Monday, April 18, 2016

EarthBound

Note: Minor spoilers included. EarthBound Beginnings is referred to its original name, Mother, for context.


What is the video game, Earthbound?
Even today, it’s so hard to answer that question.

It was like a group of children taking dolls from a toy chest.
Old dishes no longer used in the kitchen.
Nuts and bolts found inside a toolbox.
Little flowers and leaves from the backyard.
And they were all laid down on the carpet with everybody singing made-up songs.
Ready to talk all day about that world they just made.
That, I think was how Earthbound was made.

Well, I’m a grown-up too,
so I didn’t hold back in adding things here and there,
like putting more angles here,
hiding a secret there,
and sometimes slipping in little mean things.

Then a whole lot of friends came over to play.
And they helped it grow as they were having fun as they pleased.
They gave it branches, leaves and flowers,
to what was once a simple story of just root and trunk.
For every person that played, there are that many iterations of Earthbound.

As I met different people on unrelated occasions,
they told me “I found out about you by playing Earthbound.”
This was not only right after the game was out.
People were telling me this after it’s been out for quite some time.

All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, “how do you remember so much?”
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
“I love that world so much I remember everything about it.”
I reply right away saying “me too.”

Ah hah! That may be it.
Maybe I wanted to make a playground.
A playground filled with things no matter how small or unwanted,
they would all be kept dear in people’s hearts.
It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing – even though I didn’t think I gave it one.
That’s right, that’s something I also wanted to do all along.

I was already a grown-up at the time I was making Earthbound,
but now that thirty years have been added to my life, I’ve grown up even more.
I think about things that I didn’t back then.

Things like, “what kind of a person do I want to be when I die?”
I already know the answer to this one.
It’s “someone with a lively wake.”

The person who passed away has to be in all sorts of different people’s memories.
What they’ve done, how stupid they were, what kind of things they did for fun,
and how kind that person was sometimes.
All the people who are still alive are laughing,
wanting to be the first one to bring up those things to everyone around them.
The life I want to live is something that can be concluded with that kind of a party-like wake.
Fame and fortune, setting records and accomplishments are all meaningless.
That person is inside those stories that are told,
where people talk about their episodes, casually and sincerely.

Well, it’s not dead, and it’s not even human,
but to me Earthbound is a game that’s kind of like that guy.

Now that you’ll be able to play Earthbound to your heart’s content,
I hope you’ll play it with someone and create all kinds of great, happy memories.
I’m glad that this day has come.
And I think everyone who had a part in making this game is very excited too.

Thank you for everything. 


~EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi, on the digital release of the game for Wii U.

----

When I first read Mr. Itoi's write-up, I was stunned at how much it mirrored my own feelings on EarthBound, which holds the distinction of being my favorite video game ever made. Only very recently had I realized my feelings on the game had come full circle, and the tears I shed upon its Virtual Console announcement just a few months before affirmed that EarthBound was as close to me as ever.

But despite my undying love for it, it's a title that's hardly penetrated public consciousness, so an introduction is necessary. Despite the singular name, EarthBound is actually the second of a JRPG trilogy known in Japan as Mother. Why did Mr. Itoi grant the series such an unusual name? There's his personal connection with the John Lennon song of the same name, for starters, but the name betrayed typical JRPG conventions of the time. There were no dragons or fantasies or legends implied, but a word associated with feelings of warmth and love.


That, and there are a whole lotta Motherships flying around. Choosing to instead take place in a tongue-in-cheek parody of America, protagonists in the form of children take on aliens, robots and brainwashed hippies as they gather melodies, battle with psychic powers and baseball bats and pop guns while learning the values of love. It wasn't uncommon for JRPGs to use avatars as proxies for the player, but Mother was unprecedented: for all the imagination it took to imagine yourself in Ye Olden times, here was an adventure you could forge in your very own backyard.

