While I experienced a plethora of games and genres in my 16-bit days, the RPG’s always stand out as the genre where I spent most of my time in that era. Strangely one of my favorite RPG experiences took place with a game I never owned. It is part of a Nintendo franchise that probably has the most dedicated fan following of any of their franchises. Unfortunately for the Mother franchise, these loyal fans did not have the numbers to make Earthbound enough of a success for Nintendo to continue the franchise outside of Japan. We must share the blame for not recognizing a great game when we had the chance. For my part, I had plenty of ignorant excuses that I look back upon with shame.
Throughout April, Horrible Night will be featuring You Fools! articles.
I was a huge fan of RPG’s in the 90’s. When I first read about Earthbound though, I remember being struck with fatigue. I just didn’t want to throw another hundred hours at what I presumed to be a similar adventure to the one’s I had had before. Plus at the time, I thought there was no way any game could top Chrono Trigger, a game I was still heavily absorbed in during Earthbound’s release.
It didn’t help that Nintendo produced the Earthbound on its own. Sure I trusted some Nintendo franchises, but RPG’s belonged to Squaresoft and Nintendo would have to really fight to convince me.
Where are the swords and sorcery?
What I saw in Earthbound was a game with simplistic graphics and an RPG that took place in what looked to be “Smalltown, USA” featuring “the kid from down the street.” What I wanted out of RPG’s at that time was the chance to be an epic warrior or magician fighting in imaginative new worlds that I had never seen before. How could a kid with a baseball bat and his dog ever hope to go on an adventure worth talking about let alone be involved in a battle to save the world? Earthbound just looked boring.
If Earthbound wasn’t boring, I was certain that it would be way too complex to get into. How did I know this? Well, Nintendo was shipping every copy of the game with a strategy guide. That was intimidating, but not quite as intimidating as the giant box that the game came in itself. The giant box made Earthbound seem important and that mystique definitely kept it on my radar, but I felt a bit ashamed that I did not “get it.” I felt out of the loop and uncomfortable by Nintendo pushing the game so hard and me not truly understanding what the game was.
I remember seeing Earthbound setup at a demo station at a local store and the introduction only confused me further. I thought it was advertising multiple games one named Earthbound and the other called “The War Against Giygas.” The cover art also didn’t add up as it was very futuristic and sci-fi with its Starman character, but that didn’t match the kid heroes and “Smalltown, USA” screenshots on the back. Finally, the game also had a higher price point than normal for SNES games so I eventually stopped thinking about it and moved on.
Thankfully, your selection sucks
It wasn’t until later that fall that I reluctantly rented Earthbound and gave the game a chance. It wasn’t my first choice that day, but I wasn’t going to go home empty handed either. Long story short, Earthbound was the first game rental that I ever purposely turned in late (and immediately rented again). I didn’t know I could rent the same game twice in a row and I was afraid I would get a different copy and lose my progress after an entire weekend of playing the game so I held onto it. I convinced my mom that the game wasn’t due until the next day. I could not put the game down, and I didn’t want to. When a game forces you to lie to your parents, it really is something special.
The main issue with promoting Earthbound is that its most brilliant feature, its sense of humor, cannot come across in screenshots. Just playing through the intro with Ness (the hero), his sarcastic dog and the scared bully hooked me on the characters. Immediately my misconceptions about the game washed away. The initial 1990’s middle America setting that I wanted to dismiss, actually makes Earthbound unique and the story very relatable. My clamoring for fantasy elements was fulfilled with the game’s use of psychic powers, weird sci-fi elements and the bizarre inhabitants of this seemingly normal world. The gameplay is brilliantly paced and both the combat and inventory mechanics are much easier to pick up when compared to other 16-bit RPG’s of its day. The strategy guide is by no means required to enjoy the experience, but its help is welcomed when you want to find everything the Earthbound has to offer.
You know what they say about assumptions
While I eventually rented Earthbound several more times in the next year, it never occurred to me to actually buy the game. I can’t remember a single friend of mine who owned the game even though a majority of us had played and loved it. I assumed it was a huge success for Nintendo and couldn’t wait for the sequel.
Here in the U.S. it is well documented that we are still waiting for that Earthbound sequel. While the fan community has done an admirable job at petitioning and completing translations of the other games in the series, Nintendo hasn’t hinted at any future releases to the franchise in Japan or otherwise. I can’t help but feel partially responsible. Earthbound is one of my most respected game experiences, but I never actively supported the game. To this day I think about Earthbound anytime I purchase a game over buying it used or borrowing it so that I contribute my small part to the future of a franchise that I care about. That’s my story, why didn’t you help Earthbound?