I’ve mentioned before that Earthbound for the SNES is my favorite RPG of all time, but I don’t think I’ve ever really expressed just how important the game was to me. This is not just because of the game itself, but also because of my personal memories surrounding it. Here’s a story:
When I was 16 or 17 years old, a few friends and I stayed at my sister’s apartment for a week while she was on vacation, to watch her dog. This was the first time most of us had been “on our own” for such an extended period of time, and we all felt very grown-up. Somewhere in that week, my friend Jon and I got a wild bug up our ass and decided we wanted – no, needed – to play Earthbound right away. I don’t know why this fancy struck us – the game was at least a couple of years old at this point. Someone must have read a particularly enticing article in an old issue of Nintendo Power or something. In any event, we decided that the next day we’d stop by the local Blockbuster Video and rent the game.
The next day was one of the hottest of the summer, and Jon was at work, so our friend Chris accompanied me to Blockbuster. Chris wasn’t at all interested in the game; he was just tagging along to keep me company. Keep that in mind. The store didn’t have Earthbound in stock, and thus began one of the most insane odysseys of our lives up until that point. First we walked to the next closest Blockbuster location, where the clerk told us that the game was currently rented out, but was due back today. So Chris and I did what any two sane people would do in that situation – we sat on the floor outside of the store, hoping to catch the guy returning the game. After a couple of hours with no luck, we gave up. Did we head back home then? Of course we didn’t.
We walked to the next Blockbuster. And then the next one. And the next one. Finally, we had to admit defeat and took the train back to the apartment as empty-handed failures. To add some bonus context for those of you who are familiar with Queens, NY: We started on Austin Street in Forest Hills, walked down Queens Boulevard, and ended up at the Blockbuster on Steinway Street in Astoria. Here is our route, mapped out to the best of my recollection:
In total, we walked approximately 6.12 miles that day. Keep in mind that it was about 1000 degrees outside, and Chris didn’t even give a shit about this game! What a friend, huh? A fucking lunatic, to be sure, but a great friend.
We finally got the game the next day (because that monster returned his rental a day late), and Jon and I dove in, trading the controller back and forth at random intervals as was the custom back in those days. We were almost immediately awed by the game’s charming environments, interesting characters and bizarre storyline. Even our friends who didn’t care about Earthbound ended up closely following our progress in spite of themselves. I remember one friend, Ian, kept making fun of us for playing this “baby game” but then Jon woke up early the next morning to find Ian bleary-eyed in front of the TV, having played Earthbound all night.
All of this would have made my first encounter with Earthbound a memorable and priceless experience even if the game sucked. But the game did not suck. I could go on for hours about the twisted outsiders perspective on Normal Rockwell Americana, the Lynchian feverdream melancholy, and the shockingly emotional reflections on growing up and the power of friendship, but it’s all been said before. Hell, there’s even been a book written about it. I’ll simply say that the game had a huge impact on me, one I’ve never quite been able to shake. I’ve gone back and played it four or five times since then, and I find new things to love during every playthrough. As a tribute, I still name my characters after Jon and Chris and Ian, every time. And of course, I still call the food poop.
I don’t remember exactly when I discovered that Earthbound was actually the sequel to an NES game called Mother, which had only been released in Japan, but I do remember my first time playing it. It was in my college dorm room, on an NES emulator called (ugh) NESticle, under the title Earthbound Zero.
I didn’t make it very far. I wasn’t well-versed in early NES-era RPGs (aside from putting a couple of hours into the copy of Dragon Warrior I got free with my Nintendo Power subscription), so I wasn’t really prepared for the obnoxious, antiquated mechanics that the game threw at me. Random enemy encounters every two steps, endless grinding, tedious UI, and a frustrating lack of guidance made me eventually throw my hands up and call it quits.
So when Nintendo officially released the game for the first time in America earlier this summer, I was determined to see it through to the end. And guess what? I did!
How I accomplished this was mostly by making liberal use of the Virtual Console’s save states. But also by grinding – a LOT of grinding. Any time I found an area that had a lot of enemies and was also close to somewhere I could heal for free, I stayed in that spot for hours, grinding endlessly on the gamepad while I watched TV. And it’s not as if this was as simple as just pushing a button over and over – fighting battles in this game means slowly cycling through the ridiculous ancient menu system each and every turn. It was all so fucking tedious, and it made me very grateful that by the time I got into RPGs in the 16-bit era, most of these issues had been vastly improved upon.
Aside from all that crap, the game is, of course, great. It’s more primitive and less fleshed out than Earthbound for sure, but many of the things that make its successor so special are already in place here. The unique settings, the quirky characters and enemies, the bittersweet ruminations on family and friendship. And, above all, the wackadoo sense of humor:
But do you know what the very best part is? Unlike the SNES game, where a filter prevents you from using curse words, in Earthbound Beginnings you can actually do this:
Shit-eating aside, I can’t honestly recommend this game to everyone – it simply hasn’t aged very well. If you’ve never played Earthbound, then for god’s sakes, play that first. Immediately! But if you have played it and you want to see how the Mother series got its start, then this is an interesting little nugget of Nintendo history. Just prepare yourself for a lot of annoyances in addition to all the good stuff.
On a final note, Earthbound was one of the earliest Nintendo games that recently deceased Nintendo president Satoru Iwata worked on back in the day. As the story goes, when development snags put the game in danger of cancellation, Iwata rolled up his sleeves and rewrote large chunks of the game’s code manually, which ultimately led to its release. He single-handedly saved the goddamn game, and for that alone, he will always have a place in my heart. Check out Earthbound director Shigesato Itoi’s beautiful – and appropriately Mother-esque – tribute to Iwata here, but only if you’ve got some tissues handy. Farewell Mr. Iwata, may you forever eat shit in heaven.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D