Article by Anthony Rogers | November 15, 2009
I'd like to start off by thanking you for reading this article. Perhaps you're a fan of EarthBound already; after all, we're much more likely to read an article about the games we've already played and loved, aren't we? If you've never played it before, well, I'm glad you decided to check this out anyway. I can't promise I'll convince you to play -- what with your busy schedule, I'm sure checking out an RPG from the '90s is relatively low on your to-do list. Still, I hope you keep it in mind. It really is a very nice game.
If we wanted to be dry about it, it would be prudent to start with the gameplay mechanics that make EarthBound stand out. Most notably, the creators implemented a number of design choices to help alleviate player frustration in an RPG setting. Defeating weaker enemies just by touching them (thus side-stepping the need to slog through tedious, easily winnable battles) is a fantastic example of this; heck, just seeing enemies on screen before battle is pretty nice. Multiple battle themes means you aren't going to hang yourself if you hear any of them one more time by the end of the game. The rolling HP meter -- in which a mortal blow causes your HP to scroll down to zero, rather than instantly dropping, to give you a few precious seconds to heal the damage before it becomes fatal -- is probably the most unique gameplay element on offer, a nice balance between the methodical pace of a turn-based RPG and the rush of split-second decisions in battle. Even items were scrutinized, the result being a huge amount of variety in the items available and a condiment-based inventory enhancement system that's fun without being overly complicated; ketchup, for example, increases the HP healed by hotdogs. Really, EarthBound has a few great innovations that, unfortunately, the RPG genre as a whole decided to completely ignore as it shuffles along into stale decay. It's a shame.
Naturally, all that has absolutely nothing to do with what makes EarthBound so great.
There is a man in EarthBound named Brick Road. You first meet him outside a dungeon -- a small cave, really -- that he created himself. Brick Road is a professional dungeon designer, you see. Someday he dreams of becoming the world's first living dungeon. His first dungeon, though, is nothing more than a small maze of flat rocks, with a couple of enemies scattered about and a few items to find. The entire thing can be navigated in roughly five minutes. Of course, it's hard to be too upset about it. The sign at the entrance does proclaim it to be a modest dungeon, after all, and you aren't even charged an entrance fee.
Much later in the game, Ness (the psychic protagonist; but of course, you already knew that, didn't you?) and his friends find a dungeon that looks like a large stone man. Upon entering it, there's a sign post that reads, "Welcome. You are inside of my body. ...Brick Road." Yes, while you were off adventuring, ol' Brick Road finally achieved his dream. The ensuing dungeon is a much more elaborate affair than his previous effort, the most notable change being an abundance of signposts to read. They'll often contain a joke ("I put a note on a sign. ...Brick Road,") or even helpful tips about the intricacies of building a good dungeon ("Items that are easy to get are usually disappointing. ...Brick Road.") Even the, er, interesting music is unique, found only in this dungeon ("This music is one of my greatest accomplishments. ...Brick Road.") Upon reaching the top, Brick Road even offers to follow you for a bit -- making this the only game (that I can think of; it wouldn't be fair to expect me to play every game ever made, would it?) where an entire dungeon joins your party -- and ultimately donates his submarine ("Broken down, old submarine. The yellow color is purely coincidental. ...Brick Road") to your cause.
Now, it's important to take a break here and point something out. I'm still appreciative that you're reading this, so I wanted to be completely honest with you. You might not want to hear what I have to say, but I really do think it's for the best, so I'll just level with you: pinning down why EarthBound is so fiercely loved by its fans is probably something we, as a species, will never, ever be able to do. Hindu philosophers and that computer from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could spend centuries atop mountains and not be able to narrow down precisely why certain people are so affected by it. There are some generalities to make and some fine details that are important to me specifically, but there are a thousand other details that are important to someone else that completely washed over me. I've already committed to writing about it and you're (hopefully) committed to reading the rest if you're this far along, though, so grab a cup of coffee and we'll make the best of it.
For someone else, the humor in the game could make it special. There are people out there that have personal memories attached to the game, people that feel the symbolism holds up to interpretation as well as a good novel, and people that genuinely love it for the mechanics. To me, though, Brick Road / Dungeon Man is a great example of what makes EarthBound, well, EarthBound. It has nothing to do with the gameplay and everything to do with character. The one thing that really stands out about EarthBound is the tone of the game, and the Dungeon Man's, er, dungeon is a good example of the general vibe throughout the adventure. This is not a game that takes itself too seriously. "Light-hearted" isn't exactly right, but it's probably the best phrase we have in this language to describe it. "BOING" would probably be more appropriate, though. There is no scenario so tense that it isn't open to fart jokes, no conversation so mundane it won't launch into postmodern musings at a moment's notice. Sometimes characters speak without really noticing Ness, as if in a dreamlike state; other times they'll skip the fašade and give instructions to you, the player. The game is at once thought-provoking, heartwarming, terrifying, and ridiculous.
... really, though, that's just another way to say it's almost impossible to put into words exactly what EarthBound's "tone" is. Is it possible for a game to have more than one tone at the same time? This might very well be the exact question EarthBound asks (and answers.) There are equally touching details -- Ness's random bouts of homesickness are a great example -- and truly absurd moments -- the entire trip to Moonside -- throughout the adventure. You might laugh, you might cry, but you'll always feel something if you just relax and let EarthBound work its magic. The mixture is surprisingly effective as well; the outright silliness (how often do we get to use that word these days? R.I.P., SNES) of Saturn Valley, for example, somehow endears us to the Mr. Saturns and, in turn, makes us that much more invested in what happens to the li'l guys. In fact, about the only emotion EarthBound seems incapable of inflicting on someone is anger, but it isn't really about that. It isn't that kind of game, you see.
Sometimes you will run into NPCs that seem to talk forever. They'll go on and on, easily quadrupling the general number of text boxes afforded to other NPCs around them. Sometimes it sounds like their minds wander, other times it seems like they're going make a point about something, but in both cases the dialogue generally goes nowhere. While never boring, it continues on for so long and ends so abruptly that you can't help but wonder why they were there and if there was any point to even reading what you just read.
To suggest that EarthBound is weird simply for weird's sake, though, is just wrong. I'm sorry, I hope I didn't hurt your feelings by being that blunt, but you needed to hear it. The best way to think of it is that the game is very aware that it's a game. It knows video game conventions, and bucks them or utilizes them to its advantage. It's entirely unique and yet in many ways is completely like every other RPG out there. Above all else, though, it knows it's there to entertain you. The people Ness meets on his journey tell corny jokes or speak backwards or put on jazz performances (take that, Final Fantasy VI's stuffy ol' opera scene!) or force you to take a break for some tea or a million other things is because they're there to put a smile on your face. Even the serious, darker moments only exist so that you can smile again when it's all over.
Is that it, though? Is EarthBound just one big joke, meant to entertain us, or is it something more? Does the game swap swords for baseball bats just to differentiate itself from other Dragon Quest clones, or is it saying something about modern times, the ideal 1950s Americana charm, or both? Is there something deeper about growing up here, or is it just there for us to giggle at the wacky characters? Can two people even have the same interpretations, or is what you take away from it entirely dependent on what you bring to it? Depending on which side of the post-modern coin you fall on, you'll either be irritated or amused by the answer.