The Link-Up Spell: Let’s Revisit Earthbound
Today, we revisit the cult hit Earthbound. Say “Fuzzy Pickles!”
There is “something” charming about the RPG Earthbound, the sequel from the Mother series published by Nintendo. Maybe it is the light comedic dialogues; maybe it is the colorful minimalistic graphics or the high quality sound department, which combined with the smart writing that permeates a wacky plot that produced a very rare piece of gaming.
Or, maybe, that “something” is just the sum of all the parts of this little piece of creative of “stinky” electronic oddity.
Unlike their western counterparts, Japanese vein of RPG is similar to long stories. Character development is deeply tied with the narrative and the choice paths are way more restrictive. While occidental games from series like Ultima or Might and Magic were pushing more open worlds, to pair them with the Dungeons & Dragons formula, Japan treated their games like graphic novels, with predetermined story branches.
What I always point about the Mother series, and specially Earthbound, is the authorial component inside it. Copywriter Shigesato Itoi led the dev teams since day one and like the other two parts of it, Earthbound is better enjoyed like an interactive book, instead of a video game. And all the vicissitudes and all the hard work present in the art work was, indeed, imprint in the sequel.
Itoi is well known and celebrated in his country for being a writer. In fact, his blog “Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun” (Something like “Almost Daily Itoi News”) gathered huge fan base, thanks to his cheerful persona and thoughtful writings. So, when the first Mother game was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989, it developed an instant cult following in Japan.
Around the publishing date of Mother, Nintendo and Itoi assembled a new team to work on the sequel to be launched in the new console, the Super Nintendo (SNES). The project was pitched into a development hell, afterwards. The programmers had a hard time putting all the wacky ideas and making everything work, the sound producers composed a huge amount of music that did not fit the restrictive cartridge format and graphic designers had to represent every map in a perfect way with the innovative oblique camera style.
Future Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata, was the savior of the turn. At that time, he was the director of HAL Laboratory, the devs behind hits like the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. series, but he was also a talented programmer. The code of Mother 2 was a mess and Iwata basically re-wrote everything, cleaned it and put the engines to work.
Released first on Japan, the game became another hit on the Itoi’s franchise. But, after the cancelled Mother 1, Nintendo was not entirely convinced to release it to the Western audiences. Somehow, Mother 2 was put into a localization team that had to adapt the goofy humor and the crazy plot to the audiences of North America. The titanic labor paid its debt with a superb script and June 5, 1995 was the release date for this SNES cult title, renamed finally as Earthbound on this side of the world.
What’s the story inside Earthbound?
After a couple of mundane questions, players take control of a kid named Ness, a regular 13 years old child living with his mother , his sister and a dog in the peaceful outskirts of Onett, a fictional American town located in the fictional state of Eagleland, in the year of 199X. His father is mostly absent because his job, but he is always in touch with his beloved family by phone calls.
The silent protagonist is a brave kid and one night the whole neighborhood wakes up by a sudden crackling explosion. Armed with a bat and accompanied by his faithful canine pal, Ness set out to investigate the incident.
In the rural streets, the commotion of the adults reveals the motives of the active night to our young hero. A meteor crashed into the hills of Onett. Policemen are out trying to calm down the habitants and urge them to lock themselves in their houses, due the increasing of attacks from the local fauna. Dogs, crows and snakes jumps out from the foliage and bite the people without mercy.
Of course, Ness is a true warrior and he can dispatch the feral animals, but the police formed barricades and stops him to get near the strange phenomena. While returning home, he encounters Pokey, his selfish neighbor, who asks to search for his missing little brother that went out for curiosity.
When the pair arrives, they find Picky, and also a tiny alien bee that starts rambling about the prophecy of three boys and a girl who will free planet Earth from the “universal cosmic destroyer” Giygas.
And so, it begins the Ness journey, where he encounters a few but loyal allies and a myriad of enemies to fight. He and his friends will face the rage of society misfits, but also the dark consequences of Giygas shadow.
”Pokey Means Business!… And Business Is Good”
Just like every other J-RPG of the time, Earthbound is played while controlling a party with a memorable cast of different characters with diverse skills through a vast over world, meanwhile battles and set by turns in a different screening.
However, this game gives the players new changes to the simple system, influenced by the classic Dragon Quest series. The battles are disposed in a frontal presentation with some random psychedelic animated backgrounds aptly named as “Video Drug” (made by a single guy who had to invent 200 of them in two years), in which the players face the rows of enemies selecting commands like physical attacks, defense, item usage or PSI, which are psychic powers akin to magic skills.
