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EarthBound: Why It’s A Game We All Remember

September 6, 2012

After purchasing it some time ago, I’ve spent the past few weeks finally trying to work my way through the fifth Humble Indie Bundle. For those of you not in the know, the Humble Indie Bundle is a collection of video games created by developers outside of the major studios, where you choose how much you want to pay, and how much of your payment goes to the developers, the people hosting the Humble Indie Bundle, and charity. In my opinion it is not only a great deal for the player but it also creates a great way for some indie games to become known amongst the wider populace. It also is a great way to incentivize playing games that people have definitely heard of but might not have bought because independently developed games can sometimes have a hefty price tag in relation to the amount of time you may spend playing them, or the intensity of the game play.

I’ve always found independent games to be interesting. I feel that independent games get that same sort of negative connotation of pretentiousness that (deservedly or undeservedly) gets applied to independent films, despite it not necessarily being as warranted. Most of the time, I find indie games to be more niche-focused than anything else. For example, it only seems like puzzle-solving adventure games have fallen off the map, while in reality independent developers make them all the time. Sometimes, an independent game can be about delivering an experience that a vocal minority of people are really just clamoring for, but other people will never understand.

Either way, I do play them, and I have been fondly enjoying Humble Indie Bundle V. Lone Survivor is amazingly intriguing, Bastion was superb though I think it is slightly overrated, Limbo has been atmospheric if somewhat frustrating, and I’m still too afraid to try and conquer Amnesia: The Dark Descent. One of the games that has been occupying my time as of late is Sword and Sworcery. Originally an iOS game, it splits a sort of weird fantasy metaphysical journey into a series of small fun-to-play sessions with simple but fun mechanics and a storyline that invites you to fill in the gaps.

What’s struck me most about Sword and Sworcery besides its carefully composed sound track is the dialogue and thoughts of the various characters involved. The game directs you on where to go through talking to a very small group of characters, and reading their thoughts through an artifact you obtain in the first session that seems to largely serve as a way to look back at dialogue you’ve seen or circumvent dialogue you don’t want to bother with. Some of the characters are overly pompous, sometimes they seem aware they’re in a video game, and other times they’re just very glib and purposefully unhelpful.

While I was playing this game I was struck with a sense of strange familiarity. It was only when I pressed on and had a fight with a golden triangle, that for some reason the familiarity clicked. The whole time I was playing it, largely because of the dialogue that was almost contemptuously directing me toward my objectives, I was being reminded of EarthBound.

EarthBound is one of those games that is just cherished by people who played it at a certain time in their life. To me it is a lot like Star Wars, in that I feel it has a peak moment of enjoyment. If you miss out on that moment, you have to wait until some sort of strange desire to consume a certain type of media overcomes you to get anywhere near the right sense of wonder and whimsy out of it. Obviously having grown up with it, I really do think that the prime time to enjoy the game is somewhere between the ages of 8 and 14, depending on the child.

A lot of people have an attachment and it’s interesting to examine exactly why.

Most of us know why though. It just takes a small bit of prodding to actually get it to come out.

As I’ve stated before, games really bring us into their folds by offering us some sort of reward scheme, or by immersing us into their stories and worlds. What’s interesting to me is the way that EarthBound does draw you in.

I think the best way to sort of explain EarthBound is through an analogous story. Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the creators of the long-running Legend of Zelda franchise, once expressed the idea that he was inspired to create the game because of his experiences growing up in rural Japan during the fifties and sixties. As a child, he would often explore the woods, hillsides, secluded villages, and most importantly a cave he discovered as a boy. He entered that cave with a lantern as his only guide, and it was that experience that he tries to capture in the games.

Which, I think, if we look back at the early Zelda games (especially ones where a lantern can be a key piece of equipment), he does succeed in capturing that feeling. One definitely feels that connection to boyish exploration. More importantly, we also feel that connection to boyhood drives of fantasy. Link wants to save a Princess from some sort of evil wizard-knight-beast-thing. To do so, he needs to collect various baubles and tools that he puts a lot of significance in.

