Sunday, February 2, 2014

30 For 30: EarthBound

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! Today we consider cult classic EarthBound, released in 1995 for the SNES.

Discovering that some obscure thing you love is also treasured by many others is one of the best and worst aspects of the Internet. Had it never come around, you might have lived your entire life without meeting anyone else who, for example, loves legendary bad movies like The Room or Troll 2. Now, though, you can find entire communities of people who have similar insanities. This is one of the best aspects of the Internet because you no longer have to be some kind of outcast wishing you knew someone else who thinks it's funny to shout “you're tearing me apart, Lisa!” However, this is also one of the worst aspects of the Internet because your singular experience with something is no longer so singular, so unique. It's like finding out that your significant other is just one of many clones of the same person that thousands of other people also have “their” version of to have sex with and cuddle up to at night.

With EarthBound, this “it's a small world, after all” feeling happened twice in my life, once on a macro scale and once in a face-to-face way. The first time was a couple years after my family got AOL, which was also around the time I gave the game a second chance and fell for it—but we'll get to that later. The important thing here is that stumbling on while trying to find more information about EarthBound was akin to thinking you were a pretty big fan of Kit Kat bars only to travel to Japan and see how far people can really take their Kit Kat fandom. was one of the first major fansites I can remember which wasn't run by elitist assholes or by people who can't properly design a website and spell correctly. It was thanks to that I found out EarthBound was known in Japan as Mother 2, an exciting revelation which meant there was at least one more game in the series. Far more important, though, was participating in their yearly Fanfests, in which you play up to a certain point of the game per day and can try your hand at various challenges (like getting the items that certain enemies only drop 1 out of 128 times). It was an annual celebration of love that never seemed repetitive or obligatory like, you know, Valentine's Day.

The second time the EarthBound world shrank for me was in meeting someone else who also grew up obsessing over it. I worked with this person for a few years and I'd like to think we both decided to become friends, at least initially, purely on the basis of our mutual affection for EarthBound. I vividly remember waking up after one of his parties, scrawling “Thanks for a great time, EarthBound for life!” on the dry erase board on the fridge, and, while various people on couches and in chairs continued to sleep, I quietly slipped out the back door to walk to my car on a Summer morning that seemed more sunny and beautiful than any had in years. Shortly thereafter he let me borrow a GBA SP with some kind of blackmarket game cart that had, among many other gems, a translated ROM of Mother 3 on it.

This image is not a link, but it is an endorsement

Now, while I would like to lament how Mother 1 and Mother 3 never came out here, and crow about how Nintendo of America has continually shat on EarthBound fans for years, that's been done to death other places before. The important thing is the warmth and affection EarthBound continues to inspire in me despite the fact that I haven't replayed it in years. So let's go back to an earlier point I left dangling—that it took giving the game a second chance to fall under its spell.

I'm almost positive I got EarthBound the year it came out but I can't for the life of me tell you why. The advertising campaign in the U.S. was so mishandled that I'm amazed anyone bought it. Even at the tender age of 11 I thought the emphasis on gross-out humor was stupid, with the ads in magazines having slogans like “Warning: use only in a well ventilated area...because this game stinks!” and “Comes with more rude smells than the ol' pull my finger joke.” Since this style of humor barely appears in the game itself, it's hard to tell who Nintendo of America thought they were selling to. It was as if someone mixed up the ad campaign for Boogerman: A Pick And Flick Adventure with EarthBound's and they were too lazy to correct the mistake. There's also the odd choice of advertising a videogame with scratch-n-sniff cards, which is kind of like advertising a movie with slap bracelets. It doesn't really make sense, but it doesn't not make sense. Those clay models were pretty cool, though.

 "Slip the monkey a banana" sounds dirty in any context

The first time I tried playing through the game I couldn't make myself finish it, even with the assistance of the strategy guide that was included inside its absurdly large box. I think my reasons at the time were the same for anyone who doesn't “get” EarthBound now: the graphics and gameplay, which were primitive and unimpressive even for their time. “Primitive” doesn't automatically equate to bad, though I don't think anyone could argue that—judging it from a technical and not an art direction standpoint—EarthBound is nowhere near as good looking as the 2D/sprite art of Chrono Trigger or the (at the time) impressive faux-3D of the Donkey Kong Country series.

As for the gameplay, EarthBound has a lot of interesting ideas that I appreciated even on my aborted first attempt but they're never what hooks anyone on this game and they never add up to something that feels truly deep. I can point to any number of these “interesting ideas”—the rolling slot machine HP meters, the way enemies far below your level run away from you and let you score instant victories if touched, the whole “Jeff will randomly fix broken items in his inventory when you rest at hotels” aspect, and much more—but I would be willing to concede that one man's “interesting idea” is another man's gimmick or novelty. I may love them and they're part of what makes EarthBound such a unique experience, yet they only matter in rare cases or on a superficial level; they don't transform it into a game you play for the mechanics. This is what I mean when I said the gameplay, like the graphics, is unimpressive and primitive to someone who isn't already in love with the game. Moreover, EarthBound doesn't have anything like the Job system, which it changes how you play the entire game because it's another layer put on top of the standard RPG leveling/character building template of “fight guys, get stronger, get better equipment, repeat.” Instead, the game's “interesting ideas” just make what would otherwise be a graduate of the Dragon Quest school of gameplay slightly more engaging and unique.

