Is this to say Eternal Daughter is a game I did not like? Far from it - every day I anticipated coming back and dedicating a half hour or an hour on it (as much as a busy schedule admits) to enjoy its rich graphics with every sign of care and originality, its pleasant and invigorating soundtrack, and of course the sheer difficulty that marks an old-school console gem. Is this to say I was not satisfied with the ending? No - I just finished writing an email to one of the authors, Derek Yu, in a heartfelt gesture of gratitude. The difficulty was to explain it. Nobody in the dorm halls would know the name, and how to answer the followups "so, why is it good?" "why do you like it so much?" would be more daunting tasks than my math homework. For some of my louder friends on the side of video game illiteracy (which is most of them, I am afraid) that actually consider themselves "gamers", I might get a good-natured, but still hurtful jest "what is this 2D crap?" or "I like Halo better".
The irrelevance of such comments aside, how did I have enough time to explain to them how important games like Eternal Daughter were to the history of modern games?
The genre, which I will refer to as the platformer RPG, basically lauched with Nintendo's hit, Metroid, in 1986. Every gamer of the NES console generation knows of this gem, which was one of the most absorbing titles the NES had in its lifetime. Some of this attraction was possibly due to its shortcomings (the repeated use of certain tiles made the world of Metroid even more labyrinthe, and the lack of paralax scrolling colored backgrounds made the game more atmospheric, even scary). It was a platformer, not too far from the Mario mold in an abstract sense, but instead of being separated into levels, the entire game was one continuous level. It therefore makes sense for the main character to have more permanent powerups (as opposed to level-separated games like platformers or shooters), and much more freedom. One can say this is one of the first popular attempts at introducing open-ended play.
With one big level, designers can create patterns and references from one part of the world to the next that makes more gradual sense as players gain more experience and power (for example: there is a powerup near the beginning of the game that the hero cannot reach, but many hours later the hero is given an ability that allows him to return and retrieve it). In this sense, I can go as far to say as this is really the same concept as the also well-known Legend of Zelda series, itself not quite a "RPG" as many would classify it, but an action game with RPG elements (or, to some, an RPG game with action elements). This abstract innovation in design itself gave credibility to Metroid as a good game. Its memorable areas, ominous music, and bosses made it a classic.
It is no surprise then that the first dedication the programming group gave was to Super Metroid, Nintendo's long awaited sequel. The second was to Castlevania, Symphony of the Night, hailed by some as "the best Platformer of all time" or "the best Game of all time".
What makes a cross-genre attractive? The platformer side attracted gamers of the classical button-reflex caliber (shooters, platformers, etc.), but the large world and permanent growth sought favor from gamers who liked to "build" characters and watch them gain in ability (not to mention create longer and more coherent storylines than what usual platformers offer). In terms of evolution, games also need cross-genres (no genetics reference intended, but the idea is similar) to keep novelty alive. The immensely popular action-RPGs of today (Deus Ex, Morrowind, etc.) are testaments to this.
Of course, simple combination of two genres run out quickly (action-puzzlers can only go so far as Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter, at least for now). So good innovation is not limited to recombination alone. But Metroid was one of the first games putting it in this direction. X-COM would connect strategy and tactics on the PC, and Elder Scrolls: Arena (even Dungeon Master) helped to connect RPG with action-based gameplay. It is with these rich combinations and evolution that gives us gems such as Smash Bros. and *name-game-with-pokemon-esque-collecting-elements* today.
Eternal Daughter is what it sounds like - an eternal daughter of one of hte most pivotal movements in game history that is even alive today (though sadly mostly only on the GBA) with reincarnations like the geniusly crafted Mega Man Zero series or Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. In the freeware realm, it continues traditions of, and is followed by, works of art such as Cave Story or Akuji the Demon. Even when being outshadowed by the "l33t gamer" generation that only knows FPSes and MMORPGs, one can find a group dedicated to such games that have long shown themselves as true works of digital art. Design-wise, a valuable lesson is evolutionary genetics (in the form of recombination and selection of good traits) can indeed be applied to media with seeming minds of their own.
P.S. Oh yeah, do play Eternal Daughter. It is hard, however - I challenge the way-too-many self-acclaimed "gamers" to give it a shot. Hopefully, you'll fall in love (even if you don't admit it) with something that you might have once called a relic of video game history.