Thursday, January 19, 2017

Earthbound


Released on June 5, 1995 by Nintendo, and developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory, Earthbound is an RPG featuring a 13-year old boy's and his friends' epic battle against the unimaginable evil of Giygas.

So does that mean, like, you are headed to Earth, or you are trapped by Earth, or the Earth is trapped? I'm so confused!

"Are you sure you don't want to get this instead?"
I remember this moment in Baton Rouge's now demolished Video Game Exchange (VGX) as if it just happened. I had visited with my two best buddies to find a used copy of Soul Caliber for my Dreamcast, George W Bush would be elected president just three months later, and I was soon to start my first semester of college.
"Get what?" I asked Daniel, the clerk at VGX. All these years later, I still remember his name.
"Someone just brought in this complete copy of Earthbound with the strategy guide and everything. I'm selling it for just $50. It's in almost perfect condition. This thing is going to be worth serious money someday. I already have my own copy."
I looked at the box, featuring a kid riding around in a goofy looking star. I remembered the magazine ads for this game from five years before, the weird "This Game Stinks" marketing tag, and the nasty scratch-n-sniffs that went with it. If you want people to associate good memories with your yet-to-be-released game, don't make their first connection to it an olfactory assault.
"Nah," I said. "I really want to get Soul Caliber."
Soul Caliber is an excellent game, one of the best fighting games of its generation. I bought my mint-condition used copy for $20. It goes for about $15 now. A complete copy of Earthbound...goes for significantly more than that.

Pictured: Me and my buddies headed to VGX. Not pictured: the pile of money I'm not currently rolling in.
Many years passed, and I never played Earthbound. While I cut my teeth on the Atari 2600, the Super Nintendo is my favorite system, and its RPG's my favorite games. You would think I would have played one of its most heralded role-playing games, but the truth of the matter is, upon its release, Earthbound's reputation was not what it is now. Earthbound originally came saddled with the afore-mentioned marketing campaign, a hefty price tag, and a majority of reviews that praised the game as "okay" at best.
But then, something strange happened. Years after its release, people started praising Earthbound. Daniel, the VGX guy, is some kind of crazed-but-accurate video-game prophet. Fansites for Earthbound suddenly sprang up everywhere. In the blink of an eye, publications that weren't so high on Earthbound were praising it as not just one of the best RPG's, but best games of its generation. Suddenly, I was faced with the prospect that one of the most well-regarded games in my favorite genre on my favorite system was a game I never even played. And thus, with a chip on my shoulder, and a seven-year old at my side, I finally entered the world of Earthbound.

Hey, "finally" is better than "never!"
The first thing any connoisseur of SNES RPG's will notice a couple of minutes into Earthbound is that Earthbound does not look as good as most top tier SNES RPG's...at least, it's the first thing I noticed. The graphics are extremely simple and childlike, with simple designs and animations for the characters, and very stripped-down artwork for the game's world. However, some later areas are a bit more graphically complex, and the game never skimps on color. Also, considering Earthbound's themes, and the emotions it explores, this graphical design may be a considered choice.

Nine times out of ten, I consider monkeys.
Themes aren't often the first thing one thinks of in regard to video games. As I began Earthbound, it certainly wasn't on my mind. The aesthetics of the game and its basic structure were the first elements to reveal themselves, and those helped form my first impression. "Wait, you can't even see your attacks on enemies? The graphics look like this? The battle system is this simple?"
WARNING: The following paragraph is entitled "RPG's for Dummies." If you already know what an RPG is, skip it, unless you are a completionist, which, paradoxically, means you are probably already well-aware of what an RPG is. I just want to warn that the upcoming paragraph (and even the one after) is as dry as a Mississippi county.
An RPG is a game where the protagonist (in Earthbound, Ness) generally meets new characters who may join him as a party; the party members then get into generally turn-based battles with foes; when/if those enemies are defeated, the party members gain experience points; when the party members gain enough experience points, they reach a new level where their stats, such as offense, defense, and hit points(a number which is depleted when a character takes damage) and magic points (in Earthbound, called PSI, and used for magic-based moves) are increased--this is called leveling up, and may also result in the respective party members learning new magic-based moves (for attack, healing, protection, etc.).

