Earthbound is an RPG for the Super Nintendo in which 4 ten year olds, 3 boys and a girl, must journey across Eagleland (Totally not the US) in order to defeat a cosmic evil entity, Giygas, that will destroy the Earth in 10 years. These youths must use their strength, intelligence, and completely unexplained psychic powers to traverse a world filled with eccentric individuals and overcome strange, but dangerous, enemies.
Our Eager Heroes: Poo, Jeff, Ness, and Paula from left to right.
In order to talk about Earthbound we need to begin at the mind that began it, the mind of Shigesato Itoi. Itoi is a writer/comedian/celebrity/jack-of-all-trades in his native Japan. He made the precursor to Earthbound, Mother, in 1989. It was a harrowing experience for Itoi. He expressed his frustration for the project in the final area, named Mt. Itoi perfectly enough. By the time the team was making the area their attitude was “When we got to fine-tuning the difficulty there, I was like, ‘Whatever!'” The enemies there weren’t properly tested and they were far more powerful than the enemies in previous zones leaving players very frustrated. The localization was completed in 1990 but by that time the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was in the pipeline. The localization producer, Phil Sandhop, said, “I believe that the marketing execs just decided that the game would be too expensive to produce and unsuccessful without marketing, and that’s why it fell into oblivion.”
Itoi began working on Mother 2 immediately after Mother 1 was finished, planned to be released on the Super Nintendo. To keep the narrative voice and flow consistent Itoi would write every line of dialogue, to the smallest NPC’s quip, every word is his. His tenuous grasp on the english language and his inexperience with computers forced him to dictate the dialogue to staff member Matchan Miura, gauging the quality of the line on his reactions. Itoi would spend some nights sleeping at the office on a series of lined up chairs so that he wouldn’t have to travel to and from the office. Development dragged on for years, it looked like the project wouldn’t be finished but Hal Laboratory’s “genius programmer”, Satoru Iwata, was able to put his coding expertise to work and push the game to completion.
The American advertising policy was a little strange to say the least. The tag line for the game was “This game stinks!” and Nintendo Power magazines were outfitted with scratch and sniff tiles meant to emulate smells that the player would encounter in the game. The campaign was almost disastrous. Earthbound would be released in August, 1994 competing with Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers, Super Metroid, and Illusion of Gaia as it’s competition, games that are classics today.
It released with a larger than normal box and the pricy 80$ price tag, the standard price being around 50$ for other games. The boxes had to be large to contain the strategy guide that came with every copy of the game, most games having an instruction manual. These increased expenses raised the price to match, but the consumer wasn’t so willing to purchase such an expensive product. The guide included tips and hints for the game as well as humorous anecdotes about locations in the game like, “Deep Darkness has 4,000,603 Mosquitoes,” and “ In Dusty Dunes Desert, there are 2,000,001 Cacti, and 5 people living there.”
A good game manual can dazzle the player…
…Or give them a bunch of useless information.
Nostalgia and The Game Itself
When it comes to classic games like Earthbound, that I played in my childhood, it’s easy to look back fondly on the times of yesteryear. When things were simple and life was carefree, I was only a boy of 10 when I played this title. I remember when the “War Against Giygas” title card showed up it would scare me so much that I had to skip past it or shut the television off until it had passed. I’ll admit, I was a scaredy cat when I was younger.
And then the screen starts flashing and the music gets really intense… it was scary okay!
When it comes to Earthbound it’s not just a matter of whether nostalgia is blinding my perceptions of the game, it’s a matter of when the nostalgia begins blinding my perceptions of the game. The game’s big hook is nostalgia itself. When Ness reaches a “Your Sanctuary point” he experiences a happy memory from a moment in the past. Not necessarily his past such as when, “Ness has a short vision of seeing his mother when she was young, ” at the Pink Cloud Sanctuary. These memories and the memory of the adventure fill Ness when he faces his Nightmare in the dark reaches of his own mind. These happy fuzzy memories are Ness’ strength. But even this strength is not powerful enough to defeat Giygas, the final boss, the embodiment of evil itself. He can’t be defeated with psychic power or mortal weapons, it takes the power of raw nostalgia itself. In order to defeat Giygas the player has to draw on all the powerful and happy feelings from all the people that the character’s have helped in the adventure. Each of them in return hopes that the kids are doing alright. This culminates in the player themself, called by the game itself, remembering all the times and experiences that they’ve had and doing a massive amount of damage. The credits even includes a montage of photos take by a traveling photographer so that the player can point at the screen and say, “I remember when that happened”.