One that North America never gave a chance. While beloved cult classics in their native country of Japan, Mother had its own set of troubles settling into the very country that inspired it. The original Mother for the Famicom had been fully translated and localized for American NES release, but was quietly canceled in the face of the upcoming SNES. Mother 2, or what we know as EarthBound, was released in 1995, but what was perhaps the worst advertisement concept in video game history prevented any sort of mainstream success.

There were two factors that prevented EarthBound from falling into the ether. One was that the audience it did grab and speak to grew into some of the most passionate fans the industry has ever seen. Indeed, the folks at Starmen.net have created much noise for roughly two decades now, what with it hosting annual summer playthroughs for EarthBound, petitions begging for Mother 3's revival from cancellation and translation patches for titles that never made it over to America (Mother 3 and the GBA port Mother 1+2). Believe it or not, there's actually a Wikipedia article on how passionate we Mother fans are.


We'll get into the other one later, but what makes EarthBound so special? Honestly, I cannot bear to begin with any one detail without immediately seguing into another. There's the colorful, minimalist graphic style that leaves just enough detail for the players to fill in the gaps; the script, handwritten by Itoi himself and manages a wonderful balance of being rip-roaringly funny and achingly sincere; the music, an absurdly unique blend of genres, sampling and dissonance by Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki; the New Age Retro Hippie, one of the brainwashed denizens you meet in Twoson who fights by brushing his teeth and whose theme music is obviously (amazingly?) inspired by Johnny B. Goode.

In case you hadn't caught on, EarthBound is something of a part-comic, part-thought-provoking deconstruction of JRPGs. But it's never a cynical one; actually, it's a progressive one. Where Itoi stumbled in the very same traps he wanted to avoid for the original Mother, none of the large, confusing maps or frustrating random battles are present here. Take the latter: not only does everything from aliens to possessed road signs traverse on the very same maps you do, but enemies you've long since outstripped will flee at first sight. If you chase them down, you'll beat them in, literally, a flash. (So long, Worthless Protoplasms!) Yes, it may throw monkey wrenches like randomly blocking players with iron pencil statues, but it's largely all for the sake of comedy. (After all, why do you think they can only be dismantled through a device known as the "Pencil Eraser"?)


It's a game that invites you in not just because of how weird and funny it is, but because it makes you the star, and it's dead-set on making you feel like one. The naming screen asks what your favorite thing is, which subsequently becomes the name of Ness's personalized PSI attack. Your favorite food isn't just whipped up by your Mom, but is the topic of conversation among several NPCs ("Bread"? Please...we do not have such trash on our menu"). Kids who play it are often tempted to name Ness and the gang after themselves and their friends. The game actually speaks to you at certain points--no, not Ness, but you, the player holding the controller.

In a way, it becomes a game that transcends "play". You don't spend your time grinding for levels or meticulously planning battle strategies like other JRPGs, but instead are actually invested in what NPCs have to say and find yourself exploring every crook and nanny of every town just to make sure you've talked to everyone. After all, why wouldn't you want to talk to Ruffini, the drugstore dog who's possessed by Itoi? And you better make it a habit to pick up every phone you see, because if Ness hasn't called his mother for a while, he'll be stricken by homesickness and rendered useless in battle.

It's a living, breathing, organic world where you can call Mach Pizza and wait at the bus stop. Concerts are attended (actually, they're woven into the storyline!) and you can experiment with what condiments go on what foods. You can ride a bike and ring its bell if only for the shortest of times (or can you?). Is that a treehouse hidden in the forests of Onett? What are those two conspicuous dots lying in the Dusty Dunes Desert, and what happens if I interact with them? Who is Nico, the little girl who sings and dances in Magicant, Ness's realm of memories? What's the deal with that tiny, inaccessible house outside the stretches of Twoson?