The health of every character is represented by a rolling meter, comparable to a pedometer, which starts to rolls down the damage. Lesser enemies make the meter rolls slower than bosses and that gives the battles a little component to engage the dexterity of the player. Many battles can be won, since the rolling meter gives the chance to heal at the last minute, and that aspect gives the fights a more active element.
The encounters are not random and the party can decide how to clash or ignore the skirmishes on the overworld map. Also, if the team is way more powerful than the monster, the battle can be won automatically, to the pleasure of the explorers in larger areas.
Anyways, the simplistic nature of the battles can disinterest gamer who tends to engage in more tactical and strategic styles of gameplay. But, like I said before, Earthbound is an interactive piece of literature, and the thrill of unraveling the story is what drives most of the fans of it to begin with.
The technical side of the game is another aspect worthy of praise. Graphic-wise, the conceptual work behind it shines through the whole story with all the different locations and sprites that gives so much color and identity to this title. This is one of those instances in which the towns are always vibrant with life in every corner and immersion factor can be present to those adventurers wishing to explore the strange places of Eagleland and beyond with Ness and his friends.
Music is another stand-point. This is, perhaps, the best sound programming of the entire SNES catalog with rich sampling work and high quality instrumentation. The cartridge memory had to be doubled, to a stunning size of 24 megabit, in order to fit the large maps and the vast array of songs, inspired by folk, pop, rock, chamber music, movie soundtracks and, even, metal.
According to some information revealed on interviews with the dev team, composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirozaku Tanaka arranged and created music to fill two CD’s (around one-third of the game’s size), an impressive landmark for the time, a true avant-garde mix of many disparate rhythms and cultures. Songs range from optimistic and energetic, to dark and melancholic, and they are all correctly applied to every story scenario. Take for example the incredibly touching piece “Because I Love You”, who scrolls at the end of the adventure, such a fitting musical moment to engage more with the final part of this quest.
Sadly, the way the game was marketed to the Western audiences, the usage of minimalist graphics and the different interest of the audiences towards video games at that time was a cocktail bomb against Earthbound. The poignant and humorous story was not sufficient to satiate the Westerners need for more technically accomplished experiences on gaming and the game sold poorly in America, a wild market where RPG were a niche market.
Also, the game was sold with a big strategy guide and some weird wares that increased the already high price of the cartridge. After that, the appearance of Earthbound characters and stages on the famous Super Smash Bros. fighting games were the only surviving elements of the series in America and Europe, since the third chapter of Mother was a Japan exclusive title for the Game Boy Advance handheld console (and, sadly, it is still an unreleased game in this side of the market).
The topics behind Earthbound
Earthbound captivating story is always seasoned with a quirky sense of comedy. The player takes Ness and his party to fight a huge cast of enemies that may seem random at first glance, but it may induce some deep thoughts about what Shigesato Itoi wanted to express with the script.
Just like a novel or a movie, Itoi firstly developed this Western-influenced fictional land as a scenario for all the wackiness in his head, but also as some sort of playground to portray modern society and the process of growing up through it.
The interaction between the kids and adults is one the primary aspects that pop out in the first dialogues. Parents and grownups sometimes just seem to have their own separated world according to some NPC speeches, and when the adventure becomes way more dangerous, the society seems to be unaware of all the dangers.
The memorable final battle is imprint in many of the people that finished this tale, and I am sure everyone will concur how they felt through the nightmarish experience of facing the evil abomination of Giygas.Following this, we can find awareness of Itoi’s thoughts on parenthood, media, Eastern codes of life, capitalist living, the danger of sects and, even homosexuality as kids. Each of these serious topics is always buried under mountains of surreal elements or deeply emotive moments, like with the Happy Happyism spooky group, the dark stage of Fourside or the Jeff segment alone in Winters.
I just cannot extend myself more on this topic; but every town and story events leaves various impressions and thoughts to each player, and you can encounter many different theories and points of view about the Earthbound incredibly crafted world.
Some final thoughts
Look, I freaking cried at the end of this game. And I am not embarrassed to admit it. It made me laugh with all the sarcasm and the innocence of the inhabitants of Eagleland, it made me fear and it made me think of my life and the love of my family and friends that keeps me going forward.
But, for real, Earthbound is an incredible experience as a whole. This retro title boasts so many character and emotional moments that it needs the player to be swallowed inside the contrasting story. I really urge to put your real name, since the game breaks the fourth wall to scrutinize inside your deepest memories.
Many gamers do not pass through the graphics or the beginning of the narration, but if you really want to delve in a different type of RPG or you are now interested to play it due this bad review, do it and finish it! You will probably thank me later, because this game besides stinking is a true work of art!