Wii U, I look just like Buddy Holly
Earthbound is difficult to write about.
It’s probably because we have history, that game and I. It was 2002. The old Playstation was fritzing all over the place. My family had no money for a Playstation 2. All I had was a PC that couldn’t even play Microsoft Excel’s Spy Hunter without crashing. I was so bored I even considered taking up a sport. My uncle, a sweet guardian angel of a bald man, lent me an old CD with an SNES emulator, allowing me to play through the Golden Age of gaming 10 years too late. I played through Final Fantasy VI, attempted to finish several Marios, and tested my mettle against Castlevania’s hordes. Classic after classic, finished and enjoyed.
Then there was Earthbound. And it was superb.
[In Level Up, we discuss games that made us, and the industry at large, evolve.]
The Wisdom of the World
The difficulty can also stem from the game’s blinding brilliance. If you look at it objectively, Earthbound (or Mother, as it’s known in Japan) is a simple game: a JRPG with all of the typical mechanics, with the storyline fitting in the “chosen children collecting objects of power to save the world” cliché. However, its limitations served only to amplify the beautiful craziness that it managed to achieve. Earthbound took the cookie-cutter RPG mold and filled it with special juices to make the best goddamned cookie you’ve ever tasted. Swords and sorcery gave way to frying pans and psychokinesis. Dark lords in their skull thrones stepped down to make space for the pettiest, most evil fat kid in pop culture history. Goblins and giant rats were ceremoniously replaced with hippies, drunks, and cultists who worshipped the color blue. In a psychedelic flash, Earthbound helped me close the book on RPG traditions and gave me permission to doodle on the back flap.
I’m probably having trouble because the game taught me so much. Earthbound meant a lot of things to a lot of people. For Zac Gorman, illustrator and all-around awesome guy, Earthbound was a celebration of life and heroism. For me, it crooned the swansong of childhood that I was to leave behind. If we get all subtext-ey, each of its young protagonists, no more than 13 years old—my age, sacrificed something to go on their quest. Paula left her parents behind, telling of the familial emancipation all children must undertake. Jeff’s escape from the boarding school and abandonment of his best bro signified graduation from institutions and old relationships. Poo, oh man, Poo suffered through horrifying mental and physical mutilation to complete his training, a trial of fire and crushed eyeballs to instigate growth and transformation. And Ness, who filled the role of a mute protagonist for 97% of the game, had to confront his myriad doubts and fears, his hopes and dreams, his own personal evils, which were personified as a surreal mindscape. To a teen going through puberty, these lessons were fairly significant. To a young man currently entering adulthood, they are never more important.
What Is Your Name?
The act of naming is owning, according to some writer of long ago. When you name a character, you not only lend it some of your agency, you own him. It is a display of power and authority over an entity or concept. That character becomes yours—an extension of yourself. Like in most RPGs, Earthbound gave you the option of naming your characters (standard default setting for me), along with your favorite food (mine was “Curry,” because spicy food is great) and favorite thing (mine was “Love,” because I was so very lonely). I felt a small swelling of satisfaction whenever my in-game mom would prepare my beloved Curry for me. I enjoyed a combination of pride and irony when “Love” turned out to be the name of my most powerful psychic assault.
Earthbound took this concept of video game naming and stretched out a Chekhovian gambit that arced over the entire game. After the preliminary naming, the game would then ask you what your name was. The 13 year old me didn’t find it particularly strange back then. “The game’s asking me for my name? Okay! Man, the graphics are so colorful! Homework is stupid!” I punched it in and proceeded to play the game. No mention of my name ever popped up again, so I thought it was just for savegame precautions—so your siblings wouldn’t write over your file, that kind of thing.
Flash forward 60 hours. I travel back in time to defeat the Giygas in its infancy. Cue the clowntits insane, nightmare-fueled boss fight. Amorphous attacks, impossible to dodge or counter, batter my team. Confidence gives way to frustration. “This wasn’t supposed to happen! This is my power fantasy! I am level 84! The Chosen One! I collected the melodies of the Eight Sanctuaries. I’ve defeated my personal demons to fulfill my destiny. It can’t end like this!” My team’s HP violently counts down to zero as I feed them sandwiches and steaks to keep them alive. Jeff collapses first. I’m sorry. Poo’s next, the Sword of Kings clattering on the floor. Ness unleashes a final burst of psychokinetic Love before running out of juice. Only Paula remains.
On my turn, I notice that an extra option was added to the usual array of actions. “Pray.” What? I select it. What? That did nothing other than articulate the anguish of wounded little girl. Cut to Jeff’s dad and the village of bizarre but benevolent Mr. Saturns. Praying from the bottom of their hearts, they beg an unseen god to keep Ness and his friends safe. Cut back to the battle and the Giygas takes a critical hit. I try it again on the next turn. The Runaway 5, jazz band and zombie slaying power group, stop their tracks and pray fervently for Ness’ safety. All the while, the Giygas is drilling into my brain, telling me that it hurts, that it’s scared and only wants a friend, as it massacres us. The Giygas unleashes a volley of formless attacks. I pray again and again. Paula’s parents. Ness, Ness, Ness, Ness. I can’t breathe properly. I’m scared, excited, and pumped beyond all natural logic. Poo’s master prays for the safety of his young ward. I revive Jeff and Poo, and set them on defend because they can’t stop crying. His friend, Tony prays for him. Hardened criminals, town mayors, and Ness’ family all pray for the safety of my team. I set Paula to pray until she can’t think of anyone else to pray to.
“Paula’s call was absorbed by the darkness.”
And then Paula prays to someone she hasn’t met before. A stranger. A window pops up with… a name? “J–,” it said. “J-b” prays. Is that…? 5-digit damage counters shower the screen. The fourth wall crumbles. I gasp.
“Job kept praying.”
This Is No Time to Be Sleeping
In retrospect, this destruction of the fourth wall perfectly capitalized on the desperation of the player. Earthbound’s ending was designed to simultaneously render the player’s power fantasies impotent in the same stroke that it validates them. Insane leveling was never a requirement to defeat the final boss. The usual strategy of beasting through the final boss is completely ineffective! Your team will be left to block blow after devastating blow until the “Pray” option pops up. And I find it fitting that in a game electrified with consistently wonderful dialogue, the most powerful attacks were generated by the relationships you’ve formed with your adventure’s charming cast of characters. When prayer seemingly runs its course, it is then that you carve your way into the scene.
The game’s invocation of your name was a genius mix of deus ex machina and Chekhov’s gun: a god bullet fired at the last possible moment. I was God, I realized. I’ve been God all this time. This is bananas. Me, the soft kid who was slammed against the wall by the pastora’s 250-pound spawn because I wouldn’t shut up about his breath and creepiness. Me, the guy who couldn’t even defend himself is praying to save four kids “he hasn’t even met.” But I have met them, haven’t I? I was there when Paula met Ness. I was there when Jeff mustered up the courage to call his dad, Dad. I was there when Poo went through his trials. I was there every time Ness felt a twinge of homesickness.
And I am here now, helping them save the world.
Earthbound is difficult to write about. Some people might find it easy. They can talk about its visual quirkiness, the music, its themes in more spare and more eloquent ways. For me, Earthbound has always been difficult to write about because spoilers are a natural requirement for full appreciation. If you’ve read through this and haven’t played it yet, I’m sorry. If you’ve already played it, you should experience it again. It doesn’t have to be tonight. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. Someday. Hopefully when you’re older and grayer. By then, I pray that you will be able to grasp Earthbound’s true form—the one that means the most to you.
[Header image by Zac Gorman.]