Itoi's toy chest comparison hits the mark; indeed, EarthBound may very well be an electronic toy chest. Not in the "build-your-world" context of Minecraft and Little Big Planet, mind, but a metaphorical one; alongside its bright colors, the game's oblique projection tilts the perspective just enough to present it as a diorama, with the characters as dolls and figures you want to pick up and play with. EarthBound's character sprites are hardly as detailed as, say, Chrono Trigger, but as mentioned before, they stay just minimalized enough for players to come up with their own personalized details. (Think about it: how many different interpretations of Ness have you seen in the game's countless troves of fan art?)


One of my favorite examples involves the lone NPC you see above. You see that guy with the blond hair? Try reading his shirt. Okay, you can't, but note how it's just legible enough to make out the famous "I Heart" brand of shirts. What does he love? We don't know, but boy can we have fun filling in the blanks. (apparently Itoi loved the character as much as we did, as the NPC reappears in Mother 3) There are other favorite designs, namely how the members of Tessie Watching Club always have binoculars glued to their faces and conspicuous Mr. T lookalikes (the best possibly being a resident of Twoson, who, after a kidnapping incident is resolved, claims he'll be "careful" not to kidnap anyone. It's not nearly as suspect as it sounds, but that it's said so straight-laced always has me howling).


So while EarthBound's graphics are hardly a looker by SNES standards, they remain timeless via the player's own projection. Just take how it treats the game's sole visual stunner: the psychedelic battle backgrounds. Pulsing and fluttering around like a music visualizer, these fluctuating abstractions steal the show of the admittedly simple battle encounters. EarthBound's battle system isn't the deepest you'll come across, and you can't even see your party, but that's okay. After all, you're the star; how the kids fend off aliens with baseball bats and frying pans and bazookas and the hexagonal chaos that are PSI attacks is entirely up to your imagination.

Take an old perception of mine as some food for thought: are you fighting in the streets of Onett, or are you zapped into dimensions host to those zany 3D backgrounds? Back when I was a kid, I perceived it as the latter, and mentally framed all the battles as such. Was I taking the presentation literally as-is, or did I take inspiration from the whole "crime-fighting kids who keep their occupation secret" cartoon trope? Regardless, even now I occasionally get caught up in that little theory, and now maybe you can, too.

But if we must praise the battle system from a "game" perspective, there is no other nominee but the rolling HP meter. Whereas enemy damage is immediately applied to your characters' HP in other RPGs, any attacks here slowly dwindle down number-by-number as according to how much was inflicted. Even if you're dealt mortal damage, a serving of Hamburgers or casting a PSI LifeUp will save yourself before the ticker reaches zero. EarthBound keeps its battle just interesting enough to keep the player invested, but it doesn't go for flashiness lest it overrides its purpose of immersion.


Needless to say, EarthBound was far ahead of its time for a 1994 video game, and so much of this has to do with the excellent, excellent writing. That Mr. Itoi is, first and foremost, a copywriter/essayist should speak for itself on how different it's going to be, but consider how he's considered to be one of Japan's most eccentric. Hardcore Gaming 101's review elaborates on how the Japanese kana for the original Mother 2 projects what can be best described as a free-flowing script that, despite the childish inclinations from that sector of the Japanese language, never comes across as patronizing.

All woefully difficult to conserve in translation, you understand, and yet Mother 2's transition into EarthBound results in what's NOA's first legitimately great localization. I'm not exaggerating here: just read up on Clyde Mandelin's super comprehensive Mother 2 vs. EarthBound comparison, and you'll realize how any mistranslations that slipped by are a drop in the bucket to how perfectly it captures Itoi's tone. Bear in mind this is from the mid-90's; granted, we'd just started to figure out this "localization" business (no more "Dodongo dislike smoke!" for us Nintendo fans), but that the localizers felt the words "crap" and "sexy" were needed to flesh out Itoi's world just proves EarthBound's localization is a real gift. (Bear in mind not only had NOA been enforcing a strict "kid's only" set of depiction guidelines at the time, but the former word only just recently became standard for Fire Emblem games, while the latter remains exclusive to good ol' EB)


And what a gift the writing itself is. It's a masterful blend of wit, parody, casual speak, and occasional sincerity. Helpful one moment and sudden (but clever!) Beatles reference the next. It'll break the fourth wall, but only in ways that'll serve the game's world and the player's connection. There are two entire dungeons dedicated to gloriously parodying RPG tropes. It's not outright manic, but it's the logic behind an earlier point: you want to explore everything the game has to offer. For example, you discover early on that while not every building is accessible, you'll still receive an answer should you knock on the door. How many houses can I enter, you might wonder, and so you're encouraged to find out what lies in them. If you can't, you're at least rewarded with funny dialogue.


