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Retrospection: Demon’s Souls

                I had a bit of a weird and time-scattered experience with From Software’s 2009 PS3 classic Demon’s Souls. I bought the game alongside my PS3, having heard of its reputation not only for difficulty, but also for innovative multiplayer implementation. I played the first level or so, liked it, but ultimately sort of fell off the wagon in favor of other experiences and let it sit neglected on the shelf until about a month or so ago.

In the intervening period, I played Dark Souls, having been swept up in the ever-swirling cloud of hype and love that surrounds that game amongst its devoted fanbase, and I began to understand what it was about the series that got people so enraptured with it. As the release of Dark Souls II loomed closer, I decided to give the spiritual ancestor a try, either out of hunger for more of the same, or a curiosity as to what was different.

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TIGHTER, BUT MORE CONFINED

In looking back, it’s most interesting to note the ways in which Demon’s Souls differs from its descendants. The core gameplay is mostly the same; well-tuned action combat, with a variety of wildly differing weapon styles, magical spells, and equipment augmentation that combine with your carefully chosen stats in order to produce a character that really feels like the sum of the choices you’ve made as a player. But where Dark Souls placed a heavy emphasis on slow discovery, exploration, and unity in the world, Demon’s Souls takes a different approach.

Demon’s Souls chose the path of designing tightly instead of designing widely, and it shows. Each one of the game’s 16 levels has a very distinct and carefully laid out feel to it that made the entire experience feel very intentional. I felt a tension to every step forward, as there was an unshakeable aura that a developer was looking over my shoulder, chuckling to himself because he knew what I was about to step into.

MORE THAN HALF THE BATTLE

The boss fights were no different. Demon’s Souls is perhaps more cerebral than its spiritual sequel when it comes to combat; both games are largely about knowing your enemy, but in Demon’s Souls, it felt like knowing was a lot more than half the battle. Dark Souls often required a certain level of mechanical execution and skill to the timing in all of its boss fights, but its antecedent is more entirely about figuring out what the trick to the fight is in almost every boss encounter.  The notable exceptions here are the Flamelurker and the False King, who are fairly mechanically demanding fights, but even in those, there’s nothing on the level of Ornstein and Smough or Artorias from Dark Souls.

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Demon’s Souls is more about knowing than doing. It’s about taking what the boss is telling you and really listening to it. There are fewer fights to blunder through, but if you can figure out a fight quick, it can be trivial to smash it to bits. It’s all about thinking on your feet and looking at context clues and tells that the boss is giving you, and in that way, the bosses are an interesting difference from the later game.

Of course, a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that I played all of Dark Souls before really getting into its predecessor. Most of the combat training from Dark Souls stuck with me, and so things that may have been extreme challenges to new players when the game came out weren’t so threatening to me when I saw them, and some of the surprises were things that they’d reused in the sequel. I was already familiar with the multiplayer elements of invasions, signs, and phantoms in general, and I knew about From Software’s penchant for bridge dragons and hiding surprises next to loot. I also knew about the importance of item descriptions, and how the elements of the weapon upgrade system worked. All of these things made Demon’s Souls more a challenge of learning levels than mechanics, and so the experience felt more cerebral and slow paced to me.

There are important differences in tone here, too. Demon’s Souls has a certain bleakness to it, but not on the level of Dark Souls’s inevitable dwindling of the world. Demon’s presents you with a world that can really be saved, and it feels like the characters you encounter along the way are not quite so hopelessly doomed as the ones that populate Lordran.

All said, Demon’s Souls represents an interesting mid-generation touchstone for the last console generation. It’s an eastern company’s taken on a Western style RPG, and it’s a delicate, deliberate, carefully constructed experience which sets itself apart in difficulty, cleverness, and atmosphere. It may lack the cohesively interwoven world and sense of exploration of its spiritual successor, but it makes up for it in the details of the level design. Demon’s Souls is worth looking back at.

Retrospection: Super Mario Bros. 3

            There is often quite a contention among early Mario fans over what the greatest of the classic titles is.  Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World tend to be held in somewhat equal esteem among players, and carelessly asking a group of people to choose one can lead to a lot of broken jaws and smashed beer bottles.  For the purposes of Retrospection, though, I’m going to be taking a look at the elder Mario title; what makes it unique, what makes it influential, and its legacy in the series to this day.

