You know, Earthbound’s ending was kind of awesome.
Yeah, it didn’t have some huge, overwrought emotional factor, or flashy acts of inspiring heroism, or most of the other stuff we tend to associate with great conclusions. Earthbound’s ending doesn’t have some heavy, beautiful finale that perfectly imparts a great, thematic insight to the player that seeks to help them understand and explore the human condition. It’s hardly a tearjerker. Earthbound just ends with a simple, straightforward, arguably even unoriginal parting of ways for its heroes amidst some basic fanfare for the forces of good having overcome the forces of evil. It doesn’t stand out.
Except that it does, because rather than simply incorporating only the important characters in the conclusion’s events, the entirety of Earthbound’s populace are on display.
What Earthbound did that few since have been able to mimic was to allow you to, in its ending, travel more or less the entirety of the game’s world, and interact with every character, from the major supporting cast like the main characters’ family members and personal friends, right on down the line to the most basic of village extras, the most obsolete of back-ways NPCs. Earthbound allows you to tour its world in totality one final time, and EVERYONE is out there for you to get one last dialogue box out of.
It doesn’t sound like a lot when simply described, but in effect, it’s really great as a way of finishing the game, and a smart, artistically consistent move. 1 of Earthbound’s most compelling qualities is its setting and style, the simple, quirky, abstract world and the appropriately mildly quirky and occasionally spontaneous individuals who populate it. Allowing the player 1 final chance to experience that world* is a great strategy for Earthbound, because it not only gives the player a scope on all that he or she has worked toward having Ness and company save, but also ensures that the final moments of his or her experience with the game is be immersed in the setting and styles--a smart move for most RPGs, but especially in a game for which those are some of its best qualities.
Likewise, being able to interact with the entire cast 1 final time, and have every single NPC in the entire game react to the events that have transpired, is a great way to make sure that the player’s final impression of the game is as positive as possible, by once again putting a special emphasis on 1 of its best qualities. And even beyond that, it’s just a solid play overall, because being able to interact with all the residents of Earthbound’s many locales really helps underscore the enormity of Ness and company’s victory, by showing you all the individuals who have been positively affected by Ness’s quest. Sure, some sweeping shots of happy, peaceful villagers and some key characters will do that well enough in most RPGs...but there’s a big difference between seeing a few snapshots of the citizenry you’ve saved, and actually getting to go out among them and experience each of their quirky little lives continuing.
And hey, if nothing else, you gotta respect the writers and coders of the Earthbound team who came together to put in the extraordinary effort to make sure each and every NPC who could speak, no matter how obscurely hidden in the game, would have something new and relevant to say during the game’s ending. That’s some serious dedication to the craft, there.
In terms of direct storytelling quality, Earthbound’s ending may not seem like much at a glance, but the game expertly puts its less tangible, but best qualities to work in its conclusion, and it pays off very well, allowing the player to build his or her own emotional response greater and greater as he or she explores the world and its peoples at the pace and to the extent that he or she valued them during the game proper. Few RPGs** have the time and inclination to go to such lengths as Earthbound does in its ending, and that’s too bad, because Earthbound’s final world tour generates a last and lasting poignantly positive feeling within the player largely unique to it.
* In the context of having beaten the game and saved said world, I mean. You can gallivant 1 last time around most RPG worlds to say goodbye before you go into the final battle, after all, but the atmosphere of having finished one’s adventure, the finality of Earthbound’s last tour, gives the experience a lot more power than just electing to randomly exercise your right to backtrack.
** Few, but not none, it’s only fair to note. While I’m fairly sure that Earthbound was the first to have this “walk among the people” approach, there have been a few RPGs since that followed its example, to positive results--in fact, I’d argue that, like all other Earthbound/Mother-signature qualities it borrowed, Undertale took this concept and refined it into a better form. Undertale’s NPCs are no less quirky and thematic to its compelling setting, but they also tend to have a style of personality that more deeply connects to the player, so Undertale’s True Ending’s walk-among-the-people approach has all the setting and style benefits of Earthbound’s, plus a stronger emotional pull.