This feeling of uniqueness is crucial because it is what keeps me coming back to EarthBound after falling in love on that 'second chance' during the Summer of 1998. I can't think of any other game from the 90s that was so self aware and surreal to an almost deconstructionist, post-modern degree. It has the character Brick Road, who makes dungeons that parody and comment on how dungeons worked in RPGs of the time. Then there's the weird 'Fuzzy Pickles' cameraman who shows up during various points of the game to take screenshots, all of which you get to see at the end of the game like it's a photo album of fond memories. Warping the usual opening pre-game segment, in EarthBound you get to name not only the characters but your favorite 'thing' and your favorite food, the latter of which shows up as the dish the main character's Mom feeds you when you go back to his house (leading to some amusing, immature moments if you enter in Sperm or Farts as your favorite food). And I'd be crucified by the EarthBound fanbase if I didn't mention the Mr. Saturns, what with their unique speech patterns and the way their text is in a crazy looking font different from the rest of the game.

Yes, of course that font was exported from the game by fans. Yes, of course I downloaded it as soon as I found out.

The frustration with trying to explain everything that I feel EarthBound has going for it is that I end up writing thousands of words and still have more aspects that would require even more words to gush about. I mean, I haven't even talked about the music or sound effects, which will stay with me until the day I die because they're so memorable and perfectly complement the feel of the rest of the game. If I really wanted to, I could exhaust myself by rambling about every moment and every little thing in EarthBound that makes me geek out. Even now I find myself feeling like someone who is out of breath after excitedly talking non-stop for an hour, wheezing out repeated variations of “wait, don't go yet, I have more to say, just give me a second here!” while standing hunched over with my head down and my hands gripping my thighs.

This is what EarthBound does to you if it clicks with you, if you “get” it like I didn't at first. You end up wanting your affection to spread to everyone else, because you're so sure they'll eventually come around, too. You want your joy to be their joy even if, realistically, it's not going to work for 90% of the world like it does for you. To put it in terms of another cult-like group, it's like how when you become a fan of the Grateful Dead you no longer hear aimless noodling and lame songwriting but instead hear crackling improvisation and classic tunes that blend folk, rock, jazz, and the blues into a truly American synthesis. You want everyone else to make this same transformation, too, until you fail to convert people enough times that you eventually give up and realize it isn't going to happen.

Anyway, this was supposed to be about what the game has meant to me, and the more I think about what my life has been like these past 30 years, the more I'm realizing that EarthBound is one of my cherished right-thing-at-just-the-right-time-of-my-life experiences that helped me understand myself, and even life in general, a little better. As odd as it feels to talk about a videogame so reverently, I also feel like I can never do justice to it regardless of how well I explain the very specific things it means to me. And that's usually a sign of something or someone that has had a profound impact on my life and in shaping what my sensibilities are and how I think about the world. EarthBound was a revelation, unlike anything I had played before. I didn't know there could be games like that and I didn't know I wanted a game like that. I knew I wanted an RPG that was different from things like Chrono Trigger and Ultima VI, but the ways I wanted it to be different I couldn't have put into words until I experienced them in EarthBound.

The only way I can explain it better is with an overlong food analogy. Imagine growing up somehow not knowing about bacon while also always craving it. You can't put a name to your desire because as far as you know it doesn't exist. You like pork chops just fine but you want something that's like them but...different. “Different how?” your friends would ask, and you'd shrug while staring off into the distance and answer, “I dunno...just, different. Not bigger or smaller or with stuffing. Different.” Years later you're on a business trip in some other city, sitting in a restaurant looking at the menu thinking, “I've never had...'back-on' before, but everyone here seems to love it. It sounds like something I might like, I'm into trying new things...Oh, it's pronounced 'bay-kin', huh?”

I guess what I'm saying is, I like EarthBound as much as bacon. Anyway.

If you don't like bac—I mean EarthBound, or you don't “get” it, that's fine. No amount of my words will convert you, just as I could never hope to make anyone love the Grateful Dead. I don't know that people who grew up after EarthBound first came out will give it a chance or fall for it like many of my generation did. All we, the faithful, will ask is that you keep out of our secret clubhouse, the one hidden in the trees in Onett. If you don't get that reference then you'll probably want to just turn off the SNES right now, but not before calling your Dad to save your game.

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