On that last point, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who’s spent a lot of time looking back at Super Mario Bros. 3 in recent times.  Interestingly enough, I’m of the opinion that Nintendo has been following Mario 3’s cues in its recent side-scrolling Mario titles more so than any other previous game.  Think about it: the world maps nowadays are extremely similar, with usable items on the map, fortresses, airship levels, minigame huts that produce items, and various branching paths that enable shortcuts around the worlds.  All of these things are straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3, not World, and it’s interesting to see the ways in which Nintendo is taking cues from itself in some ways and not others.

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Talk about box art that speaks for itself.

So what is it about Super Mario Bros. 3 that sticks with both players and developers?  For starters, it represents the perfection of the NES Mario formula in every way.  It’s a pure level based progression like earlier titles in the series, but there’s an element of non-linearity and randomness thrown into the mix, with branching paths available in a new world map format not seen previously in the series.  The game hadn’t quite treaded into the far end of that territory seen in World’s multiple exits, bizarre ghost houses, and hidden switch palaces, but it started moving that way in 3.

On top of that, it’s the first game in the series to really embrace the idea of multiple insane powerups being key to success in the various worlds.  So many classic powerups came from this game; the Tanooki suit, the raccoon ears, the frog suit, the Kuribo’s shoe, the Hammer bros suit, etc.  All of them are pretty rare and extremely potent, and it really pioneered the concept of wanting some powerups more than others in a series that, up to that point, had only featured a linear progression from tiny Mario to fire Mario.

But what really stood out to me as something that echoed into the current run of Mario games is the angle of the presentation of the experience in Super Mario Bros. 3.  The entire thing is put on as some sort of stage show, essentially; the game opens with a curtain rising, the elements of the stages are often depicted as being bolted down or hung from strings, and when he finishes a level, Mario literally exits stage left.  There’s an element of performance here that makes the whole experience feel fun and magical, like a play being put on for the player.  There isn’t a shred of hostility in the Super Mario Bros 3 experience, despite the difficulty of some of the later levels; this is a game about having fun, and the characters on screen are having just as much fun as you are in the experience.

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Fuck your spikes, I’m a shoe.

This really carried over into the New Super Mario Bros series, where each level ends with what may as well be a curtain call and a bow from Mario and his friends.  The whole dressing of the game experience of Super Mario Bros 3 makes it feel like an amazing show and not a hostile challenge, and it really contributes to the pure, simple fun that the Mario series has always represented to me.  Mario is like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny: timeless, happy, and simple.

The level design here is far from simple, however.  The amount of sheer variety from level to level is staggering; Nintendo managed to create a platformer where every world feels extremely different from the previous one, and every level within those worlds internally feels thematically unified while being incredibly mechanically diverse.  In World 3 I go from underwater levels to underground levels to levels where the floor is gone and replaced with a current of carnivorous fish, but it all feels tropical and aquatic.   The experiences never feel the same, from the basic  platforming to the rushed, moving levels, and to the tricky, deceptive fortresses and hectic flying airships.  Mario is a series forever dedicated to combining the old and the new, both externally and internally.

I think Nintendo is justified in taking cues from Mario 3 in the presentation of its sidescrollers and the freedom of Mario World in the nonlitearity of its more open ended 3D games, then.  It’s extremely difficult to consider Mario 3 as anything but a master class in how to design a 2D platforming game, and I advise anyone who’s thinking about it to take the plunge again and hop up onstage.  Put on your jumping shoes, get your raccoon ears fitted, and ignore the temptation of the warp whistles, because there are a ton of game design lessons here, and understanding Nintendo’s past is rapidly proving to be the key to appreciating Nintendo’s future.

Super Mario Bros. 3 can be found on any of Nintendo’s Virtual Console storefronts, be it Wii, 3DS, or Wii U.

Retropsection+: Suikoden, Part One

RETROSPECTION+: SUIKODEN, PART ONE

            I’m taking a bit of a different approach to Retrospection for the next couple weeks.  Up until now, the feature has been about looking back on games that I’ve played extensively in the past and seeing how those experiences can be imported into the present.  This time, however, I’m going to take a look at a classic game that I missed the first time around, and seeing how it holds up to fresh eyes and with no nostalgia or much prior knowledge.  Given that this is a long game this time, I’m going to be posting at least two updates of my ongoing impressions as I make it closer to the game’s finale.