That thing to their left is called a "building."
Earthbound doesn't do anything to shake up the basic RPG gameplay formula, though it does add its quirks to the system. For instance, Earthbound contains a rolling hit-point counter. This means that when a character is hit, instead of the damage coming off in one chunk (let's say 100 hit points), it rolls down over a short period of time. If the player can win the fight or heal the respective character before the hit-point counter rolls down to take account of the damage, the damage isn't fully done. This comes in extremely handy when a character should be fatally wounded by a powerful attack, but the player has to react quickly in order to counter the damage. Another innovation is how the player initiates battle with the enemy. While several other 16-bit RPG's allow the player to choose when they want to battle an enemy (as opposed to random battles, where fights begin without the player's consent, as they are attacked by a foe that was before-then invisible), Earthbound also allows the player a chance to get a jump on the enemy. If Ness and his crew can sneak up behind a foe, they get to attack first. However, if the enemy gets the jump on them, the bad guys get the pre-emptive strike. If the fight begins head-on, the first attacks are more simultaneous. This is a cool little wrinkle. Also cool: the trippy, swirly, ever-changing backgrounds behind every one of the game's fights. They're really cool. These elements certainly stand out, but even after experiencing them, I still did not understand Earthbound's enduring appeal. After all, there are even some gameplay elements handled poorly, like the game's clunky inventory system, an annoying hassle which actually had me dreading discovering new items and having to figure out where to put them.

Have you ever just tried not being annoying?
I had heard several people brag about Earthbound's contemporary American setting as something that sets it apart.  The game's main protagonist, Ness, is presented as a Japanese stereotype (this game was made in Japan) of a typical small-town American boy, who loves baseball, his mom, and the family dog. A baseball bat-wielding 13-year old boy protagonist is certainly a major change for players used to a sword-swinging muscle-bound lead. Also, most of the game's early settings--featuring several small towns, a larger metropolis, a snowy countryside full of tourists, and a beach--are certainly not fantastical. The kids even go to the mall to shop, visit the library for information, and Ness can ride a bike when he's alone to travel faster. But this isn't just some game where you go around fighting bad guys and having adventures in a normal, modern world. Earthbound is weird.

Except for this bridge.
From the meteorite that crashes into a hill next to Ness' house to begin the game, to the talking bee who informs Ness of his "chosen one" destiny, to a burping foe that is essentially a pile of vomit (and essentially any of the weird foes the party squares off against), Earthbound abounds with strangeness. Strange Ness. Huh...sorry. Anyway, Earthbound is weird. It places the four party members, who are on the verge of leaving childhood, into an abnormal, stressful situation they should not be able to handle. This leads directly into the game's themes.

Anti-commercialism and the death of the bourgeoise. 
Actually, I can frame Earthbound's themes by a comment from my 7-year old, as he watched me play through this game.
"Where is Ness' daddy, daddy?'
Ness' home is occupied by his mother, sister, and dog. He can call his dad from any of the many phones (including pay-phones!) throughout the game, in order to save his progress. While Ness' dad sometimes mentions coming home, he never makes a physical appearance in Earthbound. There are times during the game where Ness starts to struggle in battle. Sometimes, the message "Ness misses his mother" comes up when the player attempts to command Ness to attack. The player must then find a phone, so that Ness can call his mother for encouragement. Another party member, Jeff, has a work-focused father he hasn't seen in a decade. Jeff longs for his father's approval. Midway through the game, when he and Jeff are reunited, his father barely acknowledges him.

Almost as much as I long to run away and join the circus.
None of these elements are handled with a heavy-hand. They just are. That's what makes Earthbound special. It's the way that it eventually got to me and will stick with me forever: understated, yet incredibly powerfully emotion. There is a sense, that despite the sometimes steep difficulty level (some of the boss fights in this game kicked my butt), this game is for children. Earthbound seems designed to help prepare them for the difficulties and unpredictability of the real world. While the game is quite dark at moments (more on that later!), it features a certain gentleness, such as how enemies "return to normal" when they are defeated, and party members are rendered unconscious instead of dead. This is a slight cushion from the other horrors in the game, a check to make sure children aren't pushed too far, yet still witness the difficulties that life will bring. At the same time, the game evokes a certain nostalgia that will connect with adults. There is a certain psychological subtext of leaving childhood implicit throughout the game that becomes more explicit in its later portions, particularly when Ness alone has to make a very personal journey to prepare for the upcoming battle against Giygas.

