Developer: Shigesato Itoi/Ape
Based on: Postmodernism (and a slightly warped perception of American pop culture)
by Tomm Guycot | September 12, 2007
It was a quiet night in my quiet neighborhood, and I was a fifteen-year-old boy. My mom wished me a good night and suggested I not stay up too late, then shuffled off to bed. My dad was out of town on one of his many business trips, but I'd spoken to him on the phone earlier that day, so I knew all was well. My sister may or may not have been home -- I don't recall. For me, the night was still young. I was in Onett.
That's how I spent the evening of June 23, 1995. I'd purchased EarthBound earlier that evening from the mall, eaten dinner with Mom, and rushed home -- eager to devour as much of the quest as I could before my friend came to visit the next day. It was the end of a long school year, one that marked the beginning of the rest of my life. I'd had my share of girl troubles, dealt with your normal bouts of depression, and adjusted to the rushing onset of adult life (known to the rest of the world as "teenage years"). I was a normal kid.
More importantly, it was the school year of Final Fantasy III (that's "six," America), which had shifted the paradigm of what an RPG could be in my eyes. A few months after my second playthrough of that game, Nintendo began a major push for a new RPG. One that took place in modern times and starred a normal kid.
Nintendo's push started as a short article in Nintendo Power which stressed the wacky, offbeat nature of "EarthBound." There was a Blues Brothers-esque band, a host of wacky aliens, and players fought with baseball bats instead of swords. Months later, the company mailed out ads to everyone on its mailing list featuring scratch 'n' sniff elements to the tune of garbage and farts. I didn't appreciate the sentiment, but my interest in this offbeat RPG was nevertheless piqued. Thankfully, the mailers also came with a coupon. The final nail in the coffin of my resistance was the huge spread the game received in Nintendo Power just prior to its release, talking about its creator, Shigesato Itoi -- the "Japanese Dave Barry." My friend Curtis had introduced me to Dave Barry a year previous, and the game's release lined up almost perfectly with his visit. Synchronicity!
By the time Curtis arrived Saturday morning, I was trucking through the Peaceful Rest Valley near scenic Twoson (a fine name for the game's second town). I tried my best to sell Curtis on the RPG we'd be playing together that weekend; I told him about the sanctuaries, and liberating the arcade from Onett's local gang, and a house for sale I could never afford, and Beatles trivia, and butterflies, and haggis. (Which I input as my favorite food just for kicks.) He flipped through the full-sized Nintendo Power Strategy Guide that came free with the game for about an hour before stating that the game looked kind of stupid, and he had no interest in it. He had no problem if I played it, though.
I did, and continued to play throughout his weekend visit. It was a normal visit -- he read my comics, we watched some movies, we hung out in the woods near my house. But my mind remained on the game at home where my party of kids had just found the zombie paper required to free Threed of the undead, or reached the big city of Fourside, or crawled inside of a living dungeon, or a million other insane things I'd never done before in a game. Curtis and I were good friends, and we understood each other. The only difference is that while EarthBound had enraptured me, he was entirely unaffected by it. It didn't offend him, but neither did it hold his interest in the slightest.
At some point on Sunday, Curtis noticed the game hadn't exactly been "wacky" for some time. I died a lot more often than before, and certain elements became oppressive rather than crazy for craziness's sake. What a stupid, weird game it was. I found a different understanding of things once I reached Magicant that Monday. EarthBound became more of a mirror than any game I'd played before or since. It was unnerving yet intriguing, and I kept playing. I beat it that night, and the final encounter had proven something about games to me, though I couldn't express exactly what that thing was. Video games had proven they could _______.
I still feel that way.