So for this first iteration of Retrospection+, I’m looking at 1995’s Playstation JRPG classic Suikoden.  Suikoden as a game and a series is largely famous for the incredible feat of containing 108 recruitable characters, the “Stars of Destiny,” and for utilizing a wider scale battle system alongside some strategic battle scenarios that occur sporadically throughout the game.

The first game in the series is something of an interesting middle child between the SNES and PSX golden ages of JRPG dominance.  Before I’d done some research on the game’s release, I was ready to place this next to the PSX Final Fantasy games and things like Breath of Fire IV and Chrono Cross in the timeline of PSX JRPG history, but on actually reviewing it, it’s much more tied to the late generation 16-bit JRPG’s like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Lufia II than I would have expected.  Given that it was released in 1995 alongside those titles, it’s no surprise that it seems to be more part of that generation than of the one with which its hardware is typically associated.

The most obvious example of this is the way the game is laid out visually.  The environments, characters, and backgrounds are all almost entirely sprite based, not rendered in 3D.  The only real 3D I’ve encountered so far in the game is the battle screens, where the terrain and backgrounds are 3D renders.  Sprites still lived on for a long time in the PSX era, mind you; the PSX Breath of Fire games and games like Xenogears were notable for using 2D sprites overlaid onto 3D rendered backgrounds.  Suikoden, however, sits in a more SNES looking 2D plane, which makes it feel more nostalgic for that set of games than the PSX to me.

The soundtrack, though, harkens to a more modern era.  The actual compositions are very well done and fitting for the wide variety of environments, but the real advantage shows in the CD quality of the sound vs. the SNES’s more chiptuney tracks.  The format’s audio superiority is extremely evident in the soundtrack, and it really shines through as exemplary for its time as a result.

Something that really strikes me about Suikodens famous 108 stars is the amount of characters you recruit that are temporary.  I would’ve expected a game with such an insane amount of recruitable characters to be shoving permanent party members down my throat at every chance, but I’ve had quite a string of temporary characters so far, and it’s surprised me when they’ve left, especially when they die.  It really keeps me guessing and I’m shocked they were able to have so much breathing room with the game’s cast.

Indeed, it’s something of a bit of narrative witchcraft that the 108 stars don’t feel forced or hamfisted into your party.  When I think of RPG’s with very large casts, I tend to think of Chrono Cross, which had some pretty big issues with the way it handled the recruitable characters in a number of instances.  Many of Chrono Cross’s 40+ recruitable party members were strange one dimensional gimmick characters with stupid accents and little contribution to the party or the story.  Suikoden, however, has managed to make everyone I’ve encountered so far feel meaningful and narratively unique in their own right, and it’s damned impressive.  If Suikoden can manage to really give me a cast of 108 recruitable characters that feel like real characters, it’ll be an enormous feat; I can’t think of an RPG that has 108 named characters, let alone recruitable ones  in addition to antagonists and nonrecruitable characters.

Mechanically, I’m really liking the way that the 6-person party gives me flexibility and tactical depth to the encounters.  A good implementation of turn-by-turn auto battle gives me a lot of discretion as to controlling the flow and pace of a battle, as I can decide each turn whether I want to bulrush things quickly or stop and take each turn more thoughtfully.  Customizing characters via runes is interesting, and I’m liking the level based weapon upgrading system when compared to the constant revolving door of entirely new swords my characters in these games normally go through.

I haven’t had a chance to do any tactical battles yet, so I’m curious to see how those factor into the gameplay and story on a mechanical level.  My only real gripe with the gameplay so far is the existence of random encounters, which is a facet of old RPG’s I will never stop disliking.  It punishes exploration and turns the gameplay into a chore, so I’m glad we’ve largely moved past it.  Suikoden, at least, gives you a lot of leeway to dispense with encounters quickly.

So far, I’m enjoying Suikoden a lot, and it’s very interesting to approach it as a transitionary game between the 16 and 32 bit RPG eras.  I’m only about 7 hours in so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the 108 stars really start to shape up and how the story will be escalating from here.  Next week, I’ll be back here to write up my continuing impressions, and if I haven’t finished the game by then, I’ll be shooting to do my final thoughts on it in part 3.

