GameSpite Journal 10 | EarthBound

EarthBound | Dev.: HAL/Ape | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: RPG | Release: June 1995

In its day, EarthBound was recognizable primarily for its bizarre (and disgusting) scratch-and-sniff advertising campaign and extremely dated-looking graphics. Needless to say this, combined with the era’s RPG tax, guaranteed that the game was a colossal flop. Thankfully, EarthBound’s fame has grown in the years since its disastrous release, and due to the wonders of emulation, many have come to appreciate its charming tone and playful subversion of the RPG genre.

Mechanically EarthBound is essentially a Dragon Quest clone set in modern times, utilizing a similar first-person, turn-based battle system, limited inventory, and set of character abilities. But instead of magic the characters wield psychic powers, and instead of fighting dragons, skeletons, and slimes, the party faces off against gang members, mad dogs, and space aliens. EarthBound introduces its own twists to the formula, of course. The player sees enemies before encountering them, and often can avoid them if he chooses. And the battle system uses rolling number gauges for party members’ HP and PP values, so if a character is mortally wounded he can still keep fighting until his HP gauge actually counts down to zero. If the player manages to heal him or finish the battle before this happens, the party member survives unscathed.

Of course, when EarthBound is brought up, it’s almost never to discuss the game’s mechanics. It’s the game’s tone -- its feel -- that continues to win over devotees. At times irreverent, at times completely solemn, EarthBound’s tone is difficult to pin down with a word or two. Perhaps the closest analog would be a really good children’s book, something by Seuss or Dahl. The best children’s literature is capable of walking a delicate tightrope between being utterly silly or absurd while simultaneously maintaining a deep respect for the little things in life which are so important, particularly to children. Now, EarthBound isn’t necessarily about childhood, or at least not completely, but it wants us to perhaps take a step back and remember those little things.

In a way, EarthBound is all about nostalgia. Not in the trite, “You guys remember ThunderCats?” kind of way, but in the sense that almost every aspect of it -- from its intentionally retro graphics, to its simplistic gameplay, to its idyllic, 1950s-esque setting, and even its narrative -- encourages contemplation of the past, particularly those moments with warm connotations. One of the most memorable scenes in EarthBound occurs shortly after the battle with Belch, an ugly, nasty foe and essentially the first the player has encountered with direct connections to the game’s primary antagonist, when a Mr. Saturn politely suggests Ness and his friends sit for a moment and have a quiet cup of coffee. What follows is a recap of your adventure to that point via a slow text crawl against a flowing, dynamic background. It genuinely does have the effect of putting one in a contemplative mood, both about the events of the game and events in one’s own life.

All that being said, the game certainly doesn’t romanticize the past. After all, EarthBound’s grim final battle takes place in the past: The game’s ugliest, most inhospitable environment. Instead, the creators’ objective seems more along the lines of encouraging players not to get so caught up in always rushing towards the future and to periodically take a step back to consider what has come before and how it has shaped who the player has become. Just as the game’s sanctuary locations grant Ness strength through the recollection of a fond memory, so should our own pasts empower us to achieve our greatest possible future.

By Mike Zeller? | Feb. 27, 2012 | Previous: Ogre Battle | Next: Mystic Ark