Okay, "war" against Giygas.
"What even is Giygas?" my son asked of the game's primary antagonist.
Giygas is an incomprehensible, ancient, formless evil that corrupts everything near it, including adults, children, animals, and even entire towns. Ness must collect melodies from eight sanctuaries throughout the game in order to more fully connect himself to the Earth, and to know himself more deeply, so that he can defeat Giygas. This is all at once very nebulous, and yet very personal and emotional, as Ness experiences a very lucid memory of his childhood upon hearing each melody. Also, going back to the psychological subtext I mentioned above, there's a sanctuary location called "Milky Well"....

Which then inspired a strange desire in Ness to go to the beach to "scope out babes."
This all leads to what might be one of the most strangely emotional boss fights in RPG history, as Ness and his crew find themselves battling against a foe they can't understand, in a location they can't comprehend, by methods their minds can't make sense of, in a location as isolating and alienating as possible. The discovery of the actual means to defeat this final boss, when my son and I finally realized we were out of all other options, led me to tears, and I am glad my son was so engrossed in what was happening onscreen that he didn't look back and see his old man blubbering like an idiot.
Yes, Earthbound got me. The game I left on the shelf for so many years, with graphics that look hand-drawn by kids as old as the protagonists, still had the power to emotionally wreck me. This leads me to the final component of what makes this game so great.

"Is it me, the Annoying Reveler?"
Earthbound has a great soundtrack. The diversity of the music is excellent, and while the majority is lightweight, the latter, more emotional tracks are incredibly evocative. Even the airier tracks are quality, with my favorites utilizing reggae and dub. Other themes, like the one that plays at Ness' home, or the one that lilts by in the morning after a hotel stay (which recovers the party's hit and PSI points) are greatly comforting, which goes along with the game's "Mother" theme (the Earthbound series' actual Japanese title). At select moments, the soundtrack also samples bits from classic rock tracks (for example, check out the snippet of "All You Need Is Love" in "The Cave that Time Forgot"), which also creates a strange, subconscious nostalgia.
My son has an MP3 player full of his favorite video game music, including the Earthbound soundtrack, and he confided to me the other day that he was listening to some of the game's final battle music in his bed one night, got scared, and deleted it. Again, it's incredible how resonant this game is for something that looks like it does. Also, up to this point, nothing my son has seen in a film or video game has ever scared him (I mean, I'm not showing him The Exorcist or anything, but I'm not exactly sheltering him, either), but the climactic fight in Earthbound did. This is an affecting game, and one I already feel like I may play through again. My "favorite SNES RPG's" list just got a little longer.

Alright, dude, it's time for you to go.
A FINAL NOTE: Wait, how did you finally play this? you might be asking. I thought this game cost about a million dollars? It's true that it costs too much to buy an authentic Earthbound cartridge--but there are other options. Wii U owners can download the game for a low price on the Nintendo e-Store. If you don't have a Wii U, you could emulate Earthbound online for free, which, while not quite legal, is a lot cheaper than a million dollars, or even the price of a Wii U. Neither of these options, however, gives the authentic experience of playing Earthbound on a Super Nintendo console, with a Super Nintendo controller. Thankfully, you don't have to pay a million dollars for that experience, either. It is possible to find reprogrammed Earthbound cartridges for under $30 bucks. This is an emulated copy of the game placed in an authentic SNES cartridge, with full save capabilities, and zero glitches. It will work flawlessly on your SNES, and give the same experience as actually playing the same million-dollar original cartridge of Earthbound. While the legality of this is also nebulous, I'll leave it to the reader to decide their best option. Regardless of the player's choice, an Earthbound experience doesn't have to cost the price of a presidential assassination. Then again, if you can hunt down Daniel from the long-defunct VGX, maybe he will loan you his copy.

1995 Nintendo/Ape/HAL Labaratory

Graphics: 6.5.0/10.0

Sound: 9.5/10.0

Gameplay: 9.0/10.0

Lasting Value: 9.0/10.0


Overall: 9.0/10.0