Giygas can be a little scary.
There’s not a lot else to hook the player in a classical sense. It’s not about the protagonist, Ness is a blank slate. All of his aspects are added by the player, he doesn’t speak, and doesn’t take any actions without the players input. When I played I named Ness after myself and pretended that I was him, that’s just how I assumed that games worked when I was ten (We were even the same age). There weren’t many that I played where I was playing a preconceived character, I knew that I wasn’t Mario, but when I looked at Ness I saw someone that resembled myself. I don’t remember if I started to wear hats when I played this game or if my dalliance with caps was affirmed by Ness’ appearance. I chose my favorite food and my favorite thing. I named Paula after my cat, Jeff after my best friend at the time, and Poo after my grandfather, I think. So this was my adventure, I considered anything that happened to me in the game as happening to me. Every SMASH hit was mine, every game over that I persevered through was something that was actually happening. I felt like I went to those places. I tried to feel like I was in the game. Of course I’m going to look back fondly on a rousing adventure like that. I feel like it was my success. I get to that photography album and I’m filled with memory and a few months or years later I want to play through it again to feel those memories as I felt them then. But that’s not possible, I can only remember a new memory and it’s still just as great.
There are so many mechanics in this game that were innovative for the time. If the strategy guide that came with the game wasn’t enough there’s a guy in every town with a stand or a sign labled, “Hints!”. Living up to his name, he’ll give the player a hint for the modest fee of 50$ in game. It was an RPG without random battles, the monsters are walking around the overworld. Some of them run away from you, some of them charge forward with reckless abandon. If they player sneaks up on them then they get a free round to fight, but if the enemy attacks the player from behind then the monsters get a surprise round. The monsters also weren’t monsters. There’s the typical fair of robots and strange creatures but some of the enemies are Mole’s Playing Rough or Unassuming Local Guys.
The dialogue in this game is usually played for laughs but there are a lot of lines and moments that hit me right in the feels. I like the way Paula refers to all of the characters that she psychically contacts as “Friends she hasn’t met yet.” One of the Your Sanctuary locations has a guy trying to see what’s over the wall surrounding it and he says, “This isn’t my place, I know that. Maybe it’s yours,” an attitude that I’ve tried to adopt.The Game Over screen isn’t just a “Continue? Or Give up?” question, there’s a whole conversation about whether Ness wants to go on. If the player chooses to continue the game proudly proclaims that, “Ness decided to return after summoning all the courage and energy he had,” and that makes me feel like he’s a human with flaws. But that is as human as he gets.
The music is some of the best music in a Super Nintendo game, it’s also very diverse. It was my first experience listening to something sort of metal in the track Pokey Means Business and I was blown away. There are musical easter eggs all over the place too, the song for the Flying Men, the embodiments of Ness’ courage, is a sped up version of the Game Over Theme. This further symbolizes, for me, the courage of the protagonist.
I love this game even though I feel like I’ve outgrown it a little. I remember the day when I started the game over after I beat it just so that I could try to go through it all again. But as the game feels more familiar I play it less and less. These days I go back to it once a year, to a year and a half. I feel like Mother 3, it’s sequel, is a more mature, modern, and feeling game but that’s another game for another day.
Although the game is musically fit, it’s writing is humorous and even touching at times, and it’s mechanically advanced for the time the plot is shallow and the reason I keep coming back is to feel the way I did when I was young. To try to feel my youth through and in the youth of the characters and my experience playing the game. Earthbound is a good game but I keep coming back for nostalgia more than anything, so naturally, I recommend it.
Next week’s game is Secret of Mana.