Retrospection: Commander Keen

                Back in the heady days of the early 1990s, John Romero, Tom Hall, and John Carmack got the idea in their heads to try to recreate Super Mario Bros. 3 in a PC environment.  When the idea was eventually turned down by Nintendo, the three took the idea in a different direction, making their own side-scrolling platformer, a science fiction romp across alien worlds.  Commander Keen was born.

For those of us who started down the road of non-portable gaming with a PC, Commander Keen was our Super Mario Bros.  The series stars one Billy “Commander Keen” Blaze, an eight year old scientific prodigy who blasts around space in a homemade rocket with a jury-rigged raygun saving the galaxy one weird level at a time.  Seven Keen games were made in the span of about two years and then no more, save a poorly conceived attempt at a revival on the Gameboy Color a decade later.

So Keen was lost to the ages and to memory, until being rereleased on Steam in 2007.  But when it comes to platformers, there’s a lot to be seen in Commander Keen, and a lot to be taken away from it when it comes to looking forward in design of games in its genre.

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Innovation: Different sprites for two different kinds of SWITCHES. Video games, people.

GOODBYE GALAXY, HELLO FREEDOM

                The three latter games in the Keen series, particularly the two in the “Goodbye, Galaxy” story (4 and 5) are the most telling of some of the forward-thinking aspects of the series.  In preparation for this article I replayed Secret of the Oracle specifically, and something that really grabbed me about the game in retrospect is how open it is.  When you compare it to the Mario games of its time, there’s a strong lack of forward structure to it that makes the game a lot less of a defined progression through levels.  Aside from the first two levels and those locked behind the wetsuit, the levels in Secret of the Oracle can be approached in any order, and there’s no clear indication given by the game of even an intended order in which the player is meant to approach them.

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I claim this land for nonlinearity.

For the time, this was huge.  The Mario games of the era were still very much locked in a pure level progression, even though Super Mario World had begun to add some extra exits and branching paths into the equation.  The idea of a game like this, a platformer without a strict level progression, existing in the year 1991 is enough to make my head spin.  You finish the second level and you’re opened up to the entire world map to explore, with only cryptic hints and a few decoded signs to give you any pointers on what’s lying around the corner.

And the overworld itself isn’t the only thing with a peculiar structure.  The game’s levels are highly vertically oriented in many cases, often requiring the player to ascend up into the air or descend through a series of caves in order to find all of the keys necessary to achieve the goal.  Carmack’s eventual progression into Wolfenstein 3D and Doom is evident here; levels are not a simple left->right progression, and it creates a remarkable sense of verticality and size to the levels in two dimensions.  An innovation that is key to this is the addition of a pogo stick, which Keen can use to jump even higher at the cost of much of his jumping precision and control.  The pogo stick adds a choice element to the platforming, requiring the player to analyze whether the jump is doable without it, or if it is necessary to undertake the risk of using the pogo stick in order to reach new heights.

On top of that, the levels are filled with hidden stuff.  I still remembered most of the secrets from when I was a kid, but I also remember scouring things back then for hidden items and powerups.  There are entire levels hidden behind secrets only achievable by carefully studying hints in the instruction manual, for God’s sake.

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Mind you, not all secrets are wholesome in old PC games made by three people.

                Keen was an early testament to the power of nonlinearity in games of varying genres.  While Nintendo was still making games about getting from 1-1 to 1-2, Carmack, Hall, and Romero knocked out a series of seven platformers in which the player decided what was the third level and what was fourth.

Of course, it does show its age at times.  There’s a lot of wonky hitboxing issues and some really frustrating choices when it comes to certain platforming points that cause success to be contingent upon luck more than skill.  The open endedness can be a bit of a double edged sword as well, as some levels are just there solely to be completed, and don’t contain the mission-critical Oracles that lead to victory once assembled.  The problems are what they are, and most of them are just relics of that age.

Secret of the Oracle and the other Keen games are a charming premise founded on solid gameplay and some interesting open world exploration mechanics that are still relevant in modern games of today.  What’s there in the package on Steam is more than just a time capsule back to a forgotten age of PC gaming; it’s a look at what innovation really meant and can still mean in games today.