The NPC dialogues are really the winner here. I could elaborate on any number of them, but I particularly enjoy the ones who betray conventions. The first woman you meet in Twoson who introduces the town, for one; I dare not spoil the punchline, but I can confirm the conversation will induce more philosophical ponderings on NPCs you never thought possible. Anyone invoking wordplay (namely the Happy-Happyist Cult, who desire to paint the world blue) is a riot, and I also appreciate the wordplay behind the towns ("Twoson--we got this name because we weren't first").


Of course, the best of the best are everyone's favorite part of the game: the Mr. Saturns, a race of tiny aliens fond of ribbons, help Ness engage in introspective coffee trips, and are, at one point, held captive by sentient piles of barf. Oh, and they speak in broken English, with their font as a mess of foreign-styled scribbles (apparently inspired by the handwriting of Itoi's daughter). This results in beautiful dialogue like in screenshot above. Basically, if they don't make you at least crack a grin, you don't have a soul.

Anyone could make a case for EarthBound's quirky, innovative writing being the best part of the game, but you could just as easily do the same for its quirky, innovative score. For the sake of context, I consider the Super Nintendo to be home to the greatest soundtracks in gaming history, be it the orchestral flair of Kirby Super Star and Chrono Trigger, the rock of Star Fox, the chill ambiance of the Donkey Kong Country games, and Super Mario RPG's repertoire of xylophones, pianos and whistles remaining the very best of Yoko Shimomura. As opposed to the limited channels of NES chiptunes and the N64's weak MIDI instrumentation, the balance of synth in SNES music is almost magic in how there's no compromises in producing truly rich scores. There's a homely, warming nostalgia to it all, and you could swear early examples like Super Mario World and SimCity were scored around this very purpose.



Maybe it's how the composers built upon Itoi's love of Lennon and based the soundtrack around how much he sang about love. Maybe it's Keiichi Suzuki's non-game music background or Hirokazu Tanaka's unique approach to producing music (perhaps he took inspiration from the "living creature" sound of Metroid?). Whatever it is, it expertly plays into the game's themes. Take the concept of Ness's home: no matter how far you've gone in your journey, no matter how many countries you've travelled, you're always welcomed home with a serving of your favorite homemade food, courtesy of Mom. Even with the fate of the world on his shoulders, Ness is still, after all, a young boy.


And all the while, a slow arrangement of the Pollyanna overworld theme from the first Mother plays. If I'm forced to choose a favorite song, it would be this. It is a Lazy Sunday and a tearful homecoming all in one, topped off with what can only be described as a heavenly choir. It always, without fail, makes me feel safe and loved, makes me reflect whether I'm playing the game or simply looking it up on YouTube.



We could spot similar themes in Eight Melodies, which plays throughout the game in various forms. It echoes in toy-box form whenever a new melody is gathered at a "Your Sanctuary", and again as a whole in the game's most heartwarming scene: Ness visiting his baby-self in monochrome. It's echoed again in the Sound Stone item; a deeper introspective that gradually morphs with the more melodies you gather. But up until all are collected, it stops after your last melody and thumps with perhaps the most unique sampling: an instrumental take on Lennon's Give Peace a Chance.




Of course, EarthBound doesn't always get all mushy. Let's not forget it is a weird, weird beast, and we learn that the moment we reach the naming screen. We're greeted with the game's first instance of ear-catching dissonance, consisting of a Monty Python's Flying Circus sampling before diving into a pop beat. It's a beat so infectious that I tend to stick around far longer than I should, staring at each character's animations as I file through their lists of default names.


