Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Once in a great while, we gamers are treated to a title that we know is something special. We’re not always sure why at first – or even after a fair bit of reflection – but the game has that spark, a deep resonance of existential pathos that we’ll never forget. It pervades throughout the experience and manages to work its way into every corner retroactively, once we have the complete picture. I’m not sure if this is rarer or more diluted in today’s games; Undertale and The Last Of Us were the most recent ones to hit me on this level, and they’ve both been out for a while now. But I am certain that the idea has been around for a long time, and that these are the entries in gaming lore that interest me the most by far, since they merit the most analysis. Today’s subject, EarthBound, is one of the seminal examples of this kind of game.
In the late 1980s, Japanese essayist, actor, lyricist, and C-list celebrity Shigesato Itoi got an idea in his head. Role-playing video games were just starting to get big in Japan, with titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest making a splash for Nintendo, but nearly all of them took place in a medieval fantasy setting rather than featuring the technology and sensibilities of today – well, the “today” of 30 years ago. He pitched the notion of a truly modern RPG to Nintendo head Shigeru Miyamoto (because apparently a celebrity in that era could walk into any office he pleased), and the final result in 1989 was the Japan-only Famicom game Mother, developed through HAL Laboratory and infused with Itoi’s creativity and humor. Even though the U.S. localization fell through like many other games, Mother was an important stage in the development of its sequel – Mother 2 in Japan, retitled EarthBound elsewhere. That’s true for all the reasons you’d expect, but also because so much of EarthBound can be seen in its predecessor, only slightly less than fully formed.
As the sequel to a reasonably popular game (Mother‘s 400,000 sales put it in the same league as the first Final Fantasy), 1994’s Mother 2 performed well on its release in Japan, so Nintendo executives expected it to do even better stateside, as many other Super Nintendo RPGs had. Marcus Lindblom headed up a localization team with the full backing of the company and arguably came up with one of the best translations ever, successfully conveying the game’s emotional and comedic beats (adding plenty of cultural references and fourth wall-breaking moments) while contributing phrases like “Say fuzzy pickles!” and “SMAAAASH!” to the RPG lexicon.
However, an expensive marketing campaign was completely botched; “This Game Stinks” was the tagline in the many gross-out magazine advertisements at the time, replete with unpopular scratch and sniff inserts, a failed attempt to capitalize on the distinctly ’90s “Play It Loud” ad series. Critics didn’t help EarthBound‘s release either, not fully understanding the game’s cartoonish aesthetics and surprising depths. And Nintendo’s decision to package the game in an overlarge box with a full strategy guide backfired as well, since it intimidated a general public unaccustomed to “special edition” games and added to the production cost. With Murphy’s Law in full effect, the game sold an extremely disappointing 140,000 units – roughly half of its take in Japan – and became a forgotten curiosity for a long time. But for kids like me who were fortunate enough to get a copy of the game despite the barriers (I believe it was a particularly ambitious gift from my grandparents), it quickly became a beloved classic.
The battle system in the game is highly reminiscent of the Dragon Quest series, with a few fresh additions including the non-random encounters (enemies could be engaged from the main screen), rolling HP meters (lethal damage took time to kick in and could be mitigated by ending combat quickly), and instant wins against enemies far weaker than the player to save time. The music is tailored to the type of enemy you face and the monster design and actions are humorously quirky, preventing battle from ever becoming too boring. Other game mechanics are transferred to a slightly wacky version of the real world, too; for instance, instead of monsters dropping gold, Ness’s dad deposits cash into his account that he can get from an ATM. This personality-filled approach even carries over into the strategy guide, written as a highly enjoyable in-universe tour guide to the various locales rather than a simple walkthrough.
EarthBound tells the tale of Ness, a “thoughtful, strong boy” with latent psychic abilities who’s quickly thrown into a journey to collect eight magical MacGuffins (special planetary melodies from around the world in this case) and save the planet from destruction by an otherworldly force. The three other fated heroes are Paula, a compassionate girl who wields powerful magic; Jeff, a scientific prodigy who lacks belief in himself; and Poo, a warrior prince from the Far East with superior training.
All of these archetypes were familiar in stories at the time, but hadn’t seen enough exposure in video games; if nothing else, the young age of the characters makes this set-up stand out even today – and the plot doesn’t pull any punches with these kids. Paula is kidnapped on three separate occasions by cultists, zombies, and then a malevolent alien; Jeff has to leave his best friend behind and deal with his absentee father; and Poo experiences a vision where he must agree to have his limbs, ears, and eyes removed before leaving his land. Meanwhile, we’re reminded at various points and in subtle ways that for all his strength, stoicism, and cheerfulness, Ness is ultimately just an uncertain kid who deeply misses home while he’s out saving the world. That’s fitting, because EarthBound is very much a game about the comfort of home and childhood, sometimes our only haven in a dangerous world. It’s an interesting contrast between this game and Rule of Rose (which I covered last time): In Rule of Rose, childhood is a terrifying experience that ought to be taken more seriously. Here, it’s the world that’s sometimes terrifying, and childhood is just the innocent lens that we view it through.
Apart from the core four, the game’s most important character is Pokey (Porky in later translations), Ness’s neighbor who serves as a fake-out party member early on (he’s completely useless in combat, performing actions like “inching closer to the enemy” and “apologizing profusely”) and a recurring nuisance turned full-on villain later. Pokey betrays Ness at every opportunity and is slowly revealed as a power-hungry liar and coward, but, as evidenced by his appearance in Ness’s dreamscape of Magicant, Ness doesn’t want to harm him and simply wishes he could have his friend back. After he serves as Dragon to the mindless Eldritch horror behind the game’s events, Pokey escapes, setting up his own horrific transformation to eternal child and Big Bad in Mother 3 – but after millennia of youth, we do get a small indication in that game that he might regret how he treated Ness.
Even though there are many good things about EarthBound, you can easily find a handful of games from the era with better story and characterization; however, there’s very little out there that matches its tone and personality, including overt efforts to connect with the player. The game vacillates between lighthearted, funny romp and existential think-piece tinged with sadness and dread. It took two decades for the aforementioned Undertale to finally recapture this spirit – and fittingly, its developer Toby Fox started off by making EarthBound mods.
Young players like Fox couldn’t help but undergo some degree of emotional growth as they traversed the bright, happy landscapes while being intermittently confronted with themes of death, loss, and purpose – brought into even sharper focus because of that juxtaposition. It culminates with an end-boss fight straight out of a bad acid trip, which was ultimately interpreted (after those players had grown up) as a travel through time to kill the madly pleading Giygas in the womb, aborting him before he could grow to pose a threat to humanity. Itoi famously identified the inspiration for this battle as an experience in his own childhood, when he walked into the wrong movie and witnessed a murder scene that he mistook for a rape scene. It would appear that he worked through his trauma by sneakily passing it on to others; EarthBound epitomizes that universal realization that something we thought was innocent when we were kids was actually pretty screwed up, and we perhaps shouldn’t have been exposed to it. But as long as we came through it more or less unharmed, these are some of the most memorable and formative experiences we have.
As a game that provides a unique point of view about childhood, and is a darned enjoyable play-through to boot, EarthBound became increasingly sought after as word of its greatness spread far and wide in the Internet age. But because of its status as a relative financial failure and the ever-booming collector’s market, an original copy – just the cartridge, mind you – is valued at nearly $200 today. If you want the big box complete with the guide, you’re looking at closer to $600. Even though it’s not the rarest or best game for the system, I’ve often said to myself that my complete copy will be the very last piece in my collection that I’ll be willing to part with, and I expect that many others feel the same way. Thankfully, Nintendo heard the pleas of impassioned gamers who simply couldn’t afford to play without pirating a copy, and they finally brought EarthBound (and Mother, now known as EarthBound Beginnings) to the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console in 2013, where it became one of their most purchased titles.
After being developed and then cancelled, Mother 3 finally saw its release in Japan in 2006; it still hasn’t seen an official U.S. release and required a fan translation project to become accessible to Americans. Despite being relatively neglectful of the series, Nintendo has continued to include Ness and Mother 3 protagonist Lucas as playable fighters in their Super Smash Bros. series, possibly indicating that they’re not done with it. However, Itoi has repeatedly stated that there will not be a Mother 4, no matter how much we want it; his story about childhood has been told, and as sad as it is, everyone eventually has to grow up and leave home.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!