I may have finished the game, but Curtis ultimately won. EarthBound performed pathetically at retail despite Nintendo's best (though admittedly dubious) efforts. Most gamers knew of the game, perhaps even its basic premise, but almost none had actually played it. Many claimed the deliberately simple graphical style was stupid. Others felt that the battle system (which allowed players to fight on after receiving a fatal blow, or even defeat weaker monsters without ever having to fight them) was archaic and outdated. Other innovations to go unappreciated by gamers at large included the complete absence of random battles and a "condiment system" to enchance recovery items -- add ketchup to a hot dog, for instance, and it became far more effective. With the Sega Saturn already available and PlayStation looming, why would anyone want to play a baby game with baby graphics for babies? EarthBound soon went to clearance, and was soon seen as one of Nintendo's most notable failures. (And that's saying something -- 1995 was also the year of the Virtual Boy.)
The day after I finished EarthBound, I traveled to Washington for a short trip. I stayed with some family friends, and we ended up touring Nintendo of America. I purchased Super Mario Kart? and played that endlessly for a few weeks. I'd go to summer camp, come home, and nearly miss class registration in my fervor to absorb Chrono Trigger?. Despite the intense four days, EarthBound sank to the back of my mind -- that wacky RPG quite unlike anything else. I thought fondly on the Happy Happy cult and the Sharks gang and that silly Dungeon Man. Good times.
For a while, that's exactly how I remembered EarthBound: scratch 'n' sniff ads, newspaper-themed Nintendo Power articles, but little more. I'm not sure what it was about the game that kept me from replaying it immediately. I eventually did replay it, once I was in college. Replaying EarthBound triggered the almost violent realization that this wasn't a wacky RPG. In fact, after the first few towns it was barely even funny anymore. This wasn't a parody of RPG clichés at all! It was about growing up, or about a child's view of adulthood, or an adult's view of childhood, or an adult's view of adult society, or a million other things.
I did what anyone would after such a revelation: I turned to the Internet. Up to that point, besides the two girlfriends I had turned on to EarthBound, I was literally the only person I knew who had played it. The internet revealed Starmen.net, a small community of EarthBound fans -- many just discovering the game for the first time due to its hero's appearance in Super Smash Bros?. (My motivation for the replay, actually.)
I've only ever observed the community, never actually participating, because a great majority seem to view the game as that wacky RPG first unleashed on the world as scratch 'n' sniff garbage. The community is growing even today, though, and some participanet do indeed seem to be discovering that EarthBound proves video games can ________. I suspect that blank is filled by a different word in each case -- some so abstract as claiming the game is nothing more than the sound of a bicycle riding through swamp water. I've even met someone who was so frightened by the lead-in to the final battle that he turned off the game and was unable to go back to it until years afterward. The Starmen.net community is an intensely loyal and vocal one, despite its relatively small size.
Starmen staffers went so far as to visit Nintendo headquarters to initiate peace talks
that would hopefully lead to the release of EarthBound's sequel
In the real world, however, gamers who have experienced EarthBound are rare. But if you do find someone, they will likely have a long and pointless story to tell about why the game is "so awesome" to them. You may not learn much about the content of the game itself, but you'll probably walk away with a good idea of the feelings it evokes in that person. Unfortunately, most people you ask won't have played the game, and won't have much to say about it beyond how lame they thought the graphics were, even back in 1995.
I replay the game every so often, and it means different things as I get older. It seems less silly and more profound, with Magicant showing me something new each visit. What is it about EarthBound that attracted such a small percentage of the gaming population? What inspired them to levels of devotion strong enough to fuel several petitions and letter writing "sieges"? Why is the Mother series (as it's known overseas) one of Japan's most beloved RPG franchises, despite it being only three games long? How is it that, twelve years after its release, gamers are discovering new things about the game as they replay it for the umpteenth time, or writing long articles about its deeper meanings?
Maybe, had more people bought into Nintendo's wacky claims, things would be entirely different. Instead of a possessing a small, rabid fanbase, EarthBound would enjoy its status as a fondly remembered title of little importance. It's certainly a possibility, but it doesn't warrant much consideration; art is best judged by the circumstances of the times.
...and EarthBound is nothing less than the first work of art to be playable as a video game.