In mid-1995, Nintendo, at the time the world’s greatest manufacturer of video games, took a risky gamble in the form of a new game brought over from Japan. It was called Earthbound, and was immediately met with horrible reception here in America. Such awful reception that Nintendo, after the massive flop, refused to acknowledge the game’s existence outside of Japan for nineteen years. It was a shame too, because Earthbound is perhaps one of the most creative, wacky, and thematic games in history.
To play Earthbound is to get into the unconventional mind of the game’s creator, Shigesato Itoi, one of Japan’s most influential people. The game starts rather stereotypically; the main character, Ness, is startled awake in the middle of the night when a meteor falls into his hometown of Onett. Being the courageous type, Ness dons his signature baseball cap and bat and goes out to investigate. Soon after, his lengthy adventure begins as he travels across the world to stop the evil Giygas.
Earthbound epitomizes the hero’s journey step by step, but it is so much more than that. All the facets of the journey are here; Buzz-Buzz, A bee from the future, acts a sort of guide to Ness and sets him on his way at the beginning of the journey. Ness receives a Sound Stone, a magical item that allows him to collect the Eight Melodies, another step in the hero’s journey. The further he travels away from home, the more mysterious and dangerous the adventure becomes. This alone wouldn’t allow the game to stand on its own. It’s through the way Earthbound subtly gets in your head that it starts to really work its wonders.
Characters in these kinds of games are often faced with both mental and physical conditions that get in the way of the quest. Characters can become poisoned, paralyzed, even possessed. Have you ever seen a character miss home, though? Ness, as his adventure goes on, will suffer from homesickness, and his performance will degrade because of it. He will daydream about home, or have a fleeting memory of his mom’s voice or his dog in the middle of battle. There are no items to cure it, no magical powers that will make it all better. The only way for Ness to recover from homesickness is to call his mom, something no other game has ever done before. Ness and his friends can cry, catch colds, feel nauseated, and even get sunstroke if they are out in the sun for too long. It’s these kinds of things that make you really connect with the characters on a personal level that most games fail to do. If you were to go on an adventure, these are the kinds of things you would worry about. The line between pure fantasy and reality is broken.
Shigesato Itoi is a brilliant writer, and it is his writing that brings Earthbound to life. Characters you meet are downright quirky, and the things they say even more so. Enemies and foes are some of the strangest in the genre. The player will have to defeat living portraits, sentient Dali clocks, angry taxies, street signs, stressed businessmen, and even hippies. People you meet on the street have no qualms telling you what’s on their mind; some talk about their horrible lives, others will tell you to go home and play Nintendo games, and even one will quiz you on music trivia. The entire world is a parody of America, aptly named Eagleland, and pokes fun at some of the idiosyncrasies of American culture.
Something that really stands out is the music. The composers had no qualms about real world influence, and so the game is saturated with bands both of the time and of the past. The Beatles are heavily used: “All You Need Is Love,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” are just a few of the songs put into this game. That’s not all; “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry are also famously used, and it is hypothesized by the community that this is what caused legal issues in bringing Earthbound back to the west. A yellow submarine conspicuously makes its way into the latter half of the game with a sign in front of it urging the player that the color is purely coincidental. The Japanese name of the game, Mother 2, is an allusion to the John Lennon song. All of this is an effort to ground the game more so in reality, and it succeeds on almost every level. The ability to suspend your disbelief is hardly needed; the world is so realistic and built upon the foundations of reality that while playing you forget that it is fictional America.
Earthbound is hard to describe. The game has found a gargantuan cult following outside of Japan and is constantly being analyzed and discussed as not only one of the finest role-playing games of our generation but as a work of art. Earthbound has found re-release in Japan and recently in America and Europe, but a single used cartridge can still go as much as $200. Despite all that, it is a game that everyone should experience. The quirky characters, brilliant and witty writing, excellent taste in music and message make it a worth-while addition to any game library. It’s one of those stories that after it’s told, you stop for a moment and think back to your own life, where you have gone and how you have gotten there, and the game aptly leaves you with a cryptic “The End…?,” emulating the fact that life will indeed go on not only for the characters but for yourself.