EarthBound, and Here’s Why

On a forum I frequent someone asked what our favorite RPG. The rules stipulated that you had to pick only one and had to explain why. Most answers were along the lines of “Chrono Trigger because it’s really great” or “Star Ocean 2 because I’m a big moron who wouldn’t know a good game if crawled into my ear canal and laid eggs.”

My immediate answer was the game I’ve considered the best for years: EarthBound. But I’ve played some mighty fine RPGs since EarthBound cemented itself in my mind, Suikoden II, Mother 3, Final Fantasy V… Did EarthBound still hold up as the number one Animal King Takeover? I looked long at my affection and re-evaluated EarthBound’s place in the pantheon of video games and decided that hell yes EarthBound is the best damn RPG. Forget RPGs, it’s the best damn game ever, damn it! I pulled up all my passion and admiration and love for this old game and poured it into a gushy response.

I know the trend for the past few years when analyzing EarthBound has been to eschew anecdotal response and focus on a more academic approach. And that’s an important, if difficult task. So much of what makes EarthBound special is anecdotal in nature. The fan translation of Mother 1 + 2 is going to drop any day now and I figure that’d be a good time to play the game again and attempt a critical analysis of my own. So consider this an introduction, a purging of all the doe-eyed affection, before we move onto a more rational reading.

Warning: the following post was written out of passion and more concerned with conveying a personal experience than sparing the sentimentalities of the reader. It’s overwrought and sugary and should be taken with a whole shaker of salt.

A lemon wedge wouldn’t hurt either.

What is y our favorite RPG ever, and why?

EarthBound.

And here’s why:

In Dr. Mae-Wan Ho’s essay In Search of the Sublime she describes the first time she saw a performance of The Magic Flute.

The electrifying moment came when the Queen of the Night launched into her aria. I sat bolt-upright on the edge of the seat, and must have held my breath for the entire duration. My heart ached and tears welled up in my eyes. Her voice rang through me everywhere as though I had dematerialized into an exquisitely sensitive ethereal being that filled the auditorium. There was intense excitement, but also something supremely joyful and serene. No words can capture that charged moment but that I was in the presence of the sublime.

Sublime moments, she argues, are points where significant forms, in active engagement, create something akin to love.

“Love” is an overused and abused word, and hence thoroughly inadequate to describe the rich panoply of feelings that make up the aesthetic experience. Nevertheless, for those who have been fortunate enough to have experienced love in the sublime, it is indeed not dissimilar. It too, is a feeling of heightened awareness of being connected, not only to the loved one, but to everything else by sympathetic transference (of both sameness and contrast). The lover is indeed in love with the whole world. The loved one becomes a sign through which everything else, even the most ordinary and mundane, is known and loved afresh: the whole world takes on a new significance.”

 


The last time I played through EarthBound a line early in the game jumped out at me. Before Ness starts out on his big adventure his mother gives him some words of encouragement, including the advice: “Remember to ‘Go for it!’” I was stuck by the profound absurdity of this statement. Those quotation marks add so much. By including them Ness’s mother acknowledges the emptiness of her platitude and further cheapens the advice by not simply telling Ness to “go for it” (whatever “it” is) but not to forget to follow the hollow cliché. In five words we have a critique on the worthlessness of generic sanguine encouragement far more scathing than any photoshop of a “teamwork” encouragement poster ever was. But at the same time she is so sincere, so genuine with her support, that the sentence twists back on itself into an ouroboros of quiet, deep hilarity. Finally getting the joke, and the realization of what masterful writing this was, was a moment of sublimity.

Despite playing the game consistently since its 1995 debut it still took more than a dozen playthroughs before the “Go for It!” line distinguished itself for me. EarthBound is the only game where each repetition brings new revelation. It is a mine which never depletes, and with each unearthing produces a new and precious gem. There is so much than endears me to this game that goes beyond the usually ascribed appeal of wh-whackyness! and “It’s an RPG set in modern times with like baseball bats instead of swords and stuff!” Director Shigesato Itoi’s direct but rich and subtle script is only the beginning.

I marvel at how the graphics which seemed so primitive in ’95 have only become more timeless and iconic as the game ages; at how the music is affecting with both melodic and ambient tracks, both layered with a seemingly endless amount of samples and references; at the sound that a bicycle makes riding through a swamp.

While all these are well documented details adored by many players, EarthBound offers personal revelations as well. I was 14 when I first played the game, and though I first dismissed it as childish and simple, it lodged itself into my brain. One day I surprised myself by unconsciously humming the theme to Onett. I was impressed that this game I had found so distasteful had managed to imprint on me so strongly. One moment in particular captivated my memory: the trumpet player who stands on the cliff overlooking the sea playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, Movement 2. Something about that haunting melody overlaid with the Onett theme sparked a powerful sense of nostalgia, despite having only played the game a few weeks earlier. This was the first sublime moment and because of it I returned to EarthBound with an open mind and an eager heart.

EarthBound has the unique and special property to engender nostalgia. Both for itself and within itself. To a large degree the plot is about recovering sweet memories, and there’s nostalgic quality in nearly every location. A sense of both goodwill and impending loss. The allure of EarthBound’s nostalgia is so strong that not even the game’s primary antagonist isn’t immune to its allure.

For several years after when I encountered a particularly beautiful or seductive place in nature I would call the spot one of “My Sanctuaries” after the gentle places of power in the game. Such was the strength of association between EarthBound’s special sense of nostalgia and real life discovery, beauty, and fleeting tranquility.

