Thanks to the upcoming E For All Expo, I decided that I would not be able to write a retrospective. Sad but true. In light of this turn of events, I used my magical powers of persuasion to call in a favor. An old college buddy of mine has been pestering me for an eternity to do a write up on Earthbound, and since he was and is literary mastermind I decided to pass the buck this week! This week, Justin presents to you Earthbound.
Earthbound reads like an adolescent dream. The game opens, simple enough, with a boy asleep in his bed. Suddenly, there is a tremendous noise heard from outside where a meteorite has crashed into a local hillside.
Penned by television celebrity, author and copywriter Shigesato Itoi, Mother2 was conceived as a natural follow-up to the successes reaped from Mother on the Famicom. Mother2/Earthbound isn’t necessarily a sequel, and it isn’t totally a remake, but one can view it as almost a director’s cut, or the original story as seen complete.
It’s amazing to think back on how long this game and I have been together. Being only a scrappy, young teenager, I remember the scratch-and-sniff ads promising a game that “stinks”. I remember rapping my fingernails across the scented panel and wrapping the odor of what was intended to be pizza throughout the $10 off coupon that I would carry in my pockets. When I finally saw the jumbo box at the store, I pleaded with the “Bank of Dad” for its purchase, and quickly found my pleas rejected.
“This one doesn’t look very good. Why don’t we just rent it?”
Renting meant only one thing for a kid in the rural Midwest: You weren’t going to play this game until every single summer chore was completed in full.
Fortunately, I got the flu.
For three solid days in late July, I was able to play night-and-day completely undisturbed. It was just the cartridge, the massive, white binder that Blockbuster used to distribute the guidebook, and me.
Knowing that, my game analysis may come from an initial playthrough perverted by fevers and continuous horking into a Cub Scouts popcorn tin.
But we shared something, that game and I. Finally freed from the shackles of fat kid-dom, I was on the first great adventure of my life. And, accordingly, the game has labored within the background of every subsequent task. Earthbound operates as both inspiration and mantra. Yes, I can sing its praises to you like the Heart Sutra (...gate gate paragate parasamgate Earthbound). Yes, I petitioned my mother to let me wear a laminated drawing of Ness on my high school graduation cap (request denied). Yes, I would listen to Smiles and Tears to segue my brainaches from a cot in Iraq.
This is a dangerous thing, this game. It’s one that those with empathetic ability should avoid, lest they be permanently tainted by the story.
Maybe it’s the shared epic that occurs every time the console is powered on. Earthbound is aware that it’s only a game. It teases you, initially, like most RPGs: Tell me the name of these characters, tell me the name of your pet, tell me what your favorite food is, tell me your favorite “thing”. As the player, you have an expectation to establish yourself as the protagonist. These are the common laws of gaming. Earthbound’s self-awareness begins slowly with small japes directly against the RPG genre: You’ll crawl through a dungeon built by a man calling himself Brickroad, a self-proclaimed dungeon developer, you’ll combat Master Belch, a giant pile of vomit, and you’ll push through the Dusty Dunes Desert clearing a hole filled with five bosses that all claim to be the third most powerful. Then, somewhere near the midpoint, Tony, the boarding school chum of Jeff (who will only be Jeff if you “Don’t Care” what that character’s name is), calls wanting to know your name. You—the sweaty hands pushing the buttons on a slab of gray plastic. Suddenly there’s a new responsibility to the evolving relationship, and, as the player, your role is both required and respected.
The game wants to know you, because you’ve been a part of this story longer than anyone within its universe. The game wants to know you, because the story won’t end without you.
What a potent, fourth wall dynamic for a game that, upon release, was immediately chastised for looking “childish” and of only having value for its quirkiness! Other games may bring the most hardened of players to tears with fantastic images of characters struggling against perilous odds, but Earthbound is a slow, constant struggle akin to reality. And, as such, a real story is often a tale insurmountable odds and defeat. The only tears shed are during the credits, because the silicon will soon grow cold, and there are no more stories for the two of you to share.
It will miss you, because it never really got to know you. It heard you, it felt your prayers, and it knew that with you the impossible was actually within reach. You gave so much, and it never had the chance to enjoy that sobering cup of tea.
All RPGs function by the player suspending their disbelief, through equating their real world values to the level of normality within the game world, and accommodating their worldview to the scenario at hand. But, the world of Earthbound is tacit from its initial viewing. Even the idea of a meteor landing isn’t terribly foreign. If I want to ride a bike, then I can. I can order a pizza and have it delivered (nearly) everywhere. Hell, I still fantasize about having psychokinetic abilities. I can only think of this as to why there is an adoption, or an attachment, to the world of Earthbound—Regardless of how absurd the circumstance, there is a constant baseline to feed your imagination.
There have been several moments in my life where I have found myself surrounded by other self-proclaimed gamers that have never touched this title. This brings a unique set of difficulties to a preacher of Earthbound. Most often the pointlessness is blatantly apparent. How do you attempt to describe a heart-felt story full of sentimentality and childhood fantasy to gamers that weigh a game’s worth in their $600 GPUs?
It just doesn’t work.
Earthbound requires an appreciation of nostalgia to operate at full force. This isn’t a prerequisite for play, and you may eventually grok it at length, but it is necessary so as to understand the depth available.
That potent memory of the initial thrill from exploring the fresh expanses of the wide game world, and finding those small places that you can call your own. These are our places, between the game and I. This is the song that we are singing that will always keep us together.
It’s strange to think that a videogame can have an altering affect on the development of one’s personal identity.
But what’s so wrong with that?
Everything's really going great here.
I wish I could have gone with you on your adventure, even just part of the way,
but instead I'm sitting here, waiting for you in Winters.
I want to see you again as soon as possible. I can't wait to see your cheerful face.
I bet your glasses are dirty... If you come back, I'll clean them for you!
Like I said, I'm waiting for you.
P.S. Don't show this letter to anyone!)
Don’t tell Tony that I shared it with you.