This is something that young boys do.

On a personal note, sitting on the top of my fridge right now is a tall glass jug shaped like a totem pole. This is something that my brother, the neighborhood kids, and myself, found with another similar jug, in the woods at some point. We all thought it was cool, and we took it back home with us, cleaned them up and displayed them in our rooms. To us it was the spoils of our exploration. It was in the mind of an eight or nine year old boy, no different, and no less magical, than anything Link ever collects to save Zelda.

Looking back on it, EarthBound captures a much larger part of my childhood. This is the use of my imagination to escape the hum-drum world of suburbia. The reason why, I think, EarthBound resonated so quickly with the generation of kids growing up with an SNES was that Ness, the protagonist, was the closest a protagonist could ever come to being them.

He grew up in a small suburban neighborhood like you do. He hangs out with the kids that live nearby him, whether he likes them a lot or not. He dreams of exploring the world around him, but people tell him not to worry about it, or imply that it’s not that exciting. His home life, while not necessarily great (he is one protagonist in a line of many with an off-screen father) is still fairly stable.

Unlike you though, one day this all changes because he’s called to destiny. He’s called to put his boyhood skills and powers to the test. All because he was in the right place at the right time.

The modern suburban setting where nothing amazing ever happens, immediately resonates with anyone who was close to the protagonist’s age at that time. Ness’ life isn’t far removed from your own. He doesn’t fight with some hidden, unknown ability with a sword. Ness fights with a bat, and a yo-yo. He regains hit points by scarfing down hamburgers while getting into scraps with bullies.

The bullies are only mean because of some sort of evil magic, that can be dispelled, and allow Ness and the other children to grow up in peace. All the problems that plague modern life are because of this evil force.

When you even look at the aesthetics of the game, you sometimes suddenly stop and go, “Wait a minute, this is just kids playing pretend.”

I’m especially reminded of a sequence in which the characters enter robot bodies. The robot bodies look like something kids might slap together with silver spray paint and boxes. Of course, they needed to enter the robot bodies so they could properly travel through time and space.

Earthbound is about kids who play pretend. It’s about escaping from your suburban life with a little bit of adventure. That’s why it’s a game that captured the hearts of so many people. To this day it’s still an interesting and unique setting, with a very particular whimsy about it. Not many people seem to do the modern-set RPGs about kids playing pretend, anymore… or ever, really.

The other important aspect is that it never tries to take itself super-seriously. That’s how it maintained its sense of wonder. While it does deal with the world and issues that are facing the protagonist, it does so while maintaining that that protagonist is a child. Yet, Ness never feels inadequate because of the fact that he is a child because of how the game keeps its psychic distance in the realm of kids playing pretend. Ness is still the protagonist because every kid is the protagonist of their own imagination.

As a final analogy to EarthBound, especially considering its sometimes different and screwball-ish humor, I’m reminded of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Gilliam has stated before that Time Bandits, in relation to Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Manchausen, forms a sort of trilogy of escapism. Time Bandits examines how a child escapes his reality and constructs a better one. I feel that EarthBound works in that same vein while still managing to be a good game.

This game is one of those few things that I feel is really one of a kind. The time it was released, the way it is executed, and the connection that it makes with its fans, are all unique. If you ever used your imagination to play around as a kid, whether by yourself or with your friends, then you’ll like EarthBound.*

*: Note, you also have to have an understanding of Japanese RPGs, and be well versed in them enough to appreciate what’s cool about the connected map, the HP counters, and so on. Especially if you want to appreciate how a lot of these things help to feed into the game being about kids playing pretend… I’m just going to use the classic defense of Duchump’s Fountain here and say that if you don’t get it, you’re clearly some sort of philistine.

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From → Opinions, Video Games

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