No Crying Until the Ending Aye, there be spoilers aboard this here ship if that be yer worries, matey.
"Ah. What’s quietly flowing beneath the surface is a child. My daughter never did play through the games in the end, but they were a clear letter to her. They were a letter to my own daughter who I couldn’t see for a while due to divorce issues." - Shigesato Itoi, creator and sole author of the Mother/Earthbound series and a revered copywriter in Japan
To save your game or see how much money has been deposited into your bank account in Mother 2, a Japanese video game released in the US in 1995 as Earthbound for the Super Nintendo, you have to call your dad. Curiously, you never, ever see him at home, or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps it's a critique of divorce, a comment on Japanese commuter culture and the work-filled life of the average salaryman, or just a simple reflection on Itoi's own life. I’m not sure, but it’s nice to at least know that your ol’ dad still cares. Why else would he keep detailed logs of your experience points and beg you to take a rest if you play for too long?
Oh, and yeah - if you haven't figured it out yet, you're a kid. To be specific, you're Ness, a 13-year-old boy from the suburb of Onett, which has a typical American small town feel and is located in the aptly named country of Eagleland. The year is 199X. Armed with only a cracked Little League baseball bat and a few deadly psychic powers, you've been tasked by the time-traveling bee Buzz Buzz to save the world from the evil, all-encompassing powers of the alien Giygas. Giygas, it should be mentioned, can take control of humans, animals, and even inanimate objects like vinyl records, turning them into evil, malevolent psychopaths bent on your destruction. He wants to destroy the world, and you’re the only person standing in his way.
Sound daunting? Not sure what you should do next? Well, first of all, you could start by changing out of those striped jammies. Your mom's not going to let you leave the house looking like that. I’m serious!
Snowman: "We had fun one snowy day. I melted, but I am still real in your memory."
Earthbound is an RPG, or role-playing game. In it you travel from town to "dungeon" to town, talking to non-player characters (NPCs) in the hopes they'll drop a hint or amusing anecdote, all while battling foes using a turn-based system that's a logical evolution from the old D&D games sweaty nerds much like ourselves still play in basements across the world. While that may sound eerily similar to just about every other RPG in existence, there's something very different about Earthbound. People routinely call the game trippy, mind-bending, psychedelic, druggy… whatever – you name it.
How did this game, published by Nintendo of all companies, get such an illicit reputation? Maybe it's because of the hallucinatory battle backgrounds that twist and contort like a lava lamp while you fight, which Itoi coined “video relaxants”. Or, maybe, it's the coffee and the magic cakes made from mysterious leftovers that leave you feeling like you just took too much of the brown acid at Woodstock. It could even be a reaction to the Amboy Dukes-style journey to the center of your mind that is the land of Magicant, taken right out of the climax of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, of course, there’s the fact that everything has been sprinkled with copious helpings of Beatles references, from a literal yellow submarine to the original title’s intentional reference to John Lennon’s gut-wrenching “Mother”.
OK – so no wonder people think Earthbound was conceived under “altered” states. However, I can’t help but think that wasn’t Itoi’s real goal with the game. It’s probably not a coincidence that in the first town you spend about half the time beating hippies senseless with a baseball bat while a knockoff of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" plays in the background, until each wild-haired dropout comes down from their collective bad trip. I like to think of it as Itoi's cutesy way of saying, "Hey, this game isn't just a bunch of hippie nonsense and trippy jokes! Look deeper!"
Itoi’s slogan for Mother 3 probably describes the entire series best: "Strange, funny, and heartrending." In Earthbound, the strange and funny are there just to butter you up for the heartrending. Itoi himself even owned up to it, confessing in an interview: “You could even say I only added the funny and ridiculous lines into the mix so that I could include one heartrending line with them.” It’s all part of the plan, you see.
If You Hear Any Funny Jokes, Be Sure You Let Loose and Laugh
Arthur Koestler, in the book The Act of Creation, theorized that a good joke works by replacing the expected outcome of a train of thought with an unexpected twist, usually one that’s less serious. The tension this disharmony creates in our minds is then resolved and released with a laugh or smirk. Koestler compared it to the feeling of “eureka!” – you know, like when Archimedes jumped out of his bathtub and ran naked down the Main Street of ancient Syracuse because he’d just connected two different, really cool perceptions into one beautiful, fully synthesized idea. Yes, that feeling. It’s the joy of making the incompatible compatible, and it’s at the heart of Earthbound.
There’s little doubt that Earthbound’s sense of humor would’ve received a big, fat stamp of approval from Koestler. It’s all about unpredictability, whether you’re fighting an abstract painting, using an eraser eraser to erase an iron eraser blocking your path, or having completely off-the-wall conversations with another character. I particularly like this gem from a chubby, ingenious inventor nicknamed Apple Kid: “The chance of Giygas gaining victory with his monstrous plan is 99%. However, your courage has produced a 1% chance that Giygas fails. I must try to come to a deeper understanding of this trait called 'courage’.”(Gee… thanks, Apple Kid.) The little love story between a black sesame seed and a white sesame seed in Dusty Dunes Desert is also memorable and definitely worth hunting out.
In Earthbound, you start to pretty much expect the unexpected, and generally, the unexpected is something strange or funny, like most of the examples I just gave. That’s what makes it so emotionally powerful when Itoi consciously chooses to make the unexpected deep, poignant, and enlightening instead. You don’t expect it. It hits you while your gloves are down like a rocket punch from Super Punch Out!!’s steroid-abusing boss Nick Bruiser. Ouch!
Is It Your Hobby or Something to Bother Others While They Pray?!
For me, Earthbound's true “eureka!” moment occurs during the final fight against Giygas, who’s now an out of control amorphous morphing brainless entity of complete psychic doom. Nothing you or team members Paula, Jeff, or Poo try will defeat the mighty Giygas – not even PSI Rockin' Ω, and that’s one powerful psychic attack! It seems hopeless. There’s really only one thing left to do: pray, out of sheer desperation.
Pray is Paula’s special ability, and for most of the game it’s as useless as writing a letter to Santa Claus. Try it now, though, and something miraculous happens. Your prayer somehow reaches the hearts and minds of “all the people of earth” – yes, even you, the player. Then, in a scene all too reminiscent of the O’Jays' “Love Train”, the power of our combined love and concern for Ness and his friends mortally wounds Giygas. The world, at last, is safe.
That's where the game finally clicks for me, where the various flavors of strange, funny, and heartrending mix together to make one amazing stew of life-affirming goodness. Earthbound is Itoi’s love letter to mankind, rubbing our shoulders, telling us to always look on the bright side, and to never give up hope. Life's challenges will just make us stronger.It's a pure reflection of Itoi’s personal philosophies and ethos. Here’s a man that considers desperation a virtue, a sign of defiance against the odds, and once said: “I’ve had this experience myself – whenever I'm feeling sluggish and exhausted, it's absolutely certain that good things will follow. When you're given an overwhelming problem you just can't deal with, the only way to cope with it is to completely mobilize your heart and your mind and make a strenuous effort to get through it.”
How often do you beat a final boss in a video game be being pacifist? Simply put, it’s frickin' awesome.
Now You Can Start Crying
If that doesn’t sell you, you should check out the game if only to experience the colorful, cartoonish graphics and the music that does things with the Super Nintendo’s Sony SPC700 music chip that I know it’s momma wouldn’t have approved of. We’re talking real samples from things like the intro to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”, liberal use of phase distortion and delay, and some rocking, more conventional tunes with innocent, childlike melodies that'll daze and astound with extraordinary grace. I actually have the soundtrack on my iPod.
Earthbound: it’s for grownups, kids, and even your sister.