives by simply BEING. HE is hurt by his own existence.
And your characters, strong as they are, cannot even perceive the way Giygas harms them. “You cannot grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack.” is how Earthbound talks about the monster’s attacks. Your characters do not even have the sensory ability to understand what Giygas is doing. And then, your characters simply start suffering from status effects or dying outright from this attack. It brings death, suffering, and misery with its every movement as it sways in the background, spreading agony as its existence ripples through reality.
The game has shifted from this absurd look at the real world to this hellish pit of pain and ruin. To unveil a dangerous force that the characters cannot begin to understand. It’s this quick twist from charm and playfulness to humanity’s ruin given form. It’s such a quick twist of the knife, gutting anyone that isn’t ready for this kind of terrifying evil and horror. That it’s such a crushing turn in tone loans Giygas even more power to spread fright and despair. It’s a deeply disturbing enemy already, but made far moreso by the upbeat tone of everything that came before it.
And the only way you can fight it is to pray. To call out to the good in the world. Beg the people who love you to voice their care. To hope that your heart and emotions are enough to sway a force that exists only to spread destruction and suffering. Your only real weapons are friendship and hope.
Earthbound may feel fluffy and light for most of its duration, but in its final moments, it shows a side that’s deeply disturbing. A magical adventure with childhood friends ends with an encounter with something that can kill them simply by willing it. A foe that can only be overcome if the cosmos wills it. All of that lightness is overturned in an instant through music and visuals and dialogue, creating a foe so utterly disturbing that few games have ever matched it.