Actually, EarthBound doesn't just stick to samplings; at times, it pays full-blown tributes, including one of my favorite pieces above. The theme of the Sky Runner machine is undoubtedly derived from The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, (or, at the very least, its intro) and fans had long since speculated EarthBound took so long to reach the Virtual Console due to music licensing/infringement issues, with this song at the top of the list. If that's the case, then I dub it a necessary evil that we had to wait so long, because I cannot imagine anything more perfect than the technopop launch buildup and the steady, pronounced percussion of the actual flight.




Obviously, EarthBound's music has its roots (and rightfully so!) in the Western sphere. Its parody of American culture comes alive best in Twoson, a laid-back tune I actually once wrote about. All the numbered-town tunes with their own brand of American nostalgia, but I particularly enjoy this one in how it's the sort of the tune that'd accompany a country drive. I'm also fond of the theme for the town's Chaos Theater, undoubtedly one of the game's top atmospheric tracks (just listen to all the little clinks!).

There are so, so many more I could elaborate upon---the snowy nostalgia of Winters and the Snow Wood Boarding School, the latter of which is another atmospheric winner through its borrowing of of Mother's Snowman theme. The tribal, jubilant walk of The Lost Underworld. My favorite of the psychedelic battle themes, which is reserved for mini-boss fights. The climatic fusion of 8-bit marches, rock guitars and haunting ambience for the masterpiece that is the final boss battle. The heartwrenching duo of Because I Love You and Smiles And Tears for their respective ending setpieces. There are many others.

But I fear I've shared too much already, and I haven't even discussed what I love most about the game.


The reason why EarthBound resonated so much with its fans is because while it's a fantastical sci-fi experience following the tale of four children, it's all framed within very human circumstances.Just ask the guy who grew up without a father and was comforted by how Ness communicated with his absent father through telephone (which is the game's method of saving). *Or the gay man who had anti-gay rallies take place on his street, and could only find solace in Jeff's friend: Tony, a homosexual child who dreams of taking walks with his bespectacled roommate.

*This story was shared on a Starmen.net forum post nearly a decade ago. I've since been unable to find it, but the tale's stuck with me as a prime example of EarthBound's immersion.

And take me. The other factor that prevented EarthBound from falling into the American abyss--the one hooked me into the game--was that Ness was included in the roster for the Nintendo 64's crossover fighter Super Smash Bros. The character fascinated me all the way up through the GameCube's Melee: here was a young boy who sauntered into a Nintendo all-star fray as if he was on the same level as Mario or Donkey Kong, and all he had to show for it was his brand of psionic powers. That was rad.

What was even radder was how his source game ticked off every box that 4th Grade me identified with. It was weird not just for the sake of being weird, but was entirely self-aware (NPCs commonly mention the game's title) and ripped on RPG tropes (the aforementioned Pencil Statue). I was out-of-touch and awkward and the game's "neglected" status became an identifiable symbol, a treasure hidden within the flood of "I rented Enter the Matrix over the weekend" during Circle Time.

Oh, and I also liked random humor. The likes of Invader Zim and Ed, Edd n' Eddy warped my young mind with their mall security zombies and buttered toast, and soon a new outlet of humor was born and eventually expressed through the likes of Games in the Basement and writings/drawings revolving around Kung Fu Animal Forces and Zombie Men. And now for the first in my favorite medium, I had a refuge in a game that hosted Mr. Saturns, peanut-cheese bars, and trout-flavored yogurt. Even if others didn't accept me, I was vindicated through this one game alone.

