Monday, July 13, 2015

Very Old Video Game Review: Earthbound

I think that Super Smash Bros., the classic Nintendo 64 fighter from 1999, was one of the most brilliant releases that Nintendo ever made.  Not because of its own merits (which are many), but for the way it effectively transformed Nintendo's relationship with its fan base.  For me personally, it marked an awareness that there was more to the company's catalog than my own experience had revealed, and sparked an intense interest in lost classics and future developments in the company's franchises.

When I first played Smash Bros., it was full of surprises.  Most observers would have been familiar with the likes of Mario and Donkey Kong, and the rest of the cast was hardly obscure to many gamers.  But this game was my first introduction to the characters of Samus Aran and Captain Falcon, the stars of the Metroid and F-Zero franchises, respectively.  Perhaps the deepest cut of all was a weird-looking kid named Ness, who packed his own baseball bat and had a "third jump" move that was frankly baffling.  I don't think he was ever the favorite character for any of my friends, but he did prompt a lot of curious questions about just what sort of game this little goofball with the psycho-kinetic powers came from.

Sixteen years later, I've finally finished my first play-through of Earthbound, a 1994 role-playing game for the Super Nintendo.  And what sort of game is Earthbound after all?  Perhaps the platonic ideal of the "cult classic" in video games, it defies conventions of genre at every turn, putting its faith in weirdness and good humor to bring to life an odd little tale about four kids and an alien invasion.  It's a JRPG with a decidedly Nintendo bent, emphasizing fun over conventionality.

Chosen hero Ness and his three companions travel from town to town to visit mystical landmarks and gain the power to stop an invader known as Giygas, whose malevolent psychic influence has turned the relatively peaceful country of Eagleland into a very dangerous place.  Ramblin' Evil Mushrooms roam the fields, brainwashed cultists are painting the world blue, and a runaway capitalist squeezes the metropolis of Fourside.  Some kid named Pokey is giving pretty much everybody a headache.  A gloomy little town is besieged by zombies, and malicious works of modern art terrorizes a city's nightmares.  But despite these troubles, Eagleland is vibrant and (mostly) cheerful.  There's good food to eat, a happening music scene, and at least some of the aliens you meet (like the bizarre creatures collectively known as Mr. Saturn) aren't bent on the world's destruction.

In the realm of gameplay, Earthbound makes some significant departures from the norm for RPGs of its era.  Battles are turn-based, but damage from attacks proceeds at a steady rate while the action continues: this allows quick fingered players to heal a character who has received a mortal blow before they are knocked out of action.  This makes battles more interesting and dynamic, though not less difficult (there are plenty of frustrating sequences).  Players are not forced to grind enemies for currency, as Ness can use his ATM card to make withdrawals from a generous fund continually resupplied by his father.  While other classic RPGs often treat towns and villages like way stations on the way to the more interesting dungeons and temples, in Earthbound the exploration of towns is paramount and the vast majority of the action takes place in urban and suburban areas.

This shift in settings makes Earthbound much more people-oriented than traditional, high-fantasy role playing games, and the people of Eagleland are a delightful bunch.  They are at turns silly, serious, and often a little more self-aware than you might expect, and it's well worth talking to everyone you meet for more than just plot-advancing information.  One of the most endearing aspects of Earthbound is how consistently funny it is, and not in the accidental, bad translation "Engrish" sort of way that characterizes the glorious messiness of other games of that era.  Earthbound's English script is actually quite fluent and natural: the humor comes from its satirical perspective on RPG tropes and its recognition of its own silliness.  There is something very refreshing about a game that tries to be funny, and actually succeeds.  Call it a Nintendo specialty. 

Noted for its simple, colorful, and childlike graphical style, Earthbound actually has a fairly complex visual approach.  A psychedelic undercurrent runs through everything, most obviously in the undulating backgrounds of every battle screen, and in the party's not-infrequent sojourns to alternate dimensions and realms of the mind.  Nothing is quite what it looks like on the surface, and there is real depth in this two-dimensional world that can't be accounted for by its deliberately flat appearance.

The soundtrack is also a treasure, noted for its frequent allusions to classic rock and jazz pieces as well as its own startling originality.  Nothing else in the Nintendo canon really sounds like it - composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka take the ear to some very strange places.  The creative concord between music, graphics, and story is a big reason for Earthbound's timeless appeal: the whole is more than the sum of even its most exceptional parts.

Earthbound bears obvious similarities in tone and setting to Pokemon, another Nintendo-developed RPG that achieved unprecedented and phenomenal success while Earthbound lingered long in obscurity.  Why is this so?  Pokemon's obsessive collection element is a big part of its success, obviously.  It's also less aggressively weird, focusing more on its gotta-catch-'em-all ethos than on the odd details of its world.  There's certainly nothing in Earthbound with the sheer marketing potential of Pikachu and the scores of other pocket monsters in that game.  But anyone who's logged the hours training in the Pokemon gyms of Kanto will recognize a familiar spirit in Earthbound.  It might never have been a mega-hit, but under better circumstances it might have gotten more of the recognition it deserves.

Two decades after its original release, Earthbound is as much a delightful throwback as it is progressive and experimental.  Even those of us who missed it the first time around can't help but be caught up in the whimsy and nostalgia, and Earthbound actively cultivates those feelings.  It's not easy to look forward and backward at the same time: that's what makes this a classic.

One last note: in a saddening coincidence, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata died of cancer this weekend, a fact which I learned shortly after putting down my controller from this adventure.  Mr. Iwata was a producer and programmer for Earthbound, to say nothing of his numerous other contributions to Nintendo's art and legacy.  People like him made Nintendo the beloved institution it is today, and he will be missed. 

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