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Right on, kid.

The majority of the Commander Keen anthology can be bought on Steam for $5.  Aliens Ate My Babysitter and Keen Dreams, however, are lost to time for the present.

 

Retrospection: ActRaiser

                ActRaiser is a strange beast.  Released in North America in November of 1991 for the newly christened Super Nintendo Entertainment System, ActRaiser marks the beginning of a series of underappreciated but still great games made by Quintet and published under the Enix banner, before they moved on to make the equally forgotten Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma

                So what makes ActRaiser stick out in my mind so much?  At first glance, the game looks like a myriad of other sidescrollers from the time, with hack and slashy action platforming reminiscent of the Castlevanias of the day.  But ActRaiser is a peculiar fusion: after the jumpy-slashy business is done, you have to engage in what is essentially a proto Black & White style god simulation.  So what is the game, then?  It’s an action platforming hack and slash god simulation.  Yep.

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I think you should do something about that bat.

                In ActRaiser the player is cast in the role of the Master, a godlike being who interacts with the world in a number of ways: in the action sections, you descend from heaven to possess statues in your form in order to kill powerful demons, while in the top-down simulation portions, you control a cupid-like angel avatar who is able to direct villagers, manipulate the world’s environment, and fight off demons with arrows.  The whole crux of the game revolves around something that is an ever-present theme in Quintet’s games: the restoration or creation of a new world, from myth into reality.

                And ActRaiser is heavily grounded in myth.  The whole experience exudes a kind of Greek legend atmosphere, from your Cupid avatar to the archetypal Minotaurs and Chimeras you fight in the action stages to the clothing and behavior of your loyal subjects.  There’s some Egyptian stuff mixed in there as well, as well as various other mythos’ emblematic monsters and entities, but the primary trappings of the game are Greek, and it causes the game to take on all of the great aspects of a creation myth in the making.

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We all fondly remember the fable of the player who didn’t duck in time.

                But the most striking thing to me about ActRaiser is the way in which the two drastically different aspects of the gameplay manage to merge without feeling jarring or sudden when the transition takes place.  In a way, the simulation levels are framed by the action sequences while still encompassing them.  Every section of simulation is both preceded and ended by an action sequence involving first killing enough monsters to enable settlement, followed by fighting a powerful monster to enable the new civilization to move forward in peace.  But all of this is still just the means to the end of establishing a civilization and getting it up and running so that you can move on to the next part of the world and get to work on it. 

                That kind of merging of objectives makes the points where you go down and do the dirty work yourself feel like an organic part of the process, not just a different game awkwardly stapled onto the first one. The central objective of world creation/restoration is always kept front and center, so whether you’re in the simulation screen or in the action stages the game never feels like it’s giving you whiplash from the sudden gameplay transitions.  It’s a somewhat herculean task when you consider how few modern games manage to blend drastically different gameplay styles without losing something along the way.

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I’ll get right on that.

                It’s too bad, then, that ActRaiser flies somewhat under the radar these days.  The series did get a sequel, ActRaiser II, but that sequel was somewhat less ambitious and dropped the simulation element entirely in order to focus wholly on the action segments.  Quintet went on to produce the excellent Soul Blazer trilogy, which I’ll be discussing more closely in tomorrow’s Theme Party, but sadly the developer seems to have faded into nothingness not long after. 

                Still, ActRaiser is a deeply interesting footnote in gaming history.  Very rarely since has a game managed (or even tried) to merge two severely different genres in such a seamless way, and the mythical creation tone that ActRaiser shares with the Soul Blazer trilogy seems to have fallen by the wayside for the most part as well.  Still, the game exists today on the Wii’s Virtual Console, and is definitely worth a look if you want to play a very enjoyable slice of gaming’s mostly forgotten history.  It’s unlikely we’re ever going to get another ActRaiser, so we may as well enjoy what we’ve got.

 

 

CONCEPT ART PICK:  The freaking Japanese box art.  I miss 90’s game box art.  Also pictured:  that damn chimera.

SONG PICK:  Birth of the People.  It’s a nice atmospheric tune that has a fantasy fable feel to it.

ActRaiser can be bought from the Wii’s Virtual Console.  It costs 800 Wii points.

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.