Since then I’ve made other happy discoveries within EarthBound’s mise en scene (for lack of a better term). These include the recognition that as you move through Onett to Fourside you also travel through a year from late summer to the hight of spring. Or that the noise in the background during Poo’s trail is the sound of Om. Unverifiable interpretations these may be, but for me they enrich and personalize the experience.


EarthBound is a game constructed out of small sublime moments. Or as the game itself says over a warming cup of tea, “like a great tapestry, vertical and horizontal threads have met and become intertwined, creating a huge, beautiful image.”

Devine as these moments are, none come close to the definition of sublimity as love. No, that moment comes, as it should, at the end. The main through-line of the game is that Ness is visiting his Your Sanctuary locations to gain enough strength to defeat an evil alien who has enslaved the earth in the future. At each location Ness receives part of a song know as “Eight Melodies.” It’s a beautiful song, though until it’s completed is filled with a considerable amount of discord. During the final credits a expanded version called “Smiles and Tears” plays while images from throughout the game pass in the background (there’s that nostalgic element popping up again). “Smiles and Tears” is a moving and profound end to the game. The perfect cap to an amazing ending. However, very very faintly, just as the music swells to a climax, a voice whispers “I miss you.” It’s so faint that many people miss it entirely. I completed the game at least ten times without hearing it myself. After learning about the line on the Starmen.net, and that it was Shigesato Itoi’s voice no less, I made sure to listen carefully the next time.

One of the main questions in the ‘Are Games Art?’ debate is if a video game can make a player cry. Most often this is couched in terms of narrative, that a game could tell such a moving plot with such compelling characters that the player would be moved to tears. While I’ve been moved by games narratives before (Mother 3 and Shadow of the Colossus spring to mind) I’ve never been close to crying.

“I miss you.”

When I heard those words for the first time I felt such a powerful upsweeping of emotion that I had to blink and wipe the back of my hand across my eyes. It may not have helped. People have speculated what this whispered message means. Is it Ness professing is desire for Paula? Is it a reference to Mother 3? To me it couldn’t be more clear. Here, this game which I have spent so much time with, have discovered so much about, which has influenced who I am and how I see the world, and which knows me by name, was telling me personally and singularly that it regretted that our time together was over. It was confirmation of a profound connection between me: player, audience, person and a immaterial collection of data and ideas put together by a man half the world away who I had never met. It’s hard to express the depth of my feelings. I can only echo the sentiment of Dr. Ho: no words can capture the moment I was in the presence of the sublime.

“The creation of significant form is an act of communion, of love between artist and nature, between artist and amateur, between amateur and nature. It is nature presenting nature to herself through us who are all of the same cloth, to reaffirm and celebrate that universal wholeness that is both the source and repository of all creation.”  -Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

“The importance of EarthBound isn’t found in its contributions to the development of the medium, but to the development of actual human beings who played it during their formative years.”Michel McBride-Charpentier

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “EarthBound, and Here’s Why

  1. BeeZee

    i liek final fantasy vii better becuz of the nice graphics

  2. I made a top 10 list a while back for console games, and Earthbound was at number 5 (which is the highest a JRPG…or any RPG for that matter, made it on my personal list).

    Also, despite it being ‘my’ list, I still factored things as if I were speaking for myself when I first played the games. Earthbound really is probably my favorite gaming experience in hindsight, but I recognize that Super Mario 64 made a bigger impact on me when I first played it. Anyways, here’s the core thought from my article:

    “Another reason why Earthbound deserves to be on this list doesn’t involve graphics, story, or battle system (even though all those things are interesting), but its music. JRPGs in particular are known for their epic tunes, and I’m not going to argue that Final Fantasy as a franchise has some of the best music in the industry, but Earthbound does something with its music that very few developers are willing to do; be different. Actually, that pretty much applies to Earthbound as a whole…everything about it is different than the norm. The music always manages to be interesting, shifting its style throughout the entire game. If you had to classify the music as a single genre, you wouldn’t get anywhere; it’s simply drawing from too many influences. One minute you’d think “Oh, there’s some techno,” and the next thing you know and it’s switched to rockabilly…then you get something that sounds like the Beatles…and then there’s some heavy metal. You would think that all these different influences would result in some sort of random mishmash of nonsense, but instead you get music that fits the moment. The game doesn’t worry about confusing the player…that’s pretty obvious from the beginning, and honestly that’s half the point…but there’s something incredibly charming, even artistic, in its presentation. If any JRPG could truly be called surrealistic, Earthbound (or Mother as a franchise) would be the ultimate example. One minute you’re at a library just looking for a map, the next you’re riding a lake monster, and the next you’re trapped in a dream world where everything is bizarre and backward. All the while, the music fits the moment, and instead of being utterly confused, the player feels like it all fits together and makes sense somehow. I really could go on and on about how awesome the music is in Earthbound, but I’ll leave it at that.

    In fact, I’ll leave it all at that. I don’t want to ruin the ride for anyone willing to give it a go. It’s an amazing experience, and it is unlike anything you might hope to experience from something else…like Final Fantasy.”

    I’m glad other people get ‘it.’

    And for the record, I did cry while playing Mother 3…a couple times actually, but the “I miss you” line in Earthbound still chokes me up. For me, it represents Ness’ dad, since you never actually see him in the game; only hear him over a phone. It was still a touching moment for me.

  3. This was a fantastic read. I’ve been thinking a lot about EarthBound recently. It’s been my favorite game of all time as far as I can remember, and I only recently began putting into words what makes it so great. I was planning on doing so sometime. Your thoughts have definitely motivated to get started on that. :)

  4. Pingback: Earthbound | torrentialequilibrium.net

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