Of course, I've grown to further appreciate the game's satire as I've gotten older, but the way it's transformed the mundane into the hysterical is just phenomenal. Here's an example I've grown to recognize as one of my favorites: after collecting the first of the Eight Melodies, Ness is accosted by Onett's police (who, just so you know, are going for the world record in road-blocking) for trespassing in a restricted area, and is told to report the station. There, the chief explains that while he's aware Ness wishes to travel to Twoson, the roads shall remain blocked unless he completes a certain test. Leading him down to an isolated room, he turns to Ness and asks if he can "get past five of my best men..."

At the time, I took this at face-value. So Ness had to take on some policemen now, okay. I'd already put a stop to the biggest, baddest gang in town and took down a giant ant, and it's not like I wasn't already running over police in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. How was fighting cops any different than stomping on Goombas? It wasn't until I was replaying it in college when I realized this guy legitimately pitted a little boy against trained policemen. Cops that chose to battle with karate chops rather than firearms, mind, but it was enough to send me into hysterics (that it was already home to some of the game's best quotes was icing on the cake).

And even still, the best examples of EarthBound's humor are those rare moments when it blends weird with the genuinely heartfelt; case in point, the Camera Man. Every so often, stepping on an unassuming spot will trigger a trumpeting fanfare as a bearded man spirals down the sky and, after announcing his profession, will snap a picture of Ness's party. He'll claim the picture will bring back the greatest of memories and, just as quickly as he came, spins back into the heavens.

That this seemingly pointless event occurs again and again throughout the game tricks you into thinking it's just one of EarthBound's gleeful methods of screwing with the player. And maybe it kind of is; I'll admit I actually hated him as a kid for interrupting my game. But right after the character roll call at the end, you realize his purpose when he pulls up a camera stand: as the credits roll, those very same photographs scroll by as Smiles and Tears instills the warmest of smiles or renders you a sobbing mess.

The very fondest of my video game memories lie within EarthBound. I was only ten and was just discovering internet forums and sprite comics and the history of a company I'd been busy worshiping for the past four years. The passion surrounding EarthBound struck me the hardest, what with the achievements of Starmen.net and their forums of teens and young adults endlessly discussing their love for the game. Naturally, a ten year old can't quite mingle with a size gap that big; my topics were frequently locked and my entries for the Apple of Enlightenment contests were nothing sort of embarrassing (I'll leave to you to guess which one is mine). But it was how I was part of a beloved secret--a masterpiece forgotten by society--that mattered most.

That, and how I learned the word "nostalgia". Imagine it: a ten year old knowing the word nostalgia! It's true. The Starmen.net hippies I idolized used the word to describe their memories of EarthBound and how Super Smash Bros. Melee glorified Nintendo history and I wanted in on whatever they were talking about. Was it the way the towns of Onett and Twoson recalled memories of a youth I didn't have, or how I imagined kids back in 1995 waking up in the languid hours of the morning and rushing downstairs to play EarthBound, or how I felt when I listened to Melee's arrangement of Pollyanna?

Whatever it was, it was the greatest feeling in the world; my most cherished secret of all. And now it's fourteen years later and I'm still playing EarthBound. It's a game that has grown up with me, gradually building upon what I adored about it as a child alongside all the trials and tribulations of being a young adult. It's a game all about nostalgia and making memories, and now I can mine that very same nostalgia I once sought to discover. The irony continues to blow my mind; I can't think of anything else like it.

EarthBound is not a game of excitement or thrills, the most common reasons people play games. In that sense, I often don't recommend as a game game. But for games that require any sort of investment, or introduce any sort of theme or message, or push the boundaries of what exactly is defined as a video game, it is, with the very possible exception of its own sequel, the very best video game not just under Nintendo's banner, but the best video game you can play, on any console. EarthBound is a game that will grow the more you play it, and I eagerly anticipate to see what I'll discover next time I visit its world: where I can be a kid and an adult all in one. Say fuzzy pickles!

2 comments:

  1. Anthony, you impress me more than you will ever know. The way you analyze the context of these games and your superior vocabulary and way of articulation is unsurpassed. Keep up your outstanding work and for the record, I'm proud to know you!

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    1. Thanks, Mr. Barr. It means a lot!!

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