I was about 75% of the way through EarthBound when I realized I’d equipped my protagonist with a joke weapon. The Casey Bat is a reference to a slightly obscure Ernest Thayer poem from 1888. In EarthBound, the bat misses 75% of the time, but scores a critical hit every time it does land, in accordance with the content of the poem. That’s EarthBound in a nutshell. It’s unafraid to be weird and to pursue that weirdness down rabbit holes of obscure design philosophy and hilariously abstruse dialogue. It’s also one of the most influential JRPGs of all time.
To play EarthBound today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a little...well...clunky. Its interface is strongly reminiscent of old-school JRPGs and carries all of the same foibles; you’ll need to press A twice every time you want to actually do anything, because you’ll need to choose “Talk” or “Check” from a pointless context menu for each action. The difficulty curve is a tad frustrating, some enemies are absolute tanks with too much one-shot potential, and the overall structure is meandering and vague. None of that matters, though, because EarthBound is also an idiosyncratic, satirical masterpiece.
EarthBound is actually the second in its franchise. In Japan, the games are called MOTHER, since each one focuses on the ties between a young boy and his mother (nominally, at least). The first was eventually brought to the West as EarthBound Beginnings, while the third remains criminally unreleased on these fair shores (although there is an excellent fan translation available). All three games were masterminded by offbeat designer Shigesato Itoi and remain his legacy; his other games are adaptations of Monopoly and a bass fishing title.
With EarthBound, Itoi pursued a development philosophy he called “reckless wildness”. Itoi wanted to break the constraints of traditional game development and give designers free rein to do whatever they wanted. He gives an example of the Lost Underworld area in EarthBound, in which he makes the player characters tiny simply to show how massive the area is supposed to be. That wanton, cavalier approach to game design—the idea of simply doing something because it’s fun or because it conveys an idea well—is shot through EarthBound.
The same is true of EarthBound's soundtrack, which isn't particularly impressive in terms of sound quality. It absolutely nails the wobbly, off-kilter approach that Itoi's game takes to its world. Many of the tracks are little more than simple synth passages backed up by glitchy drums. Others are 1950s rock 'n' roll pastiches, polka marches, or simply ambient backdrops that enhance the creepy locations in which they're placed. "Reckless wildness" is a philosophy that courses through the veins of every design decision in EarthBound, be it music, visuals, or narrative.
EarthBound and World Building
EarthBound’s plot is actually pretty loose. You play as Ness, a young boy who lives in the town of Onett. One night, Onett is struck by a meteor and the eldritch horror Giygas is released. Ness must gather the eight Sound Stone melodies in order to put a stop to Giygas and save the world. This isn’t a game of narrative, however; it’s a game of atmosphere and world building. While Ness and his compatriots’ quest is wholly generic, it’s the people who populate his world and act as his foils that make the story so utterly absorbing.
Let’s take Pokey, the game’s de facto antagonist (and later, going now by Porky, the antagonist of Mother 3, which has a much more involved plot). Pokey is, to put it simply, a vindictive bully. He never shows any indication of growing or becoming a better person. Every single time Pokey shows up, it’s to antagonize Ness and his buddies. Talking to his parents reveals that they’re massively in debt thanks to nebulous loans provided to Ness and his family. I very much don’t wish to spoil where Porky and his family end up, but it’s simultaneously hilarious and infuriating, like much of EarthBound.
That’s to say nothing of EarthBound’s world and its many delights. Since Itoi’s game is strongly influenced by Dragon Quest, the narrative is picaresque. Ness and his friends visit many locations throughout the game, each plagued by its own problem that needs solving. Unlike in Dragon Quest, however, that problem takes extremely unconventional forms. You may, for example, be tasked with ridding the world of a cult revolving around the color blue. Alternately, you might need to enlist the services of a loud rock band in order to literally rock some ghosts to second death. Each new situation in EarthBound is as unexpected as it is brilliant.
Beware of Darkness
If this gives you the impression that EarthBound is a light-hearted romp, be not fooled. Again, I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, but the final boss fight of the game is a bizarre cosmic horror fever dream, a genuinely disturbing odyssey into a rape scene in a Japanese movie (note: link in Japanese, I’ve used Google Translate to translate it into English) Itoi accidentally witnessed as a child. The battle is disorientating and upsetting. Similarly, scenes in the strange city of Moonside and the Happy Happyist cult make for very uncomfortable viewing.
There’s a childlike lens to EarthBound that feels apropos, given that its main characters are all children. Of course Ness happens upon a horrific cult just after he’s blasted ghosts out of a tunnel with a rock band. That’s how children think and it’s how they create. Similarly, when a child witnesses something horrifying, they’ll internalize it and transform it into something huge. The final boss in EarthBound is literally the backdrop of the fight; it’s not a unique sprite like any other enemy, it is the world in which Ness is fighting. It’s his everything at that moment.
All of this comes together to create a sense that Itoi is looking at American culture and Japanese culture through a decidedly warped and twisted lens. EarthBound’s weirdness doesn’t feel forced or arbitrary; it feels sewn into the world’s fabric, imbuing every edge of every city with a sly sideways glance and a feeling that things aren’t quite as they seem. The protagonists of this story may literally be children with magic powers who save the day, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get bombarded with brutal, bizarre sights along the way.
How EarthBound Redefines JRPGs
Barring one or two unique sequences, there’s not much to write home about in EarthBound in terms of gameplay. It’s essentially Dragon Quest, right down to the combat system that informs you in excruciating detail what’s happening to every party member. Just like most JRPGs, exploration tends to alternate between towns and dungeons, although EarthBound doesn’t quite draw as solid a line between those two things as other games do. More often than not, you'll find yourself in a town that contains enemies wandering around, often fun takes on cultural stereotypes like hippies and arcade punks.
If there's a saving grace to EarthBound's rote gameplay, it's the setting. There are shops, but they'll sell you normal things like hamburgers and baseball bats instead of magical potions and mystical elixirs. Enemies don't drop money—after all, why would a snake be carrying cash?—but instead, you'll get regular pocket money from your dad over the phone. This reaches hilarious levels by the end of the game, when your absentee father is depositing $30,000 into your bank account every other day. No wonder Pokey's family blames yours for its ruin.
The combat system is another place where Itoi's "reckless wildness" philosophy was allowed to run wild. EarthBound uses an odometer to count down the hit points of each of its playable characters. That means each time an attack hits, your health will start to tick down. If you can beat the enemy before it finishes, you win and you won't take the rest of the damage you were dealt. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it adds perfectly to the sense that EarthBound is a particularly messed-up game being played by children who probably have some issues to work out (especially the kid who asked everyone to roleplay the final boss).
The influence of EarthBound and its franchise can be felt in many different places in gaming today. Perhaps the most obvious example is Toby Fox's excellent 2015 RPG Undertale, which has its origins in an EarthBound ROM hack. Quirky RPG Citizens of Earth grasps at the off-kilter style of EarthBound, and although it doesn't quite get there, it's clear where its origins lie. LISA: The Painful is a bleak adult take on the formula, while games like Paper Mario and the Mario & Luigi series bear a lot of the hallmarks of EarthBound's excellent writing style. In other places, it's less obvious, but EarthBound's tendrils have snaked into gaming culture.
No matter who you are or where your background is in gaming, you should check out EarthBound. It's a strange tale of evil statues, destitute families, and magical children that probably wouldn't find a home anywhere near today's triple-A market. Though it's definitely dated by today's visual and gameplay standards, its archaic systems conceal an utterly unique experience that will leave you thinking about it long after the closing credits roll. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to come by today, so you might struggle to find it. With any luck, Itoi and Nintendo will realize the reach of what they've created and endeavor to keep EarthBound available for generations to come.
All screenshots courtesy of Starmen.net.