The Retrospective: EarthBound

Sitting upon the grand castle of gaming history is a genre that has encapsulated our emotions with in a golden and eternal vessel called nostalgia. I think it’s entirely fair to say that RPG’s capture our understanding of the medium’s history more than any other genre. There’s a reason why Pokemon fanatics are so fanatical despite the series’ lack of significant change or evolution since its conception. There’s just something so timeless about a whole spectrum of experiences that can penetrate our emotional cores without fancy graphics or complex controls, no matter what the modern day Sqaure Enix walking corpse would have you believe.

And yet, with the exception of the aforementioned Pokemon, Nintendo is not a company that capitalizes on this genre too often. Sure, they have their Paper Mario series tucked away somewhere, and Fire Emblem, although a different kind of RPG, is absolutely still a force to be reckoned with, but Nintendo doesn’t rely on RPGs quite like other Japanese developers. No, when Nintendo makes a rare RPG, it’s something to be cherished.

It’s no wonder, then, that a highly vocal group of fans cursed Nintendo’s name for decades, simply because they refused, until very recently, to release the cult classic EarthBound again in the west.

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EarthBound caries a tremendous legacy with its name. One of the more expensive eBay finds on the SNES, it’s a title that many love and remember well, and everyone who’s played it seems eager to recommend it. A good friend of mine places it at the very top of his favorite games of all time list, citing an unforgettable world, charming characters, and uncomfortable eeriness as his justification.

Indeed, passions run high among fans, as Nintendo wronged them again by never releasing it’s sequel, dubbed Mother 3, outside of Japan. While the title is technically available via fan subbed roms, Nintendo’s hesitation always showed westerners a certain lack of care directed towards the series, despite the president’s direct involvement in it. Nintendo doesn’t care about Earthbound or its fans was the common utterance among some of Nintendo’s most vocal critics. And to be fair, there is a certain legitimacy behind these complaints.

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Mother, as a series, critiques the oddities of western life through incredibly vague atmospheric tonal shifts. There’s never anything terribly blatant about this examination, but you get the sense there’s something wrong with the women showing heavily plastered, fake smiles or the prevalence of religious cults. Indeed all manner of aspects of American small town life seem to be present in EarthBound. Or, at least, it has all manner of foreign observations of American small town life.

While not a leading reason (that designation likely belongs to music copyright issues paired with a perceived lack of interest) behind Mother 3‘s long-time absence from western hands, it’s likely that at least some of Nintendo’s staff believes that some of these cultural observations may not be taken too well. The Mother series was, after all, designed very specifically for a Japanese audience with Japanese sensibilities. But that could be said of a huge number of Japanese games that made huge profits in foreign markets. And, indeed, this cultural critique is what lends to the series’ quirky, eerie atmosphere, and it’s likely the main reason western audiences actually love it.

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And so, with nothing but a faint introduction to Eagleland thanks to various cameos of EarthBound characters and locations in the Smash Bros series, I entered Earthbound for the first time unsure of what to find.

Before I go on any further, I should clarify that I did not, to my great disdain, play an original SNES copy. No, cartridges are pricy these days and it’s still too early to take advantage of the Wii U rerelease, so I was stuck playing an emulation. I did play it with a usb SNES controller, but admittedly the experience was a shell of what it could have been, at least in principle.

After I got over the initial disgust in playing a classic in such an unclean manner, what did eventually await me was, in short, astounding. Brilliant, even. Confounding and often downright frustrating, to be sure, but always brilliant.

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A good RPG knows the world it’s trying to engross the player in thoroughly. While a weak RPG world may fall prey to the tropes and retreads of every Tolkien fantasy realm or Star Wars-inspired space void created, a strong one knows what, exactly, made the world to begin with. Fallout 3 is perhaps the best example I can think of, it the Capitol Wasteland is its history, through and through. The KoTOR games, too, understand the cultural and historical elements present in the worlds they depict, and use them to the advantage of the story and the player experience.

But more important is how this fundamentally affects the atmosphere. And Earthbound is among the most atmospheric games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. From the onset, Ness wakes up to a broken familiarity, disturbed by quiet yet looming sounds, breaking the peaceful nature of his quaint upbringing. It’s the world that’s pushing him to his journey, not a wise old man or deity. We know, as the players, that the world Ness finds himself in is changing, and changing fast.

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Playing through the first few cities in Earthbound is thus an exercise of careful awareness, trying to comprehend what this world is and why it behaves as it does. Everything appears deliberate, yet simultaneously broken and askew. The people seem to carry an almost unreal character to them, and the streets are often rife with what seem to be maddening, unhuman oddities. It’s a world that feels like an alien illusion trying to recreate a human existence, but fails to understand a few underlying truths about our existence. This would, of course, be a slight in the game’s disfavor. But it all feels so perfectly deliberate.

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Mechanically, I found that any frustration imposed by the battle system was outweighed by a relaxing realization that the penalties for death aren’t much, especially if you remember to never carry around much money. Sure, I cursed to high heaven every time I had several missed attacks in a sequence followed by a craving of natto or a thought of mother. And I thought the miss percentage in Pokemon was insufferable. Dear lord.

But there’s definitely something strange about a JRPG that pits you, a child, against legions of human opponents, whether they be crooked cops or wigged out hippies. It’s certainly very… different, and admittedly I found all the unique elements of this bizarre adventure wholeheartedly welcomed.

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In short, I discovered why such passion surrounds this obscure little RPG. It absolutely deserves its praise. Not merely because it dares to be different, but because it’s different with style. It oozes charm like I’ve never seen, and wraps in experience in an atmosphere with such tremendous depth.

It’s truly one of those awe inspiring games that make you feel like bigger forces are at work behind the immediately present, joined by the likes of Shadow of the Colossus and Portal. As a SNES game, it reaches out beyond the emotion limits one would typically expect such an old game to carry. As an RPG, it flips all understanding of convention on its head.

This was truly a rich era of games, before genres allowed themselves to fall into carefully designated little boxes, afraid to share their strengths with one another. It was an era of experimentation that allowed for something like this to emerge from a major publisher on a major platform, with a substantial budget to back it up (at least in SNES/Genesis Yen, of course).

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And for that, we should simultaneously applaud Nintendo for taking an initiative to release it once again and demand that they extend their olive branch further with a release of Mother 3. This is a series that deserves it like no other.

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