For those that know what Earthbound is, you may have noticed that it has quite the following online. ‘Following’ doesn’t fully explain it – mentioning the series awakens a feverish and almost cult-like devotion amongst the legions of fans that can be found on the internet. I have always been fond of the game myself and always list it as one of my all-time favourites, but how has the game become a cult classic when it sold so poorly when it was released?
First, let me rewind for those few that do not know what Earthbound is. ‘Earthbound’ is the English name given to the second game in the Japanese ‘Mother’ series of video games. It was released in North America in 1995 for the Super NES. The Mother series were created by Shigesato Itoi for Nintendo. Mr. Itoi is also notable for having been the voice of Tatsuo Kusakabe, the father of the protagonist in the Japanese version of “My Neighbor Totoro” (which is co-incidentally one of my favourite movies). There are three games in the series: Mother, Mother 2 (known as Earthbound in the West, which I am focusing on here) and Mother 3. Earthbound is unique in that it is the only one of the three that saw an original release outside of Japan.
The game follows a boy named Ness, who is contacted by a time-travelling alien from the future about a powerful being that has taken over the universe named Giygas. The life-form (who appears to Ness as an insect named Buzz-Buzz) instructs Ness to destroy this menace in the present before it has the chance to become too powerful. Ness sets out on a journey, seeking out three friends and visiting eight special ‘sanctuaries’ in the world in order to become powerful enough to defeat Giygas.
“So”, you may ask, “Why does the game have such a devoted following?” Well, the game is quirky – almost to a fault. It forgoes the standard RPG tooling of a fantasy world, swords, demons, princesses, magic and a foreboding atmosphere, and replaces it with a light-hearted look at the West through a lense that is heavily coloured by pop culture. For this reason alone the series is close to unique, and the world in which Earthbound takes place is disarmingly endearing. Set in the 1990’s and in a world that feels distinctly American (called ‘Eagleland’), the cast of characters use childhood toys and household objects in lieu of swords and magic to make progress in their quest. In place of battling grotesque monsters the party face stray dogs, bizare inanimate objects come to life and other denizens driven mad by Giygas’ influence.
The game leaves many questions open to the interpretation of the player. The complex interpersonal relationships between the characters seem almost out of place in a game where the cast of protagonists are all middle-schoolers, but they enrich the world and make it more believable. Why does Ness only interact with his father via the telephone? Why is Pokey so obnoxious and passive-aggressive towards Ness? What is the relationship between Ness and Paula? Having to call home to speak to Ness’ Mom to alleviate ‘home sickness’ is another great touch. The game world is filled with rich ideas.
Of all the RPGs I played on the SNES, Earthbound was one of the few that really stuck with me. It really is like a surreal acid trip in places. The front-facing battle system was initially disappointing, having preferred both the side-on and isometric styles that ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Super Mario RPG’ employed respectively. Disappointment soon wanes though as soon as the dialogue is presented, both in and out of battle. It is both witty and quick-paced. The initial ‘breaking out’ into the open world within the sleepy town of Onett is a great experience – the streets are filled with interesting stores and houses, and the citizens are delightfully condescending (you are school children after all). The lack of random battles in the field is refreshing – instead the local ‘bestiary’, including a gang of punks called ‘The Sharks’ who hang our neat Onett’s arcade, chase after you.
Difficulty curves are very difficult to balance in RPGs, and they often fall into the trap of either being too grindy in nature or an absolute cakewalk. Earthbound managed to walk the line very well, despite having a couple of encounters that veered towards the ‘That One Boss‘ trope (I am looking at you Diamond Dog & the lights-off event at Fourside Dept. Store). The storyline is varied and always engaging, the environments that the party visits are vibrant and the dialogue presented by the citizens of Eagleland never fails to raise a smile. It is a genuine delight from start to finish, even if it is close to two decades old.
Getting hold of the game cheaply can be difficult. It is highly prized by collectors due to it’s relatively small run (140,000 copies in North America). Copies on eBay still regularly go for upwards of $200 USD, and if you have a complete copy with the box, manual, guide and fabled “Scratch ‘n Sniff” cards, you could be looking at around $1,000 USD. Prices have also been driven up by the lack of availability of the game on services such as the Wii’s Virtual Console. Due to the repeated riffing on pop culture (and almost blatant plagiarism when it came to the sound track) it was deemed unfit for re-release in its current state.
So there you have it. A game that stands the test of time and one that all RPG fans should play. From the family of Exit Mice (It’s a very smart mouse), the house at Beak Point, the cult of Happy Happyism and Ness’ lazy dog through to the village of Mr. Saturns at Saturn Valley and swapping a lost contact lens for a pair of dirty socks – it oozes charm and is comfortably one of the best console RPGs available. Now, where did I put my copy of Mother 3…