Retrospection: Earthbound

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

I played too many JRPGs on the SNES when I was a lad.  After a certain amount of time, I became somewhat genre savvy and was able to feel pretty at home when a game dumped me in a world saving scenario with nothing but some kind of sharp thing, a few friends, and a McGuffin.  Sure, we had a few in the mix that were spins on the setting (Mario RPG, Secret of Evermore, etc), but on a tonal level, nothing had ever messed with the recipe too much.

Then Earthbound came along and threw a wrench into that plan, having used a ruler to accurately measure the distance to throw the wrench ahead of time.

It’s funny, then, that the game stuck with me so much, as at the time I was way too narratively deaf to really understand what was going on here.  But playing through it again recently really highlighted some things.  Earthbound is a game about being young, and how crazy and ridiculous the world seems through the eyes of youth, and how at the time, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

GIANT STEPS, LITTLE FEET

The game hits you in the face with this almost immediately from the start.  In addition to naming your characters, you have to go through and discuss your favorite food, your favorite thing (that can be spelled in six characters), and what your dog’s name is.  The game presents in a goofy menu with some weird music playing and a color palette right out of the windbreakers I owned in the 1990s.  But it sticks, and it sets the tone of the game from the start: you’re a kid, all kids care about are food and leisure activity, so tell me about those.

From then on you’re off like a rocket through Onette, beating up gangsters with a bat and rummaging through garbage for healing items.  There’s not a standard JRPG encounter in sight, as even the crows you fight do weird things like waste turns grinning at you and steal your cookies.  Everything is consumed by strangeness, but it’s pervasive in a way that feels accepted by the main character.  Because Ness is weird, too; he can, after all, obliterate things with the power of PSI [Thing] (which, if you’re really dumb like me, you named “PSI SNES” as a kid.  Yeah.)

Nothing in the world of Earthbound is normal, and yet, everything is.  It’s striking how much a game that takes place in what is effectively just Earth in 199X can be so much weirder and more ridiculous than any of the sword and sorcery or science fiction games of its time.  Fighting a dragon?  Done that.  Shooting a bottle rocket at a demonic circus tent?  Okay, I’m listening.  It’s jarring and unique, and it’s amazing to me that no one’s replicated it more often outside of its own series.

Something that struck me as I played through the game again was just how long you’re running around as just Ness.  If you look back at some of the game’s contemporaries on the SNES, it’s pretty rare you’ll find a game wherein the player did not either start with or quickly acquire a second party member.  In Ness’s case, you have a good two hours worth of content to get through, which includes a couple dungeon-like scenarios and several bosses, before you finally get to Paula (and when you do, surprise, she’s level 1.)  It really gives you a chance to find your feet in the setting and appreciate how everything sits in relation to you: you’re one kid on a crazy mission, but once you start getting work done by beating up the town gang, people start paying attention.  By the time you find Paula you feel like the hero, and that extended period of time alone really helps you get a sense for Ness as the protagonist before tossing in anyone else.

It’s important to take note of the game’s Japanese name for a moment: Mother 2.  The “Mother” series.  While there are some crazy (and somewhat unsettling) fan theories about some sinister spins on what Mother means in the context of Earthbound/Giygas, I think it’s probably a bit more simple than that in this scenario.  These are games about youth, but also about family.  While this is extremely prevalent in Mother 3, here in Earthbound, it’s subtle.  There’s definitely a recurring issue here with father figures, and a sense of longing for one’s mother and the feeling of being at home.

The most obvious expression here is the “homesickness” mechanic wherein Ness becomes less responsive in battle if you haven’t called your mother in a while (shame on you).  But on top of that, there’s a recurring theme of distance in fathers.  Ness’s Dad is almost literally a telephone, and while you communicate and check in on him a lot, he’s never actually around.  Jeff’s father is a prevalent character, but his dialog with Jeff on meeting him says it all: he hasn’t seen Jeff for a decade, and tells you afterward that you and he should meet again in another 10 years or so.  Sure thing, dad.

But Mother is where home is, with a hot steaming plate of [FOOD] and a warm bed to meet you.  And that home is what you carry with you throughout the game; every single one of the main characters is recruited out of their home.  It makes the whole party of kids feel like a bunch of friends who called each other’s parents ahead of time and got permission to go over to Ness’s house to play, and oh, save the world a little maybe later.

And I did plenty of both.  The battle system is something that I originally considered to be something of the game’s weak point.  It’s not bad, but it’s pretty by the numbers turn-based JRPG fighting.  But the strangeness of the game, the weird lens of childhood, is present moreso in battle than anywhere else.  Every enemy in the game feels like something a kid imagined fighting when playing at heroes out in the yard with sticks. And what tops that all off is that they act like it.  The New Age Retro Hippie takes a turn out to measure you with a ruler.  Happy Happyists try to paint you to death.  Zombies in Threed aren’t just killed, they “return to the dust of the earth.”   Giygas’s attack is incomprehensible.  All of these things could have been done in a way that was sterile, but the game takes every chance to weird you out that it gets, and it stays with you.  So yes, the game’s combat is a bit by the book, but the game’s overpowering strangeness infects it completely and makes it something special.  There are also some pretty inspired mechanics sitting around on the edges, like not having to fight enemies that are significantly weaker than you, and being able to survive a mortal blow if you kill the enemy before your health ticks down to 0.

MOSTLY TIMELESS

So how does it hold up, then?  There’s not a lot here I can criticize, honestly.  The game is a bit oblique about certain things, as Patrick Klepek pointed out in his own look back at the game through eyes mostly untouched by nostalgia.  It’s hilarious and goofy in its obscurity sometimes, and it is important to note that the game originally shipped with the strategy guide packaged in because some of the elements of the game were so hilariously obtuse at first.  And while the combat is wonderfully weird, it’s still pretty basic and doesn’t take any hugely bold steps.  The difficulty is a little bit spikey at times; there are a couple sections where the game really decides to kick you in the teeth and get you paying attention to the combat (looking at you, Fourside department store.)

I think one of the most remarkable things about the game in the context of its ageproofing is the quality of the translation, especially in the context of other games of the genre in that time period.  This is a game full of weird, silly stuff, and a crappy translation could have really made a lot of these jokes fall totally flat.  But what we got instead was a beautiful localization of writer Shigesato Itoi’s ridiculous, comedic, and unsettling vision.  It’s honestly something of a miracle the game has no “spoony bard” or “this guy are sick” moments that stick out; it would have been so much more damaging here than in a Final Fantasy game, and I’m still shocked to see how well it was done, looking back.

What flaws there are in the combat are forgivable in the context of the big picture.  Earthbound makes you feel like a kid again when you play it, seeing everything through an imaginative child’s eyes, transforming everything mundane into something potentially crazy and magical, from the dogs and crows in your hometown to the weird loonies running around the streets of the city.  It’s simple, effective, and it feels like going home again, with a Mother, a warm bed and a hot meal waiting.

Earthbound can currently be bought on Nintendo’s E-shop, but (inexplicably) only on the Wii U.

MUSICAL SELECTION: Paula’s Theme, which sets the tone perfectly for the moment you meet her, a mixture of doubt and fear with bravery and hope.

CONCEPT ART PICK:  Image Everdred.  Just look at this guy.

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  1. The War Against Giygas! | Chad Alexander - October 3, 2013

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