Boy, you’re a strange one, EarthBound.
Though I can’t quite put my finger on it, I know I played EarthBound at some point. The intro provoked serious deja vu, and I’m guessing Nintendo’s failed push to make EarthBound a big deal in 1995 prompted me to rent the game from Blockbuster. I didn't play beyond Ness’ discovery of his destiny, and I’m not surprised the meta humor went over the head of a 10-year-old version of Patrick Klepek. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were more of my jams during that era.
These days, the idea of playing a JRPG will quickly provoke a groan. Traditional grinding ceased being interesting when I could no longer sleep in all day, and my truly epic time investments are usually put aside for whatever Todd Howard releases every few years. But with EarthBound having just released on Wii U’s Virtual Console and this fall’s onslaught knocking on the door, now seemed like the right (the only?) opportunity to help right a wrong.
There are, of course, two scenarios when one visits a cherished classic.
- It’s still great.
- Uh oh, it sucks now.
OK, that’s three. Thanks to Nintendo’s long-standing policy of ignoring the Mother franchise in North America, EarthBound is more unique than the rest of gaming’s beloved. These fans are beaten, bruised, and can't be trusted with sharp knives. It’s possible EarthBound is everything these people have promised you...or it's just nostalgia from the nearly two decades since its release causing a form of stockholm syndrome. Time has made talking about the game in a rational light impossible. If we disagreed, could we ever see eye-to-eye? It made me nervous to even start the game, knowing option two was possible. Take a recent episode of the great Polygon series, Cooperatives. Russ Frushtick has my nightmare scenario.
I don’t like to hate things. I like to like things. (So does Russ! He just didn't like EarthBound.)
This is a roundabout way of walking you through my emotional journey before discovering EarthBound remains a truly wonderful game. I’m about halfway through, and the game’s dedication to subtle subversion of player expectations remains thrilling, funny, and surprising. In hindsight, it’s even more impressive that a game from 1995 was so willing to go out on a whim and mess with you over and over.
Here’s a good example. The third person who joins your party is Jeff, a dude who will secretly repair stuff while you sleep. That’s already weird enough, but he joins your party with a ruler and a protractor. Inventory space in EarthBound is precious, as your four equippable items take up precious slots, and you must balance between the number of useful one-time items the game offers up. When you “use” the ruler, the game says you “can now figure out the lengths of things easily.” Er, okay? What does that mean for fighting hippies, Mr. Video Game? +20 to my HP? 10% increase to accuracy? The game never says, no matter how many times you ask it. As it turns out, the ruler doesn’t fucking do anything. Nothing. Zip! The game never tells you this, and I spent at least five hours with the ruler and protractor filling my backpack. It wasn’t until I decided to look online and realize there is still an ongoing discussion about these items happening today, despite players having examined the game’s ROM and learned they are nothing more than jokes.
I could not help but literally laugh out loud. It’s insane, and I cannot imagine a game today pulling this off. People would be furious about the game’s deception, and this sleight of hand is present everywhere in EarthBound. The game is well aware of its genre’s tropes, and even when it’s not poking fun at its fellow JRPGs, it’s messing with you for the sheer pleasure of befuddling you. This isn’t for everyone, and playing EarthBound without a walkthrough nearby might prove infuriating, but it’s exactly these kinds of small details that made the game all the more endearing. Like a big brother, it’s punching you in the arm and telling you to laugh about it.
It is also, weirdly, an amazing proof-of-concept for the GamePad working as intended. The recent firmware update means swapping between apps mid-game isn’t like watching paint dry, so I’ve always got the walkthrough from Starman.net queued up. When I leave an area, I check the walkthrough, make sure I’ve done anything that’s worth doing, and move on. It’s hard to get “stuck” in EarthBound, but as if the walkthrough wasn’t enough, the game is willing to guide you forward--for a price. In one of the early towns, there’s a hint shack, and for the low, low price of $60, he’ll tell you what to do next. Straight up. Sure, the description is a little coy, but rather than have players wandering the landscape, talking to NPCs over and over again, you can just keep moving. It provides EarthBound with a profoundly brisk pace that’s kept my attention focused.
Little touches define this game. I love how Ness can become “homesick,” which prompts him to mess up attacks because he’s thinking about his mom and eating [whatever you put in as your favorite food at the start of the game]. You don’t fix that by casting a magical healing spell, you pick up the phone and call home. It’s so god damn simple and brilliant. They even streamline combat grind by letting you outlevel enemies, prompting them to die automatically when approached. Not only that, but enemies run away from you! You have become powerful, feared. And it looks funny. It transforms a frustrating slice of JRPGs into a relatively stress-free affair. I can listen to a podcast or watch a TV show and tick up, up, up without skipping a beat.
Weirdly, though, I don’t ever feel like I’m grinding. You don’t spend much time in a single area, and you’re onto the next one relatively quickly. EarthBound seems acutely aware of its ability to tire you out, and freaks out over the notion that you might get bored. So it’s one event after another, one weird line of dialogue after the next--always moving forward and seeing new stuff.
I’m not sure what the point of writing this down was. I’d intended to do a travelogue of my EarthBound experience, but I’m already halfway through the game, so that seems a little goofy. But I’ve been having so much fun with the game, enjoying the validation of the game’s design ethos even in 2013, and kicking myself for not having tried it sooner. If you haven’t played EarthBound before, now’s the perfect time...if you own a Wii U. There’s no good reason this shouldn’t be on 3DS, too, except to tempt people towards buying Nintendo’s new console.
Turns out it's a pretty good reason.