RPG gamers nowadays have it easy. Walk into any game store and there’s no shortage of boxes depicting dreamy, spiky-haired, androgynous protagonists on a mission to save the world. Hell, even our action games now have RPG elements. But that wasn’t true of the world of the 1990s. In 1994 we didn’t have our choice of a multitude of decent RPGs, we got a handful a year and we were thankful for them. Not only that, we paid more for them. My brand new copy of Final Fantasy III (VI) was $79.99 and it was a bargain for how fully I explored that game. Best dollar to hour ratio of my life, easy. But by 1995 I was looking for something fresh and Nintendo delivered, in the way that Nintendo often does, with something a little quirky. Enter Earthbound.
Earthbound was not one of those games that set the world on fire. Nintendo ran a weird marketing campaign that mostly backfired so only us faithful RPG nerds even bothered to pick it up.
But man, did it deliver and boy was it different! It wasn’t set in a fantasy world, it was set in a world like ours. I mean, sorta. The weapons were baseball bats and ray guns and frying pans (Tangled copied Nintendo!), while the enemies were piles of vomit and 1950s space robots, and cute little UFOs. The locales were the kind that 80s kids grew up on: Amazon jungles, hidden bunkers, archeological dig sites. Earthbound scratched an itch that I didn’t even know existed. I was in love.
Not only that, but Earthbound was funny in a way best appreciated by 12-14 year olds. It came in a huge box with the strategy guide already packed which also included a bunch of gross scratch-n-sniff stickers that mostly smelled disgusting. It was comedy gold to me then like those gross jellybeans are to my kids now.
And like most funny things, Earthbound also had a poignant side. Getting homesick if you went too long without calling your mom, Magicant’s metaphor for growing up and confronting yourself, and the final, isolating battle with Giygas are some of the most thoughtfully introspective moments in gaming. It’s a beautiful experience and wholly different from something as grand and inspiring as Final Fantasy VI or something as intelligent and epic as Chrono Trigger.
Earthbound’s creator, Shigesato Itoi, wrote a poem called “What Earthbound means to me.” Here’s an excerpt that perfectly encapsulates how this game will always make me feel.
All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, “how do you remember so much?”
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
“I love that world so much I remember everything about it.”
I reply right away saying “me too.”
Ah hah! That may be it.
Maybe I wanted to make a playground.
A playground filled with things no matter how small or unwanted,
they would all be kept dear in people’s hearts.
It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing – even though I didn’t think I gave it one.
That’s right, that’s something I also wanted to do all along.
I was already a grown-up at the time I was making Earthbound,
but now that thirty years have been added to my life, I’ve grown up even more.
I think about things that I didn’t back then.
Things like, “what kind of a person do I want to be when I die?”
I already know the answer to this one.
It’s “someone with a lively wake*.